Insubstantial Airfill Reconsidered: New Tricks learns new tricks


Messrs Griffin, McAndrew, Miller and Standing, aka UCOS

Nine weeks ago, I celebrated the return for an eleventh series of the BBC comedy/drama cold-case series New Tricks. I’d describe it as a ‘guilty pleasure’ except for the fact that I don’t feel in the least bit guilty about it. But I did describe it as Insubstantial Airfill, which is a fair way of putting what the series has been for the past several years.
However, over the last couple of series, New Tricks has been shaken up by the departure of three-quarters of its cast, with James Bolam, Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman leaving and being replaced by Denis Lawson, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Tamzin Outhwaite respectively.
The latter two came on board at different times in series 10, so this has been the first time the new team has had a proper opportunity to shine, and the outcome has been surprising. I might have enjoyed New Tricks but that didn’t blind me to it being pretty formulaic, and just a bit prone to the comedy aspect. Insubstantial Airfill.
But the change of cast has refreshed the show, to the point almost of regeneration and I think this has been the strongest series I’ve seen.
What has impressed the most is how the writers and production team have suddenly found themselves able to deal with much darker and more complex themes without at any time appearing superficial. Though the light-hearted element remains, it has been muted to a degree as a response to the more serious cases that have been explored.
The series finale this week was a perfect example of the new standards. The team were investigating the 1983 death of sixteen year old Amy Taskerland, on the night of the school disco at a private school, found with a broken neck after falling down a set of stone steps. The death turned out to be an accident, a shoving match between best friends when the dead girl was in a confused and frightened state, but the outcome was not the point of the story, as with so much of the series, but rather the catalyst for uncovering a very dark seam of recent British history.
The case had been re-opened after the accidental uncovering of a ‘time-capsule’ buried in 1983, to which Amy had contributed a mix-tape (i.e. cassette, for our younger readers) that was found to include a terrified message from her, forecasting her death and referring to fear of ‘Alec’, a name that baffled everyone, there being no Alec known to anyone who was around her.
On the way to the almost anti-climactic ending, it was revealed that Amy had been having sex with her teacher, now the School’s headmaster, whose engagement had been broken off that same night, and who had been anxious to keep the tape covered up. This was deep water in itself, but only a red herring ultimately.
Whilst it was being investigated, we were introduced, as if a background element, to Amy’s father, a former Civil Servant, played with customary brilliance by Jack Sheppard. Mr Taskerland was emotionally distant, somewhat vague, paranoid about dirt and disease, and curiously disinterested in the loss of his only child, which had been followed within the year by divorce initiated by his late wife.
A curious, but seemingly irrelevant sub-theory was introduced by Danny Griffin. This as bee Nicholas Lyndhurst’s series in spades: the dry, reserved polymath has figured prominently in several episodes and was central to this and its predecessor last week. Here he theorises that Amy may have been reading from a speech by the Queen that gave the episode its title.
The problem was that the speech was never delivered, that its existence was Top Secret and it was only de-classified eighteen months earlier: it was the Speech the Queen would have read to the Country in the vent of Nuclear War.
The impossibility of Amy having ever known of this speech, not to mention the security aspects, meant this thread was officially disregarded, but Danny’s persistence with it, as the Teacher theory unravelled into a dead end, took the programme into its bleak final third.
I know there are some who think Nicholas Lyndhurst has spoiled New Tricks and whilst I completely disagree, it was very clear last night that he was the star: the case also revolved around Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’, it’s length and release date, which Danny determined with the help of Ethan, Sasha’s first post-Divorce boyfriend, not to mention a brilliantly timed shot of the gang, playing basketball hoops in the school courtyard, first up, ending with Danny flinging a gloriously casual one-handed shot over his shoulder and into the basket from what looked like fifteen yards!
Instincts, intuition, experience from the Diplomatic Protection Squad and detective skills lead Danny, and us, to the chilling truth. In 1983, with Thatcher in Downing Street, Reagan in the White House and Russia still very pre-Gorbachev, the Doomsday Clock was set at three minutes to midnight.
