Well, I have been watching the BBC’s new police drama River starring Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker. Whether it will be a one-off or continue I don’t know but I think it is as good as Cracker ever was and really hope it will be remembered. With that in mind, I wanted to think about shows that do stick out and last in people’s minds long after the initial screening. This post is about specific shows, not the literary sources – so in the case of Sherlock Holmes, I’m selecting the version that I think worked best on the small screen. Which is why there is no Maigret here … I hope everyone will agree some of these TV shows deserve a shot at artistic Valhalla, but I really would love to know what you would add / subtract.
So, strictly in chronological order, here is a list of my favourites. I’ve included private, amateur and professional detectives. Most, but not all, have literary sources of some kind and I have noted these where relevant.
1.PUBLIC EYE (1965-1975)
A classic British private eye show with an extraordinary performance from Alfred Burke as the loner hero Frank Marker – quite the best private eye show of its kind ever produced in the UK. Often gritty and downbeat but also soulful and introspective.
2. COLUMBO (1968-1993 + specials up to 2003)
Probably my favourite American detective show ever. See my detailed celebration of the show right here.
3. THE ROCKFORD FILES (1974-1980)
James Garner as the classic TV private eye in Stephen J. Cannell’s wryly humorous take on the genre, with a terrific supporting cast. A true classic, even when the stories went overboard in the comedy department – and with a superb theme tune by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter.
4. ELLERY QUEEN (1975-76)
Levinson, Link and Peter S. Fischer do a great job bringing the tone and style of the Ellery Queen stories, and the radio show, to TV. They would later have much more popular success with Murder, She Wrote but personally I much prefer this one. I discussed the show previously here.
Based on the stories and characters created by Ellery Queen.
5. SHOESTRING (1979-1980)
Trevor Eve was the ‘Private Ear’ in this show about a computer programmer who has a nervous breakdown and who reluctantly reinvents himself as an investigator working for listeners at a radio station. It only ran for two seasons (star Eve didn’t want to get typecast) but of its time, the best there was. It may have inspired the US show Midnight Caller (1988-91), which started well (I love Gary Cole) but faded away towards the end.
6. REMINGTON STEELE (1982-1987)
My favourite private eye show of the 80s probably – many prefer MOONLIGHTING, which is a surprisingly close variant of this (Glenn Caron worked on this before ‘creating’ his own version), but this is far more polished and sophisticated, while Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan made for a wonderful romantic duo – not to mention the plethora of movie buff references!
7. MISS MARPLE (1982-1992)
The BBC version starring Joan Hickson is certainly preferable to the current ITV version and may remain the definitive interpretation.
From the novels by Agatha Christie.
8. ADAM DALGLIESH (1983-1998)
Series of adaptations of the PD James novels featuring Roy Marsden – the initial serials, made on video, up to Devices and Desires (1991), are considerably superior to the later ones shot on film that tried to make the show a bit more dynamic – the less said about the recent serials starring Martin Shaw the better. I previous blogged on the series here.
From the novels by PD James
9. THE ADVENTURES / THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1984-1994)
Jeremy Brett remains for many the definitive TV Sherlock, and he was graced with not one but two equally good if totally different Watsons – David Burke and Edward Hardwicke. The first two series are much superior to the remainder, which is why I highlight them here.
From the novels and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
10. THE BEIDERBECKE AFFAIR / TAPES / CONNECTION (1985-1988)
Three serials by the late, great Alan Plater that combine jazz with mystery thrillers in the Thin Man mode – sublime, with Barbara Flynn and Jeremy Bolam sublime as the schoolteachers who get caught up in unlikely adventures.
11. THE SINGING DETECTIVE (1986)
Dennis Potter’s complex puzzle pays off beautifully as it reaches its conclusion even if not all can be readily explained or comprehended. The journey though is marvellous, with an amazing central performance by Michael Gambon. Daring, clever and heartfelt, a superb serial and one of the best TV productions ever.
12. A DOROTHY L. SAYERS MYSTERY (1987)
Two of British theatre’s leading lights – Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter – played Lord Peter Wimsey and his love Harriet Vane to perfection in this series that adapted Strong Poison, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night to great effect.
From the novels by Dorothy L. Sayers.
13. INSPECTOR MORSE (1987-2000)
Perhaps the greatest British TV detective series ever produced – I previously blogged about the show in detail here.
From the novels and stories of Colin Dexter.
14. INSPECTOR WEXFORD (1987-2000)
George Baker starred in this series of adaptations as part of the Ruth Rendell Mysteries umbrella. The earlier stories shot on tape are by far the best. I previously discussed the series here.
From the novels and stories of Ruth Rendell.
15. AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT (1988-2013)
David Suchet is wonderful here, as everyone says – the most recent, more mellow films are a lot less fun than the earlier series, but amazingly they pretty much filmed all the novels and stories (with a few minor ellisions). I don’t care for the route taken with the final films in the series and on the whole thought it at its best when Miss Lemon, Hastings and Inspector Japp were part of the show. None the less, though I think the show peaked with the screenings of Sad Cypress and especially 5 Little Pigs in 2003, it remains a fascinating achievement, now virtually impossible to repeat.
From the novels and short stories of Agatha Christie.
16. CAMPION (1988-1989)
Peter Davison was perfectly suited to playing the seemingly frivolous but in fact deadly serious crime buster Albert Campion. Sadly it only lasted 2 series, which included adaptations of eight of the novels from the 1930s. The version of ‘The Case of the Late Pig’ is particularly good and I reviewed it here.
