Aside of devising plotlines engaging enough to both maintain core audiences and entice new viewers, there can be few greater challenges to a television production team than the unexpected departure of regular cast members. The need to fill the resulting character void requires both the reassurance of the familiar and the creative spark of the new, and otherwise invulnerable prime-time programmes can stand or fall as a result of the choices made. TV history is littered with shows whose character transitions have consequently seen them wither instantaneously on the vine (witness Charlie Sheen’s arrival in Spin City (ABC, 1996-2002)) or, at best, struggle to retain their key audience (ditto his departure from Two and a Half Men (CBS, 2003- )).
Last month the tenth series of crime drama New Tricks (BBC, 2003- ) launched on British screens. Based round the Metropolitan Police’s Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad (UCOS), the programme’s central conceit is that a trio of retired, dyed-in-the-wool male detectives and their no-nonsense female boss repeatedly prove more adept at catching felons than their dismissive younger counterparts. Despite reaching domestic audiences of over nine million, and achieving extremely healthy overseas sales, the series received little press attention until last year, when major upheavals in the regular line-up – combined with very public cast criticisms of scripts – finally provided a hook upon which the popular press felt able hang a story.
These developments were all the more significant for the fact that the core cast had remained in place for eight whole years – an impressive feat for any drama, but all the more so given that the show was allegedly not expected to run beyond its feature-length pilot in 2003. An opening series of six, one-hour episodes was, nonetheless, commissioned, subsequently expanded to eight episodes from series two and ten episodes from series seven, by which time the programme was averaging eight million viewers. The original line-up, which helped create and maintain this momentum, consisted of: Amanda Redman as ambitious career Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman, side-lined into launching UCOS after accidentally shooting a dog in a hostage rescue; James Bolam as Ex-Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Halford, Pullman’s former mentor, who retired from the force when his wife Mary was fatally injured in a hit-and-run; Alun Armstrong as ex-Detective-Inspector Brian ‘Memory’ Lane, a recovering alcoholic with continuing mental health issues, deemed negligent following the death in custody of a young drug dealer arrested on his watch; and Dennis Waterman as ex-Detective Sergeant Gerry Standing, who left the force following allegations of corruption.
The original line-up: (left to right) James Bolam, Amanda Redman, Dennis Waterman and Alun Armstrong
Aside of the inevitable observations on ageing and ageism, the series featured characters whose individual quirks offered plenty of potential for the story arcs now virtually de rigueur in long-running series, which were subsequently exploited with varying degrees of success. Sandra’s initial situation – the driven female professional who has sacrificed any kind of personal life to succeed in the job – was not really pursued beyond a desultory romance in the first year, discarded in favour of an on-going plotline concerning the mysterious suicide of her police officer father, and Sandra’s fractious relationship with mother Grace (Sheila Hancock). Similarly, Brian’s obsession with proving his innocence was seemingly abandoned after the opening episodes, his continuing struggle with depression proving a more fruitful area; a return to the bottle later formed the backdrop to series five. The fact that Gerry was often shown in the company of villains initially saw a shadow still lingering over his reputation, though by series four it was revealed that the nickname ‘Last Man Standing’ in fact referred to his refusal to accept bribes. Arguably the most narratively satisfying strand was that of Jack Halford, frequently shown in early episodes discussing cases with the deceased Mary, whose candle-lit grave was situated in his back garden. The cliff-hanger ending to series three saw Jack attempting to mow down his nemesis, villain Ricky Hanson (David Troughton), after discovering that he had deliberately targeted Mary in the hit-and-run to distract the dogged Halford from his investigations. This particular plotline continued on and off for a further three years, Hanson attempting to murder Jack and winning an acquittal in court before finally being brought to justice in the show’s sixth year.
