Monday 30 May 2011

Dalziel and Pascoe - Demons on our Shoulders

Demons on our Shoulders is an episode from the 12th and final series of my favourite cop show Dalziel and Pascoe, and I'd like to celebrate it for its unrelenting entertainment value while poking some fun at it for its role in bringing the show to a premature end.

Demons was the 44th movie length episode of Dalziel and Pascoe. The previous 43 featured a bluff Yorkshire cop solving routine murders in the small mining town of Wetherton while scratching his nuts and trading insults with his partner. The makers of Demons somehow missed the previous eleven years of the show and they appeared to be under the impression they'd been hired to remake Cannibal Holocaust, except with a bigger budget and more gore. The result is a movie that starts off as a cozy Murder She Wrote type tale develops into Silence of the Lambs, takes a detour through the more surreal corners of Twin Peaks and ends up having a shot at Night of the Living Dead.

For such a delirious story, the episode starts quietly to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. A man blasts his wife in two with a sawn-off shotgun, with the crime being reported while Pascoe is celebrating his birthday with his best friends, which means he hasn’t invited Dalziel. For the next twenty minutes Pascoe devotes little time to the murder as he tries to stop Dalziel finding out about the party leading to the feeling that this episode will feature the usual D&P mixture of blokey friction and cop procedural. Then Richard E. Grant appears and everything spirals out of control. From that moment on, every time you think the plot can’t get any more bizarre, it promptly wrongfoots you with yet another jaw-dropping twist.

The story, as best as I can piece it together, goes like this: Wetherton's leading hypnotherapist, who is a devil worshipper specialising in curing smoking, was dumped by her boyfriend 20 years ago while at university. This ex-boyfriend, played by Grant, is now a famous tv magician, while she's stuck in Wetherton having to cope with the indignity of being only a beautiful, glamorous, rich, successful businesswoman living in a mansion. After a nervous breakdown, experimental drugs give her a psychological condition with a long name that makes her plot revenge against Grant. And so she comes up with a cunning plan to commit the perfect murder. She tracks down a secret medieval grimoire (as Pascoe says in one of the many quotable lines - you don’t get to see many grimoires in Wetherton) that was written back in the days when witches were real witches and which includes a forbidden text to contact the dark side. This text calls for her to roam around Wetherton armed with a blood-soaked chainsaw dismembering people. She collects a body part from each victim. Then she plans to stitch the body parts together and reanimate the corpse. When she reads the forbidden text, her soul will transfer into the creation and turn her into a demon. Then she can kill Grant.

Fans of the cozy cop show genre will already have spotted that this plan has a small flaw: it's just too simple. So to complicate things she tracks down a man who took part in a trick on Grant's tv show. In this trick Grant hypnotised the man and made him shoot his wife with a toy gun he thought was real. Strangely, this hasn't affected their marriage because the couple are the leaders of Wetherton's second most popular white-collar devil-worshipping cult and they enjoy that sort of thing. The killer hypnotises him again, but this time she makes him shoot his wife for real. This has two results. It fools Dalziel into thinking that Grant's original hypnotic suggestion caused the murder, and it incurs the wroth of the devil worshippers who plot their own revenge against Grant. The devil worshippers are a fun bunch with suicidal goths, several embezzlers (although that plot strand mysteriously disappears) and a great bloke who speaks only in Latin and who keeps his embalmed wife in a glass case in the living room. He's a bit of nutter that one, Dalziel decides.

Although to the untrained eye the devil worshippers just like getting naked and chanting, they cast a spell that actually works and it turns off the lights in Grant's house, which spooks him so much he hides in the middle of a runic pentangle made with luminous paint. With the killer's plan working she steps up the psychological warfare by systematically chainsawing to bits the devil worshippers who are ruining her nemesis's life, on the basis that this will make Dalziel think Grant is killing them.

