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.

Jericho – Location of the first Morse episode
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.

Bacchus and Gently
Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) and Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw). Photograph: BBC/Company Pictures, via The Guardian.
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 šŸ™‚

I have had the good fortune to be able to watch some of the final test against South Africa this pm. With defeat staring them in the face an England side of the 1970’s would have tried to bore the South Africans to death or should that be Boycott šŸ˜‰ Instead they provided a spectacle in which the lower order batsmen hit out to make some very quick runs and to bring the outstanding total within range. The South Africans were sweating and it wasn’t because of the weather. In the end they came through to win but the good hit comment to Matt Prior from the South African Captain after he was finally out says it all – a great game for all the spectators, which is what test crickect should be about.

Given the recent furore about Kevin Pietersen – a South-African born player who moved to England because he wasn’t happy about the Racial Quota selection process, I thought a look back to some of the ‘G’s of the past might be of interest. Pietersen’ mother was English, by the way, which makes him eligible to play for England – on that Basis, my Son can play for England, Scotland and Zimbabwe should he ever drag himself away from the computer games and really take an interest in cricket or rugby.

Back in the early 1970’s though it was a different South African born player who was destined to make all the headlines for the wrong reasons. Tony Grieg qualified to play for England because he had Scottish parents – quite how that works given that Scotland have a Cricket team that plays in the Cricket World Cup (when they qualify) I’m not entirely sure. In those days I used to travel to work by bus or bike. In the test match season I always went by bus so that I could listen to Test Match Special on long wave with my transistor radio and a pair of headphones. So, in 1976 as I wandered through the side streets of St. John’s Wood towards Lords Telephone Exchange I was horrified to hear the BBC replaying a speech by Tony Grieg in which he expressed his intention to make the West Indies Grovel. I cannot think of a worse public relations gaffe. If Grieg had delivered the speech in a Scottish accent… It might just about have been acceptable but in a world where the apartheid regime in South Africa was under attack for its racist values the delivery in a strong South African accent was guaranteed to incense both the West Indies players and dismay England supporters such as myself who were championing the cause against aparthied. It was both morally wrong and guaranteed to add a couple of yards of pace to the West Indies bowling attack. England duly paid the price and were hammered.

Move forward some years and we have Mike Gatting as England Captain. Gatting was a surprise to many of us because he seemed to have come from the wrong school to be an England Captain. Clearly, for once ability was considered more important than having gone to the right school. Gatting had been a budding footballer… Gatting proved to be a good England Captain but was a bit too pugnacious – prepared to argue with Shakoor Rana in Pakistan over a decision that he felt was wrong and it was probably the closest thing to a genuine diplomatic incident that cricket has ever had to deal with. Sadly, when you read up about what went on, both men were probably at fault. It didn’t help that Pakistan at the time had a reputation for cheating – we all remember the television shots of the wicket keeper dropping the catch, picking the ball off the ground behind him and then shouting Howzat as if he had caught it – no names , no pack drill. The rules changed after that (maybe not immediately but soon afterwards) – home umpires were no longer allowed for test matches. But Gatting’s days were numbered and the ECB just needed a whiff of scandal – cue a barmaid and he was gone!

Gooch – where do I go with this… Graham Gooch was an Essex player with Boycott like abilities. He could bore the opposition into submission. I hated watching him play – Daniel Gooch was more exciting when he was designing the Star Class for the Great Western Railway than Graham Gooch was on the cricket field! However, I suspect he laid the foundations of the hard-work ethic that England players now have to accept – gone are the Fred Trueman days of cricket between pints šŸ˜‰

As the evening draws in upon the city the night workers take on their duties at the freight depot. Goods of all types and sizes are moved to and loaded into vans in preparation for an overnight journey to the other side of the country. The Scarabs work overtime rushing late deliveries in under the awning, wheels slipping on the damp cobbles. Beyond the hive of activity, outside in the drizzle, a Black 5 stands quietly simmering. Its Fireman carefully tops up the coals in the grate while the Driver confirms the duty and load with the inspector. The desperate activity in the Goods shed reaches a climax as the Locomotive backs carefully onto the train – 5 minutes to departure time and there can be no delay for the train must leave on time. These Fully Fitted Freight trains are timetabled to travel at express passenger speeds – the timings are thus very tight and will require the utmost from the crew of the 4-6-0 Locomotive.

The whistles blow insistantly but there are no passengers to join – it’s a reminder to the staff in the shed to stand clear. The signal lifts its weary arm allowing the bright green lamp to show and the driver opens the regulator to admit steam to the cylinders. The freight moves off on its cross country trip…

For me there is little so inspiring as a train (and preferably a Steam one) moving off in the artificial lighting of a station or yard on a night journey with an untold destination for the bemused observer. Even when I knew where the train was going it was still a magical experience. Back in the mid 1970’s I and my friends used to catch the first train after midnight from Kings Cross to Newcastle on a Saturday Morning as we started an all-line railrover. The train usually left from platform 8 at 00:10 and we’d board along with all the very late, homeward bound, City workers (many of whom were drunk). But on Platform 9 there would usually be a Class 40 standing on a parcels / newspaper train.

Our train (usually hauled by a Class 47) was booked to stop at Huntingdon and then Peterborough where it waited for mail to be loaded. It was also waiting for that parcels train to overtake… We’d be leaning out of the windows watching for that class 40 to come around the curve and over the bridge across the River Nene before bearing down on us at full speed with the throttle wide open. Sadly, I suspect that many of you have never heard a 40 at full chat, nor idling either. Such a schizophrenic beast – from a peaceful ululating whistle at rest to a burbling ear-splitting roar with the throttle wide! And always an elegant mover – a thing of beauty and a joy forever šŸ™‚

D200, Doyen of the Class 40 type stands alongside a High Speed Train in Kings Cross. In the later years of service she was painted in BR green livery with red buffer beams. She is now preserved by the National Railway Museum.

… But I have digressed – in 1957, British Transport Films made a film called Fully Fitted Freight. It is now available along with many other works by BTF on DVD – this specific film is on the ‘Running a Railway’ collection. I strongly recommend their DVD’s for those with an interest in Railway history in the UK but also with an interest in Social History – so much has changed even since the last films were made in the 1980’s!

ps – I guess Forty counts as an ‘F’ too šŸ˜‰

pps – for those who have never heard a Class 40 I thought I’d belatedly add this video from YouTube…