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Colin Watson

THE TV DETECTIVES . . . Part one

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While nothing beats a good book, detectives on TV come a close second. At the age of 72 I have seen a fair few of these small screen sleuths, and I’ve made a purely subjective list of the best twenty five. My shortlist ran to well over sixty, and if some who didn’t make the cut are your personal favourites, then please accept my commiserations. It’s also worth saying that of my twenty five, the majority are adaptations of books.

First, my criteria for inclusion. My choices are all British productions featuring British actors and, with two exceptions, mostly British settings. I’ve excluded ensemble police procedurals such as Z Cars, The Bill and Waking The Dead. I have, regretfully, left out my all time classic TV crime drama Callan, because dear old David wasn’t so much a detective as an enforcer or a cleaner-up of the messes created by his shadowy employers. Each of my choices has a readily identifiable – and sometimes eponymous – leading character, to the extent that were the man or woman on the proverbial omnibus shown a photograph of, for example, George Baker, they would say, “Ah yes – Wexford!” Please feel free to vent your outrage at omissions or inclusions via the usual social media networks, but here goes:

0025Victorian coppers were not new to TV when this Sergeant Cribb, based on the excellent Peter Lovesey novels, first aired. There had already been several attempts at the Holmes canon, and way back in 1963 John Barrie starred as Sergeant Cork. Although a serial, rather than a series, the 1959 version of The Moonstone featured the great Patrick Cargill as Sergeant Cuff, possibly the first fictional detective. Where Sergeant Cribb came to life was through the superbly dry and acerbic characterisation of Alan Dobie, aided and abetted by the ever-dependable William Simons. Neither did it hurt that most of the episodes were written by Peter Lovesey himself. (1980 – 1981)

0024I am sure the loss is all mine, but of the Golden Age female crime writers I have found Agatha Christie the least interesting, despite her ingenious plotting and ability to create atmosphere. Mea Culpa, I suppose, but it would be reckless not to include Miss Marple in this list. Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie have their admirers, but Joan Hickson is, surely, the Miss Marple? Her series (1984 – 1992) was certainly the most canonical and, if the anecdote is to be believed, Agatha Christie herself once sent a note to the younger Hickson hoping that she would, one day, play the Divine Miss M.

0023Small, aggressive, punchy and with hard earned bags under his eyes, Mark McManus was Taggart. Before he drank himself to death, McManus drove the Glasgow cop show, repaired its engine and polished its bodywork to perfection. It was Scottish Noir before the term had come into common parlance. Bleak, abrasive, unforgiving and with a killer theme song, Taggart was a one-off. The series limped on after McManus died but it was never the same again. (1983 – 1995)

0022Who knows what the lady herself would have made of David Suchet’s Poirot? Her family are said to have approved, and for sheer over-the-top bravura, Suchet’s mincing and mannered portrayal has to be admired. The production values were always immense from day one in 1989 and by the time the series finished in 2013, every major work by Agatha Christie which featured Poirot had made its way onto the screen. The supporting cast was every bit as good, with Hugh Fraser as Hastings and Philip Jackson as the permanently one-step-behind Inspector Japp.

0021For me, the Golden Age Queen was Dorothy L Sayers and my permanent Best Ever Crime Novel is The Nine Tailors, so it is a relatively brief series (1972 – 1975) featuring Lord Peter Wimsey that makes its way into this list. Some DLS buffs refer the slightly more cerebral Edward Petherbridge version, but my vote goes to Ian Carmichael. He played up the more foppish and scatty side of Wimsey’s nature, but he also managed to convey, underneath the gaiety, the fact that Wimsey was something of a war hero, and his recovery from wounds and shell shock was due in no small part to his relationship with his former Sergeant, Mervyn Bunter.