This leads to a classic scene in which Dalziel and Pascoe stand in the middle of a murder scene that looks like a slaughterhouse and quiz a camp pathologist, who appears to be channelling Larry Grayson, about how the victim died. The camp pathologist reports that the victim was electrocuted, drugged, had a massive dose of mercury injected into her eyes and brain. Her lungs and heart were removed and runes carved into her body. Her spinal column was cut out and she was sliced in half with a chainsaw. But that's not what killed her. She actually died from being injected with an overdose of top secret breathable water specially imported from America. The cops debate if they know of anyone in Wetherton who has been importing top secret breathable water from America recently and it turns out that Grant has been doing just that to use in his act. Grant is a master of illusion and his big trick is to 'drown' himself in a vat of water while hiding the fact that the water isn't really water but is actually breathable water. Dalziel deems this trick to be bollocks and arrests him (Dalziel's reaction to just about everything in this episode is bollocks and I can’t blame him.).

Things are looking bad for Grant. But with every scrap of evidence pointing to him being the crazed chainsaw killer, the real killer makes Dalziel release him by manipulating Grant into planting a post-hypnotic suggestion in Dalziel's mind to follow the station's new health and safety procedures and give up smoking. This makes Dalziel seek out Wetherton's leading smoking hypnotherapist, the crazed psychokiller herself.

While curing him of his smoking habit, the killer takes over Dalziel's dreams and makes him dream of incorrect solutions to the murder mystery that leads him back to the devil worshippers. The cops arrive at their coven just as the devil worshippers are having another go at turning off Grant's electricity. Their spell goes awry (I think the killer swapped grimoires, but I'm not sure) and it makes one of the members turn into a zombie with massive glowing eyeballs. Dalziel calls for an ambulance and in other classic scene where you wonder how the actors kept straight faces he quizzes a nurse as to whether she's seen many zombies with massive glowing eyeballs in Wetherton. And it turns out she has. It's quite a common medical condition in fact called anti-hysterical metabolic syndrome in which the accepted cure is a dose of prescription drugs and the only side effect is that the victim is left paralysed and blind even though they can move and see. It's at this point that the story gets seriously strange.

I could describe what happens next, but as I have no idea what was going on, I probably shouldn’t try. Ever more gruesome body parts turn up, bloody chainsaws whirr, Dalziel drives along in the day time, gets out of his car in the dark and then walks along in daylight. He has dreams and then dreams within dreams about things that have happened, things that didn’t happen, and things that will happen or then again perhaps not while the surviving devil worshipper has naked fun on his own. In the end Dalziel gets so confused he gives up and goes down the pub. Grant arrives and promises to solve the crime. Pascoe refuses, but then Grant proves how clever he is by reading his mind and then giving him the names of several characters who left the show about five years ago. Pascoe is so impressed he lets Grant lead the investigation - I think the makers put that in to prove they had watched the show before. It didn’t work.

Grant's technique for solving the crime involves sitting in his glowing pentangle and waiting for the murderer to phone up and confess while his new girlfriend seeks the truth with tarot cards that all have death written on them. Amazingly this works when the killer sends him a video showing him where to find her. Grant heads off into Wetherton's darkest wood at midnight where he finds fires forming a circle, runic symbols and lots of body bits. He phones up Dalziel and tells him he's cracked the case, but by then it’s too late.

The killer leaps out from behind a tree and whips off her disguise of a dark wig, which is perhaps the most inexplicable event in the whole episode as she hasn't worn a disguise before. She then delivers the immortal line, 'twenty years ago you refused to give me you hand, and so now I'll take your head, your head, your head, mwhahaha!' She gives Grant the chainsaw treatment, stitches up her patchwork body creation, and then tries to turn into a demon. Sadly she fails and when the cops arrive she's a broken woman, gibbering and foaming at the mouth.

The cops decide that when her stitched-up corpse failed to re-animate and help her take on demonic form, the trauma was too great and it completely unhinged her mind. Everyone agrees and they wander off to get ready for next week's case (which incidentally involves Wetherton's leading maverick bio-chemist who has discovered the secret of eternal life. This involves injecting nanobots into the small titanium molecules in zinc sun cream, except there's a catch that if the nanobots get into the large titanium molecules your skin explodes, so she decides to become a serial killer specialising in animal activists.)