From the novels by Margery Allingham.
17. CRACKER (1993-1995)
Robbie Coltrane starred in this dark show by Jimmy McGovern about a psychological profiler with some very serious problems of his own. The subsequent one-off films are much less interesting – the supporting cast, including Barbara Flynn, Christopher Ecclestone and most especially Geraldine Somerville, was really first rate.
18. JONATHAN CREEK (1997- )
David Renwick’s mixture of comedy and impossible crimes is a beguiling combination, with Alan Davies perfect as the magic advisor who solves crimes – the show hasn’t been as good since Caroline Quentin left, but it is still highly entertaining (though admittedly the most recent series, which completely revamped it to favour domestic tribulations rather than impossible crimes, was to the liking of very few people).
19. IL COMISSARIO MONTALBANO (1999- )
The Camilleri novels are still being made for Italian TV starring Luca Zingaretti – even most Italians have trouble with some of the local dialect depicted in the books but the TV versions are much easier to follow. Wonderfully funny and zesty (though undeniably ‘old world’ in its depiction of an all-male squad).
From the novels and stories by Andrea Camilleri.
20. A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY (2001-2002)
Eccentric and too short-lived adaptation of the Rex Stout books with Tim Hutton as Archie and the late Maury Chayken as Wolfe – the first season was especially good.
From the novels and novellas by Rex Stout.
21. THE LAST DETECTIVE (2003-2007)
Peter Davison plays the relentlessly ‘nice’ London policeman in this charming show that removed most of the rough edges from the original novels by Leslie Thomas, which are much more in evidence in the first adaptation of the first book, Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective (1981) starring Bernard Cribbins.
Based on the ‘Dangerous Davies’ novels by Leslie Thomas.
22. VERONICA MARS (2004-2007)
Kristen Bell is marvellous as the tough student and PI in this great little show. Telling a single story per season, this delightful show did especially well in its first two seasons and led to a spin-off movie that for once truly honoured the original.
23. MEDIUM (2005-2011)
A domestic crime drama with clever stories that alternate with the problems of a psychic and her family – half of each episode seems to take place in bed and is all the better for it. In its own way, this is quite a radical show for network TV, and the crafting of the plots is really, really top drawer. I previously profiled the show right here.
24. CASTLE (2009- ongoing)
I am a very late convert to this romantic comedy drama starring Stana Katic as a tough New York cop and Nathan Fillion as the eponymous best-selling author who turns a ride-along to research into his next book into a new career as a consultant with the NYPD when he feels head over heels in love with her. The show has been remarkably canny with its ‘will they won’t they’ romance, keeping it on a steady simmer before pleasing all fans at the end of the fourth season and then making us all happy by not blowing it (as most shows do) once the characters truly got together.
25. RIVER (2015)
This enormously impressive six-part serial by Abi Morgan stars Stellan Skarsgård as a socially maladroit but undeniably brilliant detective who suffers with mental health problems. Everyday he now speaks to the dead (or rather, his own psyche through them) and who here spends a lot of his time talking to Nicola Walker, the partner he loved and whose murder he is trying to solve before completely losing his grip on reality as he has come off his meds to do it. Dark. brooding but utterly engrossing.
So, do you agree with some or any of these choices? Please let me know …
Taggart (one of the very best shows when Mc Manus was there)
Hill street blues
Starsky § Hutch
Law §Order (with the different declinations)
A touch of Frost
Boulevard du palais (french)
Midsomer murders (not the greatest of course but acceptable)
Monk (same as above)
Mannix (long ago but I was a fan)
Case histories (very recent and I hope for a fourth season; Edinburgh is great town!)
The Prisoner (not really a detective series but still)
Police woman (Angie Dickinson was… 🙂 )
Adam 12 (I was a kid)
The Untouchables (R Stack looked more like E. Ness than Ness himself)
Crime stories (D Farina was a real life cop and you could feel it)
And so many more…
MANNIX was terrific! Especially the first season when he worked for Intertech.
Yes, that was the Levinson and Link series before it got overhauled by Bruce Geller – there was a nice ‘homage’ to it in Columbo episode ‘Death Lends a Hand’, written by the same team.
Funnily, I have just read that Mike Connors is a cousin of C. Aznavour 😉
You’re kidding? I love that!
UCLA basketball player, “Stretch” O’Hanion from decades past?
Ooops!… Should be Krekor “Touch” Ohanian.
Not sure we are now talking about the same poersion – but this one turned 90 last year
Thanks for the list Robert – there are several that I would probably not really consider to be germane but I used to love Magnum (and think Jesse Stone is terrific). Been too long since I saw Kojak and Mannix and Police Woman I really should try and see what it’s like today! Not sure what ‘The Spies’ was / is though?
Maybe The Spies was not the original title (it was the title of the french version), with B. Cosby and R. Culp. Long ago (at that time the other nice show was The Champions)
Oh, fantastic show, that is I Spy which I love and have blogged about before, right here. Not a detective series though 🙂
I SPY was the only 60s spy series I never liked. It just seemed to be trying to be too clever.
What a shame – I really think you missed out there – just love that show for its humour, locations and intelligence. And the depiction of the relationship of equals between the two leads probably helped changed America.
