I'd never heard of this BBC TV series called Warship before, but I'd probably watch anything if you told me it was written by Robert Holmes.
I should probably introduce Warship, though. The main thing you need to know is that it was created by Ian Mackintosh, whose next project after this would be much-praised The Sandbaggers. I've heard so much love for that particular show that I've actually bought the DVDs, although goodness knows when they'll reach the top of my "to watch" pile. Warship though, as the name suggests, is about the Royal Navy instead of spies. The plan was to show what life was really like for officers and ratings on a British warship and they managed to get close enough that one of their 1977 episodes basically predicts the Falklands War. It ran for 45 fifty-minute episodes, over four seasons.
This one is season 1, episode 5. I don't know how much of the story is Mackintosh's, but its fondness for criminals feels very Robert Holmes to me. In fact, its script's the best thing about it. We begin with a dodgy supply officer, CPO Danny Donovan, who's looking forward to doing some deals with a black marketeer at their latest port of call. He seems to regard the island as a hotbed of corruption... and then it's named as Malta! For some reason this surprised me. I hadn't been expecting anything like that, even back in the seventies, but instead for it to be called something carefully anonymous like "the island" or something throughout the episode. Mackintosh though had been a serving Royal Navy officer and so I presume he knew what he was talking about and liked being specific.
The story that unfolds from there is great. I won't spoil it, but I really enjoyed the way it developed. It just keeps changing what seems to be happening and piling on more cool stuff. There was one point where I thought my credibility was straining, but in fact I was underestimating Robert Holmes and I simply hadn't seen the next plot twist coming. My notes for this episode include "he is so fucked" and towards the end "that was evil", although if you're paying attention you'll notice that there's even more brutality taking place offscreen. Look out for a certain throwaway bit of dialogue in the final scene. A certain character will be in trouble "when he gets out of hospital." Then you've got the identity of another character. At the time you didn't notice the clues hiding in plain sight, but then you spot them in retrospect and feel smug for a while until you realise that Holmes was expecting you to guess.
It's not particularly funny, in case you were wondering, but I did laugh at the last scene and there's a merry cynicism throughout that makes it clear Holmes also found his story entertaining. My only criticism would be that if I'd been the person pressing a particular button, before doing so I'd have probably taken a particular precaution. You know, just saying.
The production is efficient, but not beautiful. It's got a grey documentary look to it that speaks more of the North Sea than the Mediterranean. Apparently the series really did do some filming in Malta, among some even more exotic places over the course of its lifetime, but any was done for this particular episode then they could have fooled me. However it never looks cheap and I didn't notice any production goofs, so it stands up well to modern viewing with no need to make allowances.
The acting though is nothing to write home about. The only cast member I'd heard of was Don Henderson, who's almost unrecognisably young and in any case entirely anonymous. Nigel Humphreys would apparently be a regular in the show in 1977 and he'd have been cool, but that's then. Most of the performances here aren't bad, but there's not much consistency in the guest cast's accents and our criminally inclined Chief Petty Officer isn't doing a lot with his face. However to be fair, he's got one of those mean-looking faces that look as if they've been carved out of sinew, which means that he's always great to look at even when he's not putting any effort into anything except his voice. The worst performances though are in the long and otherwise really cool scene between the girl and the black marketeer, in which both actors' dialogue choices are liable to have as little to do as possible with the other person in the scene. In fairness these are convincing choices, but they're also third-rate ones.
It shouldn't be surprising that a BBC TV show from 1973 should have links with Doctor Who, by the way. In addition to the writer (Holmes) and director (Lennie Mayne), the cast gives us crossovers with Curse and Monster of Peladon, Frontier in Space, The Hand of Fear, The Horror of Fang Rock, Delta and the Bannermen and (all in one actor) The War Games, The Claws of Axos and The Five Doctors.
Overall, much more entertaining than you'd think from a casual glance. That's Holmes's work. The show might look a bit grey, but there's still a lot of fun to be had in unpacking the kind of trouble these chaps can get into. The military can screw up too. There's also a woman wearing a neckline with a little bit of dress around it, so that's nice to look at. Mackintosh was awarded the MBE for his work on this show, you know.