Dick Turpin was a television series produced by London Weekend Television and screened in half-hourly episodes from 1979 to 1982. Richard O’Sullivan starred as the eponymous hero, with Michael Deeks as Swiftnick, Christopher Benjamin as Sir John Glutton and David Daker as Captain Nathan Spiker. I loved this series when I was a kiddy, and I’ve just acquired the DVD box set so I’m planning on writing a short post dedicated to each episode with a plot synopsis and commentary. I’ve even worked out how to make screenshots from the DVDs so there’ll be pics too, and I’m not going to pretend that most of them won’t be of Richard O’Sullivan looking gorgeous because that most certainly will be the case. He was my first celebrity crush and I adoooooooored him.
Richard Turpin was indeed a real person and you can read about his exploits here. The Turpin of the television series is a ‘Robin Hood’ type of character, who only steals from the rich and often shares what he has stolen with those less fortunate. As Swiftnick says in ‘The Imposter’, Turpin offers an opportunity for the poor ‘to drag [themselves] from the mire’. In addition, Turpin is a character who has turned to crime because his farm was stolen from him by Sir John Glutton while Turpin was away fighting for his country. But the real Turpin certainly wasn’t the noble hero depicted in the television series: he was a notorious highwayman and a murderer who was eventually hanged for his crimes. Fortunately though, most of us can tell the difference between real life and telly (some YouTube commenters excepted) and we know that this is just a bit of entertainment.
Dick Turpin Episode 1: Swiftnick in which our hero acquires a sidekick and reports of Turpin’s death are greatly exaggerated
Synopsis: Sir John Glutton plans to evict Mary Smith and her son Nick from The Black Swan inn where they hold tenure if they cannot pay twenty guineas in rent. Mary borrows the money from Dick Turpin, who holds up Sir John’s coach and takes the money back. Nick helps Turpin evade capture, but Nick himself is taken by Captain Spiker. Mary begs Turpin to rescue Nick and to let Nick ride with him as a highwayman. Turpin grudgingly agrees. Disguised as a doctor, Turpin tells Sir John that Nick has the plague. Turpin’s ruse is discovered by Spiker who arrives just as Turpin and Nick are about to make their escape, and a fight ensues. Turpin and Nick escape and the episode concludes with Turpin bestowing on his new sidekick the name of ‘Swiftnick’.
Commentary: In this, the first episode, everyone’s sort of finding their feet a bit – by which I mean ‘it’s not great’. The fights are very stagey and the scene in which Turpin and Mary are discussing Turpin’s past and Nick’s future in The Black Swan is uncomfortably like watching a filmed play, but this is in part owing to a pretty bloody awful performance on the part of Jo Rowbottom as Mary. She’s just terrible. The series improves rapidly, however, and this first episode is really just about providing expository information: who the characters are, Turpin’s tragic backstory as justification for his criminal activity, how Swiftnick becomes the sidekick, and so on.
The other point to mention is that there is genuine riding of horses: O’Sullivan, Deeks and Daker are all seen mounting and dismounting, with a bit of trotting too perhaps, although obviously the more dangerous riding scenes (and there are lots of them) are clearly performed by stand-ins. Nevertheless, the actors were clearly required to do some actual horse-riding themselves.
The key themes that emerge from this episode and that feature throughout the series are those of disguises, imposters, impersonators, and the use of Turpin’s name. Turpin is presumed dead at the beginning of the story, hanged for his crimes, but this turns out to be another man who used Turpin’s name to carry out his own acts of robbery and who eventually went to the gallows still professing to be Turpin. The most interesting moment of the episode comes when Nathan Spiker, who believes Turpin to be still alive, is explaining to Sir John Glutton why anyone would want to die in another’s stead. Spiker claims that the carnival atmosphere attending the execution of a celebrated criminal is such that the condemned man had to be Turpin to the end, to go out in a blaze of (someone else’s) glory. Even Nick Smith takes on Turpin’s name to steal the twenty guineas needed to pay the rent; unfortunately for him, the traveller he tries to rob is none other than Turpin himself. There is a kind of hero-worship that surrounds Turpin in as much as other would-be thieves are anxious to emulate him. And it is easy enough to pretend to be Turpin, when all the imposters have to do is pull a neck-tie up over their noses so the lower half of the face is obscured.
In this episode, Turpin ‘dies’ twice: first when another goes to the gallows for him, and second when Turpin disguised as the doctor announces that Turpin has perished of the plague. Turpin also appears in disguise twice: first as the traveller who unwisely flashes his money in The Black Swan (thus provoking Nick’s attempted robbery), and second as the doctor. It takes no more than a wig, a pair of spectacles and an unconvincing accent.