What was good about it was that it (in part) tried to help the audience accept the notion of Cosby’s USianess by contrasting him particularly with East Asians, in the first season…wel that was good and bad inasmuch as it both employed a lot of Asian-American actors, but also tended to exoticize them in comparison. (It was really notable how much more particularly casually visible Asian-American actors were on US television in the 1960s than in the ’70s or ’80s.) One thing nearly all, if not all, the US and UK espionage series, even DANGER MAN, suffered from was wildly uneven quality of scripting at times, and I SPY was perhaps example A or, after the U. N. C. L. E. series, example B of this. (The best police drama or legal drama of the ’60s for some reason seemed to be less uneven.)
Interesting Todd (we’ll dodge that episode in which Culp played an Asian warlord I think). Was actually never much of a fan of UNCLE though am curious to see how the black and white season holds up now that it is easy to get in DVD. DANGER MAN was a terrific show on its hour-long incarnation – but not detective shows. Now, when i do my top 25 TV spies …
We’d have to dodge all sorts of dodgy Caucasian “Asians” on DANGER MAN/SECRET AGENT…the best episodes of that series were brilliant. There were, however, some others…
Well, that”s just life in episodic TV – it’s the batting average that counts 🙂
Great catch on ‘The Champions’, Robert!
Also, ‘I Spy’. Great location photography. Where Bill Cosby was the brains and Robert Culp supplied the brawn and romance in many episodes. Tremendous launching board for lots of future talent,
The use of real locations of I SPY really was the icing on the cake
Apart from THE UNTOUCHABLES there was also NBC’s THE LAWLESS YEARS (which I blogged about not long ago), made at around the same time and dealing with exactly the same subject matter. Quite a decent series.
Thanks for that – have never seen it sadly.
Ah, so delighted to see you’ve put Ellery Queen with Jim Hutton on your list, Sergio 🙂 – I did like that series so very much. And I loved Inspector Morse, too. I agree with you that Poirot and Montalbano should be on the list, too. All in all, some excellent choices!
Thanks Margot – would be glad for any suggestions for additions 🙂
I agree wholeheartedly with your first four choices. Actually I agree with most of your choices but those top four were really exceptional. PUBLIC EYE will never be surpassed. It’s a tragedy that most all of the first three seasons are lost.
Yes, it is a shame that only some of it survives but I have all the DVDs and treasure them!
Nice list and glad to see Remington Steele there – I loved it at the time and think it’s a bit underrated.
Thansk Karen – I loved it as a teen and still thinks it holds up remarkably well – very stylish and polished. And Zimbalist was just lovely 🙂
So was Brosnan…. 😉
Well, fair enough – more than enough for each of us Karen! And in fact I thought he was sensational though I remember my then girlfriend and I used to star goggle eyed just at the clothes they wore – it all seemed so incredibly, unattainably stylish.
One glaring omission (without restarting the Morse v Lewis v Endeavour argument) – Monk. And Death In Paradise, if you want a second one…
I did like Monk a lot (Death in Paradise I never really got into, sorry chum, I know how much you love it). I may have to post a corrected top 50 list soon by the looks of things 🙂
Another series worth seeing is STRANGE REPORT(1969). It starred Sir Anthony Quayle as a retired criminologist who is still called in by Scotland Yard to solve bizarre crimes. It was a co-production between the UK and the USA, specifically NBC and ITC. It’s far more grounded than a lot of the ITC shows of the time (good as those shows are). It ran for only 16 episodes, and is available as a DVD box-set. One of the fascinating things about it is how it captures the era that it was made like a fly in amber, not least the performance of the wonderful Anneke Wills as regular Evelyn, who is the quintessential ’60s Dolly Bird.
I do have the DVD and liked the show a lot – it is interesting to see it tackle so many swinging sixties issues.
I completely agree with Columbo being one of the best American detective shows ever made, but, thankfully, the series ran until 2003 and not 1993. Otherwise, we would have been robbed of a couple of fun episodes.
The inclusion of Ellery Queen, Miss Marple, Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, Poirot, Jonathan Creek and the marvelous Nero Wolfe all have my approval. I probably would’ve added Midsomer Murders (from season 2 to 8), Monk, Murder Rooms, Baantjer (Dutch) and Kommissar Rex (German).
Thanks TC – regarding Columbo, those were the dates for when it was a regular scheduled series, the rest being occasional specials – but fair enough, I can amend that. Never really liked Midsomer I’m afraid. Loved Murder Rooms though – and for Rex, we get that in Italy but I’m more of a cat person 🙂
Oddly, I think REX is mostly visible in the US in its Spanish-dubbed version, on V-me (I believe), COMISARIO REX.
In Italy it is COMMISsARIO REX so just a couple of letters more. On the other hand, REX is the version produced locally in Italy and there is a Polish remake too! – now pass the sandwich 😉
Ah, I like a good list! Delighted to see The Rockford Files in there, and also that you’d rank Remington Steele above Moonlighting, something with which I fully agree.
Public Eye is often praised but I have to admit I’ve never seen it – your recommendation, in addition to all those others I’ve come across, is duly noted.
Personally, if I were to make such a list, it would probably be much more heavily weighted towards pre-90s shows as I’d want to make room for the likes M Squad, Perry Mason, Hill Street Blues, Quincy, ME and probably Mike Hammer – the Stacy Keach version, although the Darren McGavin show might just run it close.
Thanks for that chum. Truth be told, never considered HILL STREET as a detective show but so many have added that one now! And I know TV is not nbecessarily your thing, but PRIOVATE EYE was wonderful – if you liked CALLAN (did you?), you’ll love this!
