Policing with consent requires that, to a certain extent at least, officers of the law reflect the society that they are employed to serve. It’s not always perfect, stories are legion of cops living in their own hermetic world, but in general terms, it works. Of course, the corollary of this is that cops also reflect the villains that they chase. Society changes. Crime changes. Cops change, too.
The premise of New Tricks is precisely this, that old crimes need old cops to solve them. Coming over like a bizarre hybrid of Last of the Summer Wine and Demolition Man, the show pits three retired officers, plus their still-sworn female handler, against those old cases that never quite managed to go away. As members of the fictional Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad, the team investigate, and invariably solve, tough cases of long vintage.
It’s an extremely fertile foundation for episodic TV, which has already produced nine seasons, with a tenth imminent. They have proven tremendously popular, both domestically and internationally, and have earned a dedicated community of fans, many of whom have voted these collected episodes as their favorites.
The show’s popularity is no mystery. Structurally, every episode is simple and formulaic, like any classic whodunnit. The case is identified, the team investigate, red herrings are found, hi-jinks ensue and finally the killer turns out to be the person you least suspected. Unless you were watching very closely of course, but joining in is part of the fun. Each one is a fairly undemanding hour of moderately light drama and gentle comedy, featuring a cast of British household names, several of whom were very famous indeed, back in the day.
It’s entirely appropriate. In New Tricks, the characters are throwbacks, even in their own time. Every one of the central three took early retirement, only to come back and continue with police work as civilians. There’s a two-fold implication, that one, their style of policing became politically out of date prior to the end of its natural span and two, that some of this work must be done at arm’s length from the central policing structure. Having civilians doing the detective work allows the bosses (not to mention the show’s writers) the freedom to bend the rules here and there and, by so doing, furnish the show with its central appeal.
If there’s a subtext to New Tricks, it’s that modern policing is too cautious, too sterile to handle the rough and tumble of proper police work. To really nail the bad guys, coppers need to be free to be themselves, unencumbered by the constraints of political correctness. The result is a mix of character-driven comedy and dramatic commentary on how things just ain’t what they used to be.
At its best, the show blends these elements seamlessly. In the first of these selected episodes, Jack Halford (James Bolam), the most senior of the former cops, is forced to go undercover at an old people’s home while the team investigate a possible murder at the premises. The implausible undercover work is played for laughs, but the investigation itself is personal. They’re essentially vetting the place before team leader Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman) agrees to let her mother move in. It’s all conducted without the knowledge of the team’s superiors. New Tricks is hardly The Wire, but the sense still pertains that the bosses would much rather avoid opening up a case if a cleaner explanation is available.
The overall boss in New Tricks, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Robert Strickland (Anthony Calf), all pinstripe and long vowels, is a representative of the new police, the Metropolitan Police Service (note ‘service’, rather than ‘force’) that now spends as much time investigating itself as it does criminals. With its focus on statistics, community integration and public relations, the Met is a markedly different beast from the organisation that precipitated the MacPherson Report that concluded that it was ‘institutionally racist’ and riven with corruption. These days, while it’s not staffed entirely by angels, for TV dramatists, the contrast between the old and the new has proven a rich seam to mine.
New Tricks plays the difference for laughs rather than hard drama, although the effect is similar. As such, it’s interesting to compare the tenor of this show to that used in the UK’s 1990s trifecta of cops-on-the-couch dramas Cracker, Prime Suspect and Between the Lines.
Consequently, the worst parts of old school policing are rendered harmless. The petty ‘us versus them’ tribalism is diluted into daft parochialism. On hearing that the team will be working with a detective from Strathclyde Police, ex-Sergeant Gerry Standing replies with exasperated incredulity. ‘What, Glasgow?’ he asks, making it sound as though Scotland’s largest city was on Jupiter. It’s all made good of course, especially once the Glaswegian teaches him the proper manner in which to drink Scotch.
Standing is played by Dennis Waterman, a stalwart of British TV who, back in the ’70s, appeared every Monday night as DS George Carter in The Sweeney, a hugely popular show that came to exemplify a type of roughhouse London policing. Waterman, who has become known as a TV hardman more by mutual acceptance than through any actual deed, is casting shorthand for the show’s intentions. Standing could well be Carter, softened through age but no less partial to a drink and the occasional use of violence as a means of ‘persuasion’. He still has recourse to certain methods that are no longer part of the official repertoire, such as grabbing a witness by the balls to help aid his memory.
The use of improbably harmless violence is a hallmark of the show. Foot chases are frequent, with the inevitable difficulties that these raise for our superannuated superintendents. In one of the DVD’s selected episodes, former Detective Inspector Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong) is hospitalised with a broken collarbone after he gives pursuit on a bicycle. A broken collarbone. That’s got to smart, right? It’s OK though, they catch the baddie, another case is put to bed and the injury forgotten in time for the next adventure. Continuity can be a good thing.