The Last Detective

Friday, February 7, 2003 by

Apparently the money ITV1 invests in programming is only recorded as having been spent once a show has been transmitted. This mildly obscure piece of accounting trivia may at first seem irrelevant, yet as The Last Detective tells us, it is only by examining and re-examining such minutiae that one is able to solve a mystery. In the case of this reviewer, this seemingly random fact provided the breakthrough in piecing together why it is that “Dangerous” Davies can be seen watching an episode from the first series of Survivor in this apparently brand new ITV1 drama series (The Last Detective, along with a raft of other dramas was held over for 18 months by ITV1 in order to meet budgetary requirements).

Resolutely billed as “family viewing”, The Last Detective arrives on our screens appearing to all intents and purposes as a seat warmer for the already established Midsomer Murders (which previously occupied this slot). Yet whilst the John Nettles’ series has comfortably become part of an established ITV1 tradition of competent detective series (see also A Touch of Frost, Taggart, McCallum etc), the first episode of The Last Detective is more reminiscent of the BBC’s sometimes excellent Dalziel and Pascoe; evoking that series’ propensity to flesh out minor characters, and its ability to grip the viewer with a sometimes languid pace.

However, at its heart, what makes The Last Detective so refreshing is its willingness to tell an entirely straight story. Often TV detective dramas rely on new developments occurring outside the investigation to move the action along. Such plotting ensures that the speed in which events unfolds and the timing of the plot revelations can be controlled arbitrarily, instead of in accordance with the speed of the detection process. In fact quite regularly these programmes do not actually involve a true investigation at all. Instead the criminal is flushed out by the misguided actions he or she takes as the drama continues. For those who come to TV detective programmes looking to solve a puzzle this makes for irritating viewing. Happily in The Last Detective the culprit plays no active part in the investigation (either on screen or off) at all and the audience is instead allowed to enjoy a thorough investigation as Davies makes his methodical way through each of the witness statements.

As this is supposedly family viewing, The Last Detective is obliged to pepper the story with moments of humour. Again, this device is not unusual, yet whereas A Touch of Frost will contrive to have David Jason lose a seemingly winning lottery ticket and fill an entire episode’s quotient of light moments with a fruitless and “amusing” search that smacks of artifice, The Last Detective relies on brief flourishes, sometimes at the expense of the lead character, but often to highlight something of the personality of the less important figures in the story. In this respect, The Last Detective is actually most similar to the series that would seem to be its diametric opposite – Cracker.

The central performances of Peter Davison (DC “Dangerous” Davies), Sean Hughes (his sidekick Mod) and David Troughton (Yardley) are lugubrious and all the more entertaining for it. The reunion of Troughton and Davison in particular is a treat for those who enjoyed their performance in the BBC’s A Very Peculiar Practice (whose quirky appeal The Last Detective vaguely resembles), and the final two-handed scene between the two, although somewhat predictable in content is superb in execution. Troughton’s understated ability to emote, and Davison’s ability to act like he is really listening ensures the viewer does not want to miss a second of the all-important “reveal”.

Yet whilst these performances are just two of the many things that should be commended in this first outing, it is obvious that without a carefully thought out and detailed investigation at the heart of each episode, the future for The Last Detective will be less auspicious then that which we can currently hope for. Will it become indistinct from the myriad detective series around it? Will the willingness to tell entirely straight detective stories remain, or will The Last Detective soon revert to “investigations” in which “Deadly” Davies simply bides his time until the villain makes the inevitable “wrong move”? For now, this is a mystery worth investigating further.


Comments are closed.