New Tricks’ Old Tricks


The old gang

In the run-up to Xmas, BBC1 dropped in a New Tricks repeat on Monday night, featuring the original cast. In view of my comments about the new tone the series has taken with its revised team, I thought it might be interesting to re-watch this episode and compare the two.

“The Gentleman Vanishes” was originally broadcast in 2011 as episode 7 in series eight. I’d watched it at the time but didn’t recall anything of it until the very effective and disturbing ending. The episode was notable for being the show’s all-time most successful episode in terms of audience, pulling in 9.87m viewers on its original broadcast, It also featured the first of three guest appearances of Tim McInnerny (Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth) as Stephen Fisher, a somewhat shadowy individual in intelligence and a former crony of UCOS’s boss, Assistant Commissioner Robert Strickland.

As a comparison between the old lightweight New Tricks and its somewhat more serious modern incarnation, “The Gentleman Vanishes” was a spectacularly bad choice. It was played completely straight from start to finish in a well-plotted and ultimately dark story that involved the (thankfully offscreen) physical and mental torture of a person ill-suited to resist even gentle societal pressure. The individual eccentricities of the characters were kept well in check: Sandra Pullman’s temper, Brian Lane’s voluability, Gerry Standing’s wide-boy, all were underplayed. Only Jack Halford was fully in character throughout and he was always the sane and sensible one.

The re-opened case was the disappearance in 2004 of scientist Philip McKenna, an expert in cold fusion whose disappearance ended his research project. The episode’s title was a nod to the iconic pre-War Hitchcock film, “The Lady Vanishes”, about a woman disappearing on a moving train. McKenna had been abducted in a clearly professional operation, from the London to Dover train, during a short delay resulting from someone pulling the communications cord. But someone had taken his passport and completed his journey via Ferry to Calais, and thence to Paris, where McKenna was due – at short notice brought about by a burglary that had deprived his research partner of his Passport – to present a paper.

Thus McKenna’s disappearance was not noticed until two days later and was initially thought to be in France. This meant that his actual removal from the train was not discovered until the trail had gone long cold.

The case had been brought to UCOS’s attention when McKenna’s wife, Bea (a delicate portrayal by Rebecca Front) started receiving emails suggesting the sender knew where her husband was, one of which included a document purportedly coming from a Swiss company that showed clear evidence of work developed from McKenna’s researches.

There was no new evidence as such, but UCOS made progress by identifying a currently imprisoned conman as one of the men involved in the abduction, which opened the door to further leads. Halford used a pet hacker turned internet security expert – a typically nervous, would-be jovial performance by Shaun Williamson – to trace the emails, though this resulted in a dead end of sorts: they were the work of an anonymous superhacker known only as ‘Ninetails’.

But this sparked a connection in Brian Lane’s memory to Japanese mythology, and Kitsue, portrayed as a fox with nine tails.

In the meantime, we’d been treated to a splendidly superior, faux- superficial performance by McInnerny as Fisher, ostensibly warning UCOS out of waters too deep and dangerous for them, but dropping the name of Simon Crane, who turned out to be the mastermind behind everything, and a former British Intelligence Agent with sufficient dirt on sufficient people to be, effectively, untouchable. Unless arrested for murder, that is.

As became increasingly clear the longer the episode went on, McKenna was long dead, broken by evidence of his wife’s brief affair with, naturally, Simon Crane. This set up a Police operation at Paddington, aimed at capturing Crane and his associate, Fisher having tipped off UCOS as to where and when to find Crane. Meanwhile, thanks to Lane, ‘Ninetails’ had been identified: Kitsue was a fox, or rather A. Fox, aka Alice Fox, the girlfriend of McKenna’s former research assistant, who’d briefly appeared as a person suspicious of the Police.

Alice, it transpired, had been the third part of the abduction, pulling the communication cord, but unaware of the intention to torture and murder McKenna. She’d been living in hiding ever since, avoiding being killed. But when UCOS set things up at Paddington, Alice stepped in. With the net closing, all communications, radios and CCTV failed. Crane fled, pursued by Halford. Lane went a different way, followed, in advance by Alice, in a striking floor-length leather coat. In an access corridor there was a shot, offscreen. Halford let a screaming young woman, crying there’d been a shot, go past him: he and Lane found Crane shot dead. Not that, cynically, anyone expected Crane to face a proper trial anyway.

The episode ended on a disturbing moment. The team, with Strickland, leaves UCOS’s office heading for the pub. As Lane manoeuvres his bicycle out, behind him a laptop screen comes to life. It shows CCTV footage of the concourse at Paddington. In the centre of the screen, looking into the camera, was Alice, in her leather coat. After a few seconds she raises something in her right hand, points it at the camera: the image winks out.

So: an uncharacteristic episode, played straight: comedy/drama without the comedy. Kudos to writer/director Julian Salmon. It was an excellent episode, the more so in its ending, but in terms of comparing the series now to then, all but useless. Nevertheless, a useful reminder that New Tricks’ reputation as a dull, stale show was not always deserved.

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