I’ve been thinking about some of the detective TV I have watched over the last year, in particular: Foyle’s War, Inspector George Gently, Midsomer Murders and Vera.
I don’t know if these series are’m seen in the United States. It seems a long time since I saw a US crime show. I can still hum the music of Hill Street Blues.
But to the four.
For me, Inspector George Gently and Foyle’s War the top, well above Vera, which is the height of the Empire State Building above Midsomer Murders.
Is there a difference between the standards of acting?
Not so you’d notice. Productions by companies seeking an international market are universally good. All the bread and butter production values are of high attainment and the pool of actors is also of a very high standard.
I can’t imagine anybody but Michael Kitchen as Foyle, he has stamped his personality and presence all over the role. Martin Shaw and Lee Inglesby have claimed the roles of George Gently and the irritating Sergeant John Bacchus. Brenda Blethyn, another very fine actor, is a tryingly dowdy Vera. Neil Gudgeon does a sound job as Inspector Barnaby. But one gets the feeling that everyone in the upper echelons of British acting is on a list to appear eventually in Midsomer Murders. A welcome bit of work in earning a living in a fickle industry.
So, to cut to the chase, why do I consider Foyle’s War and Inspector Gently top of the heap, Vera as credible and Midsomer Murders as an implausible time and space filler during which I frequently doze off.
As I have said, it’s not the production values, and it’s not the acting; both are of a universally high standard although some actors appear better than others because they have better roles. A good actor cannot rescue a poor script but a good actor can make a good script, sing.
And to my mind, that’s the major difference between them – the quality of the writing.
Midsomer Murders is entertainment based on picturesque English village landscapes and a supposedly cute dog. It leaves me feeling there is something wrong with using murder so lightly, so implausibly. I am not persuaded that such a place could exist.
Vera, on the other hand is almost depressingly glum in its northern landscape and drear climate. It’s almost the opposite of MM. The villages here are not pretty and the dull hand of industrial conformity and struggling farms is very real. Yes, I can imagine murder in this place and Vera is as odd as her surroundings.
Of the two shows that I rate the highest, Gently is not unlike the setting of Vera except that it’s the north-east of England after the Second World War and through the succeeding decades, an era that looks and sounds bleak in retrospect. Foyle, of course, was a wartime detective and a bureaucrat detective shortly after.
Is it nostalgia then which raises those two shows in my opinion? Absolutely not.
It is, with out a doubt, the quality of the script writing. Those writers make two things absolutely believable – the characters involved and the times they are based in. There is a third thing, the belief the lead characters have in what they are doing. They carry a burning torch for the best values of society and we want them to win, oh god, how we want them to win, knowing as we do how much we need heroes against corruption in our own times.
It takes a gifted writer to dramatise a story that carries us along with it and leaves us thinking about the issues long after. The very best writers seem able to combine drama and themes to produce work of great strength.
I recall an episode of Foy;e’s War in which an American was found guilty of murder but because he was perceived to be important to the war effort at an international level, Foyle was ordered to let him go. That asked a tremendous question of the audience. Do you suspend justice for the greater good? Is it the greater good? I love stuff like that.
An episode of Inspector George Gently was about the equality of women. Gently set out to change the attitude of the whole police station because he believed in the equality and humanity of women. Equality of the sexes, a vast theme, dynamite in Northumberland in the sixties! And what did the writer use as the female victim trying to get justice without prejudice? A wronged school teacher? A sacked factory hand? Not on you life. The victim was a prostitute complaining she had been raped! That almost impossible case was carried through with riveting drama that made me want to stand up and applaud at the end.
The same with the episode on mesothelioma the fatal asbestos disease of the lungs.
There’s such a difference between making an argument for justice about these things and presenting a working slice of police life.
Foyle and Gently involve us; force us to make a decision about the standards we want to live by. No matter when they were set, they are about us and the values of our time.
Vera stumbles along, not sure which way to go, and Midsomer Murders is lollipop and chocolates crime unrelated to any reality I know, which is sleep inducing.
The scriptwriter for Foyle’s War is Anthony Horowitz, well known for his many books and, such is life, the author of many of the earliest episodes of Midsomer Murders. So a lot depends on the attitude and wants of the commissioning editor as well as the author.
George Gently, later Inspector George Gently, had a longer genesis. He was the character of a Cambridge bookseller, Alan Hunter, a man who wrote forty-five books on him. Hunter died in 2005 but the books were made into television series by Peter Flannery who was both a producer and the script writer and so had a big say in the product.
Now Flannery is a real playwright who’s done the hard yards in British theatre (The Royal Shakespeare) and a tonne of other adaptations and originals for film, TV and the theatre. In 2007 he began work adapting Hunter’s books by moving Gently to Northumberland (where Flannery himself had grown up) and he brought a toughly honed skill to writing the scripts.. Being the producer and writer he was the clear setter of the tone and quality of the series and something of real quality was born.
Theme, what the story is all about in the larger world, is a hard thing to get right. It’s totally missing from Midsomer Murders, but in Foyle and Gently we are shown how valuable television can be to us when quality script writers are concerned with the continuing issues of our times.
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