Various ancillary characters were introduced en route, many of them becoming semi-regulars. Prime among these was Brian’s long-suffering wife, Esther (played by Bolam’s real-life spouse Susan Jameson), along with the team’s stiff-necked superior, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Robert Strickland (Anthony Calf), who made his debut in series two. Gerry’s numerous ex-wives and daughters also became familiar faces over the first few years, and in series three Waterman’s real-life daughter Hannah was introduced as Emily Driscoll, a young police officer who (erroneously) believes Gerry to be her long-lost father. In this way New Tricks developed an extended complement of characters and story strands that never overwhelmed the stand-alone episodic nature of individual instalments. Although, as already mentioned, cliff-hangers were occasionally employed for series finales, it was the audience’s familiarity with and affection for the lead characters which seemingly brought them back, week after week. Though little heed was paid by TV critics, New Tricks regularly managed audiences of five million even for repeat screenings.
This all changed in 2011, however. No sooner had the BBC announced that the ‘dream team’ had signed for a further two years than Bolam had second thoughts, allegedly claiming the series had grown ‘stale’. Although he was persuaded to return for the opening instalment of series nine, providing Jack with a definitive screen send-off, his replacement with Denis Lawson as ex-Detective Inspector Steve McAndrew marked the gradual break-up of the original regular cast; a process that has continued this year with the departures of Brian Lane and, next week, Sandra Pullman. The production team’s handling of this potential crisis has, however, proven an object lesson in managing character transitions; a task that, if mishandled, can too easily sound the death knell for the show in question. This year saw the end of Being Human (BBC, 2008-13) following the conclusion of its fifth series; the first not to feature any of the original trio. At the same time, Silent Witness (BBC, 1996- ) continued its inexorable run in an incredible sixteenth series, despite numerous changes of regular cast (interestingly, the programme was the brainchild of former murder squad detective Nigel McCrery, co-creator with Roy Mitchell of New Tricks).
The end of the beginning: (left to right) Denis Lawson, Waterman, Redman and Armstrong
The departure of leading actors can be dealt with in various ways. Re-casting the character played is perhaps a more palatable concept in sitcom and soap than series drama, though how truly successful such an option can ever hope to be is open to question. Despite having arguably provided the more sympathetic portrayal, as a teen I never fully warmed to Dick Sargent as Darrin Stephens in Channel 4’s repeats of Bewitched (ABC, 1964-72); for me, Dick York was the original, and therefore the best (though Sargent was apparently the producers’ preferred choice from the outset). Similarly, the season eight substitution of Donna Reed for Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie in Dallas (CBS, 1978-91) did little for that show’s credibility – particularly when Bel Geddes returned the following year, sparking a law suit from Reed. Nevertheless, New Tricks took this option with the team’s original supremo, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Donald Bevan, played by Tim Woodward in the pilot before Nicholas Day took over for series one. This character’s chief function – the resentful superior, ever concerned with appearances, who appeared once an episode to bawl the team out – meant there was little narrative impact when he departed (off-screen) between series one and two, new boss Strickland providing a more rounded and fully realised authority figure for the team to rail against.
Deciding the nature of a new character is particularly problematic; the new arrival will in a certain sense be filling the gap left by their predecessor, yet making the replacement too similar runs the risk of unfavourable comparisons being drawn. In the US, M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972-83) survived a plethora of line-up changes, beginning with the (on-screen) departure of Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), who was killed off at the end of season three. Actor Wayne Rogers, who played Trapper John, then also opted not to return, his character being transferred home just prior to the season four opener. The new commanding officer, Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan), was a marked contrast to Henry, being a strict disciplinarian and long-time military man, as opposed to a laid-back and ineffectual conscript. However, Trapper’s replacement, B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), was, like his predecessor, a married man who missed his family back home; although more faithful to his spouse than Trapper had been, he arguably acted as little more than a cipher, dutifully filling the role of side-kick to the wise-cracking ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce (Alan Alda). It was in fact the limitations of his part part that had ultimately prompted Wayne Rogers to leave, and several fans complained that B.J. represented no more than a milder, less engaging version of Trapper, the changeover having frequently been cited as a downturn on ‘jump the shark’ websites and polls.
