THE LAST DETECTIVE
Last Detective. | DC "Dangerous" Davies (Peter Davison) Mod (Sean Hughes) Julie Davies (Emma Amos) DI Ray Aspinall (Rob Spendlove) DS Pimlott (Charles de'Ath) DC Barrett (Bill Geraghty) PC Zsa Zsa Kapoor (Vinetta Rishi) WPC Cheryl (Michelle Austin)
writers: Richard Harris, Michael Atkins, Russell Lewis, Tim Vaughan | directors: Pip Broughton, Moira Armstrong, Matthew Evans, Rick Hurran, Ferdinand Fairfax, Douglas MacKinnon, Gavin Millar | dir. of photog: James Aspinall, Kevin Rudge | edt. David Head, Paul Garrick, Paul Richards et al | music: Rupert Gregson-Williams | prod. by Julie Clark, Julie Keir, Robbie Sandison
as of 2006 17 episodes shot in wide screen stereo| first broadcast on ITV | series based on the novels of Leslie Thomas | Granada International | DVD released by acornmedia.com
imposed upon the Past
|| Low tide on the river. The Last Detective staggers over the fresh mud in an industrial bivouac to interview an associate of the victim as a welder works in the shadow of a listing boat... it could be a painting by L.S. Lowry but it isn't. Or: A flooded quarry on the Welsh border. The Last Detective stands on the smooth rocks watching a police diver search the green water... this could be a painting by David Hockney but it isn't. Or: A comedian stands like a carnival doll in the footlights playing to his harem in a seedy Willesden social club, drinks a glass of wine laced with rat poison, drops dead on the stage... it could be a painting by Francis Bacon but it isn't. These understated but fascinating visuals belong to Dangerous Davies, The Last Detective (the latest incarnation), an ITV series created in 2002/3 to fill the family hours just after sundown on a winter evening.
Family viewing? You have to wonder, because while the gratuitous violence is mostly off-camera, and there is occasional buffoonery, make no mistake, this is adult drama. The Last Detective was first filmed in 1981 as a single drama, and this updated series retells the same story in the pilot episode. Although it's all in color, the documentary finesse of the locations gives the action a neo-realist feel, so that it looks like a sociological expose worthy of Vittorio de Sica.
True, the stories unfold in the usual way as a series of interviews with witnesses and suspects, but there's something going down here beyond mere novelty. A sense of Time is in the faces of the characters, as if Dangerous Davies (Peter Davison) is interviewing the complete cast of British society, where everyone is either a suspect or a witness or a squealer.
Everyone has a tragic flaw, a secret, and has probably murdered someone somewhere sometime. It's a society where the Present is imposed upon the Past like another coat of paint, an existential concealment staged in the endless camouflage of shabby buildings and second hand light. It seems England is a memory obscured by the present. An abandoned horse stands on the pavement as if the suburb has just materialized, supplanted its pasture... a pram rises from the dirty waters of the canal... a porno vid is found in a drawer... and the victims: bodies in the garden, the trash heap, the canal, the railway tracks... a secret chamber below the greenhouse... burning studios and exploding cars, women who are mad, bad, and dangerous to know. And the lead character is afflicted by the romantic memory of his marriage and its failure in the present, as if he's trying to recover the way it was once in sleepy old middle class Albion.
the last Englishman
Despite his handle as "The Last Detective" (a cynical witticism by his boss: "You're the Last Detective, Dangerous... the last one I'd ever think of.") Dangerous Davies is actually The Last Englishman. He prefers a pint rather than a Bud, an ironic rebuttal rather than a reactive fist.
His composure is dangerously obsolete, as are his values and his methods. "You're decent man in an indecent time," says his pal Mod in the pilot episode. Here, the murder he solves is a police crime -- a sex crime -- and he finds himself shunned for his good work, and the real crime seems to be that he broke the collegial code, not the mystery of a teenage girl murdered by a cop. He can't understand his wife's sexual restlessness or the attitude of today's women in general, even though women like him, give him tea and sandwiches... and the stripper with the boa who lives on a barge probably gave him more. He's always working from the bottom up, from the outside in. He's merely "Detective Constable", a bumbler who's never made the grade, and yet at the end of the day it's the good old yeoman fortitude of Dangerous Davies that solves the crime. The primary English virtues of perseverance and fair play are written in his source code. Sympathy, steadiness, suppression of self -- these codes predate the "Me Generation" yet this is his generation. No malingering rebellion gone bad with middle-age, no self-pity... he's just a humble servant of the people in a raincoat and a station wagon that sometimes won't start, the Columbo of London N.W. 10.
