Since 2005, when I first happened by chance upon NEW TRICKS, I've been an embarrassingly fervent fan. The British series, which began airing in 2003, took a well-weathered page from such by-the-numbers U.S. fare as Cold Case and freshened it up by radically combining it with the outtake end credits of Grumpy Old Men; to me, this was manna from heaven.
The three-male crew of a special UK crime unit christened UCOS (Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad) is comprised of crotchety retired oddballs led by level-headed Jack Halford (James Bolam), who nonetheless is so obsessed with his dead wife that he keeps her buried in a backyard shrine. Then there’s Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong), possessed of a photographic mind so precise he's known as Memory Lane; a recovering alcoholic, he’s an anal leech to detail, grounded only by his snarky wife Esther (Susan Jameson, Mrs. Bolam in real-life) and foul-smelling pooch Scampy (real name unknown). Last but not least is East End womanizer/gourmet chef Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman), a borderline dodgy rule-bender whose five loving ex-wives and grown daughters concurrently bleed him and feed him.
To head up this unholy trinity is the no-nonsense disgraced dog-shooting (you have to see the pilot feature film to grasp the latter accidental canine exterminator tag) beauteous DSI Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman), a psychologically damaged, short-fused, perennially distruster of all aspects of human nature.
The melding of this quad of misfits fit like the gloves on a four-handed freak, and ultimately morphed into one of the most successful television series in broadcast history, gleaning mil-lions of fans on both sides of the pond.
For eight seasons, their tele-adventures delighted thriller and comedy fans with a left of center casebook filled with suspense and mystery – but, equally important, with a deft dose of quirky, eccentric humor. LSS what makes NEW TRICKS are the idiosyncratic personal lives of its protagonists, the enticing plot-twisting narratives often being merely a colorful background template.
But there was trouble in paradise when costar Bolam made grunts indicating his anxiety to opt out of the long-running cash cow. And so it came to pass: Season Eight, he announced, would be the last of Halford. The world (well, the BBC) panicked. Not since the search for Scarlett O'Hara had the entertainment media so frantically rifled the industry’s casting direc-tories (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit…let’s say somewhere between Scarlett O’Hara and Darrin Stephens). The fruits of their labors can now be seen in NEW TRICKS, SEASON NINE, recently released on DVD by Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment.
Natch, frenzied buffs like myself were dubious of any choice, as Bolam's chemistry with Messrs. Armstrong and Waterman and Ms. Redman was about as crazy-quilt perfect as the Nobel Peace Prize for dynamite, and oc-casionally just as loud. In effect, these chara-ters were like four pieces of a puzzle that con-nected together only when one bashed them into place with a mallet. I loved it. So, apparently, did the planet. This replacement wasn't going to be no Bewitched slight-of-hand (or twitch-of-nose); for many skeptics, this decision would rival Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor. Pity the fool.
As luck would have it, the thespian chosen squeezed himself into Bolam's place with just enough squiggle room to tell naysayers to feck off. The feisty character of rabid Glasgow native Steve McAndrew would be impersonated by Denis Lawson; while I'm still on the fence about his participation, I have to say he does have his moments. Like a goyim David Steinberg, Lawson (as Bolam before him) has the chameleon ability to work quite well with either Waterman or Armstrong; and likewise with Redman. While Bolam's specialty was his relationship with their guv (Pullman), Lawson's mixes best with Gerry – both being adept at using inappropriate and even vulgar means to get to the crux of the problem. The East End/Glasgow culture clash is of particular in-terest, offering up both fascination and hilarity.
The producers were careful not to unleash Lawson immediately. He doesn't make his appearance until Episode 4 of SEASON NINE’s 10-episode set. Bolam even agreed to participate in the debut installment, just to tie up loose ends...and did it in a poignant way. Unlike an American counterpart, he isn't blown to smithereens, but, taking his cue from Douglas MacArthur, simply fades away. His farewell is one only known to Brian, and thus one Memory Lane will likely take to his grave.
The ten shows that comprise SEASON NINE are in themselves an uneven grab bag – although none display any narrative fabric of wearing thin. There is, however, a sense of loss that permeates throughout so, while fetching as ever, there's a sadness in these entries so evident that one might now additionally proclaim NEW TRICKS as television's first bi-polar TV series.
