Very popular in its day but largely forgotten now, before George Dixon the first popular beat officer that the nation regularly tuned in for was the ex-Public School, Hendon trained Police Constable Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby, P.C. 49, known as Archie to his friends, and Fortynine to his superiors, in the BBC Light Programme’s light comedy-thriller The Adventures of P.C. 49.
P.C. 49 (played by Brian Reece) pounds the beat for Q Division of the Metropolitan Police, getting involved in solving cases in the hope of getting a job with the plain clothes division, much to the chagrin of the detectives, Detective Inspector Wilson (played by Leslie Perrins) and Detective Sergeant Wright (played by Eric Phillips). Fortynine was often assisted by his girlfriend (later wife) Joan Carr (played by Joy Shelton).
Like most comedies and light pieces of its time it had it’s catchphrases; Fortynine was prone to exclaiming “Oh my Sunday helmet” when things went wrong and Sergeant Wright would shout “Out you go, Fortynine!” after Archie had said something to annoy the detectives to which Fortynine would usually respond “Yes Sarge! Good morning all!” Joan Carr refers to her boyfriend as her “copper boy.”
The series was created by Australian crime reporter Alan Stranks. Stranks was born in Brunswick, Victoria in 1903. He started out working for a Melbourne newspaper as an office boy. When the editor needed a crime reporter to go and report on a case he found that they were all out on cases so the eighteen year old Stranks offered to do it for him. The editor gave him the chance and Stranks made a good job of the report so the editor promoted him to a crime reporter. In the late thirties he moved to England, initially as a crime reporter but he ended up spending more time writing film screenplays and radio plays. Stranks was also something of a lyricist, penning a few songs, including the songs in the feature film version of the radio comedy It’s That Man Again (1943).
Series creator and scriptwriter Alan Stranks
The 1952 book On Duty With P.C.49 by Alan Stranks relates how he created the character; In 1947 Stranks visited Scotland Yard to check police procedure on a particular point for an article he was writing. The sergeant was scornful of special agents and dressing-gown garbed detectives that writers chose to solve crimes. The sergeant suggested he gave the credit to those that solved them. When asked to explain himself the sergeant replied “It’s about time you realised that almost 99 per cent of the crimes committed in this country are solved by the keen observation and the devotion to duty of the ordinary bloke on the beat. Give the bobby a break, there’s no one deserves it better...”
Stranks went away thinking and spent the next day on the streets of London talking to policemen and watching them work, He realised that although they were bound by rules and regulations and lacked the glamour of the armchair detectives and special agents “... always the possibility that around the next corner, or in the shadow of the dark doorway across the road, adventure with a capital ‘A’ may be waiting to meet them...”
Within a few days Stranks had written the first P.C.49 adventure and taken his idea, together with the first script, to BBC radio producer Vernon Harris.
Vernon Harris chose Brian Reece to play P.C.49. A young actor who had started in the milk marketing business but found an interest in theatre and in 1931 at the age of eighteen he made his first theatrical appearance at the Liverpool Playhouse. During the war he worked with E.N.S.A. and after the war he had appeared as a second juvenile lead in the West End production of ‘Bless the Bride’ at the Adelphi Theatre as The Honourable Thomas Trout. The play ran for 886 performances over three years from 26th April 1947. Vernon Harris had produced a radio version of that play on 16th June 1947 on the Home Service, a few weeks prior to Stranks’ visit and had been impressed with Reece’s perception of the difference between a performance for the theatre and one for radio. Most of the cast had given their big theatrical performances but Reece came close to the microphone and gave a much more intimate performance better suited to the radio medium so Harris noted Reece as a useful young actor with an ability to tackle light humorous roles.
Harris then cast Leslie Perrins as Inspector Wilson and Eric Phillips as Sergeant Wright but whilst having no problem casting the male leads he had more trouble finding someone suitable to play Fortynine’s girlfriend, Joan Carr.
In a radio interview in 1983 Harris said he eventually spoke to his wife about it and she suggested a young actress she had heard in a play. As radio was live then if a cast member was suddenly ill or unavailable another actor or actress would have to stand in at short notice, even for regular roles where the difference in voice would be noticeable.
Such an occurrence had happened that very evening and a young actress had been asked to fill in for a leading role with just a few minutes notice, with no time to even glance through the script but she gave an excellent performance anyway with no fluffs or falterings.
That actress was Joy Shelton and Harris saw her the next day and offered her the role.
Shelton had started her career with the Brighton Repertory company including a success in ‘Murder Without Crime’. Later she played a leading role in the film Waterloo Road (1944) with John Mills.
The cast assembled for the first episode, The Case of the Drunken Sailor on 27th October 1947 at 21:30, the shows then going out live. Three further shows went out in November to make a short four episode series “of incidents in the career of Police-Constable Archibald Berkeley - Willoughby.”
