Wednesday, 30 June 2010

You can't teach an old dog brand new tricks

The 7th series of British cop show New Tricks starts next week. As Ashes to Ashes has ended, I've given up on Dr Who, and Big Brother is in its final year, there's little I watch on tv these days. So I thought I'd say a few words in praise of probably the only on-going series I still enjoy.

New Tricks follows the activities of UCOS, a team of old cops who take on cold cases. Murders that have remained unsolved for decades are passed on for them to re-open the investigation and see what modern forensics and new policing techniques can reveal. Thankfully the stories aren't as dry as this format suggests they'll be. Every week the cops solve the unsolvable crime, but they don't waste time with forensics and modern techniques. They rely instead on old-fashioned policing methods that prove that the theme tune is wrong; you don’t need to teach old dogs brand new tricks, because the old tricks are better.

The weekly mystery stories are both as well-written and as groan-inducing as you'd expect from a cop show these days when viewers are familiar with every plot twist the mystery format has to offer. Usually you can solve the mystery before the title credits have rolled by randomly picking the least likely solution or by seeing who is the most well-known guest actor, but that's not the point of the show. Instead, it's about enjoying a seamless mixture of drama and comedy in which plots are moved on by the characters interacting and by using their own idiosyncrasies to solve the crime in a way that only these people could.

Heading up the team is Sandra Pullman. In the pilot episode she gets the job of looking after the bunch of old codgers as punishment for accidentally shooting a dog leading to the running joke of her grumbling that, 'you shoot one dog...'. Sandra has become more serious over the years. In the early seasons she was a delight, stuffing her face with fast food, having a continually failing love-life, and always being irritated by the antics of her team. More recently meatier stories have been thrust upon her involving family problems most of which haven't worked well, although that might be because the actress appears to have become a fan of unnecessary cosmetic enhancements that means she reacts to everything with the startled rabbit look.

Her three-man team are all well-drawn characters. Her main confidant is Jack Halford played by the dependable James Bolam who has been a regular face on British tv since the 60s. He's a former hard-man who solved crimes with fists and intimidation, but who retired when his wife was killed in an unexplained hit-and-run accident. Now returning to regular work well into his 60s he's bitter and a shadow of his former self, but he still has a copper's instincts. He provides the emotional core of the show. Again his character changes over the years and we see less of his melancholic side nowadays, although an arc story that ultimately, and inevitably, finds his wife's killer explains that change. Last season he got some necessary cosmetic enhancement when he finally got his eyes sorted out. In this case he looked better for it.

Sandra's problems usually come from Gerry Standing, who describes himself as being always a bad boy, but never a bastard. He has a history of being involved in dodgy dealings and corruption, although most of his past ultimately turns out to have a logical reason. Gerry is played by Dennis Waterman and in essence his role can be viewed as being his George Carter character from 70s show The Sweeney now older, but not wiser. The ups and downs of his character are usually related to the state of his teeth which have varied from painful looking to nice and white. Gerry gets most of the funny lines as a reward for singing the theme tune... as always.

The show's weird character is Brian Lane. He's a former alcoholic with severe psychological problems, a photographic memory, and obsessive tendencies, although as yet he's the only one not to have had obvious cosmetic surgery. As a character he's not even slightly believable as someone who would be allowed to investigate criminal cases, but as we get to see plenty of his home life with his long-suffering wife Esther, he is right for the show. His interaction with Esther always delivers great scenes in the short space of time they're on screen.

There are also several other recurring characters such as the inevitable shouty boss, Jack's nemesis Ricky Hanson, and Dennis Waterman's daughter that provide a nice feeling of continuity between the seasons. But sadly the general direction of the show has been to get darker, so I hope the new series steps back into the light. Dark isn’t necessarily good and last year, after 5 consistently superb seasons, the format showed signs for the first time of running out of steam. Several plots tried to make unwelcome and poorly-executed political points about the mistreatment of East European workers and there was a bizarre story that tried something different with an X-files parody but which didn’t work. Also the personal issues that are being foisted on the characters are getting more desperate.

It was inevitable that Brian would turn to the booze again, but having done so the show didn’t know what to do with him next, so it did nothing. Jack got the man who killed his wife, but that left him with nowhere to go, Gerry's ran out of daughters to annoy, and Sandra's now got a cliffhanger concerning a long-lost evil twin foster-brother, or some such nonsense. So I hope this year the show forgets about contrived personal problems and serious political messages and instead reverts back to its pre season 6 style as I need a weekly smile at the antics of UCOS.

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