Julian Simpson wrote and directed the initial show, A Death in the Family. It could be the most unusual NEW TRICKS in the show's history, as this cold case is really cold – having occurred in 1851 pre-Jack the Ripper London. On a snowy, foggy Victorian night, a young woman is brutally murdered. How this affects the futures of thousands of pensioners in 2013 is the intriguing carrot that fuels the scenario. A Death in the Family brings forth the sinister high-echelon snob Stephen Fisher (a spectac-ularly hateful Tim McInnerny), who essentially blackmails UCOS into accepting the case, or, as one of our heroes justifiably states, heralding “...our ability to take shit from our superiors...” The strangeness of it all serves as a suitable backdrop for Bolam's swan song.
Sexual predators loom large over Old School Ties, also directed by Simpson. The scandalous practices that unfold at a posh children's school open up an unsavory can of worms (and by worms, I mean the teaching staff). Was a suicide a murder is the key question the UCOS trio must unravel as they investigate the five-year-old disappearance of a popular (perhaps too popular) P.E. proctor. Blackmail, racism, class snobbery and political corruption may topple the lofty world of these highbrow lowlifes. Of specific note is a sidebar segment wherein Brian meets a precocious adolescent version of himself, a nice touch by writer Sarah Pinborough.
The Christmastime death of a pregnant diplomat blows the lid off a massive insider trading conspiracy in Queen and Country. Salacious videos, rare Scotch whiskey, adulterous coworkers and a stolen laptop figure prominently in the events that lead to a shocking conclusion in this nail-biter directed by Matthew Evans. The script by Dan Muirden unveils another side of Gerry's amazing traits: his knowledge of sign language (which becomes integral in breaking the case). The excellent supporting cast includes James Wilby and Sharon Small.
There's plenty of head-scratching going on when a decade-missing 17-year old girl's DNA turns up at a recent robbery site. This and newbie Steve McAndrew's intro to UCOS are the cause for much excitement in The Girl Who Lived, a serpentine conundrum directed by Evans. A flaky DJ and an elusive roadie dot the storyline that additionally uncovers a pathological liar and an internet perv (who grooms young, impressionable females). As it should, Roy Mitchell's script spends a generous amount of time introducing us to McAndrew (our suspicious nature matches Brian, who still misses Jack). There are lots of amusing asides revolving around the Scot's thick accent before he's finally pegged as an “energetic optimist” (a nicety for in-your-face antagonism). “He's just odd,” surmises Sandra, high praise indeed and a UCOS prerequisite (confirmed when he's also revealed to be an accomplished pickpocket). No surprise that McAndrew eventually bonds with Gerry, whom he instructs on how to properly down Scotch. In return, Standing reveals the skinny on the precinct's stiff-upper-lip superior Strickland (Anthony Calf): “He's alright for a tosser.”
“They're settling in,” quips Sandra about the charges in her 60-year-old-plus Day Care Center in Body of Evidence. It's all about the discovery of a missing cop, whose corpse turns up in the morgue where he's been stashed for nearly a year. E-crimes provide the nucleus for this mystery that plunge the UCOS quartet into the sordid side of computer dating. A Wiki-leaks-type whistleblower, vital missing video surveillance and disabled single mom figure in the solving of this seamy expose, directed by Robin Sheppard. Brian's continued animosity toward McAndrew still prevails in Lisa Holdsworth's and Julian Simpson's script. Suffice to say, the Scot retaliates with some piquant digs when Memory Lane gets a primer in cyber-sex.
The multi-billion dollar world of celebrity tennis gets a sock in the jaw in Love Means Nothing in Tennis. The rivalry between two beautiful teen rising stars ended horribly when one committed suicide years before. But was it suicide? A creepy trainer who breaks in 14-year-old hopefuls via methods not listed in any manual, monstrous stage mothers, deadbeat dads and ruthless talent agents are just some of the scum that UCOS must skim off the top. Gerry's personal involvement in child sports becomes underlined when his grandson becomes a victim of violence (his daughter additionally clues him in on the sadistic competitiveness that drove her out of girls’ soccer). Brian, meanwhile, is tempted to visit an ad agency specializing in less-than-perfect-looking models; Scampy does likewise in a firm for scruffy dog actors. Julian Unthank's piercing script (along with Sheppard's direction) leaves no stone unturned for the slimy villains to hide from.