Oh yes, Callan is excellent, so I’ll look into this next time he Network sales roll round.
I guess Hill Street Blues is more a police drama, with the emphasis on the drama, but there is enough detecting/investigation going on for it to qualify in my view – maybe I just have a soft spot for it.
You and loits of others, clearly! 25 is probably an absurdly low number anyway …
Well there is such a glut of material to choose from. Having said that. I have no problem with your choice of 25. I’ve made a few lists myself and the fact is you do have to settle on a number and ruthlessly stick to it if your final selection is have any meaning. There will be omissions of course, but that’s part of the challenge to oneself and it also stimulates discussion by forcing others to try and justify why or where their choices might be substituted.
Thanks for that. I’m really enjoying gettign the feedback – I mean its been decades since I watched Police Woman! At least no one suggested Charlie’s Angels (yet)
Haven’t seen that in years either. Mind you, I think I only ever caught a handful of episodes all told. Great theme tune. The sheer number of detective/police shows is quite staggering when you pause to think about it actually.
Staggeringly scary is the phrase I’d use chum 🙂
And I don’t know how I forgot this one, a staple when I was growing up –
Yeah, not sure how I forgot that one either – because I did just forget it to be honest … Mind you, I started watching in the final Dano-less season, which was pretty awful as I recall …
Possibly, I don’t recall exactly. I just remember the show being a regular feature of the family viewing schedule throughout the 70s.
My experience of the UK from that era is very circumscribed – I would like to rewatch some episodes of Kojak too actually …
Growing up, I used to get both British and Irish TV and these kinds of shows seemed to be running pretty much all the time and just worked their way into my consciousness as a result.
Kojak was OK, I guess, but I never really got into it in the way I did with some other shows – I’d be at a loss to put my finger on exactly why that was so though.
Ironside was another I remember quite enjoying, now I’ve got to reminiscing.
Here’s a later one no-one seems to remember – Scene of the Crime http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101191/reference.
It was a Canadian production that I think only got screened once on Irish TV but I recall being intrigued by the way it used the same stock cast every week in different roles. I’d love to see it again.
Never seen that one Colin – sounds really great. I saw Kojak and Irsonside in Italian of course …
It seems there was only ever one season so I guess it wasn’t a big success – always stuck in my mind though for some reason.
Good taste probably 🙂
🙂 Plenty might disagree with you there, but I’ll settle for that!
Stephen Cannell’s SCENE OF THE CRIME was remarkable for the degree of perversity it engaged in, particularly for commercial broadcast tv in the US (CBS ran it in late night, in an 11:30pm weeknight “strip” they called collectively CRIMETIME AFTER PRIMETIME, before they picked up David Letterman as a talk-show host). Of course, Raygun-era US tv was almost libertine compared to Bush 2-era US tv. I suspect that despite being a Canadian production, as were several of the CRIMETIME series, it mostly existed because CBS was a market for it…the truly awful NIGHT HEAT, the harmless and bouncy SILK STALKINGS (which survived the CRIMETIME cancellation on cable channels) and, iirc, the horror/fantasy/crime-drama hybrid FOREVER KNIGHT (likewise, in broadcast syndication) were similar products of the CBS and ?CTV (possibly Global) partnership.
It is bizarre that that SILK STALKINGS ended up being Cannell’s longest ruinning show …
Hill Street Blues broke a lot of ground and set standards, tricks and intros still used today. Very possibly the best written “Cop Show” of the 20th century. Until HBO’s The Wire came along.
While Barney Miller still reigns as the best written and cast, live audience comedic “Cop Show” on television,
I am a huge han of HILL STREET though HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS remains many favourite of all of them. Still wouldn’t include them in this particular list though ,,
The Darren McGavin Mike Hammer series is excellent. And surprisingly very hardboiled for its era. It’s by far the best of the 50s American private eye series – a lot better than the overrated Peter Gunn.
M Squad is great as well – Lee Marvin!
Need to catch up with both of these. Big fan of the Naked City TV show too
Or a young David Janssen starring in Richard Diamond, Private Detective that was based on a radio series and ran for three seasons, And his secretary, “Sam”. Played by a just starting out Mary Tyler Moore. Who only showed off her legs when talking to Diamond from the office.
Also worth downloading the original radio episodes with Dick Powell – stands up well (courtesy of writer-director Blake Edwards mostly)
Sergio, I enjoyed REMINGTON STEELE because it was the first crime/detective series I ever watched in the early days of cable television. Till then, I had never heard of Pierce Brosnan. I have also seen several episodes of David Suchet’s POIROT and CASTLE. I found the latter boring after a while as the episodes got stereotyped. I also thought Nathan Fillion was too weak for the role. I saw a week’s worth of MONK and soon tired of it due to the overdose of neurosis. I’d like to watch RIVER as I quite like Stellan Skarsgård.
I’d add just one detective serial to the list, THE OLD FOX (“Der Alte,” in German), which was a big hit on state-run television in the eighties.
Thanks for that Prashant – never seen that German show. And another Remigton Steele fan – hurrah!!
Sergio, there was one other private detective show similar to REMINGTON STEELE. I don’t remember the name. Some other detective/police serials I watched were MAGNUM P.I. (as mentioned above), NASH BRIDGES, and PACIFIC BLUE. I’m looking to buy a DVD pack of KOJAK.
Moonlighting with Cybil Shepherd and Bruce Willis was a rip-off from Remington Steele, but which very much had its own personality.
