You can never have too many Detective Inspectors, can you? Well, I’m afraid you can in crime novels and TV adaptations, and a DI’s annual convention would need to book a very large hotel and conference centre. My ‘best of’ list only has twenty five names on it, and so some famous names had to accept early retirement. Apologies to fans of Banks, Barnaby, Lynley, Thorne and Wycliffe (OK, he was a Superintendent) – but there are always the box sets to enjoy. My next selection of TV series to remember starts with the most elderly, date-wise.
In more recent times Michael Gambon and Rowan Atkinson have made decent stabs at characterising Jules Maigret, Simenon’s Parisian detective, but the Rupert Davies version is the one for me. The grainy black and white presentation would now be considered as un hommage to moody 1940s crime films but, more prosaically, it was all our TV sets could cope with back in the day. Maybe it was the iconic title sequence – the match being struck to light the ever-present pipe, with Ron Grainer’s haunting accordion soundtrack. Maybe it was a teenage Brit’s first glimpse of those beautiful rakish Citroen cars. Maybe it was Ewen Solon’s brilliant turn as Maigret’s sidekick Lucas, but whatever the reason, this was TV gold. (1960 – 1963)
The twenty four novels by Reginald Hill featuring the overweight and irascible Yorkshire copper Andy Dalziel had the fat man firmly centre stage, but when he was brought to the small screen, his rather more politically correct Sergeant, Peter Pascoe shares the billing. There were eleven series between 1996 and 2007 and Warren Clarke played Dalziel throughout, Clarke was certainly blunt and low on corporate charm, but he was never quite as gross as the written character. The series had tremendous writers, including Malcolm Bradbury and Alan Plater in the early days. Pascoe’s lecturer wife Ellie provided what we would now call a ‘woke’ response to Dalziel’s ‘gammon’ but by series six she and Peter they had gone their separate ways, his disdain for wrong-doers clashing once to often with her metropolitan liberal values.
Another Sunday evening comfort blanket was provided by the long running – fifteen series between 1992 and 2010 – A Touch of Frost. Here was another policeman who, like Andy Dalziel, trod on toes and infuriated his superiors. William ‘Jack’ Frost, however, was less abrasive and with a more melancholy approach to life’s vicissitudes. Sir David Jason was a National Treasure before he took on the mantle of Frost, and his wonderful combination of jaunty disregard for protocol and inner sadness was masterful. RD Wingfield only wrote six Frost novels, and so the TV series outdistanced the books by many a mile. One of the delights of the show was the constant sparring between Frost and his starchy boss Superintendent Mullett, beautifully played by Bruce Alexander.
The Hazell books were an oddity. They were written by jobbing Scots journalist Gordon Williams, with the unlikely assistance of football’s wide-boy, Terry ‘El Tel’ Venables. Under the pseudonym PB Yuill, they were tight and well-written tales of a London wide boy making a living as a private detective. On screen, Nicholas Ball – all bouffant hair, snappy clothes and attitude – was simply perfect. As a general rule, British PI dramas are never going to compete with their USA counterparts in the violent, mean and noirish stakes, but the Hazell shows tapped into a ‘cheeky cockney’ chic which could only have worked in a London setting. Stuart Radmore, who sometimes writes for Fully Booked, is an erudite and voracious collector of rare crime novels, but one of his most prized possessions is a glossy covered Hazell annual, with graphic novel versions of stories, with helpful translations of cockney rhyming slang, The trendy locations combined with solid support from actors such as Roddy MacMillan made this relatively short lived series one to be remembered with affection. (1978 – 1979) For Stuart’s take on the Hazell books, click this link.
Fictional enquiry agents are supposed to wear old raincoats and no-one wore one quite like Frank Marker in Public Eye. World-weary, downtrodden, shabby, tired and frequently unsuccessful, Marker was played brilliantly by Alfred Burke. Public Eye was intended as a counterweight to flashy, urbane detective series headed up by some lantern-jawed alpha male rodding around in a flashy car. First written by Roger Marshall and Anthony Marriot, the show aired on on ABC television in 1965, in glorious black and white. The last episode of the final series, the seventh, was broadcast in April 1975 and was in colour. The glossier format had no effect on Marker’s misfortunes, and by then he had been in prison, as well as changing locations from London to Brighton and then to Eton. Public Eye could only have succeeded in Britain. Certainly Colombo was dishevelled and apparently scatterbrained, but he always had the last laugh. Not so Frank Marker, who frequently ended up with the proverbial egg on his face. The British – English, even – predilection for the enigmatic and downbeat was echoed in the intriguing titles of many of the episodes. “Well—There Was This Girl, You See…”, “Cross That Palm When We Come To It” and “Nobody Kills Santa Claus” were typical. Alfred Burke was also a theatrical actor of great distinction. He died in 2011, a few days short of his 93rd birthday.
