Friday, 16 December 2011

The repeats that saved ONLY FOOLS and HORSES.... [Part 1]

What do series 4 of Blake's Seven, the John Duttine-starring adaptation of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, and Peter Davison's first season as Doctor Who all have in common?  Apart from being BBC telefantasy series first broadcast in autumn/winter 1981/2, that is.

They all beat the first series of Only Fools and Horses.... in the ratings.

Blake's Seven won 8.49 million across its 13 episodes shown from 28th September; the 6-part Triffids serial, beginning Thursday 10th Sept, was watched by 7.95m; and an average 9.24m tuned in to watch the young vet from All Creatures Great and Small establish himself as the star of the then 17 year-old cult series.  And I thought science fiction wasn't popular back then.

Only Fools, on the other hand, mustered just 7.7m for its 6 episodes beginning Tuesday 8th September at 8.30pm.

Radio Times listing for the first episode of Only Fools and Horses.... (edition dated 5-11 September 1981)
Why so low?  And this was low for those days, when there were only three television channels.  BBC One commanded 39% of the total audience and sitcoms often vied with soaps for the top placings in the charts.  David Jason was a well established comic presence thanks largely to ATV's A Sharp Intake of Breath (nigh on 20m at its peak!) and the Beeb's own Open All Hours (15m or so with its second series shown earlier the same year).

But it's perhaps not that much of a mystery.  What the show's creator, the late John Sullivan, has said on the subject probably covers it: "we didn't really get any publicity and the show went out in a very bad slot" ["Only Fools and Horses: The Official Inside Story" by Steve Clark, Splendid Books 2011].  Fools was placed opposite the Euston Films period serial The Flame Trees of Thika, which had the upper hand by about 3½ million.

ITV in fact had a particularly strong schedule on those Tuesday evenings, with Thika preceded at 8pm by the second series of the Thames Television version of The Morecambe and Wise Show, always a ratings juggernaut and no exception here.  Fools' lead-in on BBC1 was a repeat run of US import The Rockford Files.

One also wonders if the series' title had anything to do with the lack of interest.  Once one has heard the lyric "why do only fools and horses work?" it clicks into place, and it's a stroke of genius to include it in the title music - but that was only introduced in Series 2.  The low viewership early on mean that few are probably aware that the first series had a completely different, instrumental theme tune composed by Ronnie Hazlehurst - a Cockney honky tonk concoction much hated by all.

The 'Radio Times' feature article introducing the series - about the only substantial information a viewer was likely to find in 1981 - makes no mention of the phrase's significance either, and it was never addressed onscreen.  Might one's eye pass over an obscure-sounding title in the listings..?

David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Lennard Pearce in an early publicity shot.  Publicity?!  Harpo Marx would've made more noise!
The show did have its advocates mind you, even back then.  Common Sense blogger W. Stephen Gilbert for instance, with remarkable perspicacity and good taste called it "the best new sitcom so far this season" in his "Off Air" column in industry journal 'Broadcast' dated 26th Oct.  Other highlights of his piece include "almost every line of humour comes from character.  [John] Sullivan is verbally deft enough to make use of the comedy of surprise rather than of familiarity and innuendo" and "[David] Jason is on fine form and I hope it's good for him - he badly needs a series to put him in the first rank".

Mr Gilbert even addresses the subject of the less than stellar ratings: "Episode 1 got in the BARB ratings but there was no Burt Lancaster movie on BBC2 that night.  When Burt was competing, Fools fell out [of the list]"!  Just out of interest, those movies starring the incomparable Mr Lancaster that played opposite episodes 2-5 of Fools were Run Silent, Run Deep (1958); Trapeze (1956); Birdman of Alcatraz (1962); and The Train (1964).

So, not the greatest start for the show that went on to command the nation but perhaps it was just meant to be.  That initial series isn't the best by any stretch, and some of the episodes, for instance 'A Slow Bus to Chingford', are amongst the weakest of them all.

Fortunately it seems as though a second series was never in much doubt.  The BBC had a policy of nurturing shows in those days, allowing them "the right to fail" and so with Sullivan under contract, the Trotters were set to return at least once more.

But first came a Christmas special, commissioned and recorded at short notice for broadcast on Monday 28th December where once again it was outstripped by something the BBC didn't really like.  The single spin-off the original version of Doctor Who enjoyed, if that's the word, a vehicle for the recently departed robotic mutt K-9, also aired that Holiday Monday.  K-9 and Company, 8.4m; Only Fools and Horses, 7.5m...

The Trotters returned for a second run in 1982.  This is where I came in.
Series Two of the show began on Thursday 21st October 1982, again at 8.30pm.  It did a little bit better on its new night (despite the added competition of a fourth channel, from 2nd November) - up one million or so, for an average of 8.79m, but still nothing stellar for those days when the likes of Terry and June and Keep It in the Family could achieve 13m.

Competition on ITV wasn't so strong - episode 1, "The Long Legs of the Law", the funniest episode so far, in which Rodney embarks on an ill-advised relationship with a policewoman, played opposite a reshowing of the 1974 Roger Moore film Gold.  It still managed 10.5m against the Trotters' 7.7m.

Thereafter, the scheduling eased up some more - Season 2 of American soap Falcon Crest (showing only a couple of weeks behind its US prime time airdates) played opposite the remainder of the run.  Not exactly their best guns.

And I agree with the notion that Thursday is a much better night for comedy, psychologically speaking.  Series 2 is where I first caught the show, in my first term at grammar school and hating it - luckily, there's only one more day to go before the weekend.  Or if it's mid-term, none!  As was the case on 28th October 1982 when I tuned into my very first episode, "Ashes to Ashes", where Del and Rodney are tasked with disposing of the ashes of Trigger's late gran - and loved every minute.  I never missed from that day.

Still, there was always something doing better - "Ashes to Ashes" followed a new series of the Ronnie Corbett vehicle Sorry!, which got 11.1m to Fools' 9.8m.  No comment.

A string of fine episodes followed: "A Losing Streak", in which Del bets everything the family owns to take on Boycie at poker; "The Yellow Peril", where they redecorate a Chinese restaurant with what turns out to be luminous paint; and, last but not least, the famous "A Touch of Glass" featuring one of the finest visual gags in the history of television comedy.  With this episode the show finally cracked the 10 million mark.

