DANGEROUS DAVIES: THE LAST DETECTIVE (1976) by Leslie Thomas

Dangerous DaviesToday I thought I would post something on the lighter side of the mystery genre, a potentially grim story of a cold case told with bawdy humour and plenty of vim and vigour. Leslie Thomas (1931–2014) came to prominence in 1966 with his fictionalised memoir, The Virgin Soldiers, and followed it up with a series of increasingly ribald tales. But he also created an unusual detective in “Dangerous” Davies, a low-achieving but honest London copper who solves cases with ‘Mod,’ his only friend.

I submit this film/book review for Bev’s 2016 Vintage Scavenger Hunt and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“It’s not an official investigation,” said Davies. “I am doing it myself. In my own time.”
“Like a hobby?” said the priest …

Ironically nicknamed “Dangerous” by colleagues and criminals alike, Detective Constable Davies is a plodding but good-hearted cop, destined to remain in the trenches handling the low-level cases nobody else wants. Inadvertently, after being asked by his boss Yardbird to look into Ramscar, an old villain who has made an unexpected return to the local area, he chances across a very cold case: the disappearance 25 years earlier of Celia Norris, initially thought to have run away from home before her clothes, minus her underwear, were found near the canal. But what really happened to her? Was Ramscar involved? The solution proves to be a real surprise, but is only arrived at after Davies has a number of run-ins with assorted villains, lonely men driven by unrequited lust, overly friendly dogs and randy spinsters. Most of it is pretty funny, albeit in a decidedly unreconstructed and very old-fashioned style that will not be to everyone’s taste anymore. But what still works is the way that Davies, downtrodden and underestimated by everyone except his loyal friend Mod and overlooked by his superiors, ultimately manages to find some sense of fulfilment and purpose by solving a case that nobody cared about and helping a family find some peace at last.

“Serve you bloody right, you sexless berk!” she cried.

The Dangerous Davies mysteries

  1. Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective (1976)
  2. Dangerous in Love (1987)
  3. Dangerous by Moonlight (1993)
  4. Dangerous Davies and the Lonely Heart (1998)

Last-Detective04

The book has been adapted for British television twice, first in 1980 with Bernard Cribbins in the title role, with Thomas co-writing the script with veteran filmmaker Val Guest. It was then adapted again thirty years later as the pilot for The Last Detective, a terrific series that ran for four seasons from 2003 to 2007 with Peter Davison as ‘Dangerous.’

“Murder’s never old hat …”

The first version, one of the last productions made by Lew Grade for television before moving (unsuccessfully) into movies, is pretty faithful to the source (though the crime is made only 10 years old now), and as a result is a rather low-key affair, effectively replicating the jaded and occasionally seedy feel of the book. While cast as a black comedy, with Bill Maynard as Mod and Maureen Lipman as Ena Lind in especially good form, this is a rather sad and mournful film that sometimes struggles to balance the humour with the more serious aspects of the story (there is something rather painful about the Dangerous’ endless returns to the hospital after getting beaten up for the umpteenth time). It is a little hard to find on DVD now but is well worth a look as an example of a type of straightforward and unfussy filmmaking that is now pretty much impossible.

dd_01

The second version was partly refashioned and softened to serve as the springboard for an eventual series, catering to the kindly, self-effacing persona of Peter Davison. It was expertly adapted by Richard Harris, a highly experienced dramatist and screenwriter who for decades worked on such detective shows as The Avengers, The Saint and A Touch of Frost and the cult classic TV ‘private ear’ series Shoestring (which he co-created) but who is probably best known as the author of such poplar plays as the cricket comedy Outside Edge (which he later adapted for TV) and the musical Stepping Out (later filmed with Liza Minnelli). For more on his impressive career, see his page in Wikipedia. Davies and Mod are still the protagonists, though both are younger than in the book and previous version and a more prominent role is also found for Dangerous’ ex-wife, played by the delectable Emma Amos (they would eventually re-unite by the fourth season).

Last-Detective05

The plot of the novel is still followed fairly closely, though again the resolution is slightly amended to that it doesn’t get in the way of maintaining the series characters for the weekly series. Harris would also adapt some of Thomas sequels for the series, which was for the most part much better than average, eschewing violence and putting the emphasis on plot, character and humour. Thomas’ son Matthew would eventually also work on the show, which proved to be a surprise hit.  Incidentally, as in the of Columbo (and most of the run of Inspector Morse too), we never find out what Davies first name actually is.

Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective (1981)
Director: Val Guest
Producer: Greg Smith
Screenplay: Val Guest, Leslie Thomas
Cinematography: Frank Watts
Art Direction: Geoffrey Tozer
Music: Ed Welch
Cast: Bernard Cribbins (Davis), Maureen Lipman (Ena Lind), Bill Maynard (Mod), Joss Ackland (Yardbird), Patsy Rowlands, Bernard Lee (Ben), Colin Baker (William Lind), Cindy O’Callaghan (Josie), Frank Windsor

dd_04

Pilot / The Last Detective (2003)
Director: Nick Hurran (uncredited)
Producer: Nick Hurran, David Mason
Screenplay: Richard Harris
Cinematography: James Aspinall
Art Direction: Jim Grant
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Cast: Peter Davison (Davies), Sean Hughes (Mod), David Troughton (Yardbird), Ian Targett (William Lind), Joanne Froggatt (Josie and Celia), Rob Spendlove, Emma Amos, Charles De’Ath, Billy Geraghty, Ingrid Lacey

I enter this review as part of Bev’s 2016 Silver Age Scavenger Hunt in the ‘dog’ category:

010_vintage_silver_scavenger_2016

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2016 Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt, London, Tuesday's Overlooked Film, Val Guest and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to DANGEROUS DAVIES: THE LAST DETECTIVE (1976) by Leslie Thomas

  1. I can see how this one would make a solid story for adaptation, Sergio. And there’s definitely something about the ‘underdog’ sort of story, isn’t there? Even if the sort of wit in the story isn’t to everyone’s taste, the premise sounds interesting. Glad you saw things to like in it.

  2. Colin says:

    Ah, now this reminds me that someone once gave me the Davison version, along with some other examples of the actor’s wok to sample. I watched, and liked, the other stuff but still haven’t gotten round to this – I shall try to do so this week now that it’s back on my radar and I’ll get back to you.

  3. tracybham says:

    Both the books and the series sound good, Sergio. I had heard mention of The Last Detective TV series recently and wondered what it was like. This is the same actor who did the Campion series? We have Death of a Ghost to watch soon.

  4. JJ says:

    And there I was thinking that The Last Detective (the versoin starring Davison) was an adaptation of Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond novels. I shoiuld probably point out at this stage that I’ve never watched the show and have read just the one of Lovesey’s books, so it;s not like I sat there in a rage at all the liberties they’d taken with the source material…

  5. Peggy Ann says:

    Saw the series with Peter Davison and absolutely adored it! Will have to keep my eyes open for the books!

  6. neer says:

    Never heard of this series. Will try to find the books, as like Margot, I too like the ‘underdog’ story.

  7. Sergio, I’d be interested in the novels of Leslie Thomas who I’m familiar with, in spite of your engaging review of the two adaptations of what seems like a charming old mystery.

  8. I read the book years ago, but have never seen any TV versions, so I found this very interesting. You have tempted me with the screen ideas…

  9. Mike Doran says:

    I’m putting the complete series DVD set on order ASAP.

    Said series, available in the USA from Acorn Media, includes the original Cribbins movie and all the Davison episodes.

    Some years back, Thames TV offered a number of episodes of sketch comedy series in syndication, piggybacking them to the US success of Benny Hill.
    Among these series were some episodes of Bernard Cribbins from (I think) the early ’70s.
    The Cribbins shows showcased him in sketches, dialog and silent, as well as his hit comedy records, such as “Right Said Fred”.
    Cribbins’s support comics included Bob Todd (from Benny Hill’s company) and Terence Brady (who I connected to No Honestly!, as the husband of Charlotte Bingham [this show had a fair run on PBS stations here]).
    I liked Cribbins on his shows, and hoped that Thames would follow it up with more – alas, it didn’t happen (I still remember the theme tune). It wasn’t long after that that I saw Cribbins in Hitchcock’s Frenzy as the nasty publican; opposite of the comedy shows, but I was impressed.

    As to Peter Davison:
    I’ve never been a Doctor Who fan, and I’m not familiar with the Campion series.
    But the other night, PBS ran a London production of Gypsy, with Imelda Staunton as Mama Rose (the Ethel Merman part).
    Peter Davison played Herbie, the male lead (Jack Klugman on Broadway, Karl Malden in the movie). Davison’s singing voice and comic timing are impeccable.
    Looking forward to the Davies DVDs.

    Best wishes from Chicago.

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