Always striving to add a new wrinkle to the police/crime genre, the BBC hit a dinged mother lode when executive producer Peter Flannery created the bit-long-in-the-tooth post-WWII knight in tarnished armor George Gently. Based on the novels by Alan Hunter, the latest results can (and should) be savored in the new Acorn 4-DVD release, GEORGE GENTLY, SERIES 6.
The brilliance of GENTLY (like Foyle and the war) was that it played out during the wobbly era of Britain in the early 1960s. Things were certainly changing and old school, valiant George Gently was doing his best to weather the ever-transforming cultural horizon.
Gently is not your standard by-the-book cop. He's a wise give-'em-enough-rope war horse whose keen perception of human behavior rivals that of France's Maigret. Gently, like his name, is a warmer, fuzzier curmudgeon...until you cross him. Then he's as tough and even vicious as Stanley Baker out for revenge.
In the League of Gentlemen world, ca. 1964, Gently seemed to fit, albeit a bit awkwardly. His world collapsed when his wife died, leaving him an eternally grieving and lonely widower.
The copper’s indestructible ire was tempered by mentoring his new, young and grotesquely inexperienced underling John Bacchus. Bacchus was everything that Gently wasn't (and often despised). An arrogant, insensitive, bigoted loudmouth – who couldn't fathom why his wife left him. The original chip-on-a-shoulder dude who took his troubles out on the planet, Bacchus became Gently's ongoing work-in-progress. As the years passed, Gently's influence slowly mellowed the hot head, almost humanizing him...almost.
The father/surrogate son relationship at last exploded in the final episode of Series 5 – which I thought to be the last nail in the rusting coffin. In that installment, Gently and Bacchus fell prey to a psycho killer who pumped them full of lead in a shocking climax (made even more jaw-dropping by the fact that the perp was none other than Inspector Lewis' Kevin Whatley!).
Imagine my delighted surprise when SERIES 6 was announced. This was appended by my added joy of having these four feature-length TV-movies rank among the best in the series.
As these new adventures unfold, we find both leads struggling to deal with the physical and social changes in their lives. It’s 1969 – about a half-century away from 1962 in culture-shock time.
Gently is creakier, recovered but with obvious difficulty. Bacchus has decided to call it a day, having had enough with law-enforcement crap. But Gently knows better; he realizes that someone as volatile as Bacchus will never make it in any other climate. Once his rehabilitation is completed, the elder lawman convinces his “prodigy” to give it another go.
The late 1960s prove to be a rug pulled out from under the team. While Gently fares the rapidly transformed landscape better than Bacchus, he still can't quite come to grips with the supersonic upgrades of gender equality, modern music, fashion and politics. This causes friction within his professional universe; in short, the boys upstairs want to retire the dinosaur.
Yet, Gently is far more liberal than his superiors or his younger but stubborn (in)subordinate. This is best exemplified by the introduction of WPC Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis), the first female in the department not relegated to making tea for the lads. Coles' savvy sleuthing abilities are obviously light years ahead of chauvinistic Bacchus, who sees her as a threat. Yet, she tolerates the friction with near-Gently patience.
While refused a majority of field work, she nevertheless develops a hand-written database, which aids the duo in solving one of their most perplexing cases. Gently admires her intelligence and, as he slowly coached Bacchus, he likewise moves her up the ladder.
As one might well appreciate, key to the success of GEORGE GENTLY are the actors who headline the major roles. First and foremost is the superb Martin Shaw. Always aces in this part, Shaw surpasses himself in SERIES 6. One can feel every ache in his aging bullet-ridden carcass as he walks down steep roads, darts in and out of his car or merely deals with his antagonistic partner and the sibling rivalry between Bacchus and Coles.
Physically, Shaw carries a sturdy Jack Hawkins vibe, ca. the late 1950s/early 1960s. The world Gently inhabited at the outset did, in fact, resemble something out of Gideon's Day (minus the home life). In SERIES 6, even Gently understands that his days are numbered.
More fallible is Bacchus, whose impersonation by Lee Ingleby is frequently up to Shaw's, due to his making such an unpleasant character, while not likeable, certainly sympathetic. Gently knows all too well that if he goes, Bacchus is doomed. It's an amazing relationship, especially for a television series.
Highlighted by top-notch production values that meticulously re-create the era to a T, fantastic technical credits, terrific guest stars and (most prominently) expert writing, GEORGE GENTLY, SERIES 6 is a must for mystery fans, and thus highly recommended. For added enticement, here's a brief rundown on the quartet of thrillers that comprise this addictive collection.
In Gently Between the Lines, the battle-scarred veteran cautiously (and, literally, painfully) returns to duty. Coercing Bacchus to do the same proves to be added stress the wily detective hadn't figured on...or needs. The latter's rehab cloud is made less difficult by his finding an RN silver lining, and shagging it.
A gloomy slum's full-blown riot, resulting in the death of a cop, may be the carrot to entice Bacchus back to the relentless beehive of police work. A subsequent arrest of an apparent perp, christened “Crazy” by the locals, turns nasty when the youth dies in custody. His supposed known use of drugs is disproved when the corpse is chemical-free, deepening the mystery. Police brutality, child abuse, and precinct under-the-carpet sadism all converge toward the climax of this unsettling entry that has startled Gently to the realization that times are truly changing: “This is where we are. What we've become. We're the enemy.”
Gently and Bacchus deal with the heavy situation by downing a heavier remedy; drinking more and enjoying it less, Gently unearths his teammate's Darwinian traits: “I like you when you're a bastard. You're quite good at it.” Not beyond bursts of violence himself, Bacchus sneers, “I had a good teacher.”