After two series of Only Fools, John Sullivan created Just Good Friends, starring Jan Francis and Paul Nicholas

A special followed that Christmas, and then, according to John Sullivan, there was silence from the BBC.  Only Fools and Horses.... hadn't set the world aflame and no third commission was forthcoming.  The fact that they were dragging their heels over a show which had finished its last run on such a strong note as the chandelier gag is baffling to me.

John Sullivan moved on to a new show, the romantic comedy Just Good Friends - which incidentally was the immediate smash that Fools hadn't been, averaging almost 11m for its first series, five out of seven episodes of which took 1st place in the BBC1 Top Ten.

Nicholas Lyndhurst returned to an earlier sitcom success - a belated fourth series of bitterweet Carla Lane masterpiece Butterflies (which managed 7½m on BBC2, all seven episodes at No.1).

The late John Sullivan, with typewriter, pictured in 1981 [Radio Times]

So things weren't looking good.  However, help was at hand in the unlikely form of summer filler repeats.  On Tuesday 5th July 1983 at 8.30pm, a re-run of Series 2 began on BBC1 (Series 1 wasn't re-shown until afternoons in 1987).  What happened next, from Sullivan himself:

"[My wife] and I took the kids to Hastings and we were staying in a caravan when I picked up a paper and glanced at the ratings and there was Only Fools.  It was as if the public had finally noticed the show.  If that hadn't happened ... there was no way a third series would have been commissioned.  By the time I got back home I was offered two more series"
 ["Only Fools and Horses: The Official Inside Story" by Steve Clark, Splendid Books 2011]

Maybe, just maybe, the newspaper article that John Sullivan saw on his family holiday, showing Only Fools in the Top 10 charts.  'Daily Express', Mon 1 Aug 1983
The repeats averaged 7.7m, equaling its competition, a brand new series of forgotten Thames sitcom Don't Rock The Boat, starring Nigel Davenport as a middle-aged boatyard owner who marries a much younger woman.  No idea, but it was written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey so it may have been okay.  Nigel Davenport appears to have got typecast with marinal matters given that he eventually joined Howard's Way.  I digress.

And so at lightning speed a third series of the adventures of the Trotter clan was commissioned, being mentioned in the Express on 24th August as having a new 7-episode run.  Production began on 2nd September.

The series began on Thursday 17th November, at 8.30pm, a week after Just Good Friends finished.  Given the alacrity of the production, it is astonishing that this is arguably the pinnacle of Fools.  Everything has come together in a remarkable way, with David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Lennard Pearce, John Sullivan and producer/director Ray Butt producing comedy gold rivalling the likes of Fawlty Towers.

Unexpectedly back again, but most welcome, in 1983

So many sensational episodes that series: 'Healthy Competition' with Rodney going it alone (with Mickey Pearce); 'Friday the 14th', the Trotters in a remote cottage, planning on some salmon poaching and being menaced by a potential axe-murderer; 'May the Force Be With You', the first appearance of Del-boy's arch nemesis Roy Slater, ex-schoolfriend and bent Detective Inspector; 'Who's A Pretty Boy', redecorating Denzil and Corinne's flat and sauteing the latter's pet canary into the bargain; and the sublime Christmas special 'Thicker than Water', with the return of their absconded father Reg after 18 years.

The show started to make regular appearances in the BBC1 Top Ten.  Average audience jumped to 10.46m with the audience rising over the seven weeks, finishing with 11.9m for 'Who's a Pretty Boy'.  ITV competition was - usually - another cruddy import, this time the debuting Hotel, based on the Arthur Hailey novel and starring James Brolin.  There was still room for ITV to win the round mind you - the televising of the 1983 Miss World contest beat Only Fools' 'Healthy Competition' on the 24th Oct by over 5m; and the following week the Hotel pilot beat 'Friday the 14th' by almost 3m.  Bloody hellfire.

Anyway, for the first of many occasions over the next two decades, the Trotters were promoted to Christmas Day for that year's special, playing at 9.35pm to 10.8m directly after a feature length All Creatures Great and Small with 12.2m.  On ITV at the time was the Peter Sellers' Clouseau pic Revenge of the Pink Panther, but I dunno how many people tuned in to it.  Not as many, I don't think.

Peter Woodthorpe in his one and only appearance as Reg Trotter, in 'Thicker Than Water'.  Just as well it was perfect.

1983 had turned out to be a very good year for the show, despite starting off on such an ambiguous note. Series 3 was the first of many to be BAFTA-nominated, for Best Comedy Series, losing out to Hi-Di-Hi!  And not many sitcoms can claim that.

Summer 1984, and it was the turn of Series 3 to gain a summer repeat.  All 7 episodes were shown from 16th July to 27th August (Mondays usually at 8pm), and "Homesick" kicked off the run with 10.4m and the No.1 place in the BBC1 chart.  In fact, this and two other episodes outstripped the viewership of their first screening, which can't be bad.  The average was 10m or so, not much less than the original.

Only Fools and Horses.... was finally on its way to becoming the most popular British sitcom ever made.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Columbo - Murder by the Book (1971)

To mark Steven Spielberg's long overdue return to cinema screens this week with The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, a 40th anniversary look back at my favourite episode of my, well, second favourite detective series - Columbo's "Murder by the Book", a very early directorial outing for Spielberg, first broadcast in the US on Wednesday 15th September, 1971 as the premiere episode of The NBC Mystery Movie.

Columbo represents guilt.  That’s how I’ve always seen him anyway, as a manifestation of the murderer’s conscience, needling away, never giving up until they break down.  Just how does he so instinctively know whodunnit every time?  In fact maybe he doesn’t actually exist at all, [SPOILER ALERT] like Tyler Durden in Fight Club.  Actually, I’m not so sure that works, but I’m throwing it out there anyway...  I genuinely think that’s why the show is such a cult.  It can be read on so many different levels.  It is of course, first and foremost, the best TV detective series of them all (sorry, Eddie).

"I saw it at the beginning!  Copyright, MCMLXXI - that's 1971..."
“Murder by the Book”, actually the second series episode to be filmed, after “Death Lends A Hand”, is my favourite episode.  What’s not to like?  Levinson and Link; Peter Falk and Jack Cassidy; composer Billy Goldenberg; cinematographer Russell L Metty; Steven Bochco; Steven Spielberg!  A coming together of some of the greatest talents ever to work in series television.