With James Bolam’s departure from New Tricks a given, the writing out of Jack Halford cleverly avoided this pitfall by allowing both viewers and the on-screen characters to acclimatise to his absence. In the series nine opener, ‘A Death in the Family’, Jack announces that he is leaving UCOS and retiring to France, where he and Mary had always intended to spend their twilight years. Sandra and Gerry reluctantly accept his decision, surmising from his frequent and secretive phone calls to one Elizabeth Green that he has found a new partner. The obsessional Brian, however, digs deeper, discovering that Elizabeth Green is in fact the name of a hospice; Jack is suffering from terminal cancer. In the closing scene, Jack asks Brian to keep his secret, at least until he has passed on – to which the latter reluctantly agrees. Over the next two episodes, the team labour on as a trio, with Brian the primary point of audience identification; each are now party to information of which Sandra and Gerry are not aware. When Steve McAndrew arrives in the fourth episode, it is at first seen as a temporary situation, the Scottish ex-detective having travelled south to tie up a missing person case with which he is personally involved. Whisky-loving Steve is clearly designed as a strong contrast with world-weary widower Jack; rather than another dour detective, senior in both years and rank, Steve is a still-youthful, energetic sixty-something. He is also handily provided with his own potential character arc, his wife having disappeared with their son following her affair with a fellow officer. This is, however, kept largely in the background during his early episodes, the main plotline being his gradual acceptance by the team. Whereas Steve quickly bonds with fellow hard drinker Gerry, and is easily accepted by Sandra (who seemingly invites him to join on a whim, not even consulting Strickland), Brian initially resents the newcomer – thus acting once again as a surrogate for the audience. Only when Esther gives Brian (and us?) a stern talking-to, extending a ‘getting to know you’ dinner invitation to Steve, does Brian begin to warm to his new colleague.
This slow segue was possibly the best manner in which to handle the first of the series’ major cast changes, but the announcement that both Armstrong and Redman would be leaving by the end of series ten presented a double challenge. The gradual fading out of the old and in with the new would be difficult to accommodate, even over ten episodes – yet the sudden removal of two characters at a single stroke might prove more than the series could survive (witness George and Nina in Being Human; seemingly ready to carry on the good fight sans Mitchell at the conclusion of series three, and each gone within the space of the next episode).
Brian’s departure was clearly signalled in the first scene of series ten, assaulting senior fellow officer Bill Embleton at the latter’s retirement party. This event set into play a cleverly-conceived revival of Brian’s guilt over the drug dealer who died while technically in his care. Convinced that his then-subordinate Embleton, who should have been checking the dead man’s cell, fabricated his alibi with fellow officers, Brian’s attack is contrived to force a re-investigation. When Embleton opts to avoid exposure by dropping his charges, Brian secretly tapes his off-the-record admission that he did not check up on the dead man, and then passes this evidence on to the mother of the dead man – thus sowing the seeds of Embleton’s exposure and Brian’s removal from the force. Brian’s final episode sees him now fired from UCOS, only crossing paths with the team when the private investigation he has reluctantly undertaken overlaps with their current case. After taking an affectionate farewell of his colleagues (significantly, Steve is not included in the penultimate shot of Brian walking into the horizon with his ex-colleagues), Brian is last shown at home assisting Esther, who has discovered a passion for amateur sleuthing. While perhaps somewhat contrived, this ‘happy’ resolution provides the audience with a satisfying conclusion to Brian’s tenure, particularly when compared to the downbeat nature of Jack’s departure the previous year. No similar period of mourning is necessary, and indeed, Brian’s replacement arrives in short order the following week, Nicholas Lyndhurst making his debut as ex-Murder Squad detective Danny Griffin.
