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Detective Waiting (1971)

Courtesy of Fremantlemedia

Main image of Detective Waiting (1971)
Thames Television for ITV, tx. 14/9/1971
60 min, colour
DirectorPeter Duguid
Executive ProducerLloyd Shirley
ScriptIan Kennedy Martin

Cast: Richard Beckinsale (Lewis); James Mellor (Beck); Arthur White (Laidlaw); Robin Wentworth (Bassock); Barry Linehan (Cummins); Bryan Pringle (Arthur)

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A young and inexperienced detective, disliked by his colleagues for his aloofness and arrogance, tries to prove his worth by making a powerful criminal crack under the pressure of constant surveillance.

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In the 1970s and 80s, writer Ian Kennedy Martin helped pave the way for a new type of police drama, one much more in tune with the changing times. Popular BBC series like Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76) and Z Cars (1962-78), created by Ian's older brother Troy Kennedy Martin, and its various spin-offs including Softly, Softly (1966-69) and Softly, Softly: Task Force (1969-76), had become increasingly cosy in their depiction of the British police force and its methods. Ian's dissatisfaction with this approach would eventually lead to the creation of The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78), as well as Juliet Bravo (BBC, 1980-85) and The Chinese Detective (BBC, 1981-82), all of which tried to make the police genre grittier and more socially relevant.

However, the first stirrings of this can be found in the earlier play 'Detective Waiting', an eccentric yet fascinating edition of Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74), which imaginatively explores the themes of change and youthful rebellion. The cherubic Richard Beckinsale plays Lewis, a newly qualified detective unpopular with his colleagues for his unwillingness to kowtow to convention and behave like 'one of the boys'. Given the seemingly impossible task of catching a successful criminal boss with powerful friends in the community, he decides to stakeout his prey until he cracks or makes a mistake.

Like much of Kennedy Martin's most personal work, the play revolves around an intelligent, highly motivated but increasingly isolated individual pitted against the entrenched value systems of the Establishment. Unusually for the author, this most favourite and recurring of themes is given an oblique slant by creating an absurdist atmosphere of menace through anti-naturalistic plotting and a stylised, even Pinteresque, use of language. There is a strong sense of generational conflict behind Lewis's verbal exchanges with his superiors, his gangland quarry and even an elderly road sweeper - full of repetition, mimicry and strange ellipses, the dialogue gives a sense of ritual reminiscent of playground sparring. This is reinforced in a scene in which Lewis, annoyed by an inquisitive teenager, quickly regresses to childish banter.

While Beckinsale's likeable protagonist exudes naiveté and youthful stubbornness, it's Barry Linehan's increasingly exasperated upscale criminal Cummins who gets most of the good lines - as when, feeling under pressure from his young adversary, he exclaims, "We're all getting older... the question is, which of us is getting wiser?" The point is left ambiguously open right to the end.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Attitude (3:00)
2. Constricting the gutter (3:29)
3. Skating (1:05)
4. Rocking the Boat (3:10)
Beckinsale, Richard (1947-1979)
Martin, Ian Kennedy (1936- )
Armchair Theatre (1956-74)