0020Just as on the printed page, TV crime series have more Detective Inspectors than you can shake a retractable police baton at. The first to make it into my selection is, perhaps, not so well known to the general reading public, but a firm favourite with those of us who kid ourselves that we are connoisseurs. Charlie Resnick is a creation of that most cerebral of crime novelists, John Harvey. He is distinctly downbeat and his ‘patch’ is the resolutely unfashionable midlands town of Nottingham. There were eleven novels featuring the jazz loving detective, but only two of them were televised. Lonely Hearts screened in three parts in 1992, while Rough Treatment had two parts, and was broadcast a year later. Both screenplays were written by John Harvey himelf, and Tom Wilkinson brought a lonely and troubled complexity to the main role.

0019 Van der Valk took us to Amsterdam for an impressive five series, based on the novels by Nicolas Freeling. Freeling tired of his creation, and killed him off after eleven novels. He resisted the clamour to resurrect him, but did write two more books featuring the late cop’s widow. The TV series was, by way of contrast, milked for all it was worth, and Barry Foster played Commissaris Piet van der Valk against authentic Dutch settings. Amsterdam’s reputation for sleaze, sex and substances did the series no harm at all in the eyes of British sofa-dwellers. Theme tunes are an integral part of any successful series and Eye Level took on a life of its own, improbably reaching No. 1 in the British pop charts in 1973. Noel Edmunds’ barnet is irresistible, is it not?https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvesdlGe-EI

0018Most of my TV detectives are upright beings, not to say moral and public spirited. The East Anglian antique dealer Lovejoy was, by contrast, one of life’s chancers and, to borrow a phrase much used by local newspapers when some petty criminal has met a bad end, ‘a lovable rogue.’ Ian McShane and his impeccable mullet brought much joy to British homes on many a Sunday evening between 1986 and 1994. Lovejoy was always out for a quick quid, but like an Arthur Daley with a conscience, he always had an eye out for ‘the little guy’. McShane was excellent, but he had brilliant back-up in the persons of Phyllis Logan as the ‘did-they-didn’t-they’ posh totty Lady Jane Felsham, and the incomparable and much missed Dudley Sutton as Tinker Dill.

0017The TV version of the Vera  books by Ann Cleeves is now into its quite astonishing tenth series and the demand for stories has long since outstripped the original novels. Close-to-retirement Northumbrian copper Vera Stanhope is still played by Brenda Blethyn, but her fictional police colleagues – as well as the screenwriters – have seen wholesale changes since it first aired in 2011. Why does the series do so well? Speaking cynically, there are several important contemporary boxes that it ticks. Principally, its star is a woman and it is set in the paradoxically fashionable North of England.The potential for scenic atmosphere is limitless, of course, but the core reason for its enduring popularity is the superb acting of Blethyn, and the fact that Cleeves has put together a toolkit of very clever and marketable elements. Vera will probably outlast me, and a new series is already commissioned for 2021.

0016The creation of Cadfael was an act of pure genius by scholar and linguist Edith Pargetter, better known as Ellis Peters. Not only was the 12th century sleuth a devout Benedictine monk, but he had come to the cloisters only after a career as a soldier, sailor and – with a brilliant twist – a lover, as we learned that he has a son, conceived while he was fighting as a Crusader in Antioch. In the TV series which ran from 1994 until 1998, Derek Jacobi brought to the screen a superb blend of inquisitiveness, saintliness and a worldly wisdom which his fellow monks lacked, due to their entering the monastery before they had lived any kind of life. Modern times prevented the productions from being filmed in Cadfael’s native Shropshire, and they opted instead for Hungary!

0015When my next series choice was aired in 1977, the producers had no confidence that either the name of its author, or that of its central character, would be a crowd puller, and so they called it Murder Most English. The four-part series consisted of adaptations of novels written by Colin Watson, and in print they were part of his Flaxborough Chronicles, twelve novels in total. Inspector Purbright, played by Anton Rodgers, is an apparently placid small town policeman, but a man who sees more than he says, and someone who has a sharp eye for the corruption and scheming endemic among the councillors and prominent citizens of Flaxborough – a fictional town loosely based on Boston, Lincolnshire, where Watson worked as a journalist for many years. The TV Purbright was perhaps rather more Holmesian – with his pipe and tweeds –  than Watson had intended, but the original novels Hopjoy Was Here, Lonelyheart 4122, The Flaxborough Crab and Coffin Scarcely Used, were lovingly treated. Unusually, for a TV production, the filming was done in a location not too far from the fictional Flaxborough – the Lincolnshire market town of Alford, just 25 miles from Watson’s Boston workplace. Click this link to learn more about Colin Watson and his books.

