BBC Video // 1986 // 509 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // June 20th, 2007
"We shouldn't be piddling around the country. We should be back home making a dishonest living."
Antiques dealer Lovejoy is a divvy, which means he "can tell a genuine antique at a glance," as he explains it in the TV series' opener.
"I would have imagined a person with such a gift might have lived a little better," an unimpressed woman responds, looking around his depressingly humble abode.
Lovejoy first appeared in print in 1977, in Jonathan Gash's novel, The Judas Pair. Gash has since written more than 20 Lovejoy novels. The character was adapted for television by Ian La Frenais, who made his mark on British TV in 1966 as a comedy writer (in collaboration with Dick Clement) on The Likely Lads, a working class take on the Swinging Sixties.
The first 10 episodes of Lovejoy, collected as Lovejoy: The Complete Series One on DVD, originally aired in 1986. Star Ian McShane (Deadwood) had a run on Dallas and in a series of Dick Francis adaptations before returning to the role of Lovejoy in 1991.
Lovejoy: The Complete Series One features 10 episodes on three discs:
"The Firefly Cage" -- Lovejoy follows the woman who bought the Japanese firefly cage he wanted at an auction, finding a trail that leads to murder and the culprits behind a string of burglaries.
"The Axeman Cometh" -- Here's a really simple plot: While Lovejoy's in London trying to sell an Arab headdress, he's being pursued by a woman with a tax bill and a man with an axe. Naturally, Lovejoy only knows about the woman with the tax bill.
"The Sting" -- A beautiful woman asks Lovejoy to represent her to buy a pair of figurines. Lovejoy delegates the task to apprentice Eric, who asks Charlie Gimbert to cover the auction. Big mistake.
"Friends, Romans and Enemies" -- Charlie Gimbert presses a reluctant Lovejoy into scanning the contents of an estate. A brilliant forgery by the deceased piques Lovejoy's interest, and the theft of two gold coins from a museum sends him looking for Roman treasure.
"The Judas Pair" -- Stories of a mythical pair of dueling flinters with a dark reputation have long been dismissed as myth, but Lovejoy is asked to trace the pistols by a man whose brother died for them.
"To Sleep No More" -- Gifted copyist, er, forger Sam Wendell arrives for his meeting with Lovejoy, but instead of asking advice, collapses dead on a cricket pitch. Soon a music box Sam gave his wife and other pieces from his estate are stolen.
"The Real Thing" -- Lovejoy's helping Jane with the restoration of an antique market house while hiding out in Norwich after his latest scam on Charlie Gimbert. Soon Lovejoy's interest turns to revenge on a pair of con artists who scammed a friend of his. Watch for a parody of Antiques Roadshow.
"The March of Time" -- The clock Lovejoy just bought may be worthless, but the 19th century love letters he finds inside may prove valuable. When the clock is stolen and the seller severely beaten, Lovejoy helps police nab the culprit.
"Death and Venice: Part One" -- A friend is killed after buying a fake painting against Lovejoy's advice. Soon, Lovejoy's invited to join "The Scam" -- a plot to steal Venice (it makes sense in the story). What's the connection?
"Death and Venice: Part Two" -- After a shooting, Lovejoy embarks on Plan B as he tries to sort out the motives of four women and two gay Aussies. Meanwhile, Jane conducts her own investigation back in England. Filmed partly on location.
While it roughly follows the plot of a Jonathan Gash mystery, the first episode serves mainly as an introduction to Lovejoy, his world, and his companions.
Cattle run through the yard of his tiny cottage, thanks to a right-of-way granted by landlord Charlie Gimbert (Malcolm Tierney, Braveheart), who enjoys making the antique dealer's day a little more miserable. This makes him late for an antiques auction, but it's an interruption by police, who think he's fencing antiques stolen by a burglary ring, that causes him to lose the Japanese bamboo firefly cage he covets.
Lovejoy is already assisted by barker Tinker Dill (Dudley Sutton, The Pink Panther Strikes Again), whose elegant appearance doesn't hide the fact that he always has a flask (or two) in his pocket. Soon, he'll have an apprentice in Eric Catchpole (Chris Jury, Grange Hill), who at first seems disinterested but will be a valuable assistant. He also starts a friendship with decorator Lady Jane Felsham (Phyllis Logan, Out of the Shadows), which won't sit well with her husband Alexander.
Lovejoy isn't well regarded by those around him. Even buddy Tinker Dill, when asked if he knows Lovejoy, says, "That depends. You look too young to be an outraged husband." He does sleep around at times, but his rumored closeness to Lady Jane, at least, is farcical misunderstanding. Even if he isn't sleeping around as much as people think, Lovejoy isn't a totally upstanding character. He meets Lady Jane because Eric screws up a scam to drum up customers for a worthless Bible box he's trying to unload and sneaks off in Charlie's boat to pursue a clue, damaging it in the process. In any given episode, he racks up enough crimes and misdemeanors to be sent up the river for years.
