There were few actors working in the 1960s that embodied solid, old-fashioned decency like John Gregson. Which is doubtless why producers Monty Berman and Robert S Baker zeroed in on him for the lead role in their first project together since taking The Saint to soaring international success
Gideon’s Way is, in many ways, the forgotten series from the Berman/Baker stable, having never enjoyed the repeat runs of The Saint, Department S, The Champions or Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). That it’s in black and white is likely the main reason, yet in every other way, Gideon’s Way is as cinematically ambitious as any of its more eye-catching ITC stablemates.
When the series debuted in March 1965, it wasn’t the first time that audiences had acquainted themselves with the upstanding Commander George Gideon of Scotland Yard. John Ford’s 1958 movie Gideon’s Day starred Jack Hawkins as the titular ‘tec and was based on John Creasey’s 1955 novel of the same title. Creasey was an English crime writer who, under the name JJ Marric, would pen a total of 21 Gideon novels until his death in 1973. (Under his other pseudonym of Anthony Morton, he also created the character of The Baron, which later became another small screen smash for Berman and Baker).
John Gregson was no stranger to playing by-the-book policemen, having donned the uniform in films such as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Frightened City (1961), and Tomorrow At Ten (1963). Gideon, however, would become the character that would define him as an actor.
Looked at now, the character of George Gideon seems impossibly, implausibly flawless. While police officers around him can be inept, corrupt, prejudiced or simply brusque, Gideon is the one they all look up to. He has the model family (unlike many crime series of the time, Gideon’s Way gives us more than a glimpse at its protagonist’s home life), an unblemished record, and is the one that keeps calmest in the stormiest of storms.
Yet, for all that, what sets Gideon’s Way apart from most of those other ITC shows, is its realism. While The Saint, The Champions et al were unashamedly escapist, revelling in their exotic locations (even though, more often that not, they were replicated on Elstree soundstages) and larger than life villain villains, Gideon’s Way was far more engaged with the social realities of the mid-60s. One episode, for example, explores the rise of the far-right, focusing on a politician, Sir Arthur Vane (clearly modelled on British fascist Oswald Mosley) who finds himself the target of a botched assassination attempt. Another, The Big Fix, focuses on the issue of horse doping, while Boy With Gun tackles the issue of knife crime and juvenile delinquency. Whilst its nearest equivalent, the BBC’s Z-Cars, was limited in its storytelling by its theatrical, multi-camera format, Gideon’s Way was able to film on real streets and on real locations, giving its storylines a gritty verisimilitude.
There were 26 episodes of Gideon’s Way produced between March ‘65 and May ‘66, many based on original stories by John Creasey (with a smattering of originals written specifically for the screen). Vintage TV and film enthusiasts will recognise many of the series’ writers, from future Doctor Who scribe Malcolm Hulke to Thunderball’s Jack Whittingham to Carry On’s Norman Hudis, while its directors include many names synonymous with ITC from Leslie (father of Barry) Norman to Cyril Frankel to Roy Ward Baker.
Though Creasey fans found the series generally faithful to the books, Berman and Baker’s biggest contribution to the series was the invention of Detective Chief Inspector David Keen, played by Alexander Davion. Young, handsome and in some ways a proto-Gideon in his dogged pursuit of the truth, Keen was included to give the series a dash of sex appeal. He’s much more in the traditional ITC mould, and, in another universe, could have easily headed up his own detective show.
Other regulars were Ian Rossiter as Detective Chief Superintendent Bell and Daphne Anderson as Gideon’s wife Kate. Even Gideon’s three children are given prominent roles, being played by Andrea Allen, Richard James and, as youngest son Malcolm, Giles Watling. In fact, a must-see moment occurs in the episode The ‘V’ Men when the 12-year-old Malcolm tells his father that he’s going to “run for office”. A prescient moment since, 42 years later, Watling would become the Conservative MP for Clacton.
John Gregson died far too young, of a heart attack aged just 55 in 1975. He’d appeared in some of the most iconic British flicks of the 50s and 60s, including Genevieve, The Titfield Thunderbolt and The Longest Day, and indeed was ranked the ninth most popular British star of 1956. Yet, it’s George Gideon that will forever be his signature role. Outside of Ford’s 1958 film, there’s been no other attempts to bring John Creasey’s most famous creation to the small or big screen, a testament to how definitive Gregson’s portrayal was.
Gideon’s Way was clearly an influence on later police dramas such as The Sweeney and Target, TV shows that took its documentary-style grit and ramped it up to 11, yet, in many ways, it remains something of a lost gem. Let’s hope, with Network’s fresh Blu-ray release, that Gideon’s Way finally gets the plaudits it so richly deserves.