Ferris and Franklin (l-r, Martin Milner and Jack Cassidy) crime fiction co-writers probably inspired by Columbo creators Levinson and Link
The plot in a nutshell: successful crime fiction writing team James Ferris (Martin Milner) and Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) are on the verge of a breakup which will expose the latter as having made no creative contribution.  Profligate ladies’ man Franklin murders his partner after driving him to his remote cabin and having him phone his wife (Rosemary Forsythe) and tell her he’s still at his office in the city.  Franklyn tries to tie the murder to a non-fiction book Ferris was working on about organised crime, but hasn’t figured on the dogged Lieutenant Columbo of the LAPD being assigned to the case not to mention a would-be blackmailer (Barbara Colby) with designs on him...

If I was being honest, I would have to say that the denouement isn’t the greatest in the show’s history.  That final clue about the idea for the murder being written down five years before by Ferris is weak and proves nothing - although Ferris’s line about having “the feeling of déjà vu” while Franklyn is driving him to the cabin is a nice foreshadowing.  But the episode is so rich in every other regard that it still stands up all these years later.

Lt. Columbo comes face to face with his quarry for the first time - marked by one of Spielberg's trademark close-ups of people's faces
First we have Jack Cassidy as Ken Franklin, surely the ultimate Columbo villain.  Co-creator William Link on the actor: “Our favourite.  He was...juicy without going over the top.  Jack had a wonderfully humorous utter contempt for this bug who wouldn’t leave him alone – Columbo”.  Cassidy’s growing irritation with Falk’s persistent interruptions to his playboy lifestyle is played with a comic touch that is a delight to watch.

The brilliant Cassidy went on to play two more Columbo murderers, in Season 3’s “Publish or Perish” and Season 5’s “Now You See Him”.  He tragically died in a fire at his West Hollywood home in 1976.

Then we have the script by 27-year old Steven Bochco (with assistance from Levinson and Link).  Bochco, hired as Story Editor on that first season at the suggestion of director Richard Irving, of course went on to create Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and Murder One amongst many other groundbreaking shows.  There’s not a dull scene in ‘Murder by the Book’ and it’s a glorious template for how the show would develop.  The storytelling is clear and concise, and the murder plot is simply set up (not always the case later on in the series unfortunately). The 75m running time helps too, with the Columbo-less Act One lasting a concise 16 minutes.

David Wayne as a wife-murderer who receives unwanted police help in the 1957 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "One More Mile to Go".  A similar sequence was cut from "Murder by the Book".
There is actually an interesting sequence in the script which didn’t make it to the screen: right after the Lieutenant’s first scene, when he introduces himself to Joanna Ferris, the victim's wife, Ken Franklin is described driving back to Los Angeles with his partner’s body in the trunk when he has a blow-out and receives unwanted assistance from a motorcycle cop.  This is a very Hitchcockian idea (particularly, the 1957 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “One More Mile to Go”, directed by the great man himself, which is effectively a half-hour expansion of this very scenario) as we are firmly on the side of Franklin in not wanting the body to be discovered.  It’s rather a shame this has been omitted but it does highlight how much of Hitchcock’s sensibilities are present and correct in Columbo.  The series’ roots can be located in many sources, Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” being the ultimate, but Hitch’s influence shouldn’t be overlooked.

Farley Granger (l) and John Dall (r) as the murderers whose intellectual game is foiled by their former housemaster, played by James Stewart, in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) from the Patrick Hamilton play.  There are definite shades of Columbo in the cat and mouse dialogue between the three.
Here he is on the subject of his 1948 picture Rope, in which John Dall and Farley Granger play roommates who murder an acquaintance for their own intellectual amusement and then hold a dinner party for his family and friends: “The audience knows everything from the start.  It certainly is not a whodunit for the simple reason that everyone knows out front who did it.  As far as I’m concerned you have suspense when you let the audience play God.  Will the murderers break and give themselves away?”.  This is Columbo, surely?  He has also stated “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.  That is a cardinal rule”.  Nuff said.

Back to “Murder by the Book”, I’m missing it...  Billy Goldenberg’s musical score is a gem, cleverly weaving in typewriter sounds to unsettling effect.  The two ‘bergs collaborated on a number of television projects at Universal in the early 1970s, most famously Duel just a few months later, which launched the young director on his stratospheric career.

And then 64 year-old cinematographer Russell L Metty’s contribution to the episode is a vital one too: famously clashing with both Levinson & Link and Spielberg during the shoot, he was responsible for the noir lighting which gives the episode such flavour (and helps mark it out from the flat lighting style of so much contemporary episodic TV).  This was not what the producers wanted though, and he eventually acceded to their wishes for a brighter look later in the season.

Steven Spielberg around the time of his stint as a "journeyman" television director for Universal Studios, which was for the main part throughout 1970 and 1971.
And so we come to Steven Spielberg, the most successful film director in the history of the medium and also one of the best - not to mention, one of my personal favourites.  The fact that he directed a Columbo knocks me out every time I think of it.  Heck, it's like finding out he's a Doctor Who fan or somethin'.  But having said that, is it better directed than the average episode?  Would it even be noticeably better than the norm if his name wasn’t on it..?

Hell, yes -- it’s fantastic!  The moment that opening long shot of Franklin’s car dollies back to reveal we’re actually in Ferris’s office you know you’re in the hands of a maestro.  Spielberg’s direction is actually fairly unobtrusive on the whole, but it’s a sure sign of directorial maturity in the 24 year-old(!).  He had at this stage been working as a so-called journeyman TV director at Universal for a couple of years (with segments of the likes of Night Gallery, The Name of the Game and the forgotten Roy Thinnes vehicle The Psychiatrist – which landed him the Columbo gig – under his belt), a situation he wasn’t altogether content with, but had come to a kind of peace with by the time of “Murder by the Book”: “It was a great honour to be invited to do that first show, and when I read the script, I said man, this is the best script anyone has ever given me to direct” So I treated that like a little mini-movie and I made [it] with the psychology of a film director, not a TV director.  I said “They’re giving me $130,000?  Within the time they’re giving me, I’m going to make this look like a million bucks!”

The lieutenant further annoys Franklin by tracking him down to his lakeside cabin, the scene of the crime
He did, too.  The episode looks gorgeous.  Would I just love to see it on the big screen.  Full of Spielbergian touches, such as bringing the actors’ faces just that much closer to the camera than everyone else – one of the secrets of his huge success in my view – it’s an essential part of his filmography.  It appears not to have gone over its 12-day shooting schedule, and was filmed late May to mid-June of 1971 in Los Angeles and 100 miles north-east in the picturesesque Big Bear Lake.

