OPINION: All the more reason to love 77 Sunset Strip this week

Keith used to love 60s US detective show 77 Sunset Strip

Keith used to love 60s US detective show 77 Sunset Strip - Credit: Flick

With another birthday in the bag, a sedate affair befitting lockdown rules, I feel compelled to show far more flair for offering clues than solving them.

Brighter readers who know Sherlock Holmes is not a retirement block for celebrated crime-solvers in darkest Norfolk could well work out my new age from a sudden obsession with old radio and television programmes.

My latest milestone prompted a bit more than my usual admission in biblical parlance to reaching three score and several. It offered a never-to-be-repeated excuse for recalling the glories of 77 Sunset Strip.

An American TV private detective drama, it ran for 206 episodes from 1958 until 1964, It starred the crisply-named Efrem Zimbalist Junior with Edd Byrnes playing Kookie, coolest kid on the glamorous block with a hair-combing obsession I could never match.

Perhaps the main character’s real-life parents inspired his trail into the performing limelight. Efrem Zimbalist Senior was a renowned Russian-born concert violinist. He married Romanian-born opera singer Alma Gluck. Young Efrem had to shine.

I can’t recall any specific storylines from 77 Sunset Strip but it all came across as slick, classy, fast-moving and exciting action after a steady diet of rather wholesome detective work unfolding on the wireless.

Special agent Dick Barton, with a bit of help from sidekicks Snowy and Jock, and crime fiction writer-cum-detective Paul Temple, assisted by a wife called Steve ( a constant source of worry to me as an innocent young lad), provided most of my earliest stimulus for a budding imagination.

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I suspect it all began with Terry Brent, a pipe-smoking detective on the scent in School Friend, a magazine delivered regularly for my elder sisters. It was not uncommon for latest adventures to be lapped up under the kitchen table before they arrived home from school.

So I cut a reasonably experienced figure as private investigator on a rustic beat  by the time Sunset Strip called along with discovery of Raymond Chandler’s wonderful crime novels featuring hard-boiled Philip Marlowe, undeniably his most durable creation.

When I first saw Humphry Bogart’s film portrayal of Marlowe in The Big Sleep, I longed to deck myself out with a white raincoat, trilby set at a rakish angle cigarette dangling from a curled lip and glass of freshly-poured whisky waiting for attention.

Then it dawned on me faster than a Los Angeles sunrise over Washington Boulevard how conspicuous I might look while probing speakeasy antics, gangland feuds, disappearing heiresses and protection rackets around the mean streets of Litcham and Longham and shadier parts of Mileham and Wendling.

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After sizing up a map of Norfolk and noting how big the county is, I considered a few detective names to emphasise how far my influence could spread. Denver Sleuth and Dick Barton Turf emerged as early favourites.

One of my really bright chums in the fifth form at grammar school, ready to feed my mystery-solving aspirations with clever suggestions, raced through a list of Norfolk village place-names and picked out Sloley as a perfect fit for me.

He couldn’t have been aware of Gently and Smiley waiting in the big-time wings. Thankfully, he never got round to any good ideas for Melton Constable or Dixon of Docking Green. I showed off shamelessly by telling him most counterfeit artists operated from Fakenham.

Sadly, all my covers were blown before I could set up an office in one of the least dilapidated huts on our old village aerodrome. The Case of The Missing Homework was solved by a notoriously unforgiving maths master. My punishment put paid to any ideas of after-school sleuthing for over a month.

I’ve had to satisfy probing instincts since by reading mountains of crime stories, taking in the odd successor to Sunset Strip operators from No Hiding Place to Endeavour and, trying to work out what people really mean when they say “I’ll tell you what I really think …”

I remain careful not to reply “I haven’t a clue” or “I wouldn’t start from here if I were you” when holidaymakers ask the way to certain bank holiday locations. I want to carry on growing old gratefully with the odd palais glide towards the cloakroom of bewilderment.

And I aim to open a new nightclub for mature citizens on the north Norfolk coast around this time next year. I have to call it 78 Sunset Strip. Wonder if Efrem will drop in.

Martin Shaw as George Gently

Martin Shaw as George Gently - Credit: Company Pictures

Skip's Aside: We know whodunnit. But an air of mystery still hangs over exact reasons why.

BBC Television ran a pilot feature and eight series of Inspector George Gently’s cases for a decade from 2007. Stories were very loosely based on Norfolk writer Alan Hunter’s crime novels mostly set in this part of the world.

If devoted readers were upset by that apparent snub for a fine craftsman, locating all televised offerings in the North-East of England could easily be taken as an insult to the county where they were created.

The author’s years in his native parish of Hoveton St John, and later at Brundall, lends many pages of his popular books a watery edge. He died in 2005, two years before the BBC unfolded a Gently pilot as part of their Easter attractions.

To add a dash of supreme irony to the whole affair, the title role went to Martin Shaw – who has a home in Norfolk! One might have thought a hard-up BBC could have cut down on hotel and travelling expenses in at least one significant area.

I interviewed Alan Hunter several times during my local broadcasting years as the Gently production line, first primed in 1955, continued to deliver highly readable adventures. He often hinted his top policeman might suit the demanding television beat.

“You never know, he could have been another Morse” was evidence enough of deep disappointment than no-one courted him with a tantalising

“Call George Gently”.

A keen sailor and naturalist, he wrote natural history notes as a teenager for the local Evening News - Alan worked on his father’s poultry farm on leaving school at 14. He served as an aircraft technician in the RAF during the war and published a collection of verse, The Norwich Poems.

He became manager of the antiquarian book department of Charles Cubitt, bookseller, in Norwich before setting up his own bookshop near the Maddermarket Theatre.

He wrote 48 Gently novels.

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