There were plans, highly secret plans, for the event of nuclear war: speeches, propaganda that openly lied to the public about ‘survivability’ that were no more than a deliberate deception intended to get the greatest number to barricade themselves in their homes – oversized coffins – in order to die neatly, division of the country into police-controlled statelets, and underground bunkers to be stocked by people who would outlast nuclear winter before emerging to ‘rebuild’ the country.
Amy’s father was one of those men. She’d accidentally seen the secret Speech, found the committee acronym –  A.L.E.C. – understood the horror that her father would go away and leave her and her mother to die horribly, to be vapourised.
All the more potent for being delivered in Danny’s dry, unemotional tones (he is so much a contrast to Brian Lane, being as far underplayed by Lyndhurst as Lane was overplayed by Armstrong), this exposure moved from the abandoned bunker itself to a confrontation with Taskerland over the crucial night.
Einstein was quoted: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought but I can tell you how the Fourth World War will be fought: with sticks and stones.” Sheppard rose to the occasion magnificently. Outwardly, the story was simple and callous: a Nato exercise had spooked the Russians, their finger was trembling on the button, Taskerland was summoned to the Bunker, leaving a screaming, distraught Amy, who understood what this meant, hysterical that he would leave them. To die.
Sheppard, however, incarnated Taskerland brilliantly. The weary protest that if he had not gone voluntarily, he would have been forced to go by armed Police was but a part of it. Taskerland had a duty, a duty to the country’s future, to trying to restore it afterwards. Sasha tried to say that his family was his future, but it was the episode’s one mistake, a repetition of the argument laid in the episode about the Special Branch operative who’d raised a family undercover. But where that argument was pretty solid and unequivocal, it was a one-dimensional response to something of far greater moral complexity.
Because, horrifying as it was, Taskerland’s duty was also right, and necessary on levels that we cannot disclaim, cold, hard, pragmatic levels that we may want to ignore, or discard, but which have to be confronted unless we collectively decide to give up. What Sheppard did was to show us what a choice of that nature had done to Taskerland, what it would do to any of us with half an imagination, half a conscience, to be forced into making that choice.
Poor Amy, who didn’t live to see that the Russians relaxed, that we didn’t all die, ended up pouring out her fears and distress to a best mate who, despite her desire to help, couldn’t understand the way Amy understood, and it ended in a fight and a fall and a death. And the residual thought remains as to what shape Amy’s life would have taken if she had lived on, with the knowledge, and the heretic thought that maybe, just maybe, it might have been better not to. Taskerland showed the danger of a life spent in that knowing.
Yet, despite this deeply serious theme, the programme also managed to maintain its original comic impulse, and indeed had more of a light-hearted element to it than the whole of the series before it collectively, without misjudging the tone. Sasha had met someone, record shop owner and vinyl enthusiast Ethan, but was finding herself too scared to go away for a weekend in Barcelona. Strickland was hanging round the team, wanting to fit in on drinks, seeking someone to share his worries about becoming a father again at 55. The team, and especially Danny, were running the rule over Ethan, who came in handy about ‘Club Tropicana’, and Gerry’s suffering the stag-do of his future son-in-law, who’s terrified of admitting that his fiancée is pregnant.
New Tricks has been confirmed for a twelfth series in 2015, though Dennis Waterman will only appear in the first two episodes before leaving. That means that the entire cast will have changed. There’s no news as yet as to who his replacement might be, though based on past performance we should probably expect him to be a bit of a jack-the-lad, a bit fly, so as to fit the jigsaw. It’s not just mischief on my part to hope for something a little more adventurous, along the lines of he being a she, maybe?
Either way, New Tricks has shown that it can handle changes of personnel without losing its touch, indeed can thrive on them to give it new scope. If this year’s standard can be kept up next year, there’s no reason why the series couldn’t be kept going far longer than would have seemed desirable, let alone likely only a short time ago.
Another series like this one and I won’t be calling it Insubstantial Airfill again.

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