What may be his one redeeming feature is Lovejoy's tenacity when faced with a mystery. In the opener, he goes to investigate when he sees a light in a home he knows is unoccupied; it becomes a mission of vengeance after he finds the body of a friend on the beach. It's not just vengeance that rules Lovejoy's thoughts. He's equally obsessed with antiques. Watch him fall in love with a sketch he can't afford in "The March of Time" and you start to understand the character. Lovejoy also tries to redeem the character by showing him visiting his daughter and trying to pay the school fees her mother won in the divorce, but this has less effect than the original elements set up by Jonathan Gash.
On TV, he hews to typical detective show conventions (note the dog collar he wears to disguise himself as a priest) and has the haplessness of an Ian La Frenais sitcom character, but the obsessions Lovejoy brings with him from the novels still give Lovejoy some dramatic heft in its first season. Six of the 10 episodes -- "The Firefly Cage," "Friends, Romans and Enemies," "The Judas Pair," "The March of Time," and the two-part "Death and Venice" -- are based on novels by Gash. These stories tend to be more complex and dramatic than the TV originals.
As Lovejoy: The Complete Season One plays out, the character develops as a sort of low-rent Simon Templar whose cases play out against a rural English backdrop -- Essex and Suffolk -- instead of the European cityscapes found on The Saint. Usually the setting creates pastoral charm, although it occasionally had a gritty feel in Season One. While viewers might remember Lovejoy from later seasons with more of a leading man image, always wearing an expensive leather jacket, this first season finds him in a threadbare old coat, looking shabby and seedy.
Like Templar, Lovejoy has a habit of addressing the audience directly to introduce the stories in often noirish fashion. "Don't forget, antiques can be very valuable. And once money's involved, a great deal of money, people can get very greedy, cunning, desperate even. And then, people can get hurt or worse," Lovejoy warns in a typical aside. It's fun and sets up the character, but the show couldn't have that all the time without getting ridiculous or intrusive. Giving Lovejoy, a loner in print, a group of friends gives the audience a way into Lovejoy's head and the world of antiques, since he's always explaining some facet of the case to Eric, Tinker, or Jane. Only Tinker's a direct transport from the novels; Jane Felsham was a drastically different character in print and Eric was a creation of Ian La Frenais.
Eric is the one character who shows growth over the first season. Of course, growth under Lovejoy's tutelage isn't all good, since he's learning about lying to cops and angry thugs, copying antiques, driving up prices through trickery, and revenge. While he's more of a comic relief impediment in the first few episodes, he's a partner in crime to Lovejoy by season's end.
Season One does more to establish Lovejoy as a real person by showing his milieu and the everyday people in his life than later seasons did. Get a quick look now, because Amanda Gimbert, Inspector Drabble, and antiques dealers Helen and Dandy Jack disappear as the series progresses.
Fans will object to the grainy, speckled, and faded prints on Lovejoy: The Complete Season One. Lovejoy may be a master of antique restoration, but the folks behind this DVD set don't seem that good at restoring vintage TV film. With the mono sound, there's a muffled line here and there, but it suffices most of the time.
The only extra here is a seven-minute interview with Ian McShane, who says a fan started him thinking about Lovejoy by sending him a copy of one of Jonathan Gash's novels. It's called Part One, implying that future Lovejoy releases will include more of the interview.
The muffled lines reminded me just how wordy Lovejoy is. The dialogue's witty, but if you like pure action, light on the talk, you won't be a Lovejoy fan.
There's a side to Lovejoy that didn't turn up in the stateside run on A&E. This first season has some profanity and, in one episode, shots of naked female breasts. And not on statues. Still, Lovejoy is toned down from the novels and the series and Ian McShane's portrayal lost more rough edges as it progressed.
Lovejoy's fun, but you may find that familiarity breeds contempt. If you want to watch a Robin Hood-style hero, British TV also offers the 1960s cool of The Saint or the modern slickness of Hustle.
While it includes comic escapades, most notably "The Real Thing," Lovejoy: The Complete Season One had a darker edge than some of you who watched the series throughout its run will remember. At first, Lovejoy's antics were just there to keep the show from getting too gritty.
It's not the sort of faithful Masterpiece Theater adaptation some viewers might expect. Instead, it seems like Ian McShane and company were calculating for an international success like the 1960s version of The Saint. Most of the time, Season One hits that mark, balancing mystery with character-based comedy. In the interview, McShane calls this season "a great unknown dry run," since Lovejoy later tipped the balance toward comedy and took the emphasis off danger and intrigue.
Lovejoy's not guilty, though the poor quality of the transfer here is a misdemeanor.
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 509 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Ian McShane Talks About Lovejoy