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TV Sleuths

Harnessing the power of the mind to fight crime

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The sleuth is an essentially literary creation, but one that has nonetheless been a staple of British television schedules for decades. Some of the first dramas broadcast by BBC television in the 1930s were adaptations of detective stories by such popular authors as Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie, while one of ITV's first successes was Colonel March of Scotland Yard (tx. 1956-57), derived from the 'Department of Queer Complaints' stories by John Dickson Carr. In the title role, Boris Karloff investigated all manner of ingenious, 'impossible' crimes, the kind later given humorous homage in David Renwick's Jonathan Creek (BBC, 1997-).

The genre's appeal lies in its combination of strong narrative lines, colourful characters and an unusual degree of viewer participation. The model for the TV sleuth remains Conan Doyle's 'consulting detective', Sherlock Holmes. The first to play the role on BBC television was Alan Wheatley in 1951, while Douglas Wilmer took the title role in Sherlock Holmes (BBC, 1965). Nigel Stock co-starred as Watson in this and in the follow-up series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (BBC, 1968), with Peter Cushing as Holmes. For many though, the definitive TV incarnation remains Jeremy Brett, who portrayed Holmes on ITV between 1984 and 1994, with David Burke and, later, Edward Hardwicke as Dr Watson.

Holmes and Watson-type pairings of great detective and less brilliant assistant are still an almost essential requirement of any detective show, even those as seemingly different as Cracker (ITV, 1993-96) and Foyle's War (ITV, 2002-). In a classic episode of Inspector Morse (ITV, 1987-2000), the villain even has the temerity to ask "Why do policemen always go round in pairs like low comedians?"

The sleuth bridges a number of formats and styles while always emphasising ingenuity, deduction and a dilettante's approach to crime-solving. The fascination with amateur sleuths can in part be attributed to the variety of their guises - an Edwardian Catholic priest in Father Brown (ITV, 1973), a medieval monk in Cadfael (ITV, 1994-98), even a pair of school teachers in the Beiderbecke trilogy (ITV, 1985, 1987,1988) or a chef in Pie in the Sky (BBC, 1994-97).

Even when the sleuth is a policeman, his chief weapon is not forensic evidence but his intellectual acumen. It's no surprise when Inspector Morse's chief complains, "You're a clever sod, but you don't say the right things to the right people... you're unorthodox". This is equally true of Inspector Frost (ITV, 1992-) or Inspector Wexford (ITV, 1987-2000). Morse not only rejects modern detective methods, but is even squeamish about looking at dead bodies - his interest is purely in the solving of the puzzle.

The vogue for 'heritage' sleuths and their attendant allure of nostalgia is seen at its fullest in Agatha Christie's Poirot (ITV, 1989-) and Miss Marple (BBC, 1984-92). Other examples include Lord Peter Wimsey (BBC, 1972-74), with Ian Carmichael as Dorothy L. Sayers' snobbish sleuth - later played by Edward Petherbridge in A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery (BBC, 1987) - and Campion (BBC, 1988-89), starring Peter Davison.

A more radical counterpart to this traditional detective narrative is the so-called 'hard boiled' school typified by Raymond Chandler's archetypal tough-but-sensitive private eye Philip Marlowe. Successful British examples include Public Eye (ITV, 1965-75), Hazell (ITV, 1978-80) and Shoestring (BBC, 1979-80), whose heroes invariably eke out an existence on the outer edges of society, for little money and even less glory but driven by a sense of responsibility to their clients and, by extension, to society at large. A slightly milder form features female protagonists, as in Anna Lee (ITV, 1993-94), P.D. James' An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (ITV, 1997-2001) and Chandler & Co (BBC, 1994-95). In 1983, LWT went straight to the source with Philip Marlowe: Private Eye (ITV), set in 1930s California, with Powers Booth in the title role.

The enduring popularity of the genre is thanks partly to its remarkable flexibility, which has at times seen it take on an almost postmodern self-analysis. Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986), its hero a physically and psychologically tormented crime novelist tellingly named Philip Marlow, functions as a deconstruction of hard-boiled detective fictions, but also comments on those who write them, read them or watch them on the screen. In Roy Clarke's Pulaski (BBC, 1987), David Andrews plays an arrogant method actor who, while appearing in a TV series about an ex-priest turned detective, keeps getting mixed up with real crimes. In David Pirie's ingenious Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (BBC, 2000-2001), Ian Richardson plays Dr Joseph Bell, the real inspiration for Doyle's fictional hero. The amateur detective played by Diana Rigg in The Mrs Bradley Mysteries (BBC, 1998-1999) even confides directly to the audience. Nick Evans' Pirandellian TV play Murder by the Book (ITV, 28/8/1986), dramatises Agatha Christie's decision to bump off her most famous detective, with Poirot (Ian Holm) railing against his creator (Peggy Ashcroft).

This blurring of fictional lines and combining of multiple generic codes and affiliations is practically unique to this genre, attesting to its inherent strengths and to the audience's desire for direct engagement and the chance to play 'armchair detective'.

Sergio Angelini

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The (1984-85)

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Jeremy Brett's classic characterisation of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective hero

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-)

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The casebook of Belgium's finest detective

Thumbnail image of Beiderbecke Tapes, The (1987)

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Alan Plater-scripted comedy thriller about two school teachers

Thumbnail image of Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)

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Robbie Coltrane stars as a brilliant but flawed psychologist-detective

Thumbnail image of Hazell (1978-80)

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Thumbnail image of Inspector Morse (1987-2000)

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Thumbnail image of Jonathan Creek (1997-2004)

Jonathan Creek (1997-2004)

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Thumbnail image of Miss Marple (1984-92)

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Thumbnail image of Public Eye (1965-75)

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Thumbnail image of Ruth Rendell Mysteries, The (1987-2000)

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Thumbnail image of Shoestring (1979-80)

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Thumbnail image of Singing Detective, The (1986)

Singing Detective, The (1986)

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Thumbnail image of Wallace, Edgar (1875-1932)

Wallace, Edgar (1875-1932)

Director, Writer