The 80s Detective Ready Reckoner

The perms and bell-bottoms abated to tropical couture and teamwork, here are the best of eighties tecs...

Holmes, Magnum and the Miami Vice boys.

Sam Harvey

Breakaway (BBC 1980)Martin Jarvis
3 stars
Supt. Sam Harvey had a children’s book published and decided to leave the force to concentrate on writing. After his superior gives him some horrifying news he finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery which becomes a personal crusade for justice. Jarvis appeared in two six part Francis Durbridge thrillers The Family Affair and The Local Affair. Thomas MagnumMagnum PI (ITV 1981-88)Tom Selleck
4 stars
Selleck had appeared in the latter years of The Rockford Files as a young upstart, brought in to rival Rockford. Two years later Selleck had his own show. Magnum, when not house-sitting for Multi-millionaire Hillerman, drove a red Ferrari around familiar exotic locations (the show often used the same locations as Hawaii Five-O) solving small town crime. Perhaps the last time a man with a ‘tash would be deemed attractive. Maggie ForbesThe Gentle Touch (1980-84)Jill Gascoigne
3 stars
ITV’s answer to Juliet Bravo. Maggie Forbes was a female plain-clothes detective Inspector, often seen at loggerheads with her chauvinistic colleagues. Over time she was gradually accepted and respected. Later Forbes headed up an all-female intelligence organisation in C.A.T.S Eyes Sgt CribbCribb (ITV 1980-81)Alan Dobie
4 stars
Essentially a police procedural set in Victorian times, Alan Dobie played Cribb, a determined by-the-book detective sergeant. The series had great attention to detail, often weaving genuine events into the script. Overlooked these days as much of its impact was eclipsed by the equally well made Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Johnny Ho The Chinese Detective (BBC 1981-82)David Yip
4 stars
David Yip played Sgt Johnny Ho, a chinese immigrant determined to be a policeman to please his aged father. Ho was an outsider struggling for acceptance often showing up the inherent racism both within the police force and the criminal underworld. Having written-off his car, Ho drives around in a distinctive green and wooden-panelled Morris Minor Traveller. Ho’s scruffy image and unconventional approach lead to many a run-in with his superior, the engagingly charmless DCI Berwick, played with great appetite by genre veteran Derek Martin. Jim BergerecBergerac (BBC 1981-91)John Nettles
4 stars
The Tax haven island of Jersey provided a glamorous backdrop to the cases of The Bureau Des Etrangers. Sergeant Jim Bergerac, a solid performance from John Nettles, was beset by a problematic personal life. An ex-alcoholic with a gammy leg, Bergerac was also recently divorced. He could rely on his dark red 1947 Triumph Roadster (in reality the car caused many problems for the production team). One of the BBC’s most popular and enduring shows, Bergerac wasn’t without flaws. Most notable among these was Jim’s uncanny ability to link most of his cases to his father-in-law Charlie Hungerford, who week after week would befriend the chief suspect. Christine Cagney, Mary-Beth LaceyCagney & Lacey (BBC 1982-88)Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly
3 stars
A female Starsky and Hutch. This chalk and cheese duo shared their personal problems with each other as well as their work. A very credible female cop show, it was originally devised as a vehicle for Loretta Swit, who played Christine Cagney in the pilot TV movie. Meg Foster was Cagney in the first short series, which was more hard-edged. Producers fired Foster for being too butch and brought in Sharon Gless for the second series and then, deciding it still wasn’t working, cancelled the show. The viewers knew better and it became one of the first series to be brought back by popular demand – although Tyne Daly’s best actress award may have been the clincher. Neal WashingtonHill Street Blues (ITV 1981-82, Channel 4 1983-9)
5 stars
