Years ago my television antenna fell down and I decided it was a good thing so just left it on the ground. Then I discovered Netflix and since it meant I could watch only the movies I really wanted to see and I would not be able to slump in front of a television set all day, I signed up. The first Brit mystery series I rented was Cracker. (1993) What a revelation!
Of course, I’d watched the gentler PBS Mystery! selections of the genre, but nothing as rip-roaring as this. Prime Suspect (1991) was out there in front, treating subjects no one in American would touch and wouldn’t know what to do with if they did touch them. Anyway, 2000 was a scary time in my life (Oh, yeah, you could say “liminal.”) and the whole thing went straight into my subconscious and dream life. Robbie Coltrane -- BIGGER than life! Then I found Robson Green’s scary stuff: “Wire in the Blood” and “Touching Evil”, his collaborations with the unholy, foul, Val McDermid. (Late 1990’s) Those goth/psycho thrillers would not even have been bearable if it hadn’t been for Green and his Cary Grant persona.
By now I’ve settled down into a sort of “little gray cells” pursuit of the genre and all its permutations. The most recent ones I’ve watched began with the discovery that Lynda LaPlante had written a sort of “Prime Suspect Lite” called The Commander. (1995; Prime Suspect was 1991.) This second star, Amanda Burton, is not so salty as Helen Mirren, even though she’s a bit of a slut, or what one of her staff (male) loyally called “a sensuous woman.” After all, men detectives sleep with suspects all the time. Don’t they? The most successful episodes are the ones with interesting men, the first, Hugh Bonneville, being a leftover from Prime Suspect who is now the patriarch on a dignified upstairs/downstairs series, Downton Abbey. Then a scary Scotsman and a big funny Dutchman.
Then Netflix and I began to discover the smaller country productions of the genre. The first I really registered as NOT English was Murphy’s Law (2003), made in Northern Ireland (Belfast), and the plot lines still lingered over the through-the-ages conflict on that island. I still haven’t finished watching this series, but I was much impressed by the last episode of the first season which featured a rather classy “club” where the patrons sat at tables and the stage show was not the usual pole dancers (who vary in quality and state of dress depending on series’ budgets) but rather a high quality showgirl revue, tall beautiful dignified women in spectacular and witty costumes. The hero (played by James Nesbitt who is native to Northern Ireland) is funny -- maybe funnier than Robson Green.
A Mind to Kill is Welsh (1994). Who knew there were Welsh television series productions? The hero, played by Philip Madoc is indeed Welsh, but he’s not your young frisky detective who wisecracks while he gets knocked about. Nor does he end up in bed with anyone. This dignified detective is a throwback to Orson Wells and reminded me so much of Bob Scriver (a bit of a beard and a bit of a paunch, plus quite a bit of gray) that I almost wept when I found out he had died just this March. One spectacular episode was filmed in a coal mine where the English villain died with his mouth full of the black stuff. I still find it difficult to believe that Madoc once played Magua in an English production of Last of the Mohicans, though I found clips of it on YouTube. This series was simultaneously filmed in Welsh (actually re-filmed shot by shot).
Proof (2004) an Irish/Danish collaboration refers to EU trafficking. This is the other end of the island from Murphy’s Law, Dublin rather than Belfast. People speak Gaelic. The below quote is from IMDB.com: “The series became controversial when it was discovered that Philpott's original screenplay had been "dumbed down" and had some of the more politically-critical elements removed. The screenplay was read by a Sunday Times TV critic who noted the excisions and who editorialised about them in an article separate to his TV column. Fay's observations in the Sunday Times Feb 1 2004 included the observation: "It could almost be the plot of a whodunnit. A television station commissions a hard- hitting drama set against the sleazy backdrop of Irish political corruption. The designated writer delivers the goods with a script that station bigwigs hail as one of the grittiest and most convincing they’ve ever read. Then, somewhere between the green-lighting of the project and the first day of principal photography, the script is eviscerated. Its astringent depiction of crooked politics, Irish-style, is watered down to bland, generic mush."
This in itself is fascinating: reality playing off against mimesis until it’s a question of what’s illustrating what! This sort of thing happens all the time but it’s hard to detect in the big picture. On the level of reservation or even state, we see it quite a bit, though no one local has resources to make a telling movie about it. So far. As video gets to be a skill set that a lot of people have, and the politics gets more sharp-edged, as close to survival and rebellion as Ireland often is, we can expect depictions. The books are out there, but so far they’re pretty watered down. We don’t like to scare the horses.
This genre generally centers on remarkable individuals, usually male, which is not at all different from stories through the ages from the Iliad on forward. Part of what interests me is the flavor that goes with different times and different nationalities. A Mind to Kill has a lot of very close frames of faces and relies on language. No one has guns. A lot of what they do is open doors in order to talk to people. Proof has guns (sometimes revolvers!) and car chases, blood splatters, not much nudity. Their pole dancers look like chubby high school girls by today’s standards. The differences are subtle, but people who like psycho-goth whodunnits with political overtones always appreciate the subtle. The actors are always absorbing, both the familiar repertory faces we see over and over, transforming and aging but always welcome, and the new faces of people we don’t know at all, whom we find just in time to lose them. It's the mix of known and surprising that holds us.