In an episode as excellent as this one, it's churlish to find fault, but I must admit I was disappointed that there wasn't a Night of the Demon type ending, but that would have made the show perfect and having small flaws to pick at makes it more enjoyable. There's also the strange fact that the dvd version cuts out the original twist ending in which it's revealed that in reality the killer was innocent all along. Every event in the whole episode was an elaborate illusion designed to hide the truth that she was being manipulated with tarot cards by Grant's girlfriend, who is the leader of Wetherton's third largest devil worshipping cult. Oh, and during the zombie with massive glowing eyeballs scene my wife pointed out that Dalziel's plan to get the Charity Commission to investigate the devil worshippers was doomed to fail. Apparently, the financial irregularities committed by the latin-speaking zombie with the embalmed wife in his living room weren't severe enough to warrant a special audit. But that's always the way, writers who aren't careful with their research are destined to be let down by the small things.

Anyhow, shortly after the demon episode, the eternal life episode and the really weird one where Pascoe starts killing off suspects, the BBC cancelled the show, and to this day I have no idea why.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Interview at Avalon Authors

Sandy Cody interviewed me for Avalon authors at Avalon Authors.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Dalziel and Pascoe - The snappy shark butty years

After looking at the best years of the long-running cop show Dalziel and Pascoe last week, this week I'll look at the less than glorious years. Spotting the moment when a show jumps the shark can be a lot of fun and I don’t think there's any doubt that this show did just that, but it's not obvious at which point it did so. I think in truth it was a slow process where a number of changes were made to the show's format and sadly, every change made the show worse. Oddly this demonstrated the strength of the format as despite every knock down it remained enjoyable right through to the end.

The start of the end came with Mens Sana, the second episode of the 7th series. Although this is one of my favourite episodes, after 6 years of perfection, it started the rot with a significant change in the format. I can still remember the review at the time that pointed out that after 6 years of being a cop show someone had suddenly decided the show was a comedy. This episode featured Dalziel recovering from yet another heart attack at a sanatorium where too many people are dying, and fun though the set piece comedy routines were, the writers had started the process of not treating the characters with respect.

At the end of series seven, Wieldy left starting a revolving door for the third copper role, none of whom had as much screen time or personality as he had. Then the set changed from the cramped and filthy inner city cop shop to something high tech and soulless, presumably so that it wouldn’t look out of place amongst all the glossy American imports. Then the show was split into two-parters as apparently attention spans could no longer cope with sitting still for 90 minutes waiting to find out how that long dead twin feigned his death 40 years ago. The need to have something that made sense even if you missed part one slowed every story down. Then directors who thought they were destined for greatness arrived and were stylish and annoying with strange experimental techniques. The episode where Dalziel sees his memories played out on screen without a cut was a theatrical idea that the director should have learnt never to do when he was still at art school.

And then, finally and most disastrously, Dalziel got a new haircut. This may not seem important but somehow that changed everything. His posh new suit and immaculate coiffure made him irresistible to the ladies (on the other hand he always was), but after several years of being near to death his poor health was forgotten about and Dalziel became fitter than Pascoe. He even stopped scratching his nuts. But to compensate Warren did forget how to act.

Pascoe also changed as, with his wife now gone, he had nothing dramatic to do leaving the actor looking bored. But the really bad thing was that the plots became head-swimmingly convoluted with no feeling that the writers were aware of the novels and how they made even the most complex of plots work. There were a few classic episodes left to enjoy including the one where Pascoe is in hospital and falls in love with Nurse Deadmeat (known in our house as the - is she dead yet episode) and the one where Detective Deadmeat takes up a new hobby of solo underwater cave exploring (known in our house as the - is he dead yet episode). But for the most part the final years show a steady and then a sharp decline.

The 12th and final series loses all sense of reality with incredible plots featuring nanobots, the search for eternal life and devil worshippers. So to conclude these articles next week I'll look at Demons on our Shoulders, which in my opinion is the worst episode of any tv series ever made. And bear in mind I've seen the Star Trek: Voyager episode where Tom Paris turns into a lizard, mates with Captain Janeway, and produces baby salamanders.

After the 46th and final film, in which Pascoe ignores how he's behaved for the previous 45 films and forms his own one-man vigilante organization to kill off suspects, the BBC put it out of its misery. Bad ending or not, the show, at its best, was as good as the cop show could get.

Friday 13 May 2011

Cryptic Friday #8

Last week's clue was: Compelled to turn a nag wild on the prairie. 7 letters.

The answer was: Mustang

This week sets new heights in crypticness :

Layer backs a horse for example. 6 letters.

Friday 6 May 2011

Dalziel and Pascoe - The full bog roll years

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 fa├žade 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.