The shows were immediately popular and Stranks was asked to write more. He was busy co-writing the script for the first Dick Barton film for Hammer, Dick Barton Special Agent (1948), which made him unavailable for further P.C.49 stories until June 1948 when The Case of the Frightened Flower Girl started the second series, of six cases. (See Radio Episode Guide above for full list of radio episodes).
Originally envisaged as an an adult series it soon became incredibly popular with younger listeners so the shows started getting an earlier repeat at 19:00 on weekends for the children to enjoy them whilst still carrying on later evenings first run for the adults when the children were in bed.
P.C.49 appeared in cartoon form in a series of booklets produced by the government aimed at increasing production in their “Production Campaign ‘49” in 1949.
Joy Shelton was cast as Joan Carr
In October 1949 the first film was released; The Adventures of P.C.49: Investigating the Case of the Guardian Angel. Written by Alan Stranks and Vernon Harris, it was an expansion of the second episode of Series Two of the radio series, also entitled The Case of the Guardian Angel, and like the Dick Barton film was made by a pre-gothic horror Hammer. This low budget movie didn’t feature the original radio cast, instead Hugh Latimer was cast as a rather stiffer P.C. 49 and Patricia Cutts his girlfriend Joan Carr. Eric Phillips was the only cast member to reprise his radio role, as Sergeant Wright. The plot about lorry hijackers was also later re-used for one of the P.C.49 comic strips.
Hugh Latimer & Patricia Cutts were cast in the first film version of P.C.49.
The Christmas edition of the Radio Times dated 3rd December 1949 featured a specially written P.C.49 story by Stranks entitled The Case of the Christmas Copper.
In it Inspector Wilson receives rough treatment at the hands of Archie and Sergeant Wright when they mistake him for a burglar as he masquerades as Father Christmas and climbs in one of his windows to deliver presents to his three grandchildren.
Mrs Wilson invites them in for a Christmas drink and Sergeant Wright reversed his usual catchphrase to “In you go Fortynine.” The story included two illustrations by Norman Mansbridge.
Outside of the main series on radio there were two special appearances of P.C.49 in other special radio broadcasts. The first was 'The Night of the Twenty Seventh', a BBC radio Christmas Special broadcast 27th December 1949 which was described as an account of the disturbing happenings at a dinner party given to the following well-known characters ; Dick Barton, Dr. & Mrs Dale (from Mrs' Dale's Diary), The Man in Black, Philip Odell, P.C.49, Paul & Steve Temple by their unseen host. The second special broadcast was called 'Light Up Again' in which Brian Reece as P.C.49 works alongside Dick Barton from that popular BBC radio series. This programme featured special recordings of many popular Light Programmes as part of the Coronation celebrations for Elizabeth II, with P.C.49 and Barton working a case between the other features of the programme. Light Up Again was broadcast from 19:30 on Thursday 4th June 1953.
When Eagle comic was launched on 14th April 1950 P.C.49 became a regular fixture from the first edition. Although the main selling point was the full-colour two page Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future, P.C.49 was the second (black and white) strip starting on Page 3 and was immediately popular. Like the radio version the comic strip stories were written by Alan Stranks and were original stories, rather than adaptations of the radio scripts (except the Guardian Angel story noted above). The first P.C.49 serial was untitled and started with Fortynine applying to work in the plain clothes division. He was then out looking for a gang of bank robbers who had robbed a bank and run down a young crippled boy called Jimmy Wilson. The first strip ran for thirteen weeks until 7th July 1950 and was drawn by Strom Gould as were the following three stories. The strip images by Gould were a bit lacklustre with very basic drawings. From the fourth strip the drawings were by former war artist John Worsley and had a much higher degree of realism.
In 1950 Hammer produced a second and final film, A Case For P.C.49, again penned by Stranks and Harris but this time Brian Reece and Joy Shelton took on their original radio roles for a more enjoyable film, although unlike the first film this time Eric Phillips did not return as Sergeant Wright, instead being played by character actor Campbell Singer.
Inspector Wilson was not played by radio actor Leslie Perrins in either film; being portrayed by Arthur Brander in the first film and Gordon McLeod in the second film. (See Film page for further details of the movies)
In April 1952 Brian Reece got into his P.C. uniform to feature in an advert for Badger’s Sweets for their Silmos Lollies published in Eagle comic. Several celebrities were used peeping out behind jars of Badgers sweets and readers could win prizes for identifying the celebrities.
Being a popular character P.C.49 also got in to the toys and games lines of the fifties. There was a P.C.49 game in 1950 called Burglars - P.C.49’s family Party Game. It was produced by Castell Brothers Ltd in their Pepys Party Games series. The game consisted of identifying various criminals by scrutinising a series of picture cards and comparing them with descriptions of wanted criminals. Poorly drawn by an unknown artist, the character of P.C.49 did not feature in the actual game play, just in the use of his image for the packaging etc.