Incidentally, this might not have turned out to be Steven Spielberg’s one-and-only Columbo.  In March 1988 at a Los Angeles County Museum of Art event celebrating the series, William Link told the audience about receiving a phone call from him expressing interest in directing the opening episode of the just-announced revival.  Why this didn’t happen I don’t know, although the 1988-89 US television season was delayed by a writers’ strike.  I can however lament...

The late, great Peter Falk as Columbo, still defining the character in "Murder by the Book", here making an omelette for the victim's wife.  Can't see Joe Friday doing it.
But what about the man himself, Peter Falk?  For me, it’s the first time he plays the part as we know and love Lt. Columbo.  Before this he had filmed the TV movies Prescription: Murder, Ransom for a Dead Man and series episode “Death Lends A Hand”.  Falk’s always brilliant in the role but is it my imagination or is he just that little bit more consciously wilier, less humble in these?  There are elements of this in “Murder by the Book” too, but the deferential side of the character is coming to the fore.  Spielberg: “Peter was still finding things.  I was able to discover “Columbo-isms” along with Peter that [he] kept in his repertoire”.

I’d also like to pay tribute to Barbara Colby, who gives such a lovely performance as Ken Franklin’s half-hearted blackmailer, Lily La Sanka.  Sadly, Ms Colby's fate was as tragic as that of Jack Cassidy - the victim of a drive-by shooting in 1975.

Barbara Colby as Ken Franklin's unwanted admirer, Lily La Sanka
Watching Columbo holds many joys, but “Murder by the Book” in particular is like an old, dear friend I could never tire of seeing.  I’ve even had it on in the background as I type this, and fittingly I can just hear Goldenberg’s closing credit music now...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Shoestring - he's back!

Eddie Shoestring (Trevor Eve) with his landlady Erica Bayliss (Doran Godwin) in a Radio Times photoshoot marking the series' launch.  Behind: Bristol's famous Clifton Suspension Bridge
A temporary diversion away from Euston Films to mention the imminent DVD boxset of much-loved BBC detective series Shoestring.  Long anticipated, held up for years on account of music rights issues, Series One of the show is finally released on 17th October.

And indeed, it would likely never have made it to the screen had it not been for Euston Films, for its predecessor, the police series Target, was a direct response by the BBC to The Sweeney.

By way of celebration of this groundbreaking show's appearance on DVD, and borrowing the format from Doctor Who Magazine's exceptional 6-volume series on the history of that show, "in their own words" here is the story of the show's beginnings by its creators:

Co-creator [with Richard Harris], writer and producer ROBERT BANKS STEWART:
"I was invited to go and join the BBC, to overhaul Target.  About a week after I was there, the head of series, Graeme McDonald, came into my office and said "Why don't we scrap it, and do something new?  Have you got anything you'd like to do?"

"Somehow, I found myself saying "why is it that the BBC never make a really good private eye series, like Americans do - like Rockford?  Why don't we really try and make a private eye series?" and Graeme McDonald said "you're on!""
The Cult of...Shoestring [BBC Four, 9th March 2008]

(l-r) Robert Banks Stewart and Richard Harris, the two exceptional writers who created Eddie Shoestring
GRAEME McDONALD, BBC Head of Series and Serials 1977-81:
"I felt Target had realised its full potential in two series.  A chance came up to develop a new series about a local radio station.  It is called Shoestring - and that's not a reflection of the budget I may add!"
Quoted by Tim Ewbank in The Sun, 10th March 1979

"I've been told I may live to regret that title!"
Evening Standard, 26th January 1979

"All the cop series had begun to look like a rather tired formula and this idea of tying a private eye in with a local radio station was different and attractive"
Photoplay magazine, 8th August 1979

Trevor Eve with Michael Medwin as Radio West manager Don Satchley on the Ealing Studios set
"It's no good pitching up a hero solely because he has a nice jawline.  The more details you give a character the more interesting the series.  After all, there was hardly a character in Raymond Chandler's books with no past or no flaw".
Radio Times, 17-23 October 1981

"Who was going to play him?  Quite a lot of big names were in the hat, but I had seen Trevor in a play made by Granada and I was terribly impressed by him.  A year later, I was starting Shoestring so I said to the BBC, "I want Trevor Eve.  He's a very fine actor and I really believe it'll work with him"".
The Cult of...Shoestring

Series star TREVOR EVE ["Eddie Shoestring"]:
"I have set out to try and create somebody different, somebody of interest.  Eddie Shoestring has a philosophy about his life.  In a nutshell, it's that everybody should be allowed to do what they want.

"Shoestring has been knocked by his breakdown, with the result he has a good sense of humour, but most important, he's vulnerable."
Inverview with Vicky Payne, Radio Times 29 Sept-5 Oct 1979

"It seemed to be an opportunity to play someone eccentric.  There'd always been the 70s tradition of straight looking guys doing it right on the nose and everything.  And this was a character coming from left field.  I thought it was a chance to create somebody right from scratch."
The Cult of...Shoestring

Series regular DORAN GODWIN ["Erica Bayliss"]
"He just came along with so much energy and vitality.  It was very refreshing."
The Cult of... Shoestring

Eddie, wearing his pyjama jacket as a shirt - seems perfectly reasonable to me - in episode 2, "Knock for Knock", written by Bob Baker and directed by Roger Tucker
I had this very clear idea that if this character lived on a boat, he wouldn't be hanging up his suit.  So I went and got all this crumpled linen and insisted that they weren't hung up [by the costume department]."
The Cult of...Shoestring

"I didn't want people who wrote the blood and thunder-thriller-tearaway-cars shrieking round corners - that sort of thing.  I wanted character and human stories."
The Cult of...Shoestring

"I believe that even the smallest bit player should never be a cypher.  I work on the principle that if a bit player says three lines, two of them should concern the plot and the third reveal something about him as a human being."
Quoted by Peter Lennon in The Sunday Times, 21 December 1980

Doran Godwin and Trevor Eve on location for the filming of "Knock for Knock"
BOB BAKER, script editor and writer ("Knock for Knock"):
"There was such a pressure on – sometimes we’d have to rewrite an entire script over the weekend. But some of those total rewrites came out better than some of the ones that we’d worked up for ages".
Interview with Jayne Kirkham for The Writers' Guild of Great Britain, 30 November 2007

MARTIN CAMPBELL, director, "The Teddy Bears' Nightmare":
"The whole atmosphere around Bristol is very different.  It was an interesting environment.  Perhaps a lot of people hadn't seen it before so that added to the texture of the series."
The Cult of...Shoestring

GRAHAM WALKER, editor, "Higher Ground", "Stamp Duty", "Utmost Good Faith", "The Mayfly Dance":
"Shoestring was only the second all-film series the BBC had made.  We were all aware this was a very different and rather special series.  Trevor Eve of course is a fantastically charismatic actor and the whole idea of setting a private detective in a radio station was a stroke of genius from Bob Banks Stewart.

