First came Wilkie Colllins with – The Moonstone. Regarded as the original detective story it set the standard for crime fiction across the years. Filmed countless times it is a story filled with the many red herrings beloved of Victorian fiction. Late in the nineteenth century Dr Arthur Conan Doyle took a break from medicine to write a story about a private detective who went by the name of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had a love hate relationship with his most famous creation and in the end decided Holmes must die and the detective met his maker at the Reichenbach Falls. (Unlikely as Doyle was an avowed Spiritualist) Or did he? Such was the public pressure that Doyle brought his detective back from the dead. There have been almost fifty films made about some aspect of Sherlock Holmes life and numerous television series. The latest manifestation is of course Sherlock on the BBC. I would however file this under fantasy TV and not crime detection. Brilliant it most certainly is but at times just a little too clever by half.
In 1920 a struggling writer who had found it difficult to get published finally achieved her ambition. ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ by Agatha Christie set her on the road to worldwide recognition. She is the worlds best selling author. Her published books are beaten in number only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple feature in most of her detective fiction. The classic Christie payoff is Poirot gathering all the suspects in to one room and finally exposing the murderer. It is a device used by many a TV series. Death in Paradise being the latest culprit! Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie between them provided the guidelines for detective fiction that all crime authors have followed. The impossible crime, the absence of proof, the watertight alibi. The resolution of these problems is why we read about and watch detective stories.
There have been countless detective shows on TV both here and in the USA. Some good, some bad, some instantly forgettable. Most of them are original screenplays. For this article I am mainly considering those adapted from books. Do you have a favourite? Here are a few for your consideration…
The 76 Georges Simenon novels were written between 1931 and 1972. Set, of course, in Paris they provide a wonderful evocation of everyday life in France. Who then to play the part in the UK? In France casting is not an issue because they are casting a French actor to play a French detective. In the 1960s Rupert Davis took the part to universal acclaim. And there it stayed until the eighties when Richard Burton was asked to play the part. Apparently he had agreed but pulled out of the contract by dying in 1984! How irresponsible! Should have stayed off the booze Dick! And then the producers asked Richard Harris to play the part. One drunk replacing another? Simenon was astounded by the choice but was too busy counting his money to worry about it. He was fortunate enough to die before Harris appeared in the role. He was universally panned for a shambolic, unrealistic performance. There was supposed to be a series following the pilot but it was so bad that the producers cancelled. Harris protested that an Irishman playing a Frenchman was no different to an Englishman
Michael Gambon as Maigret
playing a Frenchman. Well there is if you do it with a croaky Irish accent! The problem with Richard Harris was always when he was good he was very good. When he was bad he was just awful! Michael Gambon who was next up is an Irishman who just happens to have the perfect English accent! His performance was on a par with Rupert Davies and remains my favourite. Gambon has that wonderful air of bewilderment about him which fitted well with the character. The series was filmed in Budapest which is used regularly as a stand-in for Paris in various films and TV shows. And finally to Rowan Atkinson again in Budapest. There does not seem to be the will to produce a series. There are various one offs every year or so. I like the evocation of time and place in the series but the feeling keeps percolating that we are watching an ad for the next Mr Bean programme! It is rather like watching David Jason in ‘Frost.’ I keep expecting Uncle Albert to appear?
The many books by Peter Robinson are excellent. They match Henning Mankell or Ian Rankin for the characterisation and plotting. I am sad to say the TV series does not come near to matching the novels. An extra female Inspector who features in the TV series is never ever mentioned in the books. Plots are changed, characters are missing. And, apparently, Peter Robinson seems unconcerned which I find disappointing. The worst aspect of the TV series is the choice of actor to play DCI Banks. Stephen Tompkinson is just not DCI Banks! He is woeful. Andrea Lowe is perfect as Annie Cabbott but as a series this heads to the bottom of my list.
