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.

It’s only Insubstantial Airfill – but I like it.


The original cast

It’s closing in on five years since I last had a television set, and I can’t say that I miss it. Indeed, I’ve forgotten the whole experience of having 24/7 television available, channels and channels filling with airwaves at every conceivable moment. Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

I haven’t given up on watching television though, it just means that what I watch is what I want to watch, given the extra lengths I have to go to even see it: iPlayers, catch-up TV, DVD boxsets and such like. Programmes such as Dr Who (roll on Saturday), Sherlock, The Killing, The Bridge. And, naturally, The Big Bang Theory.

What I watch is by choice, and not by habit, or lazy inclination, a surrendering to that vast amorphous mass of programming that, in all its disparate forms, can be lumped together as Insubstantial Airfill. You know the kind of programmes I’m referring to: games shows and reality series, pointless documentaries, uninspired sitcoms and phone-it-in dramas that amuse or mildly thrill for an hour then are gone, and all the audience does is change channels looking for something slightly different but equally anaesthetic.

But what is life without a little inconsistency? Do I contradict myself? Why then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

Though I’ve never quite understood why, I do find myself happy to watch the long-running BBC1 comedy-drama series, New Tricks, series 11 of which began on Monday night. It’s a typically formulaic piece of work, mixing the inherently serious subject of police procedural work and the detection of crimes – usually murder – that have disrupted and damaged lives at the deepest levels, with the comic eccentricity of characters who are improbably set, and even more improbably highly efficient at resolving these issues and bringing about closure. All overlaid, naturally, with the soap opera aspect of these eccentrics’ ecentricities overflowing into their personal lives, week-in, week-out.

The concept of the series was built around the fictional Metropolitan Police Unsolved Crimes and Open Cases Squad (UCOS), a ‘cold-case’ unit created in the one-off pilot as a cynical publicity stunt designed to ward off complaints without ever being intended to be taken seriously. It’s first commander was DCI Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman), a work-obsessed career policewoman whose high-flying career had just been derailed by a high-profile operation that had got a dog killed: UCOS was a hole in which to bury Sandra, as was evidenced by her staff. UCOS’s budget extended not to serving officers but to civilian consultants, i.e., three ex-coppers, who had left the Force under different circumstances.

The idea was that these three old coppers, with their old-fashioned approaches to detection, would be thrown up against the new-fangled technologies of DNA and the like, which they would distrust, and which they would disparage grumpily whilst producing results that derived more from old-style coppering built on newly-determined evidence.

The trio consisted of ex-Detective Superintendent Jack Halford (James Bolam), ex-Detective Inspector Brian “Memory” Lane (Alun Armstrong) and ex-Detective Sergeant Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman). Halford, who was Pullman’s former mentor and her unofficial second-in-command, had retired after his wife had been knocked down and killed. His was a more or less straight role, an old-fashioned copper with a loathing for crime, and a voice of sanity and calm. Lane was a recovering alcholic with a degree of OCD, a photographic memory for cases and criminals and a long-suffering wife: he had left the force when still drinking, after a suspect he’d brought in died in custody, an incident for which he believed he had been scapegoated. And Standing was the Jack-the-Lad, maintaining (and occasionally re-seducing) three ex-wives and a flash car, who was on chummy terms with most East End lags, the only straight copper in a unit more or less bought out by a villain, who’d ended up being forced to resign over graft allegations.

New Tricks found a modest but substantial audience to begin with but, as series followed series, it began to grow in popularity. Series 3 ended on a cliffhanger, with Halford having found out that his wife’s death was not an accident but murder, having been run down on the orders of a villain annoyed at being investigated: Halford planned to run the man down in retaliation, forcing Pullman and his two colleagues to drive into his path, causing a horrendous collision. Audiences shot up for series 4, when the aftermath was revealed, and the programme would on a number of occasions actually top the weekly viewing chart for BBC programmes.

As New Tricks gained in popularity, UCOS began to gain in respect. Supporting characters would be added to the squad for longer periods, usually younger coppers to contrast with the aged trio. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Robert Strickland (Anthony Calf) became an increasingly supportive character, ever conscious of political and public factors but allowing these to influence the team less and less. The longest running supporting character was Esther Lane, Brian’s much put-upon wife, played, ironically, by Susan Jameson, James Bolam’s wife.

I’ll be honest, little or nothing changed. Brian might suffer a relapse into drinking, but a few episodes later it would be conquered. Sandra was perennially poor at relationships, forever hopeful but doomed to betrayal and self-reliance. The cases usually involved murders, though the sources were well-varied. The team would start by summarising the old evidence for the viewer’s benefit, move on to reinterviewing witnesses, roughly 73% of whom being hostile to the death being brought back up. Stones would be turned over, and we would follow what crawled out. Usually, the script would offer up a potential villain, only for it to come out, in the last ten minutes, that somebody else was responsible, usually someone you’d disregarded early on.