One of the most influential American police shows of the era and one of Channel Four’s early success stories. The use of single handheld cameras to capture the sometimes chaotic action was revolutionary, setting the template for drama in general and ITV’s The Bill in particular. Hill Street Blues featured several detectives over the years. Chief amongst these was the toothpick-chewing Neal Washington and “JD” LaRue, his heavy drinking buddy. There was Mick Belker, a scruffy undercover cop with a vicious streak and a later recruit was Harry Garibaldi, a cop whose name is crying out for a spin-off series. Hill Street Blues had a heavy dose of realism, sometimes cases wouldn’t be resolved, other times the police were the bad guys. In short Hill Street was a dangerous area, requiring very astute policing. As they used to say at roll call “let’s be careful out there…” Adam DalglieshPD James: Death Of An Expert Witness, Shroud For A Nightingale etc (ITV 1983-98)Roy Marsden
4 stars
Roy Marsden’s poetry reading Commander Adam Dalgliesh was one of the first “cerebal detectives”. A widower living in a windmill, pre-dating Jonathan Creek for that particular quirk. The stories had an edgy thriller atmosphere, well written and acted and not without scary moments. Unlike many detective series Dalgliesh’s cases were serials (often six or seven parters) with several being produced intermittently over a period of fifteen years. Jemima ShoreJemima Shore Investigates (ITV 1983)Patricia Hodge
2 stars
Upper crust adventures with the TV reporter turned sleuth, a creation of the noted historian Lady Antonia Fraser. Arguably, a little too upmarket for its own good, only one short series was made. Matt HoustonMatt Houston (BBC 1983-85)Lee Horsley
2 stars
A poor man’s Magnum. Matt Houston was a rich ex-cattle rancher turned part time sleuth. An mid-decade filler on BBC1 that merely emphasized the lack of a good British private eye series. Jim TaggartTaggart (ITV 1983 onwards)Mark McManus
4 stars
Steely Mark McManus was a hard cop policing a hard city. The series was shot through with black humour. Jim Taggart could be quite philosophical when it suited him. Sadly McManus died in 1994 but it’s some tribute to his work on the series that Taggart continues to this day with his colleagues brought to the fore and is about to clock up its 25th anniversary. TJ HookerTJ Hooker (ITV 1983-5)William Shatner
3 stars
An adequate vehicle for Shatner, suddenly sporting considerably more hair than in Star Trek, as a plain-clothes detective who yearned to be back on the beat. Shatner’s middle-aged frame only just fitted into the police uniform. The TJ initials was never explained but Star Trek fans rumour it may be a subtle in-joke reverse of James Tiberius… Remington SteeleRemington Steele (BBC 1983-84 Channel 4 1986-87))Pierce Brosnan
2 stars
Remington Steele was mythical head of an agency invented by a female private eye Laura Holt because she wasn’t getting much work. To her surprise a man bearing that name turned up on her doorstep. A very wooden Pierce Brosnan would have given a tailor’s dummy a run for its money in this insipid series weirdly seen as a training ground for his role as James Bond. Sherlock HolmesThe Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes The Return Of Sherlock HolmesThe Casebook Of Sherlock Holmes (ITV 1984-94)Jeremy Brett
5 stars
Jeremy Brett made Sherlock Holmes his own. A well-mounted and superbly played series. Paired with David Burke, then later Edward Hardwicke as Doctor Watson, Brett’s interpretation won many plaudits. This evocation of Holmes was much truer to the original Conan Doyle books. Holmes was only once seen in a deer stalker (even then in the context of a countryside assignment) favouring a top hat when about town. The series wasn’t afraid of portraying Holmes’ opium habit. Brett put his all into his mesmerising and at times manic performance. Brett’s determination for pefection contributed in part to his premature death in 1995. Frank BurnsideThe Bill (ITV 1984 onwards)Christopher Ellison
4 stars
Uncompromising hard man Detective Inspector Burnside was a refreshing break from the by-the-book police procedural of The Bill‘s early days. Appearing in the very first episode as Tommy Burnside the character was revised and really came to the fore when the series went twice weekly in 1988. Even then it was a well made crime drama rather than the neo soap it became. Chris Ellison left the show in the early nineties but returned a few years later as newly promoted DCI Burnside to pep up the ratings and was rewarded when Burnside got his own spin-off series in 2000. The unimaginatively titled Burnside didn’t attract sufficient ratings to be recommissioned. Jane MarpleMiss Marple (BBC 1984-92)Joan Hickson
3 stars