"There were a few worries in the beginning that perhaps it might be a bit too different to catch on - audiences are funny things - but Bob had got it just right".
Shoestring - A Celebration website interview, October 2009

ROGER TUCKER, director, "Knock for Knock":
"A bunch of us came together, hell-bent on showing what we could do.  Graeme McDonald had just taken over as Head of Series and Serials at the BBC, it was Robert Banks Stewart's first job as producer, and it was my first chance to do an all-film drama.  It was also the first big break for Trevor Eve".
Interview with Werner Schmitz, Action TV

Radio Times listing for the opening episode

Initial reaction to Shoestring was very positive on all fronts.  Launched on BBC1 on Sunday 30th September 1979 - right after the first episode of To The Manor Born - in the middle of the infamous ITV strike, the first episode was watched by 19.5m.  Ratings peaked for episode 4, "An Uncertain Circle", with 20.7m.  A star was born in Trevor Eve and the show deservedly became part of television history.

Some early reviews -

"A promising debut last night for Shoestring, yet another private eye but this one operating in and around Bristol with no more than human resources and tackling the kind of low-key case that a lone detective might realistically encounter.

"In the opener, the neatly turned script by Robert Banks Stewart and the slick direction of Douglas Camfield combined to give a lot of pace, and Trevor Eve in the title role skilfully suggested a somewhat mysterious introvert with with a detachment refreshingly unusual in this television genre."
The Daily Telegraph, 1st October 1979

"Offbeat is the BBC's word to describe the private eye hero who gives his name to the promising new series Shoestring.

"Eddie Shoestring is certainly different -- an unkempt, shambling West Country drifter whose trick is to draw caricatures of the people he interrogates.

"Trevor Eve is an oddly watchable actor, whose uncaring appearance disguises a firm sense of justice.  You can't see him taking on a case unless his heart was in it."
Daily Mail, 1st October 1979

2entertain's Shoestring Complete Series 1, released 17th October 2011
Edit: so, we can settle back and finally enjoy Shoestring Series 1 on DVD.  Having received my own copy now, I can confirm that the picture quality is excellent and that it is completely uncut*.

*There is one small music replacement: about 23m into episode 1, "Private Ear", the background playing on a radio of Lene Lovich's 'Lucky Number' has been replaced by Blondie's 'Heart of Glass'.  I doubt anyone will even notice (no offence Lene!).

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Creator Gray Jolliffe on Stainless Steel and the Star Spies

(l to r) 'Compromise' crewmembers Gadget and Stainless Steel in Gray Jolliffe's Christmas 1980 sci-fi puppet extravanganza Stainless Steel and the Star Spies
Created by award-winning cartoonist Gray Jolliffe, live-action sci-fi puppet special Stainless Steel and the Star Spies was perhaps the most unusual project in Euston Films’ history.  Mr Jolliffe, best known today for his popular Daily Mail strip ‘Chloe & Co.’, was in 1980 creative director of an advertising agency - not to mention, the real scribe behind Eddie Shoestring’s caricatures in the BBC detective series starring Trevor Eve.

Stainless Steel chronicled the adventures of the crew of ‘SS Compromise’ – a race of robots called the Metaliens – and their quest to retrieve the Maguffin-esque Kleptonite Ball and return it to the tyrannical leader Kublai Chrome back on their home planet.  Commander Steel and his crew, amongst them Lieutenant Utensil, Professor Gizmo, Gadget and Canz, are transported through a Black Hole into a ‘Don’t Matter’ Universe and forced to search for the ball on a planet called Earth.

Voiced by a talented cast including Ed Bishop, Bob Hoskins and Graham Stark, and featuring Anna Karen and Fabia Drake as the human element, it is a lot of fun and Gray Jolliffe packs in the puns on the metallic nature of his protagonists with the same punch as a Pixar movie.

Shown by ITV on New Year’s Day 1981 at 4.45pm to an audience of 7.9 million, the show was unfortunately not deemed a success and a follow-up series never appeared.

Euston Films’ Chief Executive at the time, Verity Lambert, talks about the project in a BFI interview with Manuel Alvarado, conducted in January 1985, saying that what appealed about the idea was its originality – it was quite outside Euston’s usual remit.  She goes on to say that the intention was to make a half-hour pilot but, because of the expense, it was talked up to an hour for which it suffered.

Reaction was positive from many quarters however and novelist Hazel Holt, then critic for ‘The Stage and Television Today’, after describing it as “very stylish”, writes in the edition dated 8 Jan 1981: “Writer Gray Jolliffe took the principle of the Smash advertisement to look at Earth with alien eyes (the Earth is a Don’t Matter planet inhabited by non-ferrous life forms) and produced some memorable lines: “The people have no pig-iron”, “Let them eat platinum” and “What about the automatic pilot?”/”You are the automatic pilot!”

“As a parody the film was not limited in its appeal to the younger generation; the statutory Black robot reminded one of Alien and the villain Kublai Chrome looked rather like the baddie in Star Wars.

“It was a programme not only for children who would enjoy the ghastly puns.  It was for anyone who has seen Close Encounters or who has failed Physics with Chemistry O-level.”

An unusual project then and one which had somewhat disappeared from view.  Fortunately, the company Network has come to rescue of British TV history once more by releasing it on DVD earlier this year.

So having finally watched and enjoyed, I was curious to learn more about Stainless Steel and the Star Spies.  I contacted Gray Jolliffe via his website and he was kind enough to share his memories of the production:

I used to work in an advertising agency called BMP - Boase Massimi Pollitt - with a guy called John Webster and we did the Smash Martians, and they were fun.