(Krister Henriksson in the Swedish production)
As befits the genre Henning Mankell’s Scandinavian novels are complex and complicated and any reader is advised to concentrate! They are the sort of novel you can read again and again as they always produce something you missed on the previous occasion. They explore life in contemporary Sweden and do not pull any punches on the social ills affecting that country. In this country Kenneth Branagh has played the part of Kurt Wallander. Now I think Kenny is an outstanding actor and last year had the privilege of seeing him on stage in the West End. Yet he does not quite get the character and the series as a whole does not quite get all the characters featured in the book into the series. Difficult I know but the series fits the episodes into one hour when it is essentially a two- hour programme or ninety minutes at the very least. One young actor appeared in the early and later series by the name of Tom Hiddleston. He played the part of Martinsson who is a junior detective in the Wallander team. Over in sunny Sweden Krister Henriksson featured in 32 episodes of the Wallander series. Only two of these were taken directly from the novels but Mankell was involved with the story lines. Henriksson is a more world-weary Wallander and brings a greater depth to the part than Kenneth Branagh. And most of the programmes are ninety minutes long! There was a film series made with Rolf Lassgard as a rather roly-poly Wallander. At least all the films were taken from the novels but Lassgard never really inhabited the character. But they were film length! However there are extra characters featured who never appear in the novels and I would put the Lassgard franchise in third place with Branagh second and Henriksson at the top.
Ian Rankin is a master of his craft. His Rebus novels are the sort you cannot stop reading. Most of his books I tend to read within three days. They are that good. If only the TV series matched them! Casting John Hannah as Rebus proved to me that the producers of the series had never read the books? That said they did keep faith with the plots of the novels. I have no wish to denigrate John Hannah who is a fine actor. His reading of ‘Funeral Blues’ in Four Weddings and a Funeral was brilliant. But Rebus he is not! In comes Ken Stott who is Rebus! Yet the plots in his series tended to stray from the centre line. All the series of Rebus suffered from not being given enough time. I believe Ian Rankin was none too pleased about the way the series were handled and withdrew his permission for further stories to be adapted for TV. Who can blame him? They deserved two or three hours not 45 minutes!
Aurelio Zen is the invention of the late Michael Dibdin. Dibdin himself became the cause of a mystery when he died ten years ago. Other than ‘short illness’ his family refused to discuss what the illness was or the cause of death. Odd? However he left us with some brilliant books. Aurelio Zen is an Italian detective and is based in Venice. Dibdin lived in Italy for many years and uses this experience to evoke the Italian way of life and the bureaucracy that invades every aspect of that life. There are some great stories. I guess if you mixed a little of Rankin with Robinson you would get a Dibdin. If you have never read the ‘Zen’ books you really should. When the TV series was announced I was delighted. Rufus Sewell was ideal for the part. But three episodes later it was all over. The episodes were ninety minutes long and very well done. The then BBC Controller, the oh so pompous Danny Cohen declared that there were enough white male detectives on TV. What a pillock! Another on the BBC conveyor belt of politically -correct staff. A week earlier he had also cancelled ‘Lark Rise to Candleford in mid-story. According to the pillock Cohen it was cancelled to make way for new drama. Really? Anyone remember the crap that was the new drama? Still we have three episodes of ‘Zen’ to enjoy and the books to re-read. Check out the library now!
Dalziel & Pascoe
Taken from some of the books by Reginald Hill the series starred the wonderful, but sadly departed, Warren Clarke as Andy Dalziel and Colin Buchanan as Peter Pascoe. Another series axed by a BBC hitman anxious to make a name for himself by throwing his weight around. Fortunately there are 46 episodes some of sixty and some of ninety minutes available to watch. The books themselves were unremarkable although I never got to the end of all of them. Not a particular subtle series but reliant on Warren Clark’s performance as the wonderfully politically incorrect Dalziel. Colin Buchanan provides an admirable foil as Inspector Pascoe. Now if you were writing a novel would you name one of your characters Peter Pascoe? It sounds like the beginning of a nursery rhyme!
Let us cut to the chase! Morse is my favourite TV detective. John Thaw’s performance is note perfect and Kevin Whately as his sidekick Sgt Lewis is a brilliant foil for the morose Morse. Minus ads the programmes are about one hour forty-five minutes. Just about long enough. The beautiful city of Oxford provides the perfect backdrop to the series. While the plots usually revolve around those from the University side of Oxford (Gown) occasionally we go downmarket to the ordinary citizens. (Town)The books on the other hand are quite mediocre. We all give thanks for the lately departed Colin Dexter for inventing the detective. I just find the books uninspiring. I guess because in this case I read the books after the TV series.
John Thaw as Chief Inspector Morse
Some of the plots are invented by the writers and not taken from a Dexter novel and do stretch ones credulity. But regardless of the plot Morse is on the case and John Thaw commands the screen. Recently finished watching all 32 episodes and am currently working my way through ‘Lewis.’
