Sherlock? Poirot? Miss Marple? Who are your favourite TV detectives of all time?
PUBLISHED: 16:32 13 September 2018 | UPDATED: 16:32 13 September 2018
Shetland and Vera writer Ann Cleeves’s recent visit to East Anglia and the ‘birthday’ of late Queen of Crime Agatha Christie has got us thinking
t number 13 I surprise myself by nominating Det Ch Supt Foyle, from Foyle’s War – created by part-time East Anglian resident Anthony Horowitz and played by Michael Kitchen.
Surprised because Mr Foyle is about as undemonstrative as you can get. Propelled by honesty and a quest for justice – not always mirrored in junior colleagues or high-up Government officials, against whom he holds his ground – he displays quiet courage as he pursues his quarry steadily.
In fact, he’s so “level” that I only recently learned his first name (Christopher). Initially, you want to shake the widower and shout “smile!” and “crack a joke”, but later details about his pilot son and love of fishing have made his character more three-dimensional, and proved you don’t need to be an action man to be a hero.
12. “Oh, she’s so good, isn’t she?” said my wife as Jessica Fletcher skewered another hapless killer in Murder, She Wrote. To be honest, the artificial-looking sets and unlikely dialogue annoy me, but anything for quiet domestic relations… And Angela Lansbury is so supremely professional that she makes all the hokum believable. (Great, too, that her Labour Party-leading grandfather was from Suffolk.)
Jessica demonstrates the First and Second Laws of Homicide: that underestimating an older lady always ends badly, and that watching and listening are at least as effective as all the DNA tests money can buy.
11. Martin Shaw’s Inspector George Gently is another who’s grown on me. Like Foyle, George is an honest officer determined to uphold correct values. George has more of a twinkle in his eye, and there’s great mentor-and-pupil interplay with his young partner, too.
Something else I found out recently: Gently’s creator, Alan Hunter, ran a bookshop in Norwich. He set his stories not in the north-east but East Anglia. Why the heck did the TV people change it?
10. Cagney and Lacey. The fictional Christine and Mary Beth did a huge amount for feminism in the 1980s by showing women could do dangerous jobs – and, in the case of Mary Beth, balancing the stresses of the role with motherhood and (I think) being the main bread-winner.
They were supportive of each other and there was a real emotional heart to the stories, too.
9. No-one is better than Sarah Lancashire at convincing us she really is a barmaid or police office, or anything, rather than an actress pretending.
Strictly speaking, she’s not a detective but a police sergeant in the brilliantly-written Happy Valley, but she fights for her nearest and dearest (and other innocents) with the ferocity of a tiger. Determination, persistence, bravery and an understanding of human nature mean Catherine Cawood’s a sleuth. No question.
8. Many TV detectives are mavericks – brilliant at their work, hopeless at maintaining a stable life outside the police station. Inspector Morse is a tortured soul medicated by opera, crosswords, drink and a classic Jaguar, but he’s also brilliant at putting together the jigsaw pieces of a case, and John Thaw’s portrayal of vulnerability beneath strength is irresistible.
7. Like Jessica Fletcher, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple shows that elderly ladies who sit, watch and wait (in this case while knitting) miss little of note.
Joan Hickson (who lived at Wivenhoe for 40 years) was one of the best Marples – and was given the official Christie seal of approval. Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie later stepped into the spinster’s shoes, playing her in different – equally good – ways similarly faithful to the text (which did vary!)
6. That good-at-work/bad-at-life tension also dogs Wallander. Both the Swedish TV version and Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation show a crumpled and complex man who struggles with relationships and the meaning of life, yet shows insight and bravery in catching criminals. Wallander’s decline because of Alzheimer’s, in the Branagh version, was sad, compelling and beautifully touching.
5. Am I brave or bonkers in rating Son of Morse higher than Morse The Original? Endeavour, the story of the early years in 1960s Oxford, benefits from the groundwork laid by its parent series. Shaun Evans adds youthful freshness to an emerging (and very bright) detective already showing those Morse idiosyncrasies – and the relationship with boss Det Insp Fred Thursday has more layers and depth than the Morse/Lewis bond. (Is that sacrilege?)
4. Just as those with evil intent should beware those all-seeing ladies glancing up as they “knit one, purl one”, so they should also note untidy detectives wearing creased macs and driving clapped-out cars.
Anyone looking askance at Columbo or taking his shambling manner as a sign of stupidity soon realised the error of their judgment. Actor Peter Falk’s skills of timing and ability to play the detective at a consistently-understated pitch were key.
3. It takes someone special to elbow most of the traditional detectives out of the way, and that person is the tactless Saga Noren, played by Sofia Helin.
The Bridge is (sadly, was) a series much more graphic than these other shows in its portrayal of the effects of violence – and twisted violence at that – but it is never gratuitous. The Scandinavian thriller, really, is about the story of a differently-wired but brilliant crime-solver whose main problems are not with psychopathic criminals but grappling with the demands of a confusing everyday world whose subtle signals she cannot easily read.
2. Can’t leave out master detective Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy Brett brought energy and intellectual aloofness in the 1980s and ’90s, while Benedict Cumberbatch’s more recent portrayal captures the genius and sheer bonkersness.
Those too-rationed episodes are clever and stylish, but can be too confusing and techno-packed. Sometimes, less is more. Still cracking fare, though – and wouldn’t it be great to have a real Sherlock to call on?
1. We couldn’t live with the fastidious Hercule Poirot in real life. You’d want to make the books in his bookcases all wonky, and scream at his habit of talking about himself in the third person. But Agatha gave us a memorable eccentric with a brilliant mind.
David Suchet is THE Poirot of the screen, mastering the looks, gestures and quirks that give us a sleuth who is essentially an outsider but knows more about those on the inside than they do themselves. Those final minutes of explanation, as the Belgian explains what happened and discombobulates the murderer, are moments of theatre to treasure.
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