Sometime after that a couple of guys from the company who actually made the Martians said “Why don’t we make them into a TV idea?  Could you write something?”  And I said “Yeah, I’d love to try that”.  So basically I wrote a pilot and two or three other episodes.  We just did it on spec.

But the Smash people and BMP didn’t want us to use the actual Martians.  That was no problem, because all the characters in Stainless Steel had to be totally different.
So we used the basic idea, but we changed the shape of the heads so they weren’t recognisable as ‘Smash’ Martians.  They were altogether more complicated.

Pete Richardson (of production design company BBRK Ltd, based at Shepperton Studios, who worked on many commercials) was the designer of the characters, he was a good guy.  I helped but he was the one who took them from paper designs and made them into three dimensions.  They were actually made of metal – aluminium and thing like that, all riveted together.  They made a nice model of the original spacecraft.

That’s a name I actually came up with, ‘Stainless Steel’.  I thought that’d be quite a good name for a metal hero.  It said everything really – that he was a ‘stainless’ character.

Other characters were Gadget; Professor Gizmo...  The villain was called Kublai Chrome; Rowbotham was his valet and he was always in fear of his life because Kublai Chrome was a real despot!

I happened to know a very nice woman [at Euston Films] called Linda Agran.  Linda was a very good friend of mine.  So I said to her “Linda, could I show you an idea I’ve got?” and she loved it and then she took it to show Verity Lambert.  Anyway, they phoned me soon after and said “Look, we want to make this – we want to make a pilot”.  So that’s what happened.

But everybody was committee-ing themselves.  It was my first foray into anything like that and so I wasn’t exactly going to start arguing with them – I just wanted to get it done.  Maybe I should’ve put my foot down, but I didn’t.

They wanted to change the script a lot.  They wanted to bring it back to earth - they got a lot of real people in there.  I wanted to make it a space romp with robots only but they thought there should be a human interest.

So I had to rewrite this and rewrite that. In the end, it all got a bit bogged down.  There were some good gags in it.  It was a curate’s egg of a thing but it was just too long.

I mean, I did it because it was worth doing but somehow it didn’t work - partly through my inexperience, and partly through the fact that Euston Films should have concentrated on the speed of the script more.

What happened was we got an hour long script that really could’ve been cut down to half an hour.  It was a bit slow, a bit repetitive.  When I look at it I think “Oh my God”.  What I know now!  Television has come on so much since then.  You look at this stuff and your inexperience shows.

And a lot of it at the end was unintelligible.  Looking at it now, I’m thinking “I didn’t write this, that doesn’t make any sense!”

I think it was about 6 weeks shooting, maybe 4, I can’t remember now.  It was slow-going, just about 3 minutes [filming] per day.

Originally, the whole script was read in the studio as if it was being played on radio. In animation, the first thing you start with is the script.

Later you’ve got the sound going on and the puppets are moving their mouths accordingly.  And of course there were all kinds of problems with the puppets, rolling their eyes, etc.  That was all [radio controlled].

So there was a lot of technical stuff going on.  And of course, unlike a TV commercial, where a company like Cadbury’s would throw a huge amount of money at the production, when you’re doing something like this for telly, money was very short so everything had to be done on a very tight budget.

(Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer) Freddie Young was on it, he was a wonderful old guy.  It was quite a coup to get [him] to light it, we were amazed.  He was probably just not busy at that particular moment.

There were about three [more] scripts but I don’t think the ratings were that good and they said “No, I don’t think we’re going to make any more of those”.  Disappointing, but I wasn’t really surprised, it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped it would.

It would’ve gone to different planets, different villains.  The Kleptonite Ball would have fallen into different hands; Kublai Chrome and his cohorts would have remained the major villains.

The other scripts probably involved more humans – they wanted interplay between humans and the Metaliens.

I don’t think it was for children, it was a little bit too sophisticated for children.  I put a lot of gags in there I don’t think children would’ve got.  It was designed, as far as I was concerned, for adults.  So it probably fell between two stools.

I’m not knocking Euston Films, they were very good.  They were in an area that they weren’t used to.  Nobody had ever done anything like that before, not for telly, not to that sort of scale.

It’s the kind of thing that they could do easily in Hollywood, but Euston were literally on a shoestring...

Many thanks to Gray Jolliffe.  As mentioned, Stainless Steel and the Star Spies was available on DVD courtesy of Network but appears to be deleted at present.
  Hopefully it will reappear soon.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Christopher Neame (1942-2011)

(l to r) Christopher Neame, Elspeth Huxley and director Roy Ward Baker on the African location for Euston Films' The Flame Trees of Thika in 1980
Producer Christopher Neame, who has passed away aged 68, was a key player in the Euston Films story.  Between 1978 and 1987, he oversaw the 13 episodes of popular wartime drama Danger UXB, 7-part Elspeth Huxley serial The Flame Trees of Thika, one-off features The Knowledge and Monsignor Quixote (which he adapted himself from the Graham Greene novella) and finally 3-part crime thriller Bellman and True.

And inspired by the rather hectic six month shoot on Danger UXB, he was also responsible for drawing up the famous "Producers' Memorandum", a guidebook for all subsequent Euston producers to refer to which would maximise their prep time:

"I am a firm subscriber to the belief that [pre-production] should be an extensive period with in-depth analysis of all production angles - it is, after all, the least expensive section of the whole thing!  I found a way of making it possible for directors to have plenty of preparation at Euston: basically, by combining editing and post-production work and viewing the overall position as a single unit."

Son of the late director Ronald Neame, Christopher's first major post in the film industry was as clapper boy with Hammer Productions in 1965.  Working his way up in the industry over the next decade, by the late 1970s the decline of British cinema prompted him to accept - after some initial resistance on his part - an invitation by his friend Johnny Goodman, to work in television instead.  Another old friend, John Hawkesworth, of Upstairs, Downstairs fame, was deviser of a new project for Thames/Euston about the bomb disposal squad in London during WW2, and the series needed a producer.

It was the beginning of a very creative decade for Mr Neame, which he expands upon in his highly informative, educational and entertaining - in short, Reithian! - memoir "A Take on British TV Drama: Stories from the Golden Years" (Scarecrow Press Inc., 2004).

Beginning my research on Euston Films in the autumn of 2009, I stumbled upon this volume and was greatly inspired by the stories it told - personal remembrances and indispensable insight into, indeed, the golden years of the company and British television in general, from a gentleman.

