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 …