Cozzers, Slags, and Filth: Tom Bell as the Bent On Revenge Ross, In ‘Out’

Frank Ross is out of the nick and out for revenge in a British series from 1978 brought to the US for the first time by Acorn Media.

After serving an eight-year sentence for his part in a botched bank heist, Ross sets about finding the man who informed on him. The search takes him through his old south London haunts, and as he catches up with associates and antagonists, he both draws the attention of the cop who arrested him and also raises the ire of the boss who’s taken over the neighborhood in his absence. As if this isn’t enough for a six-part series, Ross also navigates a personal life just as complicated as his professional one, as he tries to reestablish relationships with his wife, institutionalized after an emotional breakdown, his mistress, and his rebellious teenage son.

A combination “street piece” and “family drama”—as it is called by producer Barry Hanson—Out is riven by its divergent plot strains, just as its protagonist is divided by his desire to settle the score with the man who turned him in and his wish to reconcile with his family.

Ross spends the first part of episode one in a daze, like Rip Van Winkle after his 20-year nap, adjusting to the London of the Sex Pistols and Malcolm McClaren. The series’ opening sequence follows Ross home from prison, as he experiences vertigo from the rush and bustle at the train station, and catches glimpses of the changing face of the city as his taxi passes a Sikh traffic cop, three women in burkas, and four punks who spit at the car. “If the bleedin’ Martians landed, what would they think?” the cabbie says, as if reading Ross’s mind.

Once he reaches his mothballed house, Ross regains his composure. Changing his outmoded, ill-fitting grey suit for a more becoming darker one he pulls from a dusty wardrobe, the disoriented ex-con quickly dons his old, cocksure identity. It’s a clever, if timeworn trope. For while location shooting lends the series authenticity, Out offers a formulaic setting to match every sequence shot at landmarks like Electric Avenue in Brixton: the police interrogation room, the rough pub, the private gambling house.

Familiar scenes likewise establish our antihero’s bona fides: a scuffle with a knife-wielding tough, whom Ross subdues as much by his words as his muscle, the private card game where he wins the pot, the reunion with a mistress eager to rekindle a romance even after she’s been ignored for years. “I’m a taker,” Ross admits with some remorse, but no suggestion of a willingness to change. We recognize his essential selfishness, but root for him anyway, as he enforces the gangster code, according to which there is no greater sin than betraying, or “grassing out” a compatriot.

Tom Bell, known for his recurring role as Detective Sergeant Bill Otley in the Helen Mirren police drama Prime Suspect, plays Ross with rough grace, steely determination, and occasional charm. Hanson, writer Trevor Preston, and director Jim Goddard—who reunited to provide commentary on the first and last episodes on the DVD (the only extras included)—joke at how little Bell smiles throughout the series.

The supporting cast also raise Out above the ordinary crime drama. Norman Rodway plays Ross’s nemesis, Detective Inspector Bryce, with the zeal and twisted morality of Javert. A scene set on the bank of the Thames in which his loyal lieutenant quietly accuses Bryce of having skirted the very order he holds so dear in order to foil Ross is particularly fine. Brian Cox oozes bravado and sadism as manor boss McGrath (“Hello, slag!” is a favorite greeting). Pamela Fairbrother is chilling as Ross’s wife, who descends further into madness after each meeting with her husband and son.

Street piece finally eclipses family drama in Out. Aside from a few references to wife and son, the final episodes of the series find Ross almost exclusively focused on satisfying his vindictive impulses. This structural failing nevertheless rings true: the circles in which Ross and Bryce operate put little value on women and family. In its suppression of the domestic, Out gestures at the gender politics on display in Prime Suspect a decade and a half later, as Jane Tennison (Mirren) endures a police force inhospitable to a woman rising among the ranks of detectives.

RATING 6 / 10