More a ripoff, as Everyone freely admitted, of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, which was a large part of why I found MOONLIGHTING unwatchable. The self-indulgent bad, cutesy writing was most of the rest of the reason. At least Shakespeare, oddly enough, had the wit to keep things double-edged. REMINGTON STEELE was cute at times, but even the premise was inherently challenging in a way ML decidedly was not.
Any comparison with old Bill is always going to leave one wanting though, be fair 🙂
MOONLIGHTING’s GG Caron compares unfavorably to Quinn Martin.
Not sure I’m following you there Todd … QM certainly produced a lot more shows but I wouldn’t want to trade GGC’s Medium for any QM title to be honest.
Love RIVER. I am trying to stretch it out in case it’s a single series. But I think not. Am getting too many recommendations of this one.
Glad you like it to – easiy one of the best things I’ve seen all year – but then, I’d watch anythign with Nicola Walker!
Then you really should have watched Unforgotten, which was on ITV when River was on the other side. Nicola Walker was, as always, superb, but she was surrounded by a stellar cast all acting their socks off – Tom Courtenay, Gemma Jones, Bernard Hill, Frances Tomelty, Trevor Eve, Cherie Lunghi….
Can I put a word in for Vera and also Lewis. So agree that Joan Hickson us the definitive Marple
Thanks a lot Rosemary – I liked Unforgotten a lot (despite the lousy horror movie style title) and am glad it is apparently coming back. But it was, at heart, much more conventional than River. Which is how I feel about Lewis compared with Inspector Morse. I think Scott & Bailey is also very good (and Nicola Walker was a great guest in the last series).
Yes, she was scarily good in Scott and Bailey. I suppose one of the reasons I loved Unforgotten was the fact it was straightforward. I am so bored of ‘maverick’ cops. Tried watching Luther but had to give up.
And so glad you loved Beiderbecke etc. They are a much loved memory of our early married life.
I agree about Luther – I think Idris Elba is extraordinaruly charismatic, but it was / is a very silly show at heart. All I meant about Unforgotten was that I couldn;t squeeze it into my top 25 but I thought it was terrific. Mind you, with all these great suggestions, I can fweel a revised top 50 coming soon …
The Streets of San Francisco. I just watched a few of those recently–my internet wanderings let me there somehow and I sat and watched about three episodes straight.
My favorites are Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Suchet as Poirot, Hickson as Marple, Ellery Queen, Chayken as Wolfe, and Remington Steele. I love Ian Carmichael as Wimsey–but wish that he had been younger when they started filming (or that they would have listened to him when he first wanted to do that role). The Petherbridge Wimsey is also satisfying–but I would have liked to see Carmichael start as the younger Wimsey and grow into the role the way Sayers changed it over the books. Grew up watching Kojak, Starsky & Hutch, reruns of Adam 12, Columbo, and the Rockford Files. and, course, I was a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries fan girl. And how about Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote?
I definitely wish jessica Fletcher was in there – excellent choice 🙂
“I love Ian Carmichael as Wimsey–but wish that he had been younger when they started filming”
I adored the Ian Carmichael Lord Peter Wimsey series as well. Even though I’m definitely not a fan of Sayers’ books.
I also enjoyed Peter Davison in CAMPION, and I like Allingham’s books even less than I like Sayers.
I probably prefer Allingham to Sayers, but like them both in their own very different ways. Admittedly carmichael spent a very logn time getting the BBC to agree to make the series so he could have played it younger – no question that he was a bit too old by the time he got there. But I prefer the Pethebridge anyhow …
The problem with the Petherbridge adaptations is that they seem to be the ones featuring Harriet Vane, which is why I’ve avoided them. It’s not just that Harriet Vane is irritating. GAUDY NIGHT and STRONG POISON are very weak and uninteresting mysteries.
The series is about the meeting, courtship and love affair of Wimsey and vane, no question. I have never been very fond of GAUDY either but the show works very well as romantic detective fiction and the actors are truly superb.
I have always rated Edward Petherbridge above Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey. That seemed like lazy casting or typecasting to me. So pleased to see somebody else rate Petherbridge as the better Wimsey!
Well, I always understood why Carmichael wanted to play the part and wish he had in the 60s, when he really wanted to – he is very good in the radio versions by the way, though sadly he was noticeably too old by the time he belatedly did his version of Gaudy for audio.
Thanks for that Bev – been ages since I saw it!
Some of those UK series I’ve never heard of and I’m tempted to hunt them down via YouTube. (Don’t scold me! :^) ) I tried to watch CRACKER a couple of times but couldn’t get into it at all. Of those I’m unfamiliar with the Beiderbecke series looks the most intriguing.
I agree that most US TV cop shows are not at all detective shows. They were almost exclusively about the relationships between the cops and their partners and families, not focused on the crimes and crime solving. Only when the “Law & Order” franchise seemed to take over NBC programming in the US did the formulaic cop show return to its detective roots. In my estimation “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” has some of the best detective plots in recent years. And there are a few episodes of “Law & Order: SUV” I think rank just as highly. I’d add “Banacek” for some truly ingenious impossible crime plots as well as a couple of “McMillan & Wife” episodes but both were too uneven in their treatment of detective plots to include either series as a whole. They relied more on character and relationships in the story telling especially the Hudson/St James storyline in “McMillan & Wife.”
