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Hazell

THE TV DETECTIVES . . . Part two

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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.

0014In 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)

0013The 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.

0012Another 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.

0011The 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.

0010Fictional 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.

0009Ian 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.

0008Idris 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.

0007While 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.

0006Prime 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

 

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . PB Yuill and Hazell

Yuill1Something we do all too rarely on Fully Booked, mea culpa, is to feature articles and reviews by guest writers. I am delighted that an old mate of mine, Stuart Radmore (we go back to the then-down-at-heel Melbourne suburbs of Carlton and Parkville in the 1970s, where he was a law student and I was teaching art at Wesley College) has written this feature on a writer who, as an individual, never actually existed. Stuart’s knowledge of crime fiction is immense, and so I will let him take up the story.

P.B Yuill was the transparent alias of Gordon Williams and Terry Venables, who in the early to mid 1970s wrote a number of novels together. Gordon Williams (1934-2017) and pictured below, started out as a straight novelist, but over time would turn his hand to almost anything literary – thrillers, SF screenplays, even ghosted footballer’s memoirs. Terry Venables (b. 1943) was at this time described as “top football star already worth over £150,000 in transfer fees”.

Williams

Yuill3Their first joint outing (published under their own names) was They Used To Play On Grass (1971).   Described, not incorrectly, on the paperback cover as “the greatest soccer novel ever”, it’s still an enjoyable read, with each man’s contribution being pretty obvious.

Next up was The Bornless Keeper (1974), published under the name of PB Yuill.   A credible horror/thriller, set in modern times.

“Peacock Island lies just off the English south coast. But it could belong to an earlier century; its secret overgrown coverts, its strange historic legends are maintained and hidden by the rich old lady who lives there as a recluse.”.  

If the tale now seems overfamiliar – the moody locals, the over-inquisitive visiting film crew, the one person who won’t be told not to go out alone – it’s partly because these elements, perhaps corny even then, have been over-used in too many slasher movies since. Although credited to P.B Yuill, the setting and theme of the novel reads as the work of Gordon Williams alone

Now to Hazell. There are three Hazell novels, published by Macmillan in 1974, ’75 and ’76 – Hazell Plays Solomon, Hazell and the Three Card Trick, and Hazell and the Menacing Jester.

The premise of the first novel is original; James Hazell, ex-copper and self-described “biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell button” is hired by a London woman, now wealthy and living in the US, to confirm her suspicion that her child was switched for another shortly after its birth in an East London maternity hospital.   Clearly, there can be no happy ending to such enquiries, and the story leads to dark places and deep secrets.

The next two novels are a little lighter in tone, but still deal with the grittier side of London life.   In Three Card Trick a man has apparently suicided by jumping in front of a Tube train.   His widow doesn’t accept this – there is the insurance to consider – and hires Hazell to prove her right.

In Menacing Jester we are on slightly more familiar PI ground; a millionaire and his wife are apparently the victims of a practical joker. Or is there something more sinister behind it?

All three novels contain plenty of sex, violence and local colour – card sharps, clip joint hostesses, Soho drinking dens – and the authors were clearly familiar with the more picturesque aspects of the London underworld and portray these with energy and humour. Readers looking for evidence of the “casual racism/sexism/whatever” of the 1970s will not come away empty-handed.

terry-venables-bannerThe authors were keen to develop the Hazell character into a possible TV series, and the later two books seem to be written with this in mind. This duly came to pass, via Thames Television, and the first series was broadcast in 1978, starring Nicholas Ball as a youthful James Hazell.   Gordon Williams, with Venables (right) and other writers, was responsible for a number of the episodes (including ‘Hazell Plays Solomon’), and it remains a very watchable series. The second, and final, series broadcast in 1979/80 was not so successful. The hardness was gone, Hazell and Inspector ‘Choc’ Minty had become something of a double act and, while not outright comedy, it came close at times.   It’s not surprising to learn that Leon Griffiths, one of the second series screenwriters, went on to create and develop the very successful series Minder later that year.

And that was about it. But there was to be a last hurrah for Hazell in print. Two Hazell annuals, “based on the popular television series”, appeared in 1978 and 1979. The tales in these books are surprisingly tough, bearing in mind the intended teenage readership.   Hazell’s adventures are told via short stories and comic strips, and include strong-ish violence, blackmail and other criminality.   While the contribution of “P. B Yuill” was probably nil, the stories are true to the feel of the first series of the TV programme.

Annuals

To conclude: English fictional private eyes are a rare breed, and fewer still can claim to have begun as a literary, rather than television, creation. Hazell is among the best of these. The three novels rightly remain in print, and are eminently readable.

There is a postscript. There was one last appearance of P.B Yuill.   In early 1981 ‘Arena’, a BBC2 documentary series, devoted a programme to the attempts of Williams and Venables to write a new Hazell adventure – tentatively entitled ‘Hazell and the Floating Voter’ – and it featured such worthies as John Bindon and Michael Elphick playing the part of Hazell. It’s never been broadcast since, and while it was pleasing to see the authors discussing the character of Hazell, in retrospect the programme seems like an excuse for a few days’ drinking on licence-payers’ money.

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