The Priest as Detective
Little old ladies, repressed Belgians, morose Swedes, incorruptible Italians, the choice of character for a detective has many permutations. But a priest? Well G. K Chesterton back in the 1930s decided Father Brown would be his detective. I read some of the Father Brown short stories while still at school and that memory faded long ago! His most recent incarnation is on BBC1 where Mark Williams takes the title role. Unlike Holmes Father Brown does not really prove his cases with evidence but relies on his knowledge of the human condition. ‘Father Brown’ is not must watch television but on a rainy afternoon is better than nothing.
Currently on ITV we have the latest series of Grantchester. This follows the life and times of the Reverend Sydney Chambers. No big deal, until you are told that Chambers is played by James Norton. An actor whose performances in ‘Happy Valley’ and ‘War and Peace’ have won him many plaudits. So an ordinary run-of-the-mill series is enhanced by the presence of Norton. The episodes are based on stories written by James Runcie. More famous for his dad than his stories he is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury! Never read the stories and while I enjoy the series it is getting a little too politically correct. It is the early fifties and the Rev. Chambers is visited by a black Archdeacon. Never in a million years would there have been a black Archdeacon in rural Cambridgeshire at that time! Enjoyable for the performances of Norton and Robson Greene who have developed a good chemistry between them.
My favourite detective priest is Cadfael. A delightful mixture of history and detection set in the early 12th century. Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who lives and works at the abbey in Shrewsbury. England is in a state of flux and close to civil war as King Stephen and Empress Matilda dispute who is the rightful ruler. Matilda (sometimes known as Maud for reasons unknown!) was the daughter of Henry I, Stephen merely a nephew. However the barons who controlled the wealth of England were not about to let a woman however entitled to accede to the throne. The control ebbed back and forth with Stephen eventually acceding to the throne. Peaceful it was not and Stephen before he died was unable to establish his sons as heirs to the throne. When he died the son of Matilda took the English throne as Henry II. If you have seen the ‘Lion in Winter’ you will know who he was!
Into this maelstrom of history steps Brother Cadfael. Born in Wales he has been both soldier and sailor. He comes to the cloth in his early forties. The only person in the Abbey with experience of real life not to mention the occasional female companion!
There are 21 books written by Ellis Peters and one or two short stories. I have read all the books and have the box set! The television programmes remain reasonably faithful to the novels, although the novels are not followed in sequence. One of the series writers was Russell Lewis who had a hand in writing some of the episodes of Morse and all the episodes of ‘Endeavour.’ 12th century Shrewsbury is portrayed in a somewhat beige light. It suffers from the same fault as nearly all films and TV set seven or eight hundred years ago. Everything is just too clean! Like all good detectives Cadfael has a sidekick. In this case the High Sheriff of Shropshire Hugh Beringar. By obtaining an actor of the stature of Derek Jacobi to play Brother Cadfael the producers ensured that there would always be an ensemble cast of good actors. Jacobi’s great performance puts this excellent series near the top of my list.
Of course there have been many other detective series over the years. Some of them adapted from novels others scripted just for television. Of the latter one of my favourites was Taggart. It is probably sacrilege to say this but I thought the series improved no end when Mark McManus departed this life! Into the mix recently has arrive ‘Nordic Noir.’ ‘The Killing’ was a Danish production over three series of some forty episodes. The producers stretched the stories and gave them time to develop. The whole series was enhanced by the stand out performance of Sofie Grabol. I have recently watched the series again and the only thing that jars is the last fifteen minutes at the end of the final series. There was never going to be a fourth series and the producers made sure with a ridiculous climax to the story. The other one from the same gene pool is ‘The Bridge.’ The structure in question being the Oresund Bridge which connects Copenhagen to Malmo in Sweden. This series stars the wonderful Swedish actress Sofia Helin as the dysfunctional detective Saga Noren. It is hard to choose between her and Grabol as to who is number one. This Danish/Swedish production gives its series time to develop, a lesson UK producers need to learn.
Then of course we have a long list of American detectives to consider. Most of them if not all were scripted straight to television. There was the wonderful Dennis Franz as Detective Andy Sipowicz in the award winning NYPD Blue. Franz also starred in the earlier Hill Street Blues where his performance did not attract so much attention. The list goes on forever and you will all no doubt have a very different list to me?
Remember Sgt Phil Esterhaus in Hill Street Blues when he finished his morning briefing? Time to say farewell…
‘Be careful out there!’
My list of favourites for TV and Novel…
TV SERIES THE NOVELS
Cadfael DCI Banks
Dalziel and Pascoe Maigret
Granchester Dalziel & Pascoe
Father Brown Father Brown
DCI Banks Granchester – Never read