As the 12th and final series of my favourite cop show Dalziel and Pascoe has just been released on dvd, I thought I'd look back at the show in a three part article. This week I'll consider the early, great episodes. Then I'll look at the decline of the show in its later years and finally I'll review an episode (the worst one!) with which I have a bizarre fascination.
I came to the series late, catching it for the first time in the 4th series. The show holds the record for the fastest I've ever liked anything. I flicked on to it in mid-episode and in the five seconds I'd allocated before flicking elsewhere Warren Clarke looked at the screen with his bizarre one eye closed and the other eye boggling expression and said, "He's three sheets short of a full bog roll, that one." I was instantly hooked, but the story of the show began some time before that.
The format started life as Reginald Hill's novel series in the early 1970s, a series that's still on-going today. Sadly I have to admit I don't like the novels. I've tried a few and I really wish I'd liked them because I can see why many others love them. They are well-written, avoid the trapping of formula fiction by not having a formula, are complex and often take risks with fantastical plots. And yet the fact that the author never uses one word when several hundred will do has stopped me becoming an addict.
The hero of the books is Andy Dalziel, a fat, annoying, abrasive tyrant whose obnoxious persona is a façade to hide his keen detective mind. In my mind he's a cross between Columbo and Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil. Helping him solve crimes in the fictional Yorkshire town of Wetherton is the wet behind the ears idealist officer Pascoe who would be destined for great things if he wasn't saddled with an annoying boss. Although it's a chalk and cheese relationship, the stories are cleverer than that.
In the early 90s ITV decided to make the novels into a tv series and in a terrible move someone thought they'd make a vehicle for the strangely popular at the time 'comedy' duo Hale and Pace. The pilot show was a stinker, getting a critical mauling from everyone including the author and so the idea was shelved. Luckily the BBC then bought the rights and in 1995 they gave the show the respect and budget it deserved. Over the next 12 years they made 46 full length movies.
Warren Clarke was cast as Dalziel and although I believe the author and some fans had misgivings about casting a thin man in a fat man's role, it rapidly became clear that an actor who'd been a droog in A Clockwork Orange could easily play an anti-hero. Amusingly the show often wrote in lines about him being fat and he was still referred to as the fat controller. With hindsight Warren was born to play this role with his lived-in face and easy Yorkshire wit (nobody ever succeeded with good looks and charm, Warren once said in a Blackadder episode).
Dalziel's character was neatly summed up by Dalziel himself in the opening episode: 'I use foul and abusive language. I pick my nose and I scratch my balls. I fart louder than is biologically necessary and I do it all in public. I've got sod all going on in my life, more's the pity, so I do my job, collect my wages, and go home for tea, generally in the middle of the night. And you'll already have seen I don't know any funny handshakes.'
I was never quite able to see Colin Buchanan's Peter Pascoe as being anything other than his Hodge from The Preston Front, which wasn't helped when co-stars from that show turned up in various episodes, but he provided an excellent foil to his boss. Also in the mix was Detective Wieldy, who managed to be one of the best-written gay characters on tv by the simple process of rarely mentioning that he was gay. There was also Novello (named Ivor by Dalziel) as a female detective who had little to do and so she was changed frequently without anyone particularly noticing. The other interchangeable roles were the shouty boss who never had anything to do other than shout at Dalziel and be the boss and the amusing pathologist who never had anything to do but be amusing in the morgue.
The characters were allowed to have private lives (which always plays well with me) with Pascoe's life mainly involving arguments with his miserable wife. Ellie Pascoe is the only thing I didn't like about the show. It was nice to see Steptoe's real life daughter on screen, but her role was thankless with her endless complaints about Pascoe coming home late and him not doing something more upwardly mobile with his life. Worse, she was a writer and so that meant she was always quoting from books and talking pretentiously about literature. I cheered when she left him.
Dalziel's private life mainly involved him arguing with old flames and then drinking (always Highland Park, my favourite whisky too) and smoking himself to death, and so he was always on the verge of collapsing from ill health. Several heart attacks and a shooting provided the very real risk that he wouldn't get to the end of some episodes, presenting a sense of danger for a weekly series. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had keeled over, and when the series went downhill I wished he had.
The stories, in the first seven series anyhow, were faultless with not a single bad episode. I've watched them all many times and I always find something new and interesting. The plots were as convoluted as you'd expect from a cop show with the ultimate solution to the murder involving such things as an evil twin feigning his death 40 years ago and then coming back from the dead disguised as... oh you know where this is going. But despite this, all the characters would be believable with nobody coming over as deadmeat character, femme fatale character, red herring character etc. Although if anyone understands the story with Tom Bell and Leslie Phillips and the secret moles staging a murder to cover up a real murder that never happened because everyone was busy framing someone for another murder I'd welcome an explanation.
Entertainingly Dalziel didn’t always solve the crime, but he could always be relied upon to offer plenty of wit over the corpses. And the show often played on his anti-hero status in which it was easy to believe he would do unthinkable things leading to stories that were never formulaic.
Although they had a huge range of styles and story types, the stereotypical Dalziel story involved a downbeat tale set in a dingy Yorkshire pit village where it never stops raining and it's always dark and the miserable 'around here we hate folks who ain't from around here' villagers who are all suffering from miners' lung disease huddle in the cold local working men's club dribbling into their empty glasses while a pervert plays with himself in the wood watching a local lass failing to pay off her impotent blackmailer and then kills a child and dumps her body down a mine shaft to cover up the fact he kicked a dog to death while Dalziel who is scratching his nuts at the time, gets told to sod off by his sister who refuses to tell him she's dying of cancer and so Dalziel drinks himself senseless and then kills someone while drunk driving while Pascoe is sent on a secret mission by shadowy forces that'll end his career no matter what he does in which he has to destroy Dalziel for taking backhanders during the miners' strike and then covering it up by killing the boss of the impotent blackmailer except Pascoe is too busy trying to stop his wife leaving him while his daughter lies dying in hospital so the only suspect hangs himself out of shame even though he didn’t do it and the only decent bloke in the whole episode drowns at the bottom of a pit and nobody notices. It's always fun to watch a cheery episode of Dalziel and then watch Morse immediately afterwards!
Anyhow, the first 25 or so films were as good as this sort of thing gets, but then it all went horribly wrong and although I loved the show to the end, I'll offer some thoughts on its decline next week.