Last week saw the welcome return of Hustle to the BBC, now in its fifth season. If you’ve never watched this show, it’s a sideways look at the world of conmen, who – in the fine tradition of film and TV – aren’t unscrupulous criminals but ethical ‘Robin Hood’ rogues who live by a code that allows them only to grift from the rich and greedy.
There are a number of things I love about Hustle, one being that it has a visual flair and style that’s sadly lacking from many TV shows today. It’s almost a throw-back to the Lew Grade ATV productions of the seventies, which had a gloss that often seems to evade the production values of current products. But at its heart this is a classic ensemble piece that relies entirely on the convincing nature of the actors they’ve employed, and there are some great actors in Hustle.
But it soon became apparent in ‘Return of the Prodigal’ that series five represents something of a sea-change for the show in that two of the major characters, Danny Blue (Marc Warren) and Stacie Monroe (Jamie Murray) haven’t returned. They’ve also disappeared Billy Bond (Ashley Walters), who they only introduced in season 4.
As important as Danny and Stacie were, it’s nice to see that the magic behind the show still works without them, and with the welcome return of Adrian Lester as Mickey ‘Bricks’ Stone there’s a sense of balance which is hard to quantify but is certainly achieved. Robert Glenister has also been lured back as the chameleon-like Ash ‘Three Socks’ Morgan, ultimate fixer. But my personal favourite character by a dubious furlong is Albert Stroller, played by the immaculate Robert Vaughn. I grew up on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., so British TV having a place for such a stalwart as Vaughn gives me a consistently warm and fuzzy feeling. He’s probably one of the most underrated actors left from his generation, and if anyone needs convincing he really has thespian ability, they need to rent, or preferably buy, Bullitt(1968). His corrupt politician Chalmers is the stand-out performance of this piece, and I’m told he’s happy to accept that it’s some of his best work. But forty years later, he’s no less watchable.
As so often happens in Hustle, Albert is the puppeteer in the background of this first new story, incarcerated in prison over a slight misunderstanding at a casino involving a card-dispensing gadget. Strangely, he seems unperturbed by his surroundings, and ropes what’s left of the original crew into conning a greedy woman investor he’s been stalking.
It’s meant to be a surprise, but my BS meter went ballistic when they first encounter the ‘mark’, Sara Naismith, played by Kelly Adams. It’s not the strangely Kylie-esque accent she uses, but the fact she’s accompanied by twinkle toes himself – Matt Di Angelo. He’s playing a strangely passive PA, Aaron, which should have rung a few alarms for anyone familiar with the show. Of course, in the fine tradition of Hustle, they’re not who they appear to be, and Albert has lead them all on a fine and convoluted goose chase with the sole intention to re-form a grifting crew around Mickey. The exercise isn’t entirely a bust, however, and they do end up with enough money from a gangster who’s after the new characters, Emma and Sean. They then use the money to reopen Eddie’s bar and convince him that being a restaurant concierge isn’t the life for him. The circle is slightly different, but complete. It’s not overly believable, but it’s fun and brisk enough to drag even a hardened TV critic along with it. They even manage to throw in an amusing cameo from Billy Bailey as the myopic information man, ‘Cyclops’.
I was interested to note how relaxed Adrian Lester looks, back as the ruthlessly effective Mickey Stone, a part that he inhabits like a second skin. Given that the BBC has decided not to proceed with another series of the abysmal Bonekickers, he’s off that particularly nasty hook, so this is a secondary benefit.
As Jaime Murray is now ‘Aphrodite’ in the series Valentine, after a stint on Dexter last year, I don’t think she will be back. And Marc Warren is now using his exceptional talents on Mutual Friends, so he might not be either.
It will be interesting to see how the new characters develop to replace those lost, and what lifespan they ultimately have.
With only six episodes in each series, Hustle always leaves me wanting that little bit more than I actually get. But then that’s preferable in my mind to suffering the excess which some series indulge. And the BBC at least shows this one on their HD channel, which is a bonus.