a drifter with an address
|| While In North America the "buddy cop" script paradigm started with the Robert Culp/Bill Cosby series I Spy (1965-68), it could be argued that it reaches back into the Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories. It's certainly used a lot in recent UK TV crime drama, such as Inspector Morse -- another English type facing obsolescence -- which is set further up the Thames Valley from the west London suburb of Willesden that D.C. Davies inhabits. Of course Davies' "mate" isn't a cop -- he's a drifter with an address, a flat which he sometimes shares with Davies when DD's wife or landlady won't have him around. He's on the dole, occasionally takes ludicrous temp jobs which are more like acting gigs. Mod is typical of his generation, unable to graduate to reality, full of paperback ideas, educated and lazy, a gentle soul too nice to be called a loser, although he loses frequently.
What is "Mod" short for? "Modesty," says Dangerous to an old lady who asks. It certainly isn't because he's a snappy dresser, a holdout from the "Mods" of sixties England, although anything is possible, as we know nothing about his past. He likes books, often has one on hand, such as a collection of Oscar Wilde. "I don't care who he shagged," says Mod. "He wrote a bloody good essay." And when he and Dangerous are mistaken for a homosexual couple on the canal towpath by a petty criminal, Mod snaps back, "How dare you -- I was once engaged to Miss Galway Bay."
Thus his Irish pedigree is revealed, and Willesden does have its community of Irish transplants, a movement that started seriously during WW II. So he's an Irish dreamer, should be a writer himself, escape the curse of the leprechaun. Sometimes DD discusses a case with him -- in the pub, the car, the park, on the towpath, somewhere between the bricks & the trees, walking the big dog -- and more often than not Mod has some insight that proves useful. It might be spotting a revealing imprint on an old photograph (as in "Lofty") or setting up an association in DD's mind by an off-hand remark.
The crimes are almost irrelevant in this series because the action is carried by the strength of the principal characters and the documentary Willesden setting. Nothing unusual in this, as it follows the tradition of the English murder mystery, which is more like a game of Snakes and Ladders than a grim decoding of homicide. The crimes are invariably indiscretions, never cold-blooded slayings such as the exotic killings in CSI: Miami (Las Vegas, New York), for example. The mercy killing of the Balkan war vet Frank Moore in "Towpaths of Glory" (episode 10) is as brutal as it gets; the point of nihilism hasn't been reached.
However, the breaching of the cultural fabric that allows British common sense to always triumph might be on hand, as DD's colleagues seem to have surrendered to a xenophobic cynicism as a matter of machismo or caste survivalism. An alert comes into the station about a load of Chinese illegals being smuggled into Willesden but when they stake out the dropoff, the operation is a bust. There are no illegals this time.
Occasionally the crimes act merely as a background to Dangerous' personal life, his problems with Julie. The pilot episode pretty well lays it all out. Dangerous is in the can washing his hands, a fellow detective at the urinal.
Barrett: Did I see you
walking your dog yesterday, Dangerous?
Of course this cameo nails the situation exactly. DD collects his dog like a father getting visiting rights to his kid just as an airline pilot arrives at the house to spend the evening with Julie. As they pass on the path DD's restraint is old school middle class England, the sort of Anglican fortitude that drove a generation of missionaries into Africa without complaint. No punch outs here, no head butt, no knee to the groin or dog attack, just some ironic remark... as if he recognizes this latest rival to be just another victim like himself. A decent man in an indecent world indeed.
the dreamy madness of the living
|| As body dramas go, The Last Detective goes light on the dead, heavy on the living. Corpses are seldom figurative art studies and when they are, there are no lingering photographic autopsies (well, one maybe... the has-been rocker Teddy O'Connor in "Three Steps To Hendon"). The dreamy madness of the living is the real subject. In "Dangerous by Moonlight" an old terminal ballroom dancer refuses to believe her husband is missing, but rather on a philandering vacation, and dies happily unaware that she killed him during a drunken squabble. In "Lofty" a successful female executive starts an impulsive affair with a young married employee who accidentally causes the drowning death of an old vagrant war vet and in turn is killed in an auto accident while talking on his cell phone to his lover. A cop lives the last 20 years of his working life devoted to a crippled wife even though he killed a teenage girl in a fit of sexual madness... the various lovers of a murdered comedian delude themselves as to his fidelity and talent... a female gardener and man-hater lives in art and dangerous obsession... a kindly old violin master kills in order to possess a classic instrument, etcetera.
