Cast your minds back, if you will, to the year 2010, when the BBC was poised to launch a brand new detective on our screens. Dark and tousle-haired, his deductive powers would prove a constant source of amazement to his more grounded partner (and the viewing audience), while causing the local constabulary no small amount of irritation. Though not adaptations, episodes would be based on works by one of Britain’s best-loved writers, and by turns enthused and frustrated purists.
No, it’s not Sherlock (BBC, 2010- ) – credit me with a little imagination. I’m thinking of Dirk Gently (BBC, 2010-2012), the BBC Four production which starred Stephen Mangan (whatever happened to him?) in Howard Overman’s reimagining of the late Douglas Adams’ second most famous literary creation. Whereas, in the original novels,[i] Gently was bespectacled and slightly overweight, Mangan’s characterisation proved far fleeter of foot, and somewhat more of a manipulator, as his everyman partner (“assistant”) Richard MacDuff (played with understated comic timing by Darren Boyd) frequently learnt to his cost. Dirk’s love of junk food, latent telepathic powers and – most importantly – belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things as deductive methodology all remained intact, but the fantasy elements of the original were removed (presumably for budgetary reasons) in favour of more easily realised sci-fi (time travel, Artificial Intelligence), topped off with regular nods to Chaos Theory and plenty of comic mugging from Mangan.
Following healthy (ish) viewing figures of 1.1 million for the pilot, a series of three, 60-minute episodes was broadcast in March 2012, featuring original scripts by Overman, Matt Jones and Jamie Mathieson. Critical response was mild but favourable, yet by the end of its run audiences had dwindled to 600,000. On 28th May Mangan Tweeted his disappointment at the news that BBC Four had opted to pull the plug – part of a wider decision to cut original production in favour of Nordic noir imports (The Killing had made its debut on the channel the year before, and a terrible woollen beauty had been born).
This bitter bill was perhaps made more difficult to swallow by the fact that Sherlock had received its debut on BBC One just four months before Dirk, taking the summer schedules – and the nation – by storm; by spring 2012 it had concluded its immensely successful second series.
As highlighted in my intentionally misleading introduction, these two programmes shared certain narrative similarities, but in terms of production values there was no comparison. While Sherlockcombined iconic London sites (Soho, Piccadilly, Waterloo Bridge) with Cardiff doubles for busier locations, Dirk used Bristol to duplicate the capital’s cosier suburbs and backstreets. Dirk’s camerawork and editing, though quirkily offbeat, paled in comparison with the HD post-production shenanigans of the Baker Street sleuth. In fact, Dirk Gently more closely resembles Sherlock’s original, one-hour pilot episode ‘A Study in Pink’, made in 2009 on a budget far lower than that subsequently assigned to the transmitted feature-length version.
Dirk Gently was not permitted sufficient time to establish itself in the nation’s psyche, and its disappearance from the schedules was as swift as its appearance had been brief. Upon re-watching the series on DVD (there has, alas, been no Sherlock-style BluRay release), it clearly has ‘legs’. Even in the first series there are attempts at character development, the shyster-ish Dirk of the first two instalments giving way to a slightly more rounded, sensitive version midway through the run, when the detective discovers that the one person he thought believed in his abilities had, during his time at Cambridge, in fact been responsible for engineering his fall from academic grace. Given a second series, Dirk Gentlymight have developed some of the continuing story strands that proved one of Sherlock’s major strengths (and which were largely missing from its own pilot), and perhaps developed Dirk and Richard’s relationship beyond that of exploiter and exploited (and again, there are hints of this in the closing episode). Perhaps a recurring antagonist might even have been introduced, giving the leads someone to rail against other than each other?
Alas, it was not to be; Dirk went gently into that good night, and – to paraphrase a line in the Robert Frost poem which gives this piece its title – I doubt he shall ever come back (to BBC Four, anyway). However, re-watching the series has made me reflect on other roads not taken; on all those promising shows that weren’t in production long enough to outstay their welcome, or whose original concept was not exploited to its full. You probably have your own favourites, but here are my top five ‘what if?’s:
5. Police Surgeon (ITV, 1960). Do you remember Ian Hendry? He was ever so good, you know. I recently came across the only surviving episode of this series, in which he played titular medic Dr Geoffrey Brent, as an extra on an Avengers (ITV, 1961-69) DVD. In fact, The Avengers only came about because Police Surgeon was suddenly cancelled, thus necessitating a new vehicle for Hendry. In the extant episode, ‘Easy Money’, a young tea leaf (played by Michael Crawford, already sporting his Frank Spencer laugh) has an intense heart-to-heart with Brent, who perceives the goodness within, and is on the verge of turning in his ill-gotten gains when the police turn up and catch him bang to rights. Featuring the social realist style then en vogue in Sydney Newman’s revamped Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74), Police Surgeon is simple enough fare by today’s standards, but placed in context it becomes the missing link between Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76) and Z-Cars (BBC, 1962-78). Series one of The Avengers, in which Keel played another doctor with a conscience, David Keel, saw Hendry turning in an equally compelling, naturalistic performance. At a time when most actors were still gradually acclimatising to the requirements of television acting (what I have elsewhere termed ‘studio realism’), Hendry notably avoids ‘projecting’ or signalling, and his performance is full of little touches – like making to speak before the other actor in the scene has finished their line, without actually talking over them and obscuring dialogue. Classy. When people think of The Avengers, it’s usually the tongue-in-cheek, bowler-hatted espionage antics of Steed and Mrs Peel (or perhaps Tara King or Cathy Gale; Venus Smith ne’er gets a mention). However, this first series was a very different beast, due largely to Hendry’s presence as its sturdy realist core. It’s intriguing to ponder how Police Surgeon would have developed had it continued – or what course The Avengers might have taken if Hendry had opted to remain for the second series.