The current line-up: (left to right) Waterman, Lawson, Redman and Nicholas Lyndhurst
Like Steve, Danny is clearly intended as a direct contrast with his predecessor. The casting of Lyndhurst – who many viewers will remember primarily for his sitcom roles – could have been a cause for concern, Dennis Waterman admitting in a Radio Times interview that he was worried the new arrival would be ‘too lightweight’ until watching his performance as Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (BBC, 1999). In fact, Lyndhurst plays against any such expectations as the unsmiling Danny; though Brian was an oddball, he inspired an affection in his colleagues that Danny (at first) seems unable or uninterested in replicating. Quickly locking horns with Gerry, he also alienates Sandra with his ‘nine to five’ attitude, while his lack of humour sees him nicknamed ‘smiling boy’ by Steve. In this way the writing team again hold up a mirror to any potential resentment on the part of viewers at home – before cleverly undercutting it. Gerry’s protestation that 52-year-old Danny is too young to replace the sixty-something Brian is immediately deflated by Sandra’s revelation that it was in fact Brian who recommended him; the implication here is that, if familiar face Brian rates Danny, then surely Gerry (and we) must give him a chance. Danny’s seemingly antiseptic personality is then revealed to be a mask when, midway through the episode, we see him at home with his feisty daughter, Holly (Storme Toolis), who is confined to a wheelchair. While this could be seen as a particularly cynical move by the programme-makers – engaging audience sympathy for the character by providing him with disabled offspring – the strong chemistry between Lyndhurst and Toolis mitigates this effect, the latter’s engaging performance providing a likeable new sounding board figure in lieu of Esther. It would have been a daring strategy to have the rest of the team remain unaware to this aspect to Danny for a period of time, thus placing the audience more firmly on the newcomer’s side, but by the episode’s close Holly has been introduced to the team, and all starts to become reassuringly clear; this new boy is not such a bad sort after all.
Thus, the unenviable feat of replacing the (one might have thought) irreplaceable James Bolam and Alun Armstrong seems to have been achieved with minimal disruption or complaint; certainly, at well over 7 million viewers, New Tricks’s audience figures remain healthy. Whether Amanda Redman’s imminent exit will prove one change too many, however, remains to be seen. Thus far, little is known about the manner of her leaving, or indeed her replacement, Detective Chief Inspector Sacha Millard (Tamzin Outhwaite), who takes charge from episode nine. Outhwaite’s casting is not without its problems, the actress having appeared in the show in a separate role, as obsessive tennis mother Victoria Kemp, just last year. Readers of my prequels blog might remember my reservations over the re-employment of actors in different roles, which I believe is potentially damaging to the credibility of any narrative; a situation that New Tricks has thus far avoided. More importantly, at the age of 42, the conventionally attractive blonde Outhwaite is exactly the same age that conventionally attractive blonde Sandra Pullman was way back in the original pilot ten years ago. Thus, after the creation of two replacement characters that have very much gone against the grain of their more established predecessors, Sacha Millard superficially risks falling into the trap of replication and repetition; a mistake that many felt M*A*S*H made with B.J. Given their track record with regard to managing such transitions, however, it is to be hoped that the New Tricks production team will once again wrong-foot expectations.
New face: Tamzin Outhwaite
While British television is littered with programmes that survived similar line-up changes (Spooks (BBC, 2002-2011), anyone?), few battled away for so long with the original cast still intact. However, the fact that the Tricksters’ closest competitor, Taggart (STV, 1983-2011), managed an additional seventeen years following the death of original lead Mark McManus suggests that there might just be life in the Old Dogs yet.
Dr Richard Hewett teaches television and film at Royal Holloway, the University of London, and the University of Arts. His PhD thesis, Acting for Auntie: From Studio Realism to Location Realism in BBC Television Drama, 1953-2008, was completed at the University of Nottingham in 2012. Publications include ‘Acting in the New World: Studio and Location Realism in Survivors‘ in The Journal of British Cinema and Television Volume 10.2, and ‘Who is Matt Smith?: Performing the Doctor’ in O’Day, Andrew (ed.), The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (I.B. Tauris, forthcoming, 2013).
 Alison Graham’s recent article ‘The New Tricks Men Should Go for Women of Their Own Age’ is a typical example of the press’s dismissive attitude towards the programme, and makes it clear that Graham has not been watching with any degree of attention over the last decade. Decrying Gerry for too often ‘oozing torrents of leathery charm in the direction of women who could, chronologically, be his daughter,’ she ignores the fact that, on the comparatively few occasions that Gerry has been given a romantic sub-plot, it has most frequently featured partners near or of his own age.