The various episodes are a study of loneliness and involuntary disengagement. The context is multi-cultural, a society where even the natives seem like foreigners. Black cops & street criminals, European au pairs & Balkan refugees, gypsies, Hong Kong exiles & Indian exotics, uptown cockneys & Yorkshire bikers, they all look like passengers who wandered out of Heathrow and got lost in Willesden. It's the ebb tide of the colonial experience, a patriation of collaborators and victims, and a multi-cultural reinvention within the European Union. It's no longer the BBC, it's the BBC World.
DD's boss is Detective Inspector Ray Aspinall (Rob Spendlove), a beautiful study of the functioning alcoholic. He carries a flask in his pocket, keeps a 26er in his filing cabinet, and is often the only guy at the bar in the police club. Tall and nicotine thin, he carries his darkness well, even when hung over and fixing himself a bromo & milk. He might have fits of sarcasm, he might be occasionally insulting, but he is always fair. His subordinates respect him regardless and none more so than Dangerous. It's a beautiful thing to watch how the bond between the two men develops within the episodes, goes from no confidence to brotherly love. By episode 11, "Three Steps To Hendon" (story of the murdered rock star), the reversal is almost complete; Aspinall says he's been asked to head up a new regional squad outside London, suggests that DD comes with him as his "bagman".
A promotion? Dangerous checks around, finds out something is wrong. He sees Aspinall in his office says, "Guv... don't do it, it's a setup... they can't get the man they want, so they're putting in a temp... if you take the job, they'll get rid of you." The revelation hits the Inspector like a bullet; he stares silently at DD, then pulls a whiskey bottle from a drawer in his desk, pours a shot. So much for going tee total. DD throws up his hands, exits. Stress, politics, the shaft. Last exit from Willesden is a vertical rise to the bottom.
By the next episode, "Willesden Confidential" (12), the circle closes. A boozed up Aspinall loses a confidential police file in a pub, and Dangerous offers to take the fall "because I'm never gonna get promoted now, am I?" So there it is, Dangerous Davies, the quintessential foot-soldier who makes the sacrifice, "falls on the grenade" to protect his boss. Respect? A tongue lashing from a female superintendent doesn't help, but he gets respect where it matters, from his friends and colleagues.
Iago & Iago
Detectives Pimlott and Barrett are always standing around like conspirators in a Renaissance revenge tragedy... Iago & Iago. Wise guys in suits drinking Buds. Pimlott (Charles de'Ath) is a sort of cockney dandy, always spiffed out in a new suit & tie, maybe the latest overcoat. His car is new, good for extra mileage claims. Because he's a Detective Sergeant, he outranks DD, and is always quick to "take the piss" out of him with a nasty little game or taunt. Like so many in police forces everywhere, Pimlott could easily be mistaken for a hoodlum, although he's nowhere near as macho as he puts out. His day of reckoning comes early in the series when he gets stabbed by the crazy female stalker in "Tricia" (episode 3); the irony here is that she is trying to get Davies. When DD visits him in hospital, Pimlott says, "What are you here for? You don't even like me." DD looks away, smiles, says, "No, I don't." DD doesn't hold grudges, is loyal to his unit, and things between him and Pimlott aren't quite so rude thereafter.
Yet this near-death experience doesn't completely divest Pimlott of his sexist bully persona when interviewing women, and there is one memorable scene where he gets slapped by the widow of the victim when he moves in a bit too close and personal. "What are you?" she snarls. "A tit man? Arse, leg, what?"
