Chief Justice Michael Stailey would never refer to Judge Jim Thomas as the Last Judge. (You wouldn't, right? Right?)
"The last detective, that's what you are, Davies. The last detective I'll ever think of for a job. Unless it's a crap job; then you'll be the first."
Based on a series of novels by Leslie Thomas (no relation), The Last Detective was first filmed back in 1981, with Bernard Cribbins in the title role. In 2003, a series starring Peter Davison (Doctor Who) premiered on the British network ITV, garnering a four-series run. All four seasons are available individually, but now Acorn Media brings us the case of The Last Detective: Complete Series.
Facts of the Case
Detective Constable (DC) Davies, a low-ranking CID officer in the London borough of Willesden, is the constabulary's equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield. His younger, more jaded colleagues harass him with practical jokes and even the local criminals call him by his unwanted nickname, "Dangerous" Davies. Hell, even his best friend Mod (Sean Hughes, The Commitments) and his ex-wife Julie (Emma Amos, Vera Drake) call him Dangerous. His superior, Detective Inspector (DI) Aspinall (Rob Spendlove, In the Name of the Father) gives him nothing but scutwork, such as finding a minor criminal suspected of having sneaked back into the country for his mother's birthday. In reviewing the criminal's file, Dangerous discovers a related case, the missing daughter of one of the criminal's cohorts. The case remains unsolved after nineteen years, and Davies allows himself to get sidetracked by it, spending just a few perfunctory hours here and there on his assigned case, and spending the rest of the time investigating the missing girl.
Funny thing about Dangerous, though: everyone underestimates him. He's a determined, thorough cop, and his warm, genial nature gets criminals and victims alike to open up to him. More often than not, he manages to pull the disparate clues together and reveal the truth. As is par for the course with Dangerous, even that doesn't earn him any respect; more often than not, it only manages to piss off DI Aspinall. But Dangerous continues on, buoyed by the basic simplicity of doing a job and doing it well, even if no one else appreciates it. Now, if he can only patch things up with his ex-wife…
The Last Detective is a police procedural. Before you go screaming into the night at the thought of yet another entry in a genre so insidiously pervasive that you expect any day to see a press release announcing Law & Order: Vending Machine Unit or CSI: Bedford Falls, rest easy. While the procedural aspects are certainly there, they are overshadowed by the characters. In fact, the procedures are the characters. That's what Dangerous does; he takes the time to listen to the people involved, getting to know them, their lives, their desires. That understanding lets him make sense of the too-often misleading physical evidence. The other detectives in the squad, the younger Pimlott and Bramlett, are so wrapped up in themselves that they just want to look at the physical evidence and have done; they consider talking to suspects and victims somehow beneath them. Pimlott in particular is a complete prat, and it's a wonderful rush of schadenfreude when a victim's attractive widow gets fed up with his leering and puts him in his place.
When he's not working a case, Dangerous hangs out with his best friend, Mod. Mod's a tad eccentric, sort of a pseudo-intellectual Kramer. They spend time in the pub or at the park, discussing the case or just sniping at each other. These scenes not only offer some light comic relief, but they underscore the simple fact that Dangerous is just a regular guy. They are exactly what each other needs: one person who does not judge. They occasionally get into some inadvertent mischief after a pint or two, but they also have some wonderful exchanges, such as when Dangerous is beginning to have problems with a female victim:
Dangerous: I think I'm being stalked.
Thomas only wrote four Dangerous Davies novels, so the writers found themselves working without a net by the second series. They prove up to the task—the stories are well-constructed, and are built around well-developed characters. The main characters continue to evolve over the course of the series. Aspinall eventually starts seeing Dangerous with a more appreciative eye. He also wages a continuing battle with alcoholism, leading to an unexpectedly gracious act from Dangerous when Aspinall loses an important file during a bender. Those scenes allow Rob Spendlove to shine. Initially, ex-wife Julia thinks as little of Davies as everyone else, but that doesn't keep her from turning to him anytime she needs a favor; in the later series, the two slowly, tentatively, and with more than just a few missteps, work towards reconciliation. Emma Amos plays Julia with just the right touch of conflict; she knows what a decent man Dangerous is, but she's deeply afraid of just settling for him. All of this stuff takes place in the background of the various cases. Given the pervasiveness of violence on American television, the lack of onscreen violence here is refreshing; when there is on-screen violence, such as an assault on Dangerous' mate Mod, it's a shocking, brutal event.