Thanks very much John – I agree, i loved the ingenuity of Banacek but wished it was a bit more fun; I also agree agree that the first 4 or 5 season especially of Law & Order CI were terrific, with D’onofrio fascinating as an update on Sherlock Holmes. I haven’t seen McMillan & Wife in far too long to comment though I know plots were based on Edward D. Hoch stories, which is good enough for me (and I love Thin Man style series anyway).
BANACEK! A great favourite of mine. And McMILLAN AND WIFE at its best was fun.
I’m not a fan of any of the incarnations of LAW & ORDER. Heavy-handed and plodding and obvious. I’d be embarrassed to watch CRACKER now. That was about the time British television was starting to go downhill fast.
Shame but we’ll disagree here – I remain a huge fan of the first two seasons of Cracker and I thought Law & Order kept up an amazing quality threshold over its 20 years.
You could also add Baretta (I remember seeing few episodes 3 decades ago) and Life on Mars (UK or american version) even though it’s a complete story. I recently saw the first (and obviously last) season of Low winter sun. It could have been a great detective/police show with better script writers.
I did watch Baretta (and Toma, which it was developed from) but it has been such a long time – not that keen on Life on Mars (hated the ending) but again, to my mind, not really that muich of a detective show.
LIFE ON MARS was pretty terrible. Typical of modern British TV – trying to be too clever, too cute, too self-aware. It was of course a parody of the greatest British cop show of all, THE SWEENEY. TV cops don’t get any more awesome than Jack Regan. “Get yer trousers on, yer nicked.”
I did enjoy Life on Mars for the most part but thought the ending was a real cop out. But as a fan of Dennis Potter and The Prisoner, I am in no position to be critical of post-modern riffs on genre 🙂
It is worth mentioning that the ending of the Life on Mars american version was much simpler or straight to the point. I actually never saw the original British version but read about it.
Certainly, I didn’t see the SF finale coming! But to me the effect was the same – letting the creatives off the hook, which is what I objected to about the original British ending.
I cannot believe no one has nominated Harry O – to my mind, the best PI TV show, ever, in the history of television. (Followed closely by The Rockford Files). David Jannsen and Anthony Zerbe were the most affecting PI-cop friends/adversaries ever.
I agree – the first half of season one of Harry O just might be the best private eye show ever made – I should have included it – thanks Terry.
Those who remember it better than I do have certainly recommended it over the years. I keep not finding it around, but should check YT again.
The first half of season 1, with Henry Darrow and Farrah Fawcett, was terrific and by far the most memorable in my recollection
I’ve seen most of these series and can’t really argue against including any of them. Your top three are the same as my own, though I’d swap Columbo and Rockford around. Among shows I “discovered ” on DVD Sergeant Cork is probably my favourite. The chemistry between the leads and the general tone set is excellent. There are countless guest appearances from familiar faces and the writing is of a consistently high standard.
As for Hill Street Blues, undoubtedly a classic and an indelible influence on much of modern television but it wouldn’t have immediately occurred to me either because of its ensemble nature and the focus being more on character than the cases. I’d have classed it as a police drama not a detective show (despite a high proportion of the characters making their living as detectives).
Thanks very much – I should add, the list is in chronological order based on earliest transmission date …
SERGEANT CORK is a show I’ve only recently discovered as well.
On the subject of Victorian detectives, the early 70s British series THE RIVALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was superb – adaptations of fantastic Victorian and Edwardian crime writers like Jacques Futrelle, Arthur Morrison, R. Austin Freeman, etc. And it’s on DVD.
I do have that one (and the original anthologies too) and did enjoy them. I must get hold of Cork, thanks for the reminder.
The big problem with SERGEANT CORK is that it’s entirely unconvincing as a Victorian detective series. Too many anachronistic attitudes.
I do want to sample it but everything from makeup to hair always seems to betray the era in which it was made 🙂
Public Eye, what a great series, and Rockford was a favourite too. I loved Ironside when I was younger. Very little tempts me these days, though my husband watches a lot of different ones.
Well, I agree really.but I thought River, Unforgotten (and less recently, Endeavour) were all superb.
Good stuff Sergio, and I’ll have to share this post with Mrs Mike, as she’s the real detective TV fan in our house – CASTLE is for her a current big favourite, as is ELEMENTARY, the American alternative to SHERLOCK.
For my part I would love to have seen a mention for MAN IN A SUITCASE, a show I really loved back in the days when we first had cable and McGill’s rough, tough, heavy smoking adventures were a daily perennial. From the list I can’t see much further than CRACKER, which I found for the most part to be completely mesmerising. What great work from Robbie Coltrane and some very disturbing stories also.
I second your recommendation for Man in a Suitcase – typical ITC adventure series fun but with a fascinating edge of toughness that makes it unique. Superb performance by Richard Bradford.
OK, totally going into a revised list 🙂
Thanks Mike – look forward to hearing to the missus too 🙂 Yes, love Man in a Suitcase, would have gladly included it ina top 30 with Harry O
From the Man in a suitcase I mostly remember the music (the TV series music themes seemed to be much more original and immediately recognizable at that time 😉 ) and the look of the central character.
Ron Grainer’s theme is sheer perfection to me – and Bradford was wonderful in it.
I agree with you on Poirot – the early seasons are superb. The later ones are atrocious.
I think that may be because Christie’s later books are pretty poor? The TV version of Murder on the Orient Express, which came late in the canon, was surprisingly moving.