D.C. Darren Barrett: he has very few lines, communicates mostly in the body language of smirks and quizzical glances. He could be a poster on the wall, a piece of cultural sub-text... which isn't a criticism, as this is how the producers want him played. Barrett at his desk, Dangerous at his. He's like a bored teacher watching his delinquent student writing an essay in detention, both victims of a mutual contempt. He's an effective prop, although as an acting gig, it's money fer nuthin', yer chicks fer free.
between the dots
Julie (Emma Amos). "I can still remember the first time I saw her," says Dangerous (mistily). She's a very common type these days, in many western countries, part of the first generation of women to be liberated by the birth control pill. There's no analysis of her confusion here: she just is. Between the dots we recognize that the big St. Bernard dog is a substitute in a childless marriage now beached in middle age. A bit plump, lynx eyes & rich mouth like a Madame. She still has her erotic potential, although her best days are behind her. Clearly she's the one who called it quits -- she has the house, the dog, the vague agenda.
And her husband's crime, if any? Being a bumbling loser who can't get promoted? Lousy in the sack or just a push-over, he who never slaps back? While she can date other men, whenever she suspects another lady is interested in Dangerous, she gets jealous. A pilot, an oil rig diver, a pandiculating executive... these substitutes, these stand-ins, are invariably gentle souls like Dangerous, Englishmen drifting through middle age like clergymen without a church. Only the dog collar remains -- invisible, perhaps, but it's there, a shackle to some, a life-belt to others. Their world has become a dumpster culture (they call them skips), a modulating era of the continuous discard. No wonder murder is viewed as just another form of divorce.
Of course you want Julie & Dangerous to reconcile, and as the series progresses Dangerous eventually makes his way back into her bed. There are many hiccups along the way -- the cell phone interruptions, the blundered remarks, the fake rendezvous... well, they even meet in a local pub, play it as a pickup between two strangers, but within minutes they argue, split. "Ah the games people play," sighs Mod somewhere, sometime when discussing one of DD's cases. In this sense, the biggest mystery in the series is the slow flying death of DD's marriage.
Dangerous: (choked) So
we've had three years of foreplay leading precisely nowhere.
Does it? Perhaps. Watch "Willesden Confidential".
The series is laced with nostalgia. All the characters carry their past like a b & w photograph, and for most it was taken in the seventies. The target audience for this show is definitely those in middle age or investigating retirement. The best episodes? They're all good, although "Lofty" with its brilliant cameo of an old vagrant played by the veteran actor Norman Wisdom stands out. His character has a clever back story that reaches into a Nazi prison camp and an apparent hit list, although his fate turns out to be far less glorious & disconnected from the strange German beauty whose secret drives the action. And Dangerous has a romance of sorts with another lost soul like himself, a slim social worker who disappears back to Trinidad to find her son and husband before we find out if indeed love has come again. Great plot, great characters, and the Willesden locations refine the vibe. Written by Richard Harris, directed by Matthew Evans.
"Tricia" (3) is also good, although some will say the featured character is just a British reprise of Glen Close as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (1987); of course anyone who has worked downtown or in a university in the last 30 years will know that Tricia (Eleanor David) is an all too common type, the anti-male harridan calling herself a victim, longing for love, a romantic stalker on the edge of psychosis. Bad attitude, dumb ideology? Here the character is realistically shown transferring her obsession to the sympathetic Dangerous. Political correction 101. Written by Richard Harris, directed by Pip Broughton.
In The Last Detective, contemporaneity is sustained by its clear-view study of female and male confusion. You want strange? Try getting a read on the mysterious widow (Susan Vidler) in "Christine" (5), who rattles the cages of all the boys in the precinct. Nostalgia is working hard on the hearts and minds in "Three Steps To Hendon" (11), which deals with the suspicious death of Teddy O'Connor, the lead singer of the defunct pop band The Overnight Sensations. His demise? The usual vomit choke after a night of dissipation in a Willesden pub. This story touches on a couple of pattern-areas of male irresponsibility, i.e. the callous sexual exploitation of young girls and boys. A groupie commits suicide and her friend seeks revenge... and a young drummer is sexually violated by a creepy manager known as Mr. Wonder... "the entry fee" to the world of glamour. There's a lot of cynicism in this drama, so it will be of no consolation to the target audience. So while the Last Detective is mostly a Comedy of Manners, it does have some of the same grim socio-psychological reality that made Cracker the greatest detective series of the nineties.
What next? A dead-ringer for Lady Diana Spencer shows up in Willesden? Death is always a murder mystery, even if the facts suggest otherwise.
© LR 8/07
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