Hazell was the creation of Scottish journalist and novelist Gordon Williams (who wrote the 1971 novel The Siege At Trencher's Farm, which Sam Peckinpah turned into the movie Straw Dogs, and the novel The Duellists which Ridley Scott subsequently adapted for the big screen in 1977) and the former Chelsea, Spurs, QPR and Crystal Palace footballer and future England manager Terry Venables - an unlikely pairing that stemmed from Williams' work as commercial manager at Chelsea. Under the alias PB Yuill the pair wrote a trio of novels during the 1970s featuring the cockney former policeman turned PI James Hazell. Starting with Hazell Plays Solomon (which subsequently became the series first episode, featuring Asher) which opened with this incredible, gripping line; "My name's James Hazell and I'm the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell button"
Williams and Venables were clearly fans of Raymond Chandler and sought to provide the East End of London with its very own Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade in their hero. Aged 33 and following a harsh beating which all but destroyed his ankle and a drink problem which threatened to destroy everything else, Hazell finds himself out of the Force and making a living as an inquiry agent taking work from suave lawyer Gordon Gregory (of Venables, Venables, Williams Gregory - a great in joke) and his landlady Dot and avoiding the overtures of his unsympathetic ex CID guv, the dour Scotsman 'Choc' Minty and Keith O'Rourke a villain out for revenge. The novels with sharp, zesty affairs showing a penchant for a good simile and a flair for the earthy East End character and humour. In short, they were a natural for television in the 1970s.
Cast as Hazell was Nicholas Ball (though the word was Venables and Williams wanted real life gangster turned actor and friend of Princess Margaret, John Bindon) and it's the role that the actor is remembered for even to this day. He's perfect in the role, possessing the necessary tough demeanour, charm and dry wit - he also looked like he could do people some damage, which not many lead actors who played tough guys could always convincingly manage. During filming of the first series, Ball met his first wife the then bit part actress and soon to be star of Not The Nine O'Clock News, Pamela Stephenson; another thing he remains famous for. In the supporting roles of Choc Minty, Dot and Gregory were Roddy McMillan, Barbara Young and James Faulkner, whilst Desmond McNamara played Hazell's cousin, known to all as Cousin Tel, who always had his ear to the ground.
Twenty two episodes made up two series of Hazell which ran from 1978 to 1980. The show was a popular hit and was placed in competition with the BBC's 'Private Ear' drama Shoestring, which perhaps ultimately beat out Hazell in the audiences minds. It even made it to the comic strip world, featuring in the 'action paper' of the day, Target, as seen here, drawn by Harry North.
Over the years rumours have persisted of a comeback for Hazell, often either starring Ball once more (with Leslie Grantham as Cousin Tel, strangely enough!) or with someone else filling the shoes of the cockney PI. Perhaps the closest we came to this rumour bearing fruition was when it was alleged Ray Winstone wanted to play the role in the mid 00s, but ultimately he opted to star in Vincent in which he played a former cop turned PI in Manchester. The theme tune was composed by Roxy Music's Andy Mackay and sung by Maggie Bell with lyrics from Judy Forrest. The remit was allegedly to provide the show with something akin to The Kinks' Dead End Street albeit with a more somewhat upbeat tone. I don't think anyone can truly say Mackay et al succeeded as such in that respect, but it's a bloody good theme nonetheless and reached number 37 in the UK charts in the April of1978.