Z-Cars

From Academic Kids

Z-Cars (sometimes written as Z Cars, and always pronounced 'zed', never 'zee') was a British television drama series centred around the work of regular beat police officers in the fictional town of Newtown, near Liverpool, in the north-west of England. Produced by the BBC and screened on BBC ONE, it debuted in January 1962 and ran for sixteen years until September 1978.

The programme was created by writers Troy Kennedy Martin and Allan Prior with producer Elwyn Jones, and was a deliberate attempt to create a more realistic portrayal of modern policing than had been seen on British television before. This was a conscious antidote to the BBC's established police drama, Dixon of Dock Green, which portrayed a very 'safe' and 'cosy' image of a stereotypical 'British bobby'.

The 'Z-Cars' of the title were a reference to the patrol cars the police used at the time, and the stories the series depicted would frequently revolve around the activities of the pairs of officers patrolling that particular week. Riding on the crest of a wave of changing social attitudes and a changing television era, the social realism of Z-Cars, coupled with the interesting police storylines, garnered huge popularity for the programme, although it was initially somewhat less popular with the real-life police force who disliked the sometimes unsympathetic characterisation of officers. Being set outside of London in the North of England also helped give it a distinctly regional flavour, something rarely seen on British television at the time, when most BBC dramas were made and set in the south.

The one character to stay present throughout the entire run of Z-Cars was Bert Lynch, played by James Ellis. Other actors to have leading roles in the early days of the programme were Brian Blessed, Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor, all of whom became very well-known and popular faces on British television from their roles in the series - Blessed went on to become a popular film actor also, appearing in movies such as Flash Gordon (1980), Henry V (1989), Hamlet (1996) and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). Also appearing in 1960s episodes as David Graham was Colin Welland, who went on to become a scriptwriter, winning an Academy Award for Chariots of Fire in 1981, upon receipt of which he delivered the famous "the British are coming!" speech. Another notable member of the team behind the scenes was scriptwriter Alan Plater, who wrote several episodes.

Z-Cars ran for 667 episodes altogether, and between March 1967 and April 1971 it ran continuously without a break, although it returned to a regular season pattern thereafter. It is also notable for being one of the very last British television dramas to be screened live on a regular basis - already a rare practice by the time the programme began in 1962. It was felt that this helped the immediacy and pace of the programme, and episodes were being transmitted live as late as 1965.

As with many British television programmes of the era, Z-Cars is sadly incomplete in the archives - the BBC regularly wiped tapes after the programmes were thought to have exceeded their usefulness, as agreements with various unions meant that they could only be shown a limited number of times. The amount of space needed to store the large videotapes of the time, as well as the expense of them when they could be re-used more cheaply, were also factors. Nevertheless, around half of the total number of episodes survive: one telerecording of the first ever episode was returned to the BBC in the 1980s by an engineer who had taken it home to preserve it because his children has always enjoyed the programme so much and he couldn't bring himself to destroy it. Other early episodes have been returned to the archives by foreign broadcasters from countries such as Cyprus.

Z-Cars had a spin-off, Softly, Softly, which itself had a long run, starting in 1966 and running until 1976. Softly, Softly focused on the plain-clothes CID officers of Newtown.

In a 2000 poll of industry professionals to find the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century conducted by the British Film Institute, Z-Cars was voted into 63rd place. It was also included in an alphabetical list of the Forty Greatest TV Shows published in Radio Times magazine in August 2003.

The Z-Cars theme tune, based on a traditional folk song, was adopted by fans of the football club Everton, who are based in Liverpool near to where the programme supposedly took place. To this day, the theme tune is still played as the team come out onto the pitch at the beginning of all their home matches.

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