Acting is first rate all around. Peter Davison has had a solid career, from All Creatures Great and Small to Doctor Who and beyond. This series marks some of the best work he's ever done. Despite the utter lack of respect his character gets, the genial nature that marked his turn as The Doctor is still there. His caring nature is something of a double-edged sword; stuff that would roll of the backs of his colleagues quickly gets under his skin. "Dangerous Liaisons" is perhaps the best example: while logging the effects of a reclusive eccentric who appears to have died of natural causes, Dangerous discovers a homemade "snuff film"—a film of someone being murdered. The investigation leads to the dead man's obsession with pornography and how it shattered his family. It's a deeply unnerving episode, and Davison perfectly captures the brutal toll the case takes on Dangerous.
There are some recognizable names among the guest cast, including the incomparable Siân Phillips (I, Claudius) in "Moonlight," Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica) in "Dangerous Liaisons," and in "Once Upon a Time on the Westway," there's a trifecta: Camille Coduri (Doctor Who), Georgia Moffett (Doctor Who; she's also Davison's daughter), and The Who's Roger Daltrey (Tommy). Even the minor players work well, in part because of the extended run times—most of the episodes are 70 minutes long, while the pilot and the Series 4 episodes are 90 minutes long. The extra time lets the writers develop all of the characters. The other reason is the extensive rehearsals before each episode was filmed.
Amusing detail: Nowhere, in the series or in the books, is Dangerous' first name mentioned.
Video is pretty good. Colors are strong and vibrant, though there's a bit more grain than one might expect. Much of the series is shot with minimal lighting, so a faster, grainier stock was probably required. The slight grain is a small price to pay for some of the wonderfully composed shots. There are low light scenes, as well as scenes shot entirely in silhouette. The stereo mix is just fine for a dialogue-driven show, and it showcases the series' subdued yet effective music.
There are some good extras, along with some text biographies of the principals. A brief (about 25 minutes) interview with Peter Davison gives a little background on the series. It's a nice bit but quickly forgotten. The main extra is the 1981 version of The Last Detective, with Bernard Cribbins in the title role. While the plot is the same as the pilot of the Davison series, the characters are substantially different. Cribbins' Dangerous is more of a bumbler, suffering not just verbal abuse but physical abuse as well. He collects so many beatings along the way that by the end, he's almost unrecognizable beneath the bandages, confronting the murderer from a wheelchair. It's an interesting film, and perhaps truer to the novels (Leslie Thomas co-wrote the screenplay) but the series is clearly superior. As a side note, the earlier version marks the final screen appearance of Bernard Lee, 007's original M. His character, a desk sergeant, doesn't have a lot to do; Lee, dying of stomach cancer, took a number of sedentary bit roles in his last few months to earn some extra money for his family.
The packaging is worth a mention. There are five heavy plastic "pages" holding the discs, bound together in a book. The format makes it a snap to find a specific disc, but the pages hold the discs so firmly that it's a struggle to get the damned things out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The plots are somewhat predictable at times, particularly in the later series. In addition, the direction isn't as assured; minor characters are sometimes held in frame a beat too long, signaling that they will be revealed to be central to the story, as though the director didn't quite trust the script. These are at best minor quibbles, and can just as easily be explained away by saying that I watch waaaay too much TV. But that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for you.
Like most reviewers, I approach police shows with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Fortunately, The Last Detective defies expectations with sharp writing, sterling acting, and a refreshing lack of violence. It eschews the harsh grittiness of Prime Suspect, instead offering a likable Everyman. A must own for any fan of Davison, and worth a look for any fan of British dramatic series.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
• The Last Detective (1981)
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