[13 March 2014]
Nearly 20 years ago, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates began as a family-friendly mystery series on the BBC and, soon after in the US, became a staple within PBS’ Mystery! detective anthology. Unlike detectives who uncover grisly murders-of-the-week or violently confront criminals, the Hetty Wainthropp Detective Agency is more likely to investigate pension fraud, a missing schizophrenic off his medication, or a scam set up by a phony spiritualist.
Nevertheless, Hetty (Patricia Routledge) does manage to come across a few dead bodies in her line of work—but the series steers away from CSI-styled close-ups in favor of showing how the Lancashire sleuth gathers clues and tracks down suspects to solve the mystery by the end of the episode. Although to outsiders Hetty Wainthropp may seem like an unassuming matron, she is a powerful force within her family and community. Upon turning 60, she decides that the expected life of a pensioner is not for her. Instead, she decides to open a detective agency, become mentor and surrogate mother to a juvenile delinquent, and tackle the world on her own terms.
The pilot episode, “The Bearded Lady”, brings together Hetty and the delinquent who will eventually become her business partner, Geoffrey Shawcross (Dominic Monaghan). Hetty chases after the teenaged thief who grabs a children’s charity box off a post office counter, but he laughingly gets away. Unfortunately for the neighborhood bad boy (who never seems truly bad, just in need of Hetty’s guidance), he works as a cashier at the grocery where Hetty shops later that afternoon. She gets his name and plans to turn him in, but the suddenly less confident teen fears to lose his job.
On his own at 17, Geoffrey worries that he will not be able to afford his bedsit or get another job if Mrs. Wainthropp provides the police with his name and eye witness account of the theft. Geoffrey lurks outside the Wainthropp home, having followed Hetty’s bus on a bicycle conveniently “borrowed” from a parish priest, and, when invited to dinner, convinces Hetty not only that he is worth redeeming but that he just might make an effective apprentice detective.
Based on David Cook’s 1986 novel, Missing Persons, the television series presents a gentler, more playful Geoffrey Shawcross than the street smart (and more sexually aware) character in the book. Although Hetty mellowed a bit for the BBC series, she was always played by Routledge, first in a 1990 television movie. Afterward, she was asked about taking the character to a television series, which Routledge readily agreed to do. Unfortunately, she said in an interview for the DVD set, “the idea slipped away.”
When the BBC expressed interest in episodes a few years later, Routledge was still interested in the role. The series, however, received a makeover with a casting call for young actors to play Geoffrey. Routledge noted that casting “got it right” by hiring Monaghan.
In his first professional role, Monaghan (The Lord of the Rings, LOST, Flashforward) convincingly plays Geoffrey as far less delinquent and far more endearing. Routledge explained that more than 200 young actors auditioned for the role. During interviews in the years after Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, Monaghan recalled that many teens from around Manchester wanted the part but tended to play Geoffrey as a tough guy.
Instead, Monaghan interpreted Geoffrey as a cheeky kid who simply lacks guidance before he meets Hetty. The actor chose to grin rather than glower at the camera, a move that won him the role—and plenty of encouragement from veteran actors Routledge and Derek Benfield (playing Robert Wainthropp). Although in the DVD interview Routledge refused to take any credit for mentoring Monaghan, she said she enjoyed working with her co-star, describing him as having “tremendous quality, impeccable instinct” and being “very intelligent, very receptive” to learning on set.
Monaghan’s fans, many who may not have seen the actor in such an early role, now have the opportunity to watch Geoffrey (and Monaghan) mature on screen. Acorn Media’s recent release of all 27 episodes on DVD should interest fans of Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances), Benfield (The Brothers, Lifeforce) or Monaghan, but even audiences who are simply looking for family entertainment or an atypical mystery series should enjoy this DVD set. Hetty Wainthropp Investigates is surprisingly more timeless than its original broadcast dates (1996-1998) suggest.
Like many people approaching their “senior years” in an uncertain economy, Hetty decides to be proactive about a job, not only to improve family finances (Robert is currently out of work and trying to manage their savings carefully), but to show others, as well as herself, that she is still a vital woman capable of contributing to the community. Routledge likes the character’s “...get up and go. In those days, even 20 years ago, people were liable to be considered to be quietly on the scrap heap when they reached a certain age.” Hetty refuses to accept that perspective. Routledge believes, like so many people her age, Hetty “found she had a gift, late in life.” Hetty’s is “for sleuthing, for finding things out, for solving mysteries.”
She sees in Geoffrey a natural inquisitiveness and intelligence; she believes he has the potential to become a responsible adult with better career prospects. Thus, when the Wainthropp Detective Agency is born, Hetty and Geoffrey become a formidable team who do more than solve mysteries. They build a business and form a family.
Geoffrey moves into the Wainthropps’ spare room left vacant by a son who immigrated to Australia; he learns life lessons as often as he gains skills in the detective business. By the fourth (and final) season’s episodes, Hetty and Robert deal with yet another change to their “family”—Geoffrey becomes romantically involved with Janet Frazer (Suzanne Maddock) and, once again, the Wainthropps face the prospect of an empty nest.
The strength of these episodes is the development of an unconventional family pulling together emotionally and financially to get through uncertain economic times and growing pains. Hetty Wainthropp Investigates presents interesting cases, but, especially when viewed as a complete DVD set of episodes, illustrates that well-made family entertainment is classic.
Anglophiles also should appreciate glimpses of the Lancashire countryside or urban life, as only the BBC can film it. The guest list is impressive, too, for those familiar with British television. Wanda Ventham, for example, played a recurring character during the final season; her television career alone includes projects ranging from 1970s’ UFO, The Lotus Eaters, and Fallen Hero to the 2014 season of Sherlock.
The 12-disc DVD set presents the complete series, which includes episodes not broadcast on PBS. As might be expected for the release of a series nearly two decades old, the DVD extras are limited to production and publicity stills, printed production notes, and some out-of-date cast filmographies (Monaghan’s and Maddock’s are about a decade old).
A highlight of the extras is a 26-minute interview with the series’ star: “A Conversation with Patricia Routledge”. In addition to answering the usual questions about her role as Hetty Wainthropp, Routledge discusses character development, her career, and the nature of acting—in short, providing an insider’s perspective on the changing climate of the arts and the then-versus-now training that young actors receive.
Whether as a treat for fans of Monaghan, Routledge, or Benfield or as enjoyable mysteries suitable for family viewing, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates: The Complete Collection is well worth investigating.