Ian Rankin’s saturnine Edinburgh copper John Rebus, over the course of twenty two best-selling novels, has become the doyen of gritty Scottish coppers – often imitated but never bettered. With so many examples of voracious demand for TV productions outstripping the original novels by other authors, it is worth noting that there were just fourteen TV episodes between 2000 and 2007, and there was a change of Rebus in there, too. John Hannah was our man in the first series, but Ken Stott took on the role for the other three series. Opinion is divided on their respective merits. Some said that Hannah did not match the physicality of the detective, but others thought his version had more psychological depth than the later episodes. The crucial support characters of DS Siobhan Clarke and DCI Gill Templer also changed actors across the series. Given that Rebus has an army background where he even graduated to the elite SAS, the abrasive Ken Stott has my vote, for what it’s worth.
Idris Elba, the star of Luther, cut his crime drama teeth in the American series The Wire, but when Luther first appeared in 2010, it was obvious that Elba had made the big time as the conflicted, violent but analytical London DCI. The plots were dark and full of menace, and the writers struck gold when they introduced the character of Alice Morgan, a psychopathic killer. After Luther fails in his attempt to to bring her to justice, it becomes clear that there is more unites Luther and Morgan than divides them, thus raising the uncomfortable thought that there is a fine line between ruthless policing and getting away with serious crime. Series Five of the drama in 2019 was, effectively a movie length production, split into four episodes broadcast on consecutive nights. Luther’s chaotic personal life comes back not only to haunt him, but it seems to weave a fatal web around everyone – colleague or criminal – who becomes involved with him. The violence was as graphic as anything seen on British TV for some time, and the story ended by posing more questions than it answered about the future of DCI John Luther.
While Ruth Rendell was a master at writing stand-alone psychological thrillers, her creation of Chief Inspector Reg Wexford will be her abiding achievement in the eyes of many readers and viewers of TV crime dramas. He first appeared an improbable 56 years ago in From Doon With Death and his last appearance in print was in No Man’s Nightingale (2013) just two years before Rendell’s death. It wasn’t until 1987, however, that he first appeared on TV screens.There were twelve series in all, lasting until 2000. The first title was The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, but as Wexford became something of a fixture, the name changed to The Inspector Wexford Mysteries. Wexford was, however, to play an increasingly marginal role in the later broadcasts, as the writers played Lego with various fragments and short stories from the author. George Baker was Reg Wexford and those whose only memory of him is as the avuncular, rather old-fashioned family man – with an endearing Hampshire burr – may be surprised to learn that Baker had been a dashing male lead in his day, so much so that he was Ian Fleming’s first choice as a screen James Bond. As always in great TV shows, there was stellar teamwork from such supporting actors as Christopher Ravenscroft as the waspish and rather uptight Mike Burden, and Louie Ramsay as Dora Wexford, his long suffering wife.
Prime Suspect broke new TV ground in many ways. It was certainly the first notable crime drama centred on a female character, and it also created an appetite among TV viewers for movie length dramas to be broadcast on consecutive nights, such as a long Bank Holiday weekend. By the time the series began in 1991, Helen Mirren was already an established box office star, having gone from Shakespeare to Broadway and conquering all before her. The only time I ever saw her live was at the RSC in 1970, when she was a mesmerising Elizabeth Woodville being brutally wooed by Norman Rodway’s Richard III. Mirren brought both glamour and determination to the role of DCI (to become Detective Superintendent) Jane Tennison. There were seven series between 1991 and 2006 and for the first five at least the viewing figures were in the 14 million range. So did people just tune in to see a genuine ‘ball-breaker’ in action? Certainly anti-female bias in the police force was part of the deal, but a brilliant initial concept by writer Lynda LaPlante, superb supporting turns from actors like Tom Bell, Tom Wilkinson, Zoe Wanamaker, Ralph Fiennes and Mark Strong and, of course, Mirren’s own nuanced and steely brilliance meant that the show could hardly go wrong.
WATCH OUT FOR THE THIRD AND FINAL PART OF THIS SERIES
WHEN I WILL REVEAL MY TOP FIVE TV DETECTIVES OF ALL TIME
Part One of the feature is HERE