Wednesday, 16 May 2018
British TV has always been awash with TV detectives, but they fall into two distinctive categories; there's the made-for-TV cops, and then there's those adapted from pre-existing bestselling crime and thriller literature. In the '80s and '90s it's fair to say that the BBC dominated the former category with a gold run of populist fare that featured the likes of Shoestring, Bergerac, and Spender. Whilst adaptations were principally ITV's domain, the jewels in the crown consisting of David Suchet's Poirot, Jeremy Brett's definitive Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse and A Touch of Frost.
The BBC's only real popular foray into adaptation was Lovejoy, but that genial, comfortable Sunday night offering was so far removed from the grubby, cutthroat violent and X rated nature of Jonathan Gash's original novels, and the programme only adapted a couple of the books in the first series anyway, so that need not detain us further.
So at some point in the '90s the BBC woke up to the sobering fact that ITV had the monopoly and thus they attempted to produce adaptations of other popular literary detective series for themselves. Perhaps the most successful (in terms of long-running at least) of these was Dalziel and Pascoe, the chalk-and-cheese sleuthing duo created by Reginald Hill. That series got off to a very strong start thanks to fabulously droll adaptations from Alan Plater and Malcolm Bradbury no less, and ran for eleven years - though they abandoned the source material provided by Hill very early on, offering us the law of diminishing returns.
But on a par with those early Dalziel and Pascoe adaptations is a mini-series from four years earlier - the BBC's attempts to bring John Harvey's sandwich eating, multiple cat owning and jazz loving Nottingham based cop DI Charlie Resnick to the screen. The channel made just two adaptations of the Resnick novels - Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment - starring Tom Wilkinson and, having watched them for the first time just a couple of years ago, I've been scratching my head to think why they didn't go on to adapt every single one of them because, quite simply, this would have given ITV's Morse and Frost a good run for their money.
It helps of course that the author himself, John Harvey, adapted the novels for TV. But crucially the director of Lonely Hearts, Bruce MacDonald, understands the material beautifully and gives us something unique that still stands out as a distinctive piece of drama some twenty-four years later. Crucially MacDonald's style, combined with his knowledge and understanding of Harvey occasionally somewhat fragmentary writing style, works in close harmony to deliver an deeply atmospheric piece. Like the jazz beloved of our central character, Harvey's writing often strays from the narrative through line to provide quirky and unusual flourishes or glimpses of other themes. This is best exemplified in the way that we see the team at Nottingham CID (which includes a youngish David Neilsen before he headed to the cobbles of Coronation Street, looking rather different with short hair and a military moustache, and actor/writer William Ivory as a scene-stealing leery, neanderthal cop who despite his blunt methods gets the job done in a way we cannot help but admire) involve themselves in other secondary cases or how we catch references to their home lives. All of these instances help lend a sense of multi-dimensionality and authenticity to the proceedings.
That said, MacDonald's directorial style isn't going to be to everyone's tastes and it is not without its flaws. In creating such a distinctive atmosphere it often runs the risk of being a touch too oblique, with sections of footage done, POV style, from the perspective of our protagonists, often lingering on minor details and abstract items. And there are a lot of moments set at night were everything is just so damn dark - but that might actually be down to the quality of the off-air recording from 1992 (sadly these adaptations have never been officially released and only bootlegs are available) that I watched, I don't know.
The world of Resnick as created by John Harvey is both a well-written and addictive one, and I've enjoyed reading a few novels in recent years. Tom Wilkinson inhabits the character depicted upon the page rather well (though I perhaps expected and would have liked a more native Notts accent) and accurately captures that kind of melancholic detective who seems to have a black cloud perpetually hovering above his head and feels a little too much really well. It's a cliche now I guess, the over-empathetic policeman, but I don't imagine it was at the time.
The second adaptation, Rough Treatment, arrived a year later in 1993. It was another classy production but, with a different director (Peter Smith) at the helm it felt a little lacking with little to lift the proceedings above watchable, despite Jim Carter and Tom Georgeson as a good pair of chalk and cheese crooks and Sheila Gish having fun as the bored and frustrated wife of a TV director. However, I don't believe for a minute that this slighter offering sealed the fate of any further adaptations - ultimately I can only presume the ascent Wilkinson's career enjoyed round about the mid '90s with The Full Monty ultimately taking him to Hollywood was the real reason Resnick was so short-lived.
DI Charlie Resnick has been on my mind this week because I'm reading another novel and am tempted to revisit these adaptations this evening. In looking over my review (which originally appeared on Letterboxd) I came across John Harvey's blog and saw that the great man himself actually referenced my review here - to have a celebrated author you personally respect single out your writing and describe it as 'really interesting' has made my day!