The book is the from the mid 1930s, right? I take it you mean the Suchet and not the awful Alfred Mollina version? I am quite looking forward to the new Kenneth Branagh movie adaptation …
Yes, I was referring to the Suchet TV Poirot. Murder on the Orient Express was one of the later ones dramatised (although written earlier, as you say) but was better than some of the other later episodes, based on her layer books. I hadn’t realised that, as you say below, the team had changed. I didn’t know about the Molina version.
Are you looking forward to the Christmas showing of a new ‘And then there were none’? I heard an excellent radio version on Radio4extra not so long ago.
Later not ‘layer’
Duly noted 🙂
Yes, I liked the radio version and at least it looks like they are playing the new TV version ‘straight’ (if the trailer is to be believed) so should be good!
I’m OK up to about 5 Little Pigs and Sad Cypress and then it is pretty much all downhill – but they were made by different people so the change is not coincidental.
Columbo, Rockford Files and Ellery Queen are favorites. I remember liking Remington Steele but haven’t seen it in so long. Many on your list I haven’t seen, but the Nero Wolfe series is also a favorite. Castle we only enjoyed for about 3 of the seasons, although I think we actually watched 6 seasons. Amazingly, I have never seen a Poirot TV adaptation.
I think you might love the Poirot Tracy – just saying …
I think so too, Sergio. I just want to watch some of the better ones, and I don’t want to watch ones that I haven’t read yet (or re-read). So I have to get moving on reading my Poirot books. I am only up to Peril at End House so far, although I have read ahead to Orient Express and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.
The best of them, from seasons 1 to 5, are mainly derived from the short stories and would be the ideal place to start.
Great post, Sergio. Lots to think about. Some of the shows you mention I’ve never seen much less heard of except, maybe, vaguely.
I was never a fan of CAMPION because I never did like the actors. I’m a horrible person, I know. Ha. Didn’t like the books either, so that might have something to do with it.
My favorite in your list is POIROT, since it’s my belief that David Suchet was born to play the role. And yes, only the early shows. I never even bothered trying to watch the later shows once my brother told me they were grim. And where the heck was Hastings? I mean, really.
I also loved Joan Hickson as MISS MARPLE and Jeremy Brett and the cast of the early SHERLOCK HOLMES shows.
I would have picked Ian Carmichael’s incarnation of Wimsey and the fact that the shows were filmed in video which I liked then very much.
As to adding to the list: Here are a few of my favorites.
MURDER, SHE WROTE (but only the early seasons)
HOMICIDE, LIFE ON THE STREET
MR. AND MRS. NORTH starring Richard Denning and Barbara Britten
Thanks so much, so many great shows there – I adore Homicide and Barney Miller, two of the best procedural shows ever though in my mind I would have them in a dedicated list not a detective list. Interesting the point you make about the later Wimsey series, which was in fact also shot on video with film for exteriors, just like the Carmichael shows from the previous decade, but it does feel different, i agree. But I agree, I love the theatricality and intimacy of shows made on video from that era.
Funnily enough, one of the things I didn’t like about the Poirot series was the way they added Hastings (and maybe Japp) to a lot of stories I don’t think he was in originally, just because they had the relationship with the actor. I think they also stopped him from marrying the right person just to keep him in the series too long. He is not in most of the books, although he returns for ‘Curtain’.
I know what you mean Rosemary – it doesn’t hurt the one-hour adaptations of the short stories at all but became a bit noticeable when they switched to the novels.
How could I forget Quincy?! I loved Quincy when it was on television. I will say, however, that when we ordered it up from Netflix and I watched several episodes in a row that it struck me how very formulaic it was. It definitely worked better as a once-weekly viewing.
Yeah, older shows that don;t have any ongoing serialised narratives can seem to samey – but I agree, I loved Jack Klugman when he got all impassioned!
Fascinating list, with many titles that would be in my own list, plus a few I’ve not seen (such as River.) Glad to see Public Eye in there. Along with Man in a Suitcase, Strange Report and Detective, it had one of the most wonderful theme tunes. Speaking of Detective (the BBC anthology series of the late 60s, that would definitely be in my list, along with the early Taggarts, which I thought were fantastic.
Thanks Martin – I have never seen an episode of DETECTIVE – apparently only 24 of the original 45 episodes survive but I’d love to see them as it sounds fab – there is a great guide to the show here.
I would suggest HOMICIDE, and THE WIRE and DA VINCI’S INQUEST, while procedural, developed the detective aspects of the procedure about as sharply as COLUMBO did, and more so than some of the other suggestions made. One I remember just a bit better than HARRY O, and fondly remembered by some who were more in its target audience during its brief run, is CITY OF ANGELS starring Wayne Rogers…and the Powers Boothe as Marlowe series was solid, though not of the kind of sterling caliber as your best suggestions here.
Never seen DA VINCI and used to love CITY OF ANGELS (another should to which the great Douglas Heyes contributed) – I remember BANYON fondly too
Nice team work with Banyon. Especially with Robert Forster arguing with his old boss, Darren McGavin. Who made a career of arguing from the underdog’s position.
Did you see that Wayne Rogers just passed away?
Well honed light comedic and surprising dramatic chops!
Remember him fondly from M.A,S,H. . As one of the many “Sweaty Men” in Cool Hand Luke and a few early episodes of ABC’s early 1960s B&W series, Combat! .
Rest easy, Mr. Rogers!