Wishing to learn more from this font of knowledge, I attempted to contact Mr Neame via his publishers.  To my delight, he was agreeable to a chat and so the following January, we had a phone conversation in which he answered all of my questions about Euston Films and television drama and was kindness personified.  I was shocked and dismayed to hear of his death last week.

Christopher Neame was a first-rate producer; as actor and friend Sam Waterston, with whom he worked on the CBS period adventure series Q.E.D., says in the book's foreword: "Read it for a direct sense of what it is to produce for television, what it takes, what it's like to live the life, and who is best suited to the task by temperament and attitude.  That will be someone who shares the author's taste for bedlam, improvisation, jury-rigged, skin-of-your-teeth escapes from disaster and the great joke and noble enterprise that is the entertainment business along with the more seriously focused aspect".

As for Mr Neame, I suspect he retired from the screen at the right time.  He was sceptical about the committee-led nature of television commissioning nowadays, but retained his optimism nonetheless: "To be absolutely fair, there is good material to be found on television, although one has to dig deeper and suffer longer waits between one nugget and the next".

As the book went to press in 2003, he had just heard the sad news that John Hawkesworth had passed away.  Of his friend, he says: "There is now a void in my life where once stood a kind and thoughtful man".

The family and friends of Christopher Neame are undoubtedly thinking likewise.  May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The road to THE SWEENEY

"They had this odd situation where [Special Branch] was number one in the ratings and everybody at Euston [Films] hated it"  Regan and The Sweeney creator Ian Kennedy-Martin, quoted in "Sweeney! The Official Companion" by Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood (Reynolds & Hearn Ltd, 2002).

How The Sweeney got commissioned in the first place was thanks to Euston Films' inaugural production not being very highly regarded by its makers - despite audience figures which actually eclipsed those of Regan and Carter, even after they had gone on air.

Derren Nesbitt as Jordan in Special Branch - version 1
Special Branch was a revamp of an existing property, a crime series about the Metropolitan Police department charged with matters of national security.  A VT production from Thames TV which had run for two 13-episode series in 1969-70, it starred Derren Nesbitt as the rather trendy DCI Jordan, with Wensley Pithey and later Fulton Mackay as his superior officer.

Euston wanted a known quantity for their initial production, as Chief Executive Lloyd Shirley explained: "[I]t seemed to us a reasonable bet to take a tape series that had enjoyed decent public acceptance on to film, so at least we would know there was some sort of audience for it" - quoted in "Made for Television: Euston Films Ltd" (BFI Books/Thames Methuen, 1985).

As it happened, there was perhaps less continuity than intended, for negotiations with star Nesbitt apparently broke down over fees and the late George Sewell was cast as the lead in the new series, playing DCI Alan Craven.  Production began on location in September 1972, with the episode "Red Herring" under the aegis of director Mike Vardy - the first ever hour of drama from Euston Films.

But Special Branch was proving problematic from the off - halfway into production on the series of 13, it was felt that the show needed something more and so a co-star was added to the mix, in the form of Patrick Mower as DCI Tom Haggerty - his episodes were interspersed with the first seven when the series was broadcast the following Spring.

Craven and Haggerty - heard of them?  Didn't think so...

Special Branch proved popular with viewers, and a second run of thirteen began production only a few months after the first had been completed.  This time the show gained a new producer, Ted Childs, whose previous experience with Thames and its predecessor ABC had been in documentaries.  He leapt at the chance to produce drama, and his influence over the direction Euston Films took was considerable: "[A]lthough I felt that Special Branch...left something to be desired, I learnt a great deal.  I brought in directors I'd worked with, some with a documentary background, and really what we tried to do was incorporate the 'wobbly-scope' techniques of 16mm documentary film-making into a drama situation" - from 'Made for Television: Euston Films Limited'.

Special Branch & Sweeney producer Ted Childs, pictured in 1978
The second run was just as much of a hit as the first when it was shown from February 1974, but by then Euston and Ted Childs had already moved on to other things.  No one apart from the viewers liked Special Branch - evidently this wasn't so important as it is now! - and Thames were on the lookout for something better.  Enter Ian Kennedy-Martin, younger brother of Troy and himself an acclaimed television screenwriter.

Ian Kennedy-Martin's long friendship with John Thaw began when he worked as story editor on the mid-60s ABC military police show Redcap.  Producer John Bryce - "completely barking mad but an absolute genius" according to Kennedy-Martin - was the very first to cast Thaw as the lead in a television series, and a star was born.

The Avengers and Redcap producer John Bryce in 1963 - without him, John Thaw would likely never have been cast as Jack Regan in The Sweeney

Redcap ran to 26 episodes and Thaw and Kennedy-Martin worked together again in the 6-part Southern Television serial The Capone Investment in 1973.  Shortly after this, the writer had the idea for a police drama as a vehicle for his friend.  Based this time around the Flying Squad, the Met department dealing with armed robberies and the like, the new series would be about an uncorrupted cop whose old school methods are being fazed out.

Creator of Jack Regan and The Sweeney, Ian Kennedy-Martin, in 2005
Kennedy-Martin felt British police series had deteriorated badly since his brother Troy had created Z Cars in 1962, and that Special Branch in particular was "ghastly, middle-class rubbish".  This new series, originally entitled 'McLean' until it turned out the name couldn't be cleared, was an attempt to redress this.

Approaching Lloyd Shirley and Thames story supremo George Markstein of The Prisoner fame, Kennedy-Martin got the go-ahead to develop an introductory episode.  This was assigned a slot on Armchair Cinema, Euston's second ever production, a series of self-contained 90m dramas which could also serve as pilots.

Meanwhile, Ted Childs and a few other Euston staffers, finishing off post production on Special Branch one afternoon in late 1973, decided to take in a matinee.  Their choice of film was one they had all seen before - William Friedkin's The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman in the real life story of abrasive New York cop 'Popeye' Doyle and his obsession with bringing down a narcotics ring.  "We all agreed we ought to be doing something like that" says Childs, quoted in 'Shut It! The Inside Story of The Sweeney' by Pat Gilbert (Aurum Press, 2010).

Given how heavily indebted to The French Connection and its principal character I for one think The Sweeney is, this is a very important point to note.  If also, a little too pat...

Just a few days later Lloyd Shirley gave Childs the "McLean" script to produce, and the rest is history: "I thought, "This will be great! A maverick Scotland Yard detective"" - from 'Shut It! The Inside Story of the Sweeney'.

