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Saturday, 24 April 2010

A DECADE OF COPS AND ROBBERS

I caught the latest episode of the BBC's Ashes to Ashes - the third series of the follow up show to the excellent Life on Mars, and I was dismayed to discover how poor the show is. Mind you I don't think Ashes was ever going to work - for one thing the time travel storyline didn't really gell in Life on Mars and we are expected to swallow the premise that it has happened again to someone else a decade later. Maybe I'm being unfair as I've long lost interest in Ashes to Ashes but I think a big mistake was made following Life on Mars - what they should have done, in my opinion, is forget the time travel element and simply made a straight forward 1970's set cop show using the character of Gene Hunt.

Life on Mars did, after all, come about because the writers wanted to make a show something like The Sweeney - the time travel element was an inspired after thought and allowed the show to explore the differences between the 1970's and this politically correct world.

Besides 1970's cop shows were mostly excellent and today they bask in retro-cool.

The UK had The Sweeney of course (probably the best cop show ever made) starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman - all flared trousers, kipper ties, loose cigarettes and, perhaps for the first time, a realistic view of then modern policing. The stories had a moral ambiguity that makes the show still topical today. There were four series and two spin off movies and all are available in one form or another.

But for the entire decade there were scores of cops dominating TV screens - the previous decade had seen the episodic western replaced in popularity by the cop and now rather than watch our heroes ride the range, we watched then cruise around in their Ford Torinos or battered station wagons. Cops were everywhere - professionals, amateurs and seedy private detectives.

Remember Beretta - one of the most off-beat cops to patrol the streets of the small screen. The character, played by Robert Blake - it was actually based on an earlier NBC series, Toma which was based on the real life exploits of New Jersey cop David Toma. Beretta ran from 1975-1978.

Starskey and Hutch was a massive hit during the decade, huge in much of Europe as well as its native USA. There was a ninety minute pilot movie followed by 92 episodes. These days the show is primarily remembered as an action comedy but the it is forgotten how hard hitting the series was; indeed it had to be toned down after complaints. The excellent first season episode, The Fix was not originally shown on UK screens after it was deemed too violent. And even today the first two seasons are well worth viewing and provide some excellent drama. Shame, it kinda got silly for the final two seasons.

In 1977, a rising concern about violence on TV, along with Paul Glaser's own concerns about the level of violence in Starskey and Hutch, forced the screenplay writers to cut down on violent action scenes and to employ more romantic and socially themed episodes, and play up the "buddy buddy" aspect of the show's leads even more so. At the same time, the lead actors, Glaser in particular, became jaded with the general theme of Starsky and Hutch. These and other factors contributed to the fading popularity of the series. And of course David Soul wanted to become a rock star dude but we forgive him for Silver Lady and we really don't give up on him, -er, baby


Charlie's Angels - was all glamour and no real substance (plenty of bust shots, though) but it was hugely successful - Many a schoolboy considered Farrah Fawcett, the perfect woman. It ran from 1976 - 1981, went through several cast changes, and was indeed one of the most successful shows of the decade. And of course there have been the big screen versions.

Another big cop show of the decade was, The Streets of San Francisco - what set this apart from many shows was the quality of the cast. Karl Malden was already an acting legend when he took on the role of Mike Stone and Michael Douglas showed that he had inherited the performance skills of his famous father, Kirk. There were five seasons, 120 episodes in total, and the series is another that has survived well and is still enjoyed today.

There were scores of other popular cop (the term cop used generically and including amateur sleuths) shows, some good and some not so good - Kojak, Cannon, Ironside, Macmillan and Wife, Serpico, Columbo, McCloud, S.W.A.T - to name but a few of the better ones.

It would be impossible to include every show in a post such as this but one particular favourite I want to talk about is, The Rockford Files. The show ran from 1974 - 1980 and is still show in syndication all around the world. The 6ft 3inches tall James Garner played the part of Jim Rockford, a PI who owed much to Chandler's laid back Phillip Marlowe as well as Garner's earlier character, Brett Maverick. Indeed there are plans for a remake of the series with Dermont Mulroney in the part of Jim Rockford.

The Rockford Files is in a class of its own - each of the episodes in the six seasons are mostly excellent and there were several Rockford Files reunion movies made which aired between 1994-1999.

'People write asking me if my limp is part of the Rockford character, ' Garner told an interviewer for the 1979 TV detectives annual. ' I wish it were. I smashed both legs playing football in school and I've had two operations on each knee. I think the right one is held together by cottage cheese.'

With the 80's the cops shows continued but became more glitzy - Heart to Heart, Miami Vice and T.J. Hooker anyone. And the trend would continue until a little show called Hill Street Blues turned everything around and spawned modern shows such as The Wire and all those C.S.I'S.

Maybe the 1970's cop shows were not always the most realistic portrayal of life as a law enforcer and maybe they were sometimes OTT, but that don't matter. The 1970's was the decade of the cop show so what the heck is Gene Hunt and the Ashes to Ashes lot doing messing about in the 1980's?

Strung out in heaven's high, hitting an all time low, indeed!

1 comment:

David Barber said...

A great post Gary. You've named some great shows there. I was born 1969, so caught most of them on re-runs, although I do remember seeing some of them earlier as we used to play starskey and hutch as kids (Shameful.) I also really liked Hawaii Five O, Vegas and McCloud. Columbo has got to be a must as well, but that wasprobably more the eighties as was Vegas I guess. Great memories!