Revisiting Vic and Bob’s Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased): bursting with peculiar personality

Remember when Vic and Bob fronted a Saturday night fantasy crime drama? Mark revisits BBC One’s Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased)…

If you didn’t know there was a detective show where Vic Reeves played a ghost that only Bob Mortimer’s character could see, you might be expecting a sitcom. Especially if you also learned it was written by The Fast Show’s Charlie Higson. But then 2000’s Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) defies expectations in all sorts of ways.

Running for 13 episodes from 2000 to 2001, the series was adapted from the 1960s ITV detective show of the same name, in which Jeff Randall is a low-rent private investigator whose partner, Marty Hopkirk, is killed in the first episode. However, Marty returns as a ghost, clad in a bright white suit, and is basically condemned to linger on Earth and help solve crimes until Jeff dies too.

In the 21st century version, Bob plays Randall, Vic plays Hopkirk, and there’s a much greater role for Marty’s fiancée Jeannie too. Ostensibly a modernisation of the series, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) was made for the same Saturday night slot that had been popular for Jonathan Creek, but its influences hew closer to other 1960s telefantasy shows than primetime BBC One audiences probably anticipated.

Broadcast to quite middling reviews outside of the geek press, its intriguing mix of comedy, crime drama, and surreal fantasy makes it a really peculiar thing in hindsight. Despite the comedic calibre behind it, it’s not really a comedy.

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Certainly, there’s nothing quite like it on telly at the moment, so let’s take a look at what it is and just what they thought they were playing at.

The second coming

Created by early Doctor Who writer Dennis Spooner, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) originally ran on ITV from 1969 to 1970, and starred Mike Pratt and Kenneth Cope in the lead roles. Vic and Bob came to the remake as fans of the original, but they weren’t what rights holders Working Title Television had in mind when they started developing the property for new audiences.

They were thinking of making a straight supernatural thriller out of the property, and when the idea of making it more comedic was first floated, Rik Mayall and Robbie Coltrane were the names suggested for the title characters. Both were movie stars at the time, which shows the kind of scale on which this revamp was meant to be operating from the get-go.

Meanwhile, Reeves and Mortimer were fans of the original series, with Vic having based his all-white Big Night Out get-up on Cope’s immaculate costume. At the point when Reeves and Mortimer expressed interest in the project, they were already on the move from BBC Two to BBC One, with vehicles like their surreal Saturday teatime gameshow Families At War. Nowadays, this is a cast-iron Ant and Dec gig, but some younger viewers got their first taste of Vic and Bob from this odd match of talent and format.

In true Shooting Stars fashion, the show would end with Vic dressed up like a spider, grabbing prizes for contestants while suspended from wires and shouting “I AM THE SPIDER” with encouragement from Bob.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Messrs McPartlin and Donnelly wound up taking over that timeslot with the more mainstream Friends Like These (back before ITV clapped golden handcuffs on them), while Reeves and Mortimer became attached to what was essentially a big Saturday night primetime crime drama.

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Bringing Higson aboard as the show’s writer and producer, the duo’s involvement took the series slightly further into comedic territory, but it never became an outright comedy. The remake is not without humour, but in execution, it’s definitely weirder than it is funny.

Dead funny

Throughout the series, the genre elements tug at Reeves and Mortimer’s usual dynamic. Separate from their usual fare, it’s a different brand of surrealism, in which everything is more tongue-in-cheek than downright hilarious. A running joke about bad rhymes is the greatest indicator of the show’s sense of humour.

As an otherworldly presence, Reeves is able to “mess about, have a daft laugh and that” (as the most recent series of Big Night Out would have it), while Mortimer has to play it more straight-faced. They don’t necessarily feel out of their element, but it’s a modified status quo that the programme doesn’t always serve well.

Years before taking the lead in Silent Witness, Emilia Fox is the straight woman, playing a more capable reimagining of Jeannie, whose first scene ends with her knocking out Charles Dance with a timely karate kick. The love triangle between the three leads is amped up for the new version, but the female lead doesn’t need rescuing any more or less than Jeff does, so it’s quite progressive in that regard.

It never plays like an outright parody of a crime drama, even though the case of the week is always a bit sillier or weirder than something like Jonathan Creek, and every few episodes, it veers off towards surreal touchstones like The Prisoner and The Wicker Man. There’s a really precarious balance to keep, and arguably, the show doesn’t always maintain it.

Another argument would be that this kind of imbalance all contributes to the reboot’s admirable peculiarity, which becomes much more blatant as the show goes on. A tipping point comes with the first series finale, A Man Of Substance, which pours the aforementioned influences together in an existential conundrum in a remote village that Jeff, Marty, and Jeannie seem unable to escape.

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Ending on an elegiac cliffhanger, this episode alone defines what an overall departure the series is for the comic talents behind it. The show’s worldly terrors range from performance artists, mad psychiatrists, and assorted assassins, and that’s before we even touch on the supernatural stuff.

Ghost stories

Spooner was inspired to create the series by his interest in ghosts and the afterlife, but the original series never really explored the other realm in the depth that Higson’s take does. The show seems to spread its time equally between Earth and Limbo, where Marty essentially learns how to be a ghost.

