Winston Churchill Wolcott (George Harris) is a Jamaican-born beat cop who has lived in England since he was 5. Appointed a detective to Scotland Yard, he strikes the ire of both racists and his unimpressed mother (Mona Hammond) who, though proud of her son, wants to see him date the classy Cynthia (Merdelle Jordine). However, faced with racism both inside and outside the force, and black criminals, he stumbles upon a conspiracy linking both worlds.
A groundbreaking if until recently, completely forgotten series that even failed to strike the nostalgic reminiscences of its BBC contemporary, the Chinese Detective, Wolcott was like the Quatermass Conclusion, ITV's attempt to do a US-style miniseries screened over consecutive nights, an attempt almost to do a Roots in Sweeney drag. Though intended as a pilot for a long-running series, no series came, and the series indeed ends on a conclusion that both is a cliffhanger, and yet could easily be a definitive end. And it's a shame it is forgotten.
Whilst not perfect, it was very clearly a prestige project for ITC's Black Lion arm, an attempt by Lew Grade to rival Euston films with a grittier, less glossy, more parochial style of filmmaking. The Long Good Friday is the most famous property from this subsidiary, though it was disowned by Grade, and sold off to Handmade, but Wolcott, which is cut from the same gritty quasi-Sweeney London noir shape seems to have been actually given care. With ITC, there are concessions to the US market. Christine Lahti, in typical ITC style is brought in from the US as a tagalong white American journalist/love interest, And the marketing pushed it as "He's Big. He's Black... our answer to Sydney Poitier's Mr Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night."
But the series is misshapen. The plotline involving a pre-The Bill Christopher Ellison as a bent copper teaming up with a memorably sleazy Warren Clarke as a racist thug (whose gang raids reggae bars, pushing Aswad off the stage to sing mocking interpretations of Perry Como standards) is complicated, and the series is overlong, at four hours. But there's nuggets of groundbreaking stuff in there. Particularly, a young Hugh Quarshie, as Wolcott's cousin/sidekick Trevor who at one points utters the N***** word jokingly in front of his horrified, refined aunt. And there's a staggering cast. Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle (with hair) and Keith Allen all turn up. There's a refreshingly un-British TV performance from Irish actor/opera singer Martin Dempsey, an RTE stalwart as Gilligan, Wolcott's Irish superior who sympathises with his fellow blow-in, and brings Wolcott to Irish bars, and has a musical cottage-shaped cigar box that plays "Irish Eyes are Smiling".
The cinematography by a tyro Roger Deakins is also excellent, sumptuous rather than Euston-style grain, with one scene of a gangland meetup shown exclusively through the reflection of an arcade machine. And Harris, fresh from appearances in Flash Gordon and Raiders of the Lost Ark is a decent lead, but the trouble is most of the gangland stuff is so rote, and the black stuff genuinely refreshing that it becomes a mire. It all builds to an astonishing climax - that is extremely downbeat, resulting in a bitter climax where no one is safe. But it deserves to be known. It's flawed, but it is interesting, and genuinely groundbreaking.