Police and detective dramas on UK TV in the 1970s

Barry Foster who starred in Van der Valk
Barry Foster who starred in Van der Valk Image: W. Punt for Anefo, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

What police and detective dramas were shown on UK television in the 1970s?

Colour television began in 1967 and by the early 1970s most TV shows were in colour. Some shows, such as Softly, Softly Task Force and Public Eye, changed from black and white to colour.

In the 1970s there were three channels BBC1, BBC2 and ITV.

ITV was split into regions with different companies covering different parts of the country, but they showed similar programmes with some variations.

Both BBC and ITV showed detective and police dramas. The BBC continued two long-running series from the 1960s, 'Dixon of Dock Green' and 'Z-Cars'. Both were based on a realistic portrayal of policing, but were different.

Dixon was about a typical London bobby. By the 1970s Dixon (Jack Warner) was Sergeant Dixon. He was behind a desk while younger officers took the lead in the cases. In reality Dixon would have been well-past retirement age. To many the show seemed anachronistic.

Z-Cars was also looking dated by the middle of the 1970s. The last episode of Dixon of Dock Green was broadcast in 1976 and two years later Z-Cars had its final episode.

The big newcomer was ITV's The Sweeney starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman. It made all previous UK police dramas look old fashioned and tame. The Sweeney was fast-paced and realistic. It showed police violence and corruption and sometimes detectives Regan and Carter did not get their man.

The 1970s was also the age of the imported US cop drama. There were a huge number on our screens. So much so that comedian, Billy Howard, had a hit single 'King of the Cops'. The record featured McCloud, Columbo, Cannon, Ironside, Hawaii Five-O and finally Kojak. It reached number 6 in the UK Singles Chart in 1976.

Programmes made in Britain

Dixon of Dock Green (1955-1976)

Dixon continued into the 1970s. Jack Warner still played the title character. He was more likely now to be behind a desk than on the beat.

The series started well in the early years of the 1970s and continued its portrayal of normal police work. However, it was looking a bit tame by 1976 when the BBC killed off the series.

Fraud Squad (1969-1970)

This was a short ITV London Weekend show starring Patrick O'Connell as Detective Inspector Gamble.

Parkin's Patch (1969-1970)

'Parkin's Patch' was a Yorkshire Television series broadcast in 1969 and 1970. It starred John Flanagan as PC Moss Parkin.

There was just one series with twenty-six episodes. They were shown on ITV London Weekend on Friday evenings. The original slot was 7.00pm, but it was moved to 10.30pm in 1970. Wheel of Fortune took its place.

Paul Temple (1969-1971)

'Paul Temple' was written by Francis Durbridge who was well-known for his complicated plots.

Francis Matthews starred as Temple. The show was broadcast for two series on BBC1 on weekday evenings.

Public Eye (1965-1975)

'Public Eye' starred Alfred Burke as Frank Marker, a private detective who preferred the title 'Enquiry Agent'. Marker moved from Brighton to Windsor at the beginning of season 5 in 1971. He left behind a chance of romance with his Brighton landlady, Mrs Mortimer (played by Pauline Delaney).

Season 5 was partly in colour and partly black and white. 'Public Eye' was broadcast completely in colour from season 6 onwards.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969-1975)

This was a fantasy programme about a detective agency in which one of the partners, Hopkirk, had died. He appeared as a ghost.

Mike Pratt starred as Jeff Randall and Kenneth Cope as Marty Hopkirk.

'Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)' was shown on London Weekend on Sunday evenings, later moving to Friday evenings in 1969 and 1970. It was repeated in 1971 and again in 1975.

The series was shown again between 1994 and 1996 on BBC 2.

Second Verdict 1976

Fictional Detective Chief Superintendents Barlow and Watt from Softly, Softly appraised some real crimes. It was quite a strange crossover between real life and fiction. The historical crimes ranged from the Princes in the Tower to the Reichstag fire of 1933. It was shown on BBC1 in 1976 on Thursday evenings.

Sexton Blake (1967-1971)

Laurence Payne starred as Sexton Blake. The show was broadcast on Rediffusion, ATV and Thames between 1968 and 1971.

Softly, Softly Taskforce (1969-1976)

Stratford Johns starred as Detective Chief Superintendent Barlow.

In November 1969 the show became 'Softly, Softly Task Force'. It continued until 1976.

A spin-off from Softly, Softly was Barlow at Large.

Barlow at Large (1971-5)

Barlow at Large starred Stratford Johns as Detective Chief Superintendent Barlow. In this series Barlow was seconded to the Home Office.

Special Branch (1969-1974)

'Special Branch' starred Derren Nesbitt as Detective Chief Inspector Jordan. It was about Special Branch, a real division of the Metropolitan Police set up for counter espionage.

Jordan was known as snappy dresser and wore Carnaby Street style fashion.

The series was made by Thames Television for ITV. In 1969 it was shown on Wednesday evenings at around 9.00pm.

The Sweeney (1975-1978)

The Sweeney was the definitive police drama from the 1970s. It followed the lives of two Flying Squad detectives, Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman).

It was a fast-paced and realistic drama. The Sweeney showed the two detectives not always winning and sometimes resorting to violence.

The Sweeney was hugely popular when it started, but lost its way in the later series. John Thaw went on to play Chief Inspector Morse in the 1980s and Dennis Waterman played Terry McCann, alongside George Cole as Arthur Daley, in Minder (1979-94).

Van der Valk (1972-1977)

Van der Valk was similar to the 1960s series Maigret, in that it was about a European detective, but made for UK audiences.

Van der Valk was set in Amsterdam, Holland. It starred Barry Foster as Commissaris Simon 'Piet' van der Valk.

The series theme tune was 'Eye Level' by the Simon Park Orchestra. It was a huge it in the UK Singles chart remaining at number 1 for four weeks in 1973.

Vad der Valk originally screened at 9pm on Wednesday evenings. Some repeats were should at 3pm in the afternoon.

The series had a reboot from 2020, with actor Marc Warren taking on the role of Commissaris Piet van der Valk. Sadly, the iconic Eye Level was not used in the new series and the new theme tune only pays it very faint homage.

Z-Cars (1962-1978)

Z-cars ran until 1978. Although the series was a realistic poytrayal of police work, it was out of its time by the middle of the decade.

USA imports

Peter Falk as Columbo, 1973
Peter Falk as Columbo, 1973 TV studio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

US detective or cop dramas were popular in the 1970s in the UK. This is a list of US crime and detective shows broadcast in the UK in the 1970s:

The dates above are when the programme was shown by the original UK channel including some repeats.

Read more:

Television in the 70s - UK

Detective shows in the 1960s - UK

By Steven Braggs, August 2023

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