Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Watching The Detectives

Ah yes - we are at that point in the game where I have gathered all the usual suspects into a confined room to accuse everyone in turn of having murdered Lord Faffington-Smythe until finally revealing the identity of the real murderer.

Lets face it murder-mysteries can be so formulaic, and yet we love them and keep coming back to them: and so, to celebrate some of the more renowned here is another of my now surely infamous "list o' fives"

As usual there are rules - no police procedurals, no cop shows: so if you're a fan of CSI Bognor Regis, or TJ Hooker look away now as they won't get a mention other than just now.

No - I'm focussing on stand-out performances of famous detectives - some that have made it from paper to the small screen and some that went beyond.

#1: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes
Many actors have played a character called Sherlock Holmes: amongst the most famous versions being Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing and, more recently, Robert Downey Jr.  But only one actor has captured Arthur Conan-Doyle's Holmes and that was Jeremy Brett in the ITV series that ran from the 80s-90s

Brett became so wrapped up in the character that he made himself physically ill, a factor that probably added to his early death - but his arch performance makes his Sherlock Holmes stand head and shoulders above the pack. 

#2: David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
Many people hold up the works of Agatha Christie as being the perfect murder-mysteries and talk of her profound knowledge of the motives of humans - I can't say that it's a point of view that I particularly prescribe to.  If we're honest here you could probably put any of her characters as the murderer and swap her plots between books and no one would notice - but although she felt that in Hercule Poirot she had created a monster David Suchet succeeds in making the Belgian detective remarkably human.  Now only five or six stories away from having made every single Poirot for TV it must be hoped that the excellent Suchet continues

#3 Peter Falk, as Columbo
I'd love to have been at the meeting where they pitched this one to the networks: hey guys, its a detective show, only we show you whodunnit at the start.  But why, they must have asked, would you watch until the end if you knew whodunnit at the start?

The answer, of course, is Peter Falk.  Absolutely note-perfect as the deshiveled detective who allows his suspects to trap themselves by forever adding on their story until it falls apart this is surely one of the most genius pieces of casting of all time - although, it is interesting to note that a touring version of the very first Columbo story recently came to our local theatre with Dirk "The Face"/Starbuck Bennedict as Leiutennant Frank Columbo (and yes, that was his first name.  Though never used in the show it does appear on his police badge)

#4: John Thaw as Chief Inspector Morse
Thaw was already no stranger to the TV detective genre, having played Regan in 70's cop-show The Sweeney, but it was here, amidst the splendour of Oxford's universities that he truly excelled.  Morse took the step of making every episode two hours long, allowing plenty of time for the viewer to get to know the characters - and for once it really worked.  With his panchant for opera and expensive cars Endeavour Morse (yes, that really was his first name) was an example of UK TV at its best

#5 Angela Lansbury as JB Fletcher

 OK - so before we talk about the infamous Murder, She Wrote I just want to briefly mention my REAL fifth choice - who is of course the immortal Joan Hickson as Miss Marple
Hickson played the part in a series of BBC adaptations around the same time that Jeremy Brett played Holmes, and she could match him scene for scene for believability - more than can be said for the new Agatha Christie's Marple series.  I heard once that Agatha Christie had mentioned Joan Hickson as a possible actress for her second most famous character - and if she did she was spot on.  Any actor that plays Holmes or Marple has to stand in the shadow of Brett and Hickson for ever more

So back to Murder, She Wrote - lets face it the stories were utter rot.  Mostly Jessica would be visiting a distant relative, or working on a re-write of one of her novels, and said relative would be accused of murder.  From thereon in the writers just put all the character names into one hat and a spurious murder reason into a second hat and drew lots to find out whodunnit.

But of course none of that mattered, because Angela Lansbury, like Dick Van Dyke in Diagnosis: Murder and Tony Shaloub in Monk - were just so damn watchable that the whodunnit was very much a side issue

Suggestions for any ommissions welcome as ever


Titus said...

Jeremy Brett was nearly my Dad! Mum was at Italia Conti with him, and they 'walked out' for a while.

Kojak. Where's Kojak?

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Controvertially i'm going to call that Kojak was a cop show, rather than a murder-mystery

Peter Goulding said...

Even though every Morse fan knew it would never live up to the original,and whoever thought it up ran the risk of destroying everything, I think Lewis has to be ranked up there with the very best. The Lewis / Hathaway interaction is every bit as good as the Morse / Lewis one.

The Bug said...

LOVE the Jeremy Brett Sherlock - Dr. M & I watch it whenever we run across it. And I always did love Columbo. I agree about MSW, but you're right, very watchable.

But what, no Magnum PI or Moonlighting? Heh.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Peter - i have to admit that i've never watched Lewis, so can;t comment

Bug - Magnum PI fits in with the TJ Hooker's of this world i think. Moonlighting was good fun, but not sure where it fits to be honest

Titus said...

Pants, but fair enough.

I never saw Rosemary and Thyme. What about that one with the curly-haired bloke?

Ronin Moon said...

Entirely agree with you about Jeremy Brett. He was and always will be Sherlock Holmes in my mind.

Argent said...

Never watched Jeremy Brett, sadly. Peter Falk had a glass eye which lent to his rather odd look. I would add Michael Kitchen's Foyle of Foyle's War to this. The understated performance of Kitchen in the role of a quietly-spoken but persistent detective inspector was very compelling. The period detail was superb and the plots very well thought-out. In the later series they touched on some little-known aspects (all true) of the second world war that really made me think.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Titus - are you talking about Jonathan Creek with Alan Davies? I've only seen odd bits - guess it would fall under the Monk/Murder, She Wrote umbrella because it's semi played for laughs (written by David "One Foot In The Grave" Renwick)

Ronin - indeed

Argent - i have the set on DVD if you want to see Jeremy Brett in action. I've never seen Foyle's War, so can't comment. Never saw Frost either before anyone throws David Jason into the ring - but i think i'd have a problem getting past Del Boy/Dangermouse with that one

Oh - and lets not even go down the John Nettles road...

LongArmoftheLaw said...

For sure Jeremy Brett is the quintisential Sherlock Holmes. I grew up watching Sherlock Holmes followed by Hercule Poirot on A&E, and this is where, I think, I must have first fallen in love with the Holmes stories. Brett is simply incredible as Holmes.

I always really liked Poirot in every respect, but as much as I enjoyed it too, it just couldn't match the awesomeness that is the incomparable Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Other 80's mystery shows worth a mention are Nero Wolfe and Father Dowling Mysteries. Man, there was some awesome TV on in the '80's.