Must be 4 decades since I watched an episode of COMBAT …
I agree with a lot of this top 25, especially about U.S. TV mysteries which were on in my household during my childhood, since my father was a mystery buff. We watched Perry Mason in those days.
Everybody over here loved Rockford and Columbo.
I did not know about Public Eye, Cracker and Unforgotten but will try to find them. And River, too!
Among my favorites not listed are: Foyle’s War, with Michael Kitchen and Honeysuckle Weeks; Inspector Lynley, with Nathaniel Parker and Sharon Small. I like Scott and Bailey and just binge-watched season one of Happy Valley, which is good as is Vera with Brenda Blythen.
And I like Wallender with Kirster Hendricksson. I also liked The Killing; only saw the U.S. version though.
Now, for The Bridge, Danish/Swedish original version, I’m in the midst of watching season two, and I’m going to need to go into a 12-step program to get over the show after I’ve seen the last episode of it and have to wait for season three.
Thanks Kathy – unlike many who has sent their great feedback here, I am not a fan of of FOYLE or LYNLEY but know that I am in a minority. But you are right, THE KILLING (most especially the first season) should have been in there. I am very tempted to do a corrected list before the year is out! Thanks.
Not Wallender with Hendricksson or The Bridge?
Hello Kathy, well, I did only have 25 slots and they were the ones I couldn;t see myself easily living without. I tend to find Scandi noir a bit too bleak for repeat viewings though i have enjoyed the Branagh Wallander series
What about Broadchurch with David Tennant and Olivia Coleman? And what about two-episode show of The Escape Artist with David Tennant and Sophie Okenado? That was terrific battle of the barristers repartee. That was a legal drama partially and a psychological suspense thriller, too.
I liked the first Broadchurch serial, a smart update on the old Francis Durbridge formula, though about 2 episodes too long and the lack of practically any important non-white characters really pissed me off. I thought the second series was mostly a waste of time, sow ould exclude it on that basis. As for Escape Artists, I think your definition of what a detetective on TV is may be a lot more elastic than mine Kathy 🙂
Well, I’ll agree with your criticism of a lack of any important non-white characters in Broadchurch. But that is a consistent problem in British and Scandinavian TV detective shows. I don’t think The Bridge is better on this issue. I don’t think The Killing was either.
I just watched Happy Valley and the same problem arises here, too. Also in Scott and Bailey.
It’s true in the Montalbano series and in the Brunetti series and a lot more, too.
That problem is constantly protested in the States and some TV shows have had more diversity in casts. But it is a big problem and it’s been brought to public view seriously in the last few years.
Shondra Rimes has made a breakthrough as an African-American TV writer and director and has many people of color in her shows.
The American Civil Liberties Union is now investigating diversity in Hollywood. Hopefully, they and the pressure from African-American actors and other people of color will force some changes.
What was especially irksome in the first Boradchurch was that the only actor fromt the main cast of suspects not to be white was, of course, the drug connection, which really made me groan. The very noticeably went out of their way to remedy that in season 2, which didn’t stop it seeming tokenistic, though the actors were all superb despite the law of diminushing returns kicking in so visibly. I really like Montalbano because the actors are great and because it is essentially left-leaning, but just the lack of any women on the squad is absurd (though what is scary is that this may not in fact be innaccurate in terms of real-life equivalents …)
There aren’t women in the police squad in Camilleri’s books either featuring Montalbano. And there is a wee bit of sexism sometimes. The TV actors are great (and in the Young Montalbano, too.) But women are either victims, suspects or perpetrators or the spouses of same. No women police detectives or lawyers or officials.
On the contrary, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti books contain several strong women characters, perhaps because the writer is a woman.
I’ve been enjoying the Swedish Irene Huss TV series, which features the excellent Angela Kovacs.
And The Bridge with a brilliant Saga Noren played by Sofia Helin.
It got flagged several comments further back and there is no denying that the Camilleri reflects an older world view (sic) – that it may even match current reality in the Italian South is a bit more worrying …
This problem is slowly being addressed in shows like Mentalist/Castle/Bones with the man/woman pairs or even in the likes of Rizolli and Isles or Vera (UK) where the main protagonists are women. In France for more than 20 years, one of the most liked police/detective show was Julie Lescaut (which I always found unwatchable but it’s only my taste:) ) a single mother/chief of police.
Thanks for that Robert.It is great that ENGRENAGES and the like are being so successful – as we we know, that is what film and TV companies respond to!
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All the best for 2016
Happy New Year, Sergio and all!
Very pleased to see Tim Hutton, Maury Chaykin and its set cast of character driven ‘Nero Wolf’ make the cut!
Big fan of the continuing ‘Tau of Morse’ Trilogy. With ‘Endeavour’ and ‘Lewis’. Lawrence Fox’s James Hathaway has great subtle comedic chops. Is polite as Hell. And is a perfect foil for Kevin Whatley’s Inspector Lewis.
Also like BBC/America’s ‘New Tricks’, ‘Red Cap’ and CBS’s 1980’s ‘The Equalizer’. With Edward Woodward and Robert Lansing rocking a trench coat in NYC.
Thanks for that and happy new year to you too. did you ever see Woodward in CALLAN? Different TV style but sensational
Thanks for your mention of The Public Eye. Couldn’t find it to watch from the 1st Season but YouTube has some full episodes from The 5th Season. Thanks for this site.
My pleasure Karl
Unforgotten is possibly the best television around; principal actors are brilliant; writing is top drawer; stories compelling.
I would watch la Walker in anything