Well produced, with great attention to the period detail, as one would expect from the BBC. However, genteel octogenerian Joan Hickson, seemed just a little too old to play Jane Marple. Hickson lacks the jauntiness of Magaret Rutherford, seeming to overplay the confused dowager. In truth Hickson’s portrayal is closer to the books and it was rumoured Agatha Christie, late in her career, had suggested Hickson as a suitable actress for the role… LomaxTravelling Man (ITV 1984-85)Leigh Lawson
3 stars
An ex-police inspector sets out on a narrowboat in search of the killers of his son. The waterways backdrop provided a welcome departure from the urban detective shows that surrounded it but Travelling Man was rather slow moving. Lomax clearly wasn’t in any great hurry to conclude his investigations. A breath of fresh air nonetheless. Mike HammerMicky Spillane’s Mike Hammer (ITV 1984-86)Stacey Keach
2 stars
Boorish gumshoe Mike Hammer was the focus of this overtly violent pulp thriller. Under-dressed women were seen only as decoration. Little to commend it frankly. ITV wisely pulled the plug when Keach was gaoled for drug offences. Ripe for parody the whole thing was brilliantly spoofed by Sledge Hammer! very soon afterwards, right down to the PI’s love affair with his gun. Mike Hammer called his gun “Betsy” whilst the unthinking Sledge Hammer christened his weapon “gun”, even giving it a satin pillow next to his bed! Sonny Crockett, Ricardo TubbsMiami Vice (BBC 1985-90)Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas
3 stars
High-class crime, exotic vistas and shallow fashionistas abounded in this escapist thriller series produced by the talented director Michael Mann. Don Johnson started a trend for “designer” stubble, rolled-up jacket sleeves and pastel t-shirts not to mention deck shoes worn without socks. Crockett is also probably the only detective in TV history to have a pet lizard (named Elvis). At the time it was seen as a more up-to-date take on the buddy cop show. Ultra fashion conscious and very eighties, Miami Vice has dated badly. Both Jan Hammer’s signature tune and Crockett’s Theme made the top five of the UK charts. George BulmanBulman (ITV 1985-87)Don Henderson
4 stars
Sergeant George Bulman had appeared in two other successful series The XYY Man and Strangers. Softly spoken and well read, Bulman was never without a scarf, fingerless gloves and a nasal inhaler. He repaired clocks in his early retirement but his real talent was his detective faculties, and he was coaxed back into the world of private detection by a young Siobhan Redman as Lucy McGinty. Bulman lasted two successful series. Lt. James Dempsey and Lady Harriet MakepeaceDempsey and Makepeace (ITV 1985-86)Michael Brandon, and Glynis Barber
2 stars
A policeman from New York’s Ninth Precinct works with a haughty aristocratic Cambridge graduate with royal ancestory, who (weirdly) has aspirations to be a detective. Sharing The Professionals‘ love of the enjoyably ridiculous, Dempsey and Makepeace were agents for SI10 and each week were involved in increasingly spectacular car chases and stunts always at the expense of a good plot. Designed to follow 3-2-1 when Saturday nights belonged to ITV, the series quickly outstayed its dubious welcome. The real life romance between Brandon and Barber was far more interesting. Roy Clarke had the show in his sights when he created Pulaski a 1987 spoof private eye show for the BBC wherein the offscreen antics of the stars more than matched anything that appeared onscreen. Ronald CravenEdge Of Darkness (BBC 1985)Bob Peck
5 stars
Bob Peck gives the performance of his career in this superlative thriller as relevant today as it was on first transmission. Peck plays Yorkshire detective Craven. Investigating his daughter’s death, Craven uncovers eco and political conspiracies and shady secret service goings-on. The rock music soundtrack by Eric Clapton is used very effectively. This gritty drama is an intelligent high watermark in Eighties TV. David Addison, Maddie HayesMoonlighting (BBC 1986-90)Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd
4 stars
Essentially a fantasy comedy drama. Moonlightlng shares many of the criteria already outlined for the detective drama. Increasingly this includes a theme that makes the charts, in this case courtesy of Al Jarreau. A pre-Die Hard Bruce Willis (later to have a hit single himself) is charming as charismatic gumshoe David Addison. There’s a tense chemistry between Addison and his partner and boss at the Blue Moon Detective Agency, Maddie Hayes. Cybill Shepherd gives one of her most dazzling performances. Full of snappy one-liners, reminiscent of forties screwball comedies, made all the sharper by the revelation the two stars had no time for each other off-camera. Endeavour MorseInspector Morse (ITV 1987-92, 1997-2000)John Thaw
