Friday, 19 October 2012

Dangerous Davies and the Cricklewood Film Studio

Leslie Thomas's comic novel "Dangerous Davies - The Last Detective" was first published in the UK October 1976.  It tells the story of accident-prone North London Detective Constable 'Dangerous' Davies, an underachiever until he stumbles on the 25 year-old missing persons case of a young girl, Celia Norris.  "The last detective" refers to him being the last to ever be called upon for anything important.

My paperback copy sat unread for 30 years until I finally picked it up last autumn and it turned out to be one of my favourite reads.  I bought it in 1981, after watching and loving the adaptation starring Bernard Cribbins.  It's a wryly amusing mystery story, with a plethora of wonderful characters starting with the bumbling Davies and his best friend, Welsh philosopher Mod Lewis.

The 1977 Pan paperback cover.  Completely wrong kind of dog, trenchcoat; he doesn't smoke, etc. etc.
Thomas talks of the origins of the book in the 2006 edition of his autobiography "In My Wildest Dreams": "one dark afternoon in winter, sitting by a log fire in my house, I decided to try my hand at writing a detective story.  [Davies] was an amalgam of some of the policemen I knew when I was a young reporter in Willesden, London, the old X Division of the Metropolitan Police.  I have a great affection for him.

"I cannot pretend that the origins lie outside the real murder mystery in my own family, the sordid killing of my fifteen-year-old niece in a field next to a Birmingham fairground".

Three or so years after publication "Dangerous Davies" was adapted as a film for television.  Producer Greg Smith and Leslie Thomas were in a partnership, Maidenhead Film Productions, for the TV and film rights to Thomas's work. In recent years they had produced Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers for the cinema and the 6-part series Tropic for ATV.

Leslie Thomas, OBE
Smith first worked with veteran director Val Guest on Confessions of a Window Cleaner in 1974 to undeniable if questionable success.  In 1979 they reunited at the expense of ATV for TV movie The Shillingbury Blowers, a gentle tale about a village brass band written by Francis Essex.  This was a huge hit when shown on Sunday 6th January 1980: 16.2 million viewers.  Smith and Guest were asked what they wanted to do next - the answer was Dangerous Davies.  ITC (ATV's film production arm) approved the project.

51 year-old stage and screen legend Bernard Cribbins was cast as Davies, an inspired choice although in the novel the character is only 33.  Cribbins said of the project: "It's not really slapstick because when Dangerous gets damaged he just doesn't bounce back like a cartoon character.  It's much more real than Clouseau, and I think the characters are true to life.

"Although he gets clobbered by everyone, he never stays down.  He's resilient and, as you'll see in the film, he sometimes bounces back and wins.

"There might well be a series of films in him.  Certainly, I'd love to get involved in more of them".
[quoted from "Danger, sleuth at work" by James Murray - Daily Mirror 3.1.1981 and "Enter Dangerous Davies - the defective detective" by Larry Ashe - TV Times 3-9.1.1981]

Pre-production lasted 7 weeks, with the 5-week shoot beginning late April 1980.  Budget was £325,000.  The cast includes Joss Ackland, Bernard Lee in his last screen appearance, Maureen Lipman, Colin Baker, Pam St Clement and Bill Maynard as Mod.  The adaptation is largely faithful - one significant change is that the disappearance is now 15 years before.  Davies being that much older also sees the removal of a possible love interest in the missing girl's younger sister.

Bernard Cribbins as DC Davies, having just received a battering - a regular occurrence
Davies was obviously an attempt to replicate the appeal of Shillingbury, and given a very similar slot, the first Sunday of 1981.  Unfortunately, the same success didn't follow.  It failed to make that week's Top 20 (Shillingbury was 8th), probably thanks to a new series of magazine show That's Life! on BBC1.  ATV's loss of the ITV franchise at the end of the year put paid to further adventures of DC Davies on television as played by Cribbins.

A shame, because a follow-up was planned: titled "Dangerous at Sea" and set on a cruise ship, it was to be filmed aboard the P&O liner Canberra - a curiously specific location for only a mooted project.  A series of movies featuring Cribbins as Davies would've been most welcome, and as a format it was six years ahead of Inspector Morse.

The incomparable Bill Maynard as Mod Lewis
Leslie Thomas subsequently wrote three more novels about the character: "Dangerous in Love" (1987); "Dangerous by Moonlight" (1993); "Dangerous Davies and the Lonely Heart" (1998).

He eventually returned to television played by Peter Davison in 17 episodes of Yorkshire Television's "The Last Detective" (2003-07).  All four novels were adapted, the first by Shoestring co-creator Richard Harris - who I think does rather better than Thomas himself and Val Guest first time round.  More nuance, less predictable though I still prefer the Cribbins version as it is better cast and has a nice melancholy atmosphere.

The books are set around Willesden and Kilburn in North London, as was the 1980 production.  A nearby production base was found in Samuelson's "Production Village" which had opened the year before in Cricklewood.  Samuelson's was a World-famous film facilities hire company run by four brothers.  Read about the Production Village in a July 1979 'American Cinematographer' advertisement here.

Go to 15:15 in the above video - the second of a 2-part edition of Granada children's series Clapper Board devoted to Samuelson's Film Services (tx 3.3.1980) - to see the Production Village, built on the site of a former aircraft factory, and hear Tony Samuelson outline the hopes and plans for the complex.  In the event the PV didn't fare that well, although Breaking Glass and Hellraiser were made there.

The studio pub remained open for business far longer than the complex itself, albeit under different owners, and the place was demolished in 2000 having become a somewhat unsavoury area.  A gym resides there now.

An utterly bizarre piece of film history, and entirely fitting that "Dangerous Davies" was based there as I can quite easily see Leslie Thomas use it as a setting in one of the novels.

Dangerous and his dog, Kitty, in vintage car. [Ahem] Morse.
"Dangerous Davies - The Last Detective" by Leslie Thomas is of course still in print; the 1980 TVM seems to be deleted, but it is included the R1 Complete Collection boxset of The Last Detective.


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