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Hamish Macbeth (1995-97)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Hamish Macbeth (1995-97)
Zenith Prod'ns / Skyline Film & Television for BBC Scotland, BBC1 tx. 26/3/1995-4/5/1997
20 x 50 min eps in three series, colour
ProducersDeirdre Keir
 Charles Salmon
Writers include Daniel Boyle
 Dominic Minghella
 Stuart Hepburn
 Scott Meek

Cast: Robert Carlyle (Hamish Macbeth); Ralph Riach (TV John); Shirley Henderson (Isobel); Valerie Gogan (Alex)

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The adventures of PC Hamish Macbeth, whose methods for keeping the peace in his Highland home town of Lochdubh demonstrate an innovative approach to community policing.

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To the casual viewer, Hamish Macbeth might have seemed like typically undemanding Sunday night drama, in the vein of ITV's Heartbeat (1992-). Both series relocated the police drama to a rural setting, with plenty of low-level criminality but little of the genre's usual violence or grit. By comparison with police TV's usual urban battle zones, Hamish Macbeth's fictional small town of Lochdubh appeared idyllic. Yet where Heartbeat embraced reassuring nostalgia, Hamish Macbeth subtly subverted its format and knowingly toyed with stereotypes of Highland life.

As a policeman, Hamish avoids enforcing the law unless absolutely necessary. Petty crimes such as poaching, or Doc Brown's habit of filling his pipe with marijuana, are not just tolerated by Hamish but even shared (a feature that generated surprisingly little controversy). Robert Carlyle was fresh from an attention-grabbing role in the altogether grittier Cracker (ITV, 1993-95), but his Hamish prefers the quiet life - although his uncertain relationships with posh girl Alex and feisty journalist Isobel complicate matters. Hamish's non-Highland accent was explained by his having spent part of his adolescence in Glasgow, a place to which he has no wish to be returned. That means scrupulously avoiding promotion.

M.C. Beaton's original novels are murder mysteries, but the adaptation largely abandoned this formula. Ealing's Whisky Galore! (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1949) was clearly an influence, with Lochdubh's wily townsfolk routinely outwitting troublesome outsiders, and there is even a hint of the otherworldliness of Twin Peaks (US, 1990-91), with quirky happenings, supernatural occurrences and the prophetic visions of Hamish's friend TV John. Hamish Macbeth successfully balanced these diverse elements without sacrificing coherence.

Although humour was the series' greatest strength, there was an underlying darkness. Opening episode 'The Great Lochdubh Salt Robbery' featured domestic abuse, murder and the cannibalisation of a local thug. 'Wee Jock's Lament' saw the killing of Hamish's beloved Scottie dog (although Jock Mark II was soon in place) and a ghostly helper in the search for a missing child's final resting place. 'No Man is an Island' deftly combined tragedy and comedy as a suicidal Hamish tries desperately to rescue a woman from an old WW2 land mine, while his temporary replacement in Lochdubh is taught a lesson in community policing by the locals after he rashly starts arresting people. Some years after Hamish Macbeth's demise, the BBC visited similar territory, albeit less mischievously, in Monarch of the Glen (2000-05).

Kevin Sturton

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Video Clips
1. I love this bus (2:00)
2. It's in the tea leaves (1:33)
3. The things we do for love (1:00)
4. It could be you (2:10)
Complete episode: 'Isobel pulls it off' (49:59)
Taggart (1985-)
Carlyle, Robert (1961-)
TV Police Drama