5 stars
John Thaw returned to the genre which made his name as a radically different policeman to Regan, the enigmatic and silver-haired Endeavour Morse. The dreaming spires of Oxford provided the backdrop to the cases of the classical music-oving Chief Inspector, whose love of real ale tested Thaw’s acting mettle, as in reality he preferred vodka. The crossword addict and vintage Jag driver was ably assisted by Kevin Whately as his faithful Sergeant, the decent but very straightforward, Robbie Lewis. Once again the theme (cleverly utilising morse code as a bassline) proved a great success for the impressively monikered composer Barrington Pheuloung. Reg WexfordRuth Rendell (ITV 1987 onwards)George Baker
3 stars
Wexford is another in the long line of cerebal ‘tecs. This series, always broadcast under the Ruth Rendell umbrella title, was well acted but leaden-paced. Presumably the sleepy village locations and equally sleep-inducing cases was aimed at the cosy Sunday night crowd. Rendell’s work as Barbara Vine is altogether more engaging. Alan RockliffeRockliffe’s Babies, Rockliffe’s Folly (BBC 1987-88) Ian Hogg
4 stars
Teetotal, seen-it-all Sergeant Alan Rockliffe finds himself wet-nursing seven rookie detectives making their way (and plenty of mistakes) as part of the Met’s Victor Tango division. After two successful urban series, Rockliffe was transferred to Wessex, only to discover crime was as rife in the country as in the city. Ian Hogg played the eponymous Rockliffe, a rather scruffy character in the original series wearing the same jacket and red raincoat throughout. He suddenly developed a taste for classical music (a nod to the success of Morse perhaps?) in the aptly named Rockliffe’s Folly. Lord Peter WimseyDorothy L Sayer’s Mysteries: Strong Poison, Gaudy Nights (BBC 1987)Edward Petherbridge
3 stars
Notable for it’s brilliant Art Deco title sequence, evoking the style and opulence of the twenties and thirties era. This was series of short serials featuring upper class slueth Peter Wimsey and his cohort Harriet Vane played here by Harriet Walter. Well acted and sufficiently intriguing, though unfashionably class ridden. Jack KillianMidnight Caller(BBC1989-93)Gary Cole
3 stars
Reminiscent of the Clint Eastwood film Play Misty For Me and the BBC’s Shoestring, Gary Cole who had turned down Miami Vice‘s Sonny Crockett, starred as the night time radio host. Killian solved crimes brought to his attention by his listeners. Albert CampionCampion (BBC 1989-90)Peter Davison
3 stars
Peter Davison played the bespectacled silly-ass gentleman sleuth Albert Campion. Ably supported by Brian Glover as the impressively named gentleman’s gentleman Magersfontien Lugg. This upper crust Margery Allingham detective has much in common with the Lord Peter Wimsey books. Campion though has more screen presence than Wimsey and the character is more likeable. Then again, Davison is rarely cast against type.

SpenserSpenser: For Hire (BBC 1989-93)Robert Urich

3 stars
A Wordsworth-quoting man of culture and principle decides to put his skills to use as a private investigator for hire. Spenser (no forename given) had many skills to offer, being an ex-boxer and cordon bleu chef. Spenser:For Hire was a well produced US series which may have been more successful and better remembered had it played in primetime. Pearl and FinnSouth Of The Border (BBC 1989)Buki Armstrong and Rosie Rowell
2 stars
Fancied itself as a South London’s answer to Cagney and Lacey. Many of the cast and crew were women and good roles were given to black actors. Perhaps a little self-conscious about its politically correct credentials, it only ran for one season. Hercule PoirotPoirot (ITV 1989 onwards)David Suchet
4 stars
Relying on his “little grey cells” Agatha Christie’s Poirot, played with some panache by David Suchet, began at the end of the eighties, becoming one of ITV’s flagship shows in the nineties. The most surprising thing about the whole venture is it didn’t happen sooner. The sheer number of TV adaptations of successful literary detectives was overwhelming by the end of the decade.
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