Veteran television director Douglas Camfield was assigned to Regan, as it was now called, and pre-production began.  At this stage however, the project was in danger of derailing.  Childs and Camfield began to make significant changes to the script, long since signed off by Lloyd Shirley and George Markstein.  Kennedy-Martin was left fuming, and the animosity between he and Childs continues to this day.

Douglas Camfield, every Doctor Who fan's favourite director - assigned to but ultimately sacked from the Regan pilot (however, he did go on to direct six episodes of The Sweeney)
Who was right and who was wrong in the argument between Childs and Kennedy-Martin is open to conjecture.  Here, hedging my bets, I present both sides without comment:

Ted Childs: "Lloyd had a property which Ian Kennedy-Martin had written as a tape show.  I felt very strongly that we ought to pioneer a film technique rather than a tape studio production technique" - 'Made for Television: Euston Films Ltd' 

Ian Kennedy-Martin: "[Ted Childs said] that the row between the two of us was based on, in his words ‘Ian wanted the kind of drama he knew how to do well, with more studio space and longer speeches and lots of playing scenes, and I was all for opening it up and having it all happening on the road…’

It was completely the reverse" - from Ian Kennedy-Martin's website.

The stand-off resulted in Douglas Camfield stepping down from Regan and the original script being largely untouched. Tom Clegg got the job instead, and we can thank him for the casting of Dennis Waterman as they had worked together in a Special Branch a few months earlier.  Clegg went on to direct 13 episodes of the series.

However, having won this particular battle, Ian Kennedy-Martin stepped away from his creation, already tired of his conflict with Ted Childs.  The series was underway and it looked like the same thing was going to happen every time he wrote a script.  Euston backed Childs, no doubt cognizant of his ability to get a show up and running efficiently, and the rest is history as they say.

Kennedy-Martin was happy enough, having retained key rights and set the series up with writers he admired - Trevor Preston and his brother Troy, for instance.

But for an idea of how different things might have been had he carried on, you could do worse than read his three original novels about the character: "Regan" (First Edition Arthur Barker, Feb 1975); "Regan and the Manhattan File" (Arthur Barker, Sept 1975) and "Regan and the Deal of the Century" (Futura, Nov 1976).

TV Times listing accompanying the screening of Armchair Cinema: Regan, 4 June 1974

Friday, 1 July 2011

There's something about THE SWEENEY

Who's watching Between the Lines right now?  No one, that's who.  Seem to recall it got talked about quite a bit at the time.  Tuned in a couple of times: depressing crud, if you ask me.

Dennis Waterman as Carter /John Thaw as Regan, most likely about to give someone a well deserved kicking in the brilliant The Sweeney
On the other hand, there's The Sweeney.  35 years old and I counted eleven showings on ITV4 this week, with a peak viewership of about 250,000.  But even if it wasn't actually on, I just know people would still be watching.

Created by Ian Kennedy-Martin, this story of a jaded Flying Squad DI trying to keep the streets of London safe from the villains he hates so much is Euston's one true claim to television immortality: the cop show par excellence; the greatest screen depiction of Britain in the 1970s; the ultimate vehicle for at least one of TV's greatest ever stars.

But why is it so good?  The obvious first - plots that haven't dated.  Nothing formulaic here, producer Ted Childs eschewed the predictable.  There are shows around now that have more forseeable plot developments - step forward Scott & Bailey, fun though it may be.

Thaw and Waterman as...themselves I reckon
Witty, clever scripts by the likes of Troy Kennedy-Martin, Trevor Preston, Ranald Graham, Roger Marshall, etc. and brilliant characterisation by John Thaw and Dennis Waterman.  Thaw is fantastic as Regan.  In his hands the show can be taken as a comedy and perhaps that's the best way to view such a hard-hitting crime series.  It might be far too unpalatable otherwise; it shares this quality with the later Cracker.  Dark stuff at the best of times but, at least when Jimmy McGovern was writing, searingly funny which made all the difference.

People are still watching it, I notice.

The Sweeney was expertly produced too.  Having cut their teeth on 26 episodes of the not much-loved Special Branch, the Euston Films crews were firing on all cylinders, with fine directors of the calibre of Tom Clegg, Douglas Camfield, David Wickes and Terry Green blazing a trail.  Film expert, the late Leslie Halliwell, describes the series in his much-maligned but seminal 1980s 'Television Companion' as "a thoroughly professional job" which is spot on.

But all this doesn't explain why the show still packs such a punch now.

Well, as alluded to earlier it captures a decade perhaps better than anything else I've seen.  Here is where Euston's "mission statement" comes into its own, for here we have the 1970s laid bare.  Seen through a fictitious filter certainly, but the edges are 100% real and that can't help but seep through.  It's a historical document.

Then there's the fact of its almost perfect placing in social history - addressing the question of authority with real rigour and cynicism, sweeping away the establishment likes of Dixon of Dock Green - and being allowed to do so before political correctness took hold.  This in turn produced much more measured fare like Juliet Bravo and The Chinese Detective, both also created by Ian Kennedy Martin interestingly.

The Sweeney is a product of tension too, destined for greatness but relatively short-lived as a result (the pilot, all 53 episodes and two feature films were produced between March 1974 and May 1978).  By this I mean, a coterie of largely left-leaning writers, directors and actors coming together to create a right-wing hero - understandably beloved of a public more inclined towards the latter, but eventually cast aside in vague embarrassment by the liberal creators nonetheless.  John Thaw did subsequently state that he could never play a character like Regan again.

No matter, we got it for long enough.

Of course, we want it back.  And got it too, in the shape of era-shifting police series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, both featuring the Regan-like DCI Gene Hunt played by Philip Glenister, the deliberately un-PC 70s/80s detective whose extremes were on this occasion necessarily tempered by his modern day partners Sam Tyler and Alex Drake, respectively.  The show was massive and Hunt has become an iconic character on a par with Regan.

Philip Glenister as DCI Gene Hunt in Ashes to Ashes
And we might be getting it again, in the form of a Nick Love-directed feature film, to begin shooting in October 2011 and starring Ray Winstone as Regan and Ben Drew a.k.a. rapper Plan B as Carter.  All I know for sure is, it's not set in the 1970s.

Ray Winstone as Regan/Ben Drew as Carter in The Sweeney (2012, dir. Nick Love).  Flash monkeys!
I wish them well, but however it turns out, we'll always have the original.  It ain't going nowhere.