Things go from bad to verse in Dead Poets, as the investigators open a ten-year-old murder of an Irish spoken-word trash artist (his poems center on “birds, booze and brawling”). Why is his sexy agent now championing his writing nemesis? And how come the work is strangely similar to the deceased's? Gerry seems to have the answer (she's shagging 'em both). Could it be the poet is still alive? And, if so, whose body was buried? Gerry jubilantly becomes a literary art-world convert when he pleasantly discovers that its legions of female fans are turned on by iambic pentameter. Shakespeare and Marlowe, he happily notes: “[I]t's bloody viagra”! Marston Bloom's sardonic script (appended by Philip John's direction) gives new meaning to the term “rhythm method.”
Genocide, international intrigue, and a breath-taking escape over the Berlin Wall, ca. 1987 provide the impetus for Blue Flower, a title whose lilting clue is intertwined with nothing less than silverfish. Was a refugee hero really a mass-butcher for the Reds? Was his suspicious death an accident? What does his grown daughter know? Did his acute eye for detail play a part in corporate espionage? The notorious STASI network (the German Ministry for State Security) surfaces, as does modern identity theft, culminating in a case that may just be too volatile for the UCOS bunch. At least there's no language barrier when the boys stake out a strip club, where as a sage indicates, one need only to be “fluent in ass-hole.” Simon Allen's script (excellently helmed by Philip John) ably tackles some uncomfortable truths from recent history.
Gerry and Steve are asked to supervise the formation of a Scot version of UCOS in the aptly entitled Glasgow UCOS, which allows viewers a glimpse at McAndrew’s home base. The case in question is as dirty as it can be – a barrage of serial sex crimes dating back to the 1980s, and involve a murder in a notorious gay pickup spot. This lethal tip of the iceberg leads to a nursing-home scandal, questions about the Scottish version of Sandra Pullman’s living-large lifestyle and Steve's unfaithful ex-wife (and his unscrupulous ex-partner, who broke them up). Gerry gets the worse for wear, suffering a severe beating and a charge for soliciting.
Integral in this ep, penned by Roy Mitchell (and directed by John) is the growing camaraderie between Standing and McAndrew – best when they verbally insult each other regarding their backgrounds (East End vs. Glasgow). When Steve asks Gerry if he was surprised Glasgow had an underground, Standing quips that he was amazed they had electric lights. The beautiful location photography provides a visual highlight which is, excuse the pun, arresting.
The 30-year-old murder of a journalist prompts an outbreak of new violence in Parts of a Whole, the SEASON NINE finale. No less than the pompous Steven Fisher is outed as the leader behind a 1980s Special Ops force that included Strickland and other upscale members, now being systematically liquidated. A ruthless underworld thug with ties to the IRA and MI5, missing incriminated spread sheets and more sanguinary antics than the CGI effects in 300 engulf this wrap-up, written and directed by Julian Simpson.
There's more here in these ten shows than meets the eye. During production of SEASON NINE, it became common knowledge that this would be the final lap for Alun Armstrong – with Amanda Redman subsequently calling it quits after Season 10. This is increasingly evident by the fact that both Redman and Armstrong have genuinely little to do in the latter half of these episodes – with the telltale sign being the nearly exclusive Dennis Waterman-Denis Lawson pairing in Glasgow UCOS. Further proof is brought home in a 12-minute supplementary extra New Cop on the Block. The Lawson-Waterman on-camera interview entirely focuses on their “nice dynamic” relationship (with virtually no mention of the other cast members, save Bolam's departure), best summed up by Waterman's capper “we're being very bad boys.” It also struck me that Anthony Calf (aka Strickland) might be swaying toward a pitch for a spin-off series, possibly revolving around the last entry (a revived secret government espionage force).
While all this may be a lot for diehard NEW TRICKS fans to digest, it doesn't deter (that much) from the enjoyment of these ten mysteries. Although they hardly represent the peak of the series, they are still suspenseful fun. Technical credits remain first-rate, but with perhaps a tad more reliance on hand-held camerawork (Graham Frake, episodes 1-2; James Aspinall, 3-6; and Peter Sinclair, 7-10) and available light interiors. The 16 x 9 transfer is excellent; ditto the stereo-surround audio which, as usual, offers the treat of Waterman's singing the show's theme over the end credits (he played the title role in the original London production of Oliver!).
Happily (for the producers), it looks as if the show’s old dog viewers have adjusted to the casting changes, albeit (like the craggy TV sleuths themselves) in appropriate curmudgeonly fashion. And that’s a personal observation.
NEW TRICKS, SEASON NINE. Color. Letterbox [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]. Stereo-surround audio. Acorn/RLJ Entertainment. CAT # AMP-8901. SRP: $34.99.