4. Dirk Gently. See above; I otherwise applaud BBC Four in all its endeavours, but not going to a second series was what I believe is referred to as ‘a bum steer’.
3. Joking Apart (BBC, 1993-95). The smartest sitcom you’ve probably never seen. In between the wonderful Press Gang (ITV, 1989-93) and the less wonderful Chalk (BBC, 1997), Steven Moffat penned two series based loosely upon his own marital split. It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but from great pain comes great art – and for my money it’s the best thing he’s done. Comedy writer Mark Taylor (played superlatively by then little-known Robert Bathurst) falls apart when his wife Becky (Fiona Gillies) leaves him for – of all people – an estate agent, and his attempts to win her back provide some of the most painful comedy ever seen in mainstream entertainment; My Wife Next Door (BBC, 1972) this is not. Episodes would typically begin with Mark performing stand-up in a tacky club located entirely in the darkest recesses of his psyche, always opening with the (not entirely promising) line, ‘My wife left me…’ Made in 1992, the first series was tucked away in BBC2’s winter schedules the following year, and the second followed two years later. The show won the Montreaux award, but a hoped-for third series never emerged, much to the disappointment of all involved. Little acclaimed at home in Britain, this is the series that Bathurst now claims gains him the most recognition from drunks on the Tube. I used to watch it with my wife, and how we laughed. Then, after she left me, I watched it again – and laughed even harder. For years the programme couldn’t get a DVD release, until the enterprising Craig Roberts made it available via independent label Replay. I strongly urge you to buy copies of each series; it’s highly unlikely now to get a further airing, let alone a third series, though apparently the world does have need of another helping of Cold Feet (ITV, 1997-2003)…
2. Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace (Channel 4, 2004). Comedy parody of 1980s US action series, starring Matthew Holness as the titular horror writer, actor and would-be renaissance man. The conceit is that never-broadcast medical horror hybrid Darkplace, which naturally starred Merenghi as Vietnam and Falklands veteran (and former warlock) Dr Rick Dagless, has finally been unearthed in the 2000s for transmission as graveyard slot filler, complete with interjections from Merenghi and co-stars Dean Learner (a totally wooden performer, only included in the cast because he was Garth’s publisher – and played by Richard Ayoade) and the hammy Todd Rivers (Matt Berry, in prototype Steven Toast mode). Alas, Madeleine Wool (Alice Lowe), who played window-dressing Dr Liz Asher in the show, has since disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and is assumed by Dean to be buried ‘somewhere in the Eastern Bloc’. Channel 4 declined to commission a second series; a decision that now seems far from prescient, given the amount of talent involved. I only discovered the programme after the DVD release, which takes the parody one step further via in character episode commentaries from Merenghi, Lerner and Rivers. The latter’s failed single, ‘One Track Lover’, is also included as an extra, and elsewhere he delivers a master-class on how to deliver the line ‘You and he were buddies, weren’t you?’
It’s much funnier than it sounds.
1. Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (ITV, 1969-70). Absolutely not the BBC remake with Reeves and Mortimer. This is my favourite of the ITCs; it’s not about spies, special agents, or superpowers, which is probably why it bombed in America. The titular protagonists are perfectly ordinary and slightly down-at-heel detectives; the twist is that one of them is dead, killed by the relative of a murdered client in the opening episode. This unhappy state is signified by the fact that he always wears a white suit, and is visible to no-one except his still-living partner (and psychics, certain types of animal, drunks, and anyone else required as a convenient deus ex machina). Given its subject matter, the series sometimes trod a not very fine line between comedy and action drama which failed to find favour with many upon its original broadcast, but it has the odd poignant moment – usually hinging around the late Marty Hopkirk’s (Kenneth Cope) awareness that his oblivious widow, Jeannie (Annette Andre), is struggling to come to terms with his passing. Other strengths include the comic rapport between lead actors Cope and Mike Pratt, playing Mike Randall, and the frequent presence of Randall’s nemesis, Inspector Large (the wonderful Ivor Dean). Little seen following its initial transmission, the series was later repeated by ITV in the 1980s, and then the BBC in the 1990s, before ending up on ITV3 in the 2000s, alongside far more successful ITC fare such as The Saint (ITV, 1962-69). It’s been on so often now that people probably assume there were several series, but just one batch of 26 episodes was produced. Stars Kenneth Cope and Annette Andre (Mike Pratt died in 1976) have speculated since on the direction the show might have taken had it continued, with the possibility of a romance between Mike and Jeannie one of several plotlines that could have been pursued (interestingly, this later formed the basis for the BBC remake).
Ah, well; at least I have my DVDs by which to remember them. We live in an age where genuinely intriguing programmes are left to wither on the vine if they fail to garner hug viewing figures, while those that are fortunate enough to achieve instantaneous popularity are renewed and extended and renewed again – sometimes beyond their natural lifespan. Humans (Channel 4, 2015- ) was one of my favourite shows of last year, but my heart sank when the closing minutes of what I had assumed would be a finite serial indicated that the story was ‘to be continued…’
Curiously enough, at the time of writing it seems Dirk Gently is about to be revived, after a fashion. BBC America’s version will hit US screens later in 2016 – the year that also marks the centenary of Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken.
Maybe there’s something to Dirk’s fundamental interconnectedness after all?
Dr Richard Hewett is Lecturer in Media Theory at the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media. He has contributed articles to The Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Critical Studies in Television and Adaptation. His book, The Changing Spaces of Television Acting, will be published by Manchester University Press later this year.
[i] Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988). What existed of the third, unfinished novel, The Salmon of Doubt, was published posthumously in 2002 along with various other of Adams’ writings in a collection of the same name.