Timothy Prager penned the tight script, nicely served up by director Nicholas Renton. Suffice to say, it ain't your ordinary TV cop buddy show.
That seemingly benign British getaway known as the Holiday Camp (pretty much the UK's version of middle-class America's bungalow colonies) masks an ugly side of human nature in Blue for Bluebird. The happy-go-lucky beachside resort gets a proverbial sledgehammer in the gut when the mini-skirted body of a beautiful camp worker is found washed up along the shore.
Like the soon-to-become obsolete Gently, the entire concept of Holiday Camps was already an anachronism by 1969, and is presented as such via the faded, peeling paint signs, lackluster aging guests and their bored children. Megan Webb (pop star Pixie Lott) is the one breath of fresh air – an aspiring rocker (who wows the quasi-comatose crowd with a cover on The Shoop Shoop Song). 'Cept now she's dead. Sexually active, but not the victim of a sex crime, Webb's murder was one of hate/revenge. But who? Everybody seems to have something to hide, particularly the camp's brother-and-sister owners Todd and Cherry Stretch. Smarmy guests, Megan's lovers and her cabin mates are the prime suspects until Gently and Bacchus track down the young woman's cold-as-ice parents, revealing a jealous and (at least peripherally) uncaring mother. Her blasé attitude is trumped by the detective's piercing “I always expect the worst from everybody” slap in her face.
As the investigation delves further into the lives of the guests and staff, Gently and Bacchus discover that the decaying vacation spot is a virtual knocking shop where the virile and nubile staff is available for the randy paying men and women. The additional revelation that the camp also flirts with pedophilia revolts the sleuths into rampant high gear as the surprising villains are brought to light.
Gently's problems are doubled by his partner's battling with his ex over their daughter's visitation custody rights. The former Mrs. Bacchus is probably correct by refusing to upgrade the court decision cause...well, basically her husband's a shit. In a rare instance of moving the emotional goal posts, Gently secretly pays a call on the bitter single mom and negotiates a reasonable compromise (unbeknownst to his partner).
This is my favorite episode in the set, and one of my all-time favorite shows in the entire series. The terrific writing by Jess Williams is beautiful complimented by Bill Anderson's taut direction. This one alone makes SERIES 6 worth the purchase.
Being a gay soldier in the UK military during the Sixties almost automatically puts a target on your back. But when the man is question is killed and the army doesn't give a rat's ass, red flags pop up with great rapidity. What gets Gently and Bacchus involved in Gently With Honour is the fact that this ordinarily calm individual went on a murderous rampage prior to his liquidation. Sinister shrinks, nasty sexual liaisons, strange experiments on enlisted men and other unsavory incidents make this one of the series' most intriguing and controversial episodes. Jess Williams and Steve Lightfoot's teleplay hits all the right chords, some albeit uncomfortably, perfectly appended by Tim Whitby's taut direction. Jemma Redgrave is thoroughly creepy as an inappropriate therapist with a sadistic fascination that can only be called Mengele-esque.
Union corruption in an archaic desolate mining community unmasks an accidental death as murder in Gently Going Under. Greedy politicians (are there any other kind?), violently dysfunctional families, adultery and incest tear apart this seemingly simple small town – with Gently's striving for the truth proving a definite detriment.
Macho Bacchus' underground phobia (causing Gently to risk his life in a possibly “arranged” cave-in) doesn't help their investigation (nor does his anti-labor “they can all go live in Russia” stance), also hampered by trouble on the home front. The aging detective's superiors are adamant about “promoting” the veteran sleuth to traffic desk work – hoping he'll resign in retaliation. It truly looks as if the looming, dreary Seventies are going to be terrible, treacherous times for not only the honorable cop, but his two younger assistants.
SERIES 6’s capper is appropriately hard-hitting, thanks to the tight script by Mike Cullen and direction by veteran Brit crime director Ben Bolt.
As indicated earlier, the period look of GEORGE GENTLY plays as much a part of the show's success as the actors, the directors and the writers. The set and art direction is superb, as is the atmospheric camerawork. To the latter, we must therefore commend the praiseworthy efforts of Kieran McGuigan (Gently Between the Lines; Blue for Bluebird) and Peter Robertson (Gently With Honour; Gently Going Under). The music, too, is an important factor in re-creating the era, invoking an authentic mod flavor with a contemporary beat; so kudos to John Keane (Lines, Bluebird) and Mark Russell (Honour, Under).
18 minutes of supplemental featurettes are almost mind-boggling, as we're so locked into the actors as those characters that's it's bizarre to see them off-camera. It's a genuine surprise to see Inglesby/Bacchus as a nice guy – albeit not as jarring to have Shaw jokingly reveal why he's nothing like his on-screen persona.
Personally, I have found myself often pondering the future of George Gently – surviving not only the 1970s, but the 1980s and possibly even the 1990s. Like TV's Inspectors Morse and Italy's Montalbano, I also think about prequel shows, depicting Gently's life a young (or at least younger) man. You know, the early 1950s – when he was happily married and thought the future held great things. When one starts to do that, it's a sign that a show/movie's creators have done a good job, and that's the best compliment anyone can ever hope to bestow upon a popular fictional icon.
The GEORGE GENTLY production mini-society has done a very good job indeed.
GEORGE GENTLY: SERIES 6. Color. Widescreen [1.78: 1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Stereo-surround [2.0 audio]; Acorn Media and RLJ Entertainment and all3media International. CAT # AMP-2175; UPC # 0-54961-2175-9-5. SRP: $59.99.