When Elvis Costello penned his song ‘Watching the Detectives’, I wonder if he had an individual in mind or was exploring a facet of the British people. Our television screens have been home to Police dramas since the early 1960’s and the Inspector (technically a Detective Inspector) has often been one of the key roles within each successive series. Certainly the British public’s taste for crime drama seems to be second to none and if no new series is available, a rerun of old episodes will still attract large audiences – I wonder how many times now Inspector Morse has solved the mystery of the Dead of Jericho?
One of the earliest police dramas that I can recall watching was Z-Cars in the early 1960’s (although I did see some Dixon of Dock Green as well). A BBC series, it produced the excellent Inspector Barlow played by Stratford Johns alongside Sergeant John Watt (Frank Windsor). Both would gain promotion for the spin off series Softly Softly. Z-Cars and Softly Softly were both perhaps a little stilted in their portrayal of police operations, often showing the police in a manner that was too good to be true for many members of the public whilst some police officers apparently felt that the series were unsympathetic to them in their characterisations.
If the police were unhappy with Z-Cars, I wonder what they made of The Sweeney when it came out. This was a portrayal of a very different area of policing – The Flying Squad – and it brought adrenaline powered violence and law-bending to the tv copper. The lead was Inspector Regan (John Thaw) with Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman). The banter combined with car chases and fights with villains made for a series that really had a buzz – a series that is still showing repeats on daytime tv 40 years later. Perhaps that is the measure of how far ahead of its time the series was in the degree of realism (and sometimes exaggeration) it brought to the small screen. The cars may have changed but the themes are as relevant now as they were then.
It was an altogether more intellectual role that awaited John Thaw a short distance down the road as ITV dramatised the inspector Morse novels of Colin Dexter. Morse is such a different policeman to Regan but Thaw carried both roles out with great applomb, ably assisted by Detective Sergeant Lewis (Kevin Whateley) in the Morse series. This is another that is still going through re-runs because we just can’t resist the deep plots and the ‘very’ English surroundings of Oxford – there may even be a bit of trying to understand the type of person that inhabits Oxford about our fascination with this series. Does the series play to our suspicions of what goes on in these venerable institutions?.. Probably! In fact, it was so successful that, having exhausted the Morse novels, ITV commissioned a series of Lewis – Kevin Whateley found himself promoted to Inspector – and the initial four episodes were so successful that new series’ of Lewis are being produced currently.
Having dragged us into the modern era, some recent police series have sought to take us back to the 1950’s / 60’s. Heartbeat is one which centres around a young Constable in the Yorkshire Dales. However, keeping to Inspectors, a current challenger to the Lewis series, set back in the 1960’s, is Inspector George Gently. It stars Martin Shaw, who cut his teeth as a CI5 Agent in The Professionals; a series roughly concurrent with The Sweeney. Compared with the violent antics of The Professionals, Inspector Gently sees Martin Shaw walking with a measured tread and a very human approach to policing in the Durham area.
So, the role of the TV inspector has moved from the rumbustuous Barlow through the violent Regan to the deep thinking Morse; to the very human Lewis and Gently. But the fans have stayed with the plot throughout – picking up and watching each series that is offered. That so many of these series’ are repeated time after time is a testimony to the acting and production effort put into them. But it also tells you how much us Brit’s love a murder mystery, especially if it is convoluted and the lead Inspector is a character in their own right. Manchester United v Liverpool on a Sunday afternoon vs a Morse Re-run? No contest – Morse every time!
I will mention one non-British ‘Inspector’ – in truth a Lieutenant – Colombo… Ever popular over here and still re-running episodes 🙂