The next ten choices in my survey of the best TV detectives
follows soon –
keep an eye out on TWITTER

 

THE FORGOTTEN … A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part Three – Colin Watson (2)


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The introduction to this feature on Colin Watson,
including a biographical timeline, is here.

CSUCoffin Scarcely Used – the first of The Flaxborough Chronicles –   begins with the owner of the local newspaper dead in his carpet slippers, beneath an electricity pylon, on a winter’s night. Throw into the mix an over-sexed undertaker, a credulous housekeeper, the strangely shaped burns on the hands of the deceased, a chief constable who cannot believe that any of his golf chums could be up to no good, and a coffin containing only ballast, and we have a mystery which might be a Golden Age classic, were it not for the fact that Watson was, at heart, a satirist, and a writer who left no balloon of self importance unpricked.

The permanent central character of Inspector Walter Purbright is beautifully named. ‘Purbright’ gives us a sense of sparky intelligence gleaming out from a solid, quintessentially English, impermeable foundation. He is described as a heavy man, with corn coloured hair. He has a deceptively reverential manner when dealing with the aldermen and worthies of Flaxborough, but he is no-one’s fool.

The sheer joy of this book in particular, and the Flaxborough novels in general, is the language. Perhaps it looks back rather than forward, but there are many modern writers who would happily pay homage to the unobtrusive Lincolnshire journalist. Of Mr Chubb, the Chief Constable, Watson observes:

“Not for the first time, he was visited with the suspicion that Chubb had donned the uniform of head of the Borough police force in a moment of municipal confusion when someone had overlooked the fact that he was really a candidate for the curatorship of the Fish Street Museum.”

Of the detecting skills of Sergeant Love, Purbright’s long-suffering subordinate, we learn:

“The sergeant was no adept of self effacing observation. When he wished to see without being seen, he adopted an air of nonchalance so extravagant that people followed him in expectation of his throwing handfuls of pound notes in the air.”

With such an ability to turn a phrase, it is almost irrelevant how the book pans out, but Watson does not let us down. Purbright uncovers a conspiracy involving loose women, a psychotic doctor and a distinctly underhand undertaker – hence the title. Watson himself remains mostly unknown to today’s reading public, but is rightly revered by connoisseurs of crime fiction. He was politically incorrect before the phrase was even invented and, although his pen pictures of self important provincial dignitaries are sharply perceptive, they also portray a fondness for the mundane and the ordinary lives lived beneath the layers of pretension.

There were to be be eleven more Flaxborough novels, and the final episode was Whatever’s Been Going On At Mumblesby? It again features Mr Bradlaw, the shamed undertaker from the very first novel. He has served his time for his part in those earlier misdeeds, however, and has returned to Flaxborough, thus giving the series a sense of things having come full circle. In 2011, Faber republished the series digitally, but the Kindle versions are not cheap and you might be better off seeking a secondhand paperback.

SnobberyIn addition to such delightful titles as Broomsticks Over Flaxborough and Six Nuns And A Shotgun (in which Flaxborough is visited by a New York hitman) Watson also wrote an account of the English crime novel in its social context. In Snobbery With Violence (1971), he sought to explore the attitudes that are reflected in the detective story and the thriller. Readers expecting to find Watson reflecting warmly on his contemporaries and predecessors will be disappointed. The general tone of the book is almost universally waspish and, on some occasions, downright scathing.

He is particularly unimpressed by the efforts of writers such as H C McNeile (Sapper), Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (Sax Rohmer) and E W Hornung. Whereas modern commentators might smile indulgently at the activities of Bulldog Drummond, Denis Nayland Smith and Arthur J Raffles, and view them as being ‘of their time’, Watson has none of it. He finds them racist bullies, insuperably snobbish and created purely to pander to the xenophobic and blinkered readership of what we would now call Middle England.