He often meets with a spirit called Wyvern, a terrible poet who takes on a human shape to make Marty feel more comfortable. Specifically, that human shape belongs to the mighty Tom Baker, who brings all of his usual eccentric gusto to the role of Marty’s mentor. Introduced in the second episode, Wyvern is essentially the fourth regular, but we meet other ghostly characters throughout the series.

As the series shows more and more of the other side, we meet some more ghosts of note as well. Higson appears in every episode, usually as different characters, but perhaps most obviously, he plays Limbo’s barman Gomez. Elsewhere, Paul Whitehouse appears an East End villain with a grudge against Marty and Colin Macfarlane puts in a great turn in Series 2’s Marshall And Snellgrove, as the mortally impaired member of a rival detective agency.

As fantastical as Limbo is, the land of the living operates is a pretty heightened reality too. A Man Of Substance seems to let the genie out of the bottle ahead of the second series, which features mad scripts from the likes of Gareth Roberts and The League Of Gentlemen‘s Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson.

The procedural element doesn’t go completely out the window. While the characters are still solving mysteries, the cases have escalated to encompass pagan rituals, sinister cults, and an honest-to-goodness Bond villain called Colonel Anger. With tongue firmly in cheek, the second series is where the writers really get to let loose with stranger storylines.

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Gatiss and Dyson’s episode, Two Can Play That Game, splits its attention between a haunted department store and a place where lost spirits go when they fall out with their mortal familiars and is as horror-inflected as the series ever gets, and it’s the very last episode. Throughout the series, the fantastical conceit gives Higson and his fellow writers a hell of a lot of wiggle room for a show on this scale.

A big send-off

Make no mistake, this show is a capital G- glossy from the very beginning. More than just bringing in new digital effects for the ghostly shenanigans, there’s some high production value throughout the 13 episodes. The sets, costumes, and stories may be designed with a retro sensibility, but even when it takes a tonal turn after the first series, this is a lavish production.

On top of that, the guest star game is at least on the level of Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who, starting with David Tennant as self-absorbed concept artist Gordon Stylus in the very first episode. Future Who guest stars who appeared across later episodes include the League of Gentlemen, Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes, Arabella Weir, Mark Benton, Dervla Kirwan, and Derek Jacobi.

The series is shot in glorious widescreen, and even though the first series DVDs inexplicably have a cropped 4:3 version, it looks pretty good. Behind the camera, there are early TV directing efforts from Game Of Thrones‘ Mark Mylod and Twelfth Doctor-era MVP Rachel Talalay.

But the thing that has always really testified to the calibre of this show is its soundtrack. You can probably already guess that Murray Gold did the instrumental music, given how much other Who talent worked on the show, but the theme tune itself was composed by David Arnold, who was working on the Bond films at the same time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGZCl7trmig

His title theme is a sumptuous, sophisticated thing that matches the modern yet retro feeling of the series, but crucially, sounds like a Bond song. In Deceased, the single release that features vocals by The Cardigans’ Nina Persson (see above), it pretty much is a Bond song. Gold uses its motifs throughout his score, but it’s a really memorable theme on its own.

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It still feels unusual for a series like this to come with an original soundtrack, but there was actually an album release at the same time as the first episode went out, featuring songs from and inspired by the series.

Pulp and The Swingle Sisters contributed My Body May Die, which serves as Marty and Jeannie’s theme, while Reeves, whose Wonder Stuff had scored a number one single some years earlier covering Tommy Roe’s Dizzy, covered Ain’t That A Kick In The Head.

It all adds up to a fairly impressive package for an extremely odd series, but at the time, perhaps any kind of genre show would have looked odd on peak-time BBC One.

Afterlife

Despite relatively good ratings, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) didn’t get recommissioned for a third run. Still, as a big-budget Saturday night remount of an old genre show with fan creators and many of the same guest cast and crew members behind it, it’s easy to see this as a proving ground for what Davies would do with Doctor Who in a few years’ time.

Aimed at a more grown-up audience, it’s a show that arguably took until the second series to find its tone, but it definitely benefits across its entire run from having so much welly put into it at its inception.

The show itself shows no signs of life at this point. There were rumblings of the Syfy Channel producing a US remake, with writers Jane Espenson and Drew Z. Greenberg in charge, but they didn’t come to anything. That aside, BBC One’s River had echoes of the premise, with Nicola Walker playing the dead partner who only Stellan Skarsgård’s tormented cop can see, but played things much more seriously.

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Reeves and Mortimer moved on to make another series of Shooting Stars, but they would have another run at acting in their dadaist Dennis Potter-flavoured sitcom Catterick in 2004, but that’s a feature for another time.

After writing the popular Young Bond novels, Higson would later develop the Sunday teatime drama Jekyll And Hyde for ITV1, representing the channel’s most recent big effort to “do a Doctor Who” in a weekend drama slot. On the strength of his script work though, you would think he would have written a Who episode proper by now.

Strange though it may seem in hindsight, the 21st-century version of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) was bursting with personality. While we’ve seen glossier shows in the interim, this still feels like the sort of big swing that BBC One doesn’t really make any more. Even though the show has its ups and downs, the channel could definitely stand to have something this downright peculiar on its schedules again.