Tower Press released a P.C.49 jig-saw puzzle called P.C.49 and the Organ Grinder’s Monkey. When put together the puzzle made a short P.C.49 comic strip in full colour. The artwork was unsigned but possibly the work of Roland Davies, a prolific illustrator of many magazines and comics.
Back on radio things were coming to an end, In 1952’s Series Ten Archie and Joan finally get married and in the first episode of Series Eleven, The Case of the Blue Bootees, a son is born to them. Series Eleven in 1953 proved to be the last run on radio, after five years and 112 episodes the series finished, but the character would continue in books by Stranks and in the Eagle comic until 1957.
Sadly of the 112 episodes made only two episodes of the radio series were retained by the BBC, both from Series 7 in 1950 (Episodes 1 & 7). Further episodes survive with collectors, all from Series Four, from copies put onto discs by the BBC’S Transcription Service for sale to overseas broadcasters such as New Zealand which started broadcasting them in 1951. These include three complete episodes, two missing the second disc so losing the middle 10 minutes, and three partial episodes (the middle sections only).
(See Radio Episode Guide above).
Brian Reece, Leslie Perrins and Joy Shelton to the right of the mic with producer Vernon Harris and writer Alan Stranks to the left rehearsing an episode for the last series in 1953.
The books by Stranks in the fifties were a combination of reprints of some of the comic strips with some text based stories inter-mixed with factual features.
The comic strip in Eagle for P.C.49 continued on until March 1957 when the strip was replaced by a new character called Mark Question. The comic strip had differed a little to the original radio series in that Archie’s girlfriend, Joan Carr, only featured in the first two comic strips before being dropped, despite continuing in the radio version. Instead the comic strips had Archie working with the Boys’ Club, a group of misfit young lads who Archie takes under his wing and who help him catch the bad guys, Archie’s very own Baker Street Irregulars. As the strip went on the Boys’ Club members; Pat, Mick, Toby, Snorky and Giglamps, became more prominent in the stories rather than having Archie central. (See the Comics & Books link above for further details of the comic strip).
And so the character largely faded away from the public consciousness. Whilst Dan Dare was revived for several other comics, including 2000AD in the seventies and a revived Eagle in the eighties, P.C.49 has not had a come-back and unlike Hammer’s Dick Barton films, the P.C.49 ones were not released on VHS and have not yet been released on DVD.
Vernon Harris had been a Shakespearean actor who had a few minor parts in films in the thirties as well, but went on to become first a radio writer, being one of the writers of Arthur Askey’s Band Waggon and later a staff BBC producer. He liked Stranks idea and thought it would make a good comedy thriller on radio.
Eric Phillips was cast as Sergeant Wright
Brian Reece as P.C.49 with Leslie Perrins as DI Wilson in a BBC publicity photo for the series
Alan Stranks died of a heart attack while on holiday in Spain on 18th June 1959.
After a few more plays and films Brian Reece would go on to star in another BBC Light Programme comedy thriller series, starring as intelligence agent Tony Meadows in It’s A Crime five years later alongside Denise Bryer which lasted for two series of 12 and 10 episodes respectively in 1958 and 1959. This was again produced by Vernon Harris, but written by Eddie Maguire, who was also then writing the radio series Meet the Huggetts for Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison. Reece had been born on 3rd June 1922 in Wallasey, Cheshire. The second P.C.49 film had been his first film acting role for this stage actor. He went on to star in the 1954 comedy film Fast and loose with Kay Kendall and Stanley Holloway. He also reprised his role of Thomas Trout from Bless the Bride for a BBC television production of the musical with an otherwise new cast on 28th October 1956. Brian Reece died young at the age of 48 on 12th April 1962 of a bone disease.
Leslie Perrins died not long after Reece on 13th December 1962 aged 61. He was born 7th October 1901 in Moseley, Birmingham and despite playing a police Inspector in this series, was more frequently found playing villains in films in the thirties and forties. His last role, ironically, was in an episode of Dixon of Dock Green in 1960, a series that continued on from P.C.49 in representing the ordinary trustworthy and reliable British bobby on the beat in light comic drama.
Eric Phillips had been a Shakespearean stage actor making only two early television roles before his first film role in the first P.C.49 film. After the radio series finished he went on to guest appear in the occasional television series and one off play in the late 50s and through the early to mid sixties, with his last appearance being as a court clerk in a Wednesday Play for the BBC in 1966 (The Portsmouth Defence). I have been above to find little biographical information on him so unknown when he was born or died.
Joy Shelton was born on 3rd June 1922 in London. Joy had been in pictures since 1943 including a film version of radio detective rival Paul Temple (Send For Paul Temple, 1946). Joy married Jewish comedy actor Sydney Tafler in 1941 and later converted to Judaism. She took a break from acting to raise her family and then retired altogether in the nineties due to ill health. Joy died on 28th January 2000 in Surrey.
P.C.49 & Joan Carr