Whitgift

Watson’s apparent contempt for the Public School ethos prevalent in these writers of the first part of the twentieth century seems, at first glance, strange. He was educated at Whitgift School in Croydon, but in his day the school was a direct grant school, meaning that its charter stipulated that it provide scholarships for what its founder, Archbishop John Whitgift, termed,”poor, needy and impotent people” from the parishes of Croydon and Lambeth. The school has been fully independent for many years, but in Watson’s time there may have been an uneasy mix of scholarship boys and those whose wealthy parents paid full fees. Despite Watson and other local lads having gained their places by virtue of their brains, it is quite possible that they were looked down on by the ‘toffs’ who were there courtesy of their parents’ wealth.

As Watson trawls the deep for crime writers, even Dorothy L Sayers doesn’t escape his censure, as he is irritated by Lord Peter Wimsey’s foppishness and tendency to make snide remarks at the expense of the lower classes. Edgar Wallace and E Phillips Oppenheim who, between them, sold millions of novels, are dismissed as mere hacks, but he does show begrudging admiration for the works of the woman he calls ‘Mrs Christie’, despite rubbishing her archetypal English village crime scene, which he scorns as Mayhem Parva. Watson admires Conan Doyle’s clever product placement, Margery Allingham’s inventiveness and ends the book with a reasonably affectionate study of James Bond, although he is less than sanguine about 007’s prowess as a womaniser:

‘The sexual encounters in the Bond books are as regular and predictable as bouts of fisticuffs in the ‘Saint’ adventures or end-of-chapter red herrings in the detective novels of Gladys Mitchell, and not much more erotic.”

EdgeIn the end, it seems that Watson had supped full of crime fiction writing. Iain Sinclair sought him out in his later years at Folkingham, and wrote

“Gaunt, sharp-featured, a little wary of the stranger on the step, Watson interrupted his work as a silversmith. Eyeglass. Tools in hand. He couldn’t understand where it had all gone wrong. His novels were well-received and they’d even had a few moments of television time, with Anton Rodgers as the detective. The problem was that Watson, lèse-majesté , had trashed Agatha Christie in an essay called ‘The Little World of Mayhem Parva’.

Watson put away his instruments, took me upstairs to the living room.   He signed my books, we parted.   He was astonished that all his early first editions were a desirable commodity while his current publications, the boxes of Book Club editions, filled his shelves.  He would have to let the writing game go, it didn’t pay.  Concentrate on silver rings and decorative trinkets.”  (Iain Sinclair   “Edge of the Orison”   Hamish Hamilton 2005.)

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THE FORGOTTEN … A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part Three – Colin Watson (1)

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To be unfashionable is no crime, especially at a time when fame is so fleeting that it makes Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes seem like a lifetime. Even if he were still alive and working, the books of Colin Watson would not be found bulk-bought and jostling for space with the latest James Patterson between the party goods and the lottery machine at the local ASDA. Am I being snooty? Almost certainly I am, but I’m also more than happy to wear my love of Watson’s humour, ingenuity and exquisite use of English, as a badge of honour. Watson was, in his day, very well thought of. His Flaxborough novels sold well, and until relatively recently were always well represented on library bookshelves, because local library users were not, by and large, fools.

It would be tempting – but incorrect – to think that Watson would be turning in his grave at some of the writing which is passed off as crime fiction these days. Incorrect because he was a man who, by all accounts, was at peace with himself and with those around him. Another Lincolnshire man, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, imagined his pale Queen Guinevere describing Sir Lancelot:

“For manners are not idle, but the fruit
Of loyal nature, and of noble mind.”

Those words are inscribed on Watson’s tombstone in the village churchyard at Folkingham, where he is buried under a beautiful and ancient chestnut tree. It was a curious reflection on the fickleness of fame that when I first visited Folkingham, the good natured locals who showed me to the headstone had no idea who Watson was, or what he had written. In part two of this feature, I will look in more detail at Watson’s novels, but I am indebted to Stuart Radmore who has researched and prepared this timeline for Colin Watson.

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TO BE CONTINUED

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