It was part of the game to identify the real villain, not by the ancient and honourable tradition of deciphering clues, but by using the show’s ambience to lead you into recognising which seemingly innocent character would be unveiled as having a previously unsuspected motive for violent death.

New Tricks was never a particularly serious show, though it dealt with serious stories and when it chose to do so, it could operate on that serious level to great effect, and very movingly. It tried to incorporate a degree of cop show action, though this grew increasingly implausible given that the cast were getting visibly older all the time and that Redman, whilst still an attractive woman, had filled out since her younger days and made an implausible athlete (especially in heels). In fact, the show might have worked just as easily on Radio, had we had such a thing as a thriving radio drama audience any more: it was very dialogue heavy.

Eventually, the cast got bored. Bolam was the first to leave, saying the show had gotten ‘stale’. Jack Halford bowed out in the opening episode of series 9, distracted from the case under review, detached, and eventually disclosing only to Brian Lane, on condition of secrecy, that he had inoperable cancer, and was disappearing to a south of France village of sentimental importance, to die unbothered. Daringly, the series left it for three episodes before replacing him with ex-Detective Inspector Steve McAndrew (Denis Lawson), a Scot who assists UCOS on a case with Glasgow elements, and is invited to join the team.

But both Armstrong and Redman were now unhappy with the show and expressed their wish to leave. There was an amusing twist to the final episode of series 9, in which neither appeared (nor were credited) and which took place in Glasgow, with Gerry and Steve detached to advise the Glasgow police on setting up their own UCOS. For a moment, it looked like a radical change might be in the offing, but that wasn’t so.

Series 10 began with everyone in place, but the first four episodes were built around a running story that, despite clearing Brian Lane’s name over his dismissal from the Police, led to his sacking from UCOS. He was immediately replaced by ex-Detective Chief Inspector Dan Griffin (Nicholas Lyndhurst), a significantly younger man than the rest of the team, though a choice made on the recommendation of Brian. And Sandra, having built UCOS up to a fine, well-respected unit, which she was loath to abandon, nevertheless saw a new future for herself, moving upwards again at long last, joining an international unit dealing with crimes of greater subtance.

That left the show’s newest member, newly promoted DCI Sasha Miller (Tamzin Oughthwaite), in her first command, only two episodes to establish herself as the new team-leader.

So, series 11 continues the show with only one of its four original stars still remaining. How successful is it with such sweeping changes to its core cast?

Firstly, the newbies aren’t quite changes to the status quo. Each of the replacements has been chosen to maintain continuity of balance within the ensemble. Steve McAndrew has replaced Jack Halford: whilst he’s younger, more physically active, and capable of getting more emotionally involved than his predecessor, he’s still the straight man of the team, the least burdened with overt eccentricities. Lawson plays his character gently, and whilst he lacks the seniority, his steadiness leaves him on course to be the first lieutenant, especially as he’s no longer competing with Halford for Sandra Pullman’s opinion.

Danny Griffin has replaced Brian Lane as the team eccentric, the man most likely to know something obscure and not apparently relevant. Lyndhurst has chosen to play Griffin in contrast to Alun Armstrong’s volatile, exciteable Lane: Griffin is very internalised, unexciteable, but decidedly capable of sarkiness. I’ve not followed Lyndhurst’s career closely but this strikes me as the most mature role he’s played.

And where Brian had Esther, Danny has Holly, his CP daughter, played by CP Actress Storme Toolis, who was a scene-stealing, irresistable blast in her every scene in series 10. She’s supposed to be off to University in episode 2, and the absence of her name in the credits suggests she may have been written out, which would be appalling. Both actress and character are simply too good to ignore.

And as for Tamzin Oughthwaite, as Sasha Miller, she’s dropped into place with incredible ease, already looking like a fixture with years behind her. In part this is because her role strays the least from her predecessor: attractive blonde, strong commander, a slightly less dominant waspishness. It’s on the personal front that Sasha strays further from Sandra. Sandra was unmarried, without children, lacking judgement in men. Sasha, nearly a decade younger, begins as married, contentedly, to a fellow Senior Officer, with two children, conveniently of University age and off-scene, only to find her husband cheating on her before her first episode’s over, ending the marriage.

As yet, this has not developed very far, though the scuttlebutt about series 11 is that, for a few episodes at least, her ex-husband temporarliy replaces Strickland as being responsible for UCOS.

The opening episode was a typically New Tricks experience, though it saved its twists until the very end, with the true villain being pulled from very far out of left field, having made only a brief appearance, nowhere near the frame. It was a slightly odd choice, though beautifully conveyed by the actor, who wasn’t really a murderer as such. And there was a nice, if unrealistic twist to the outcome, which hovered on the border between sentimentality and lack of reality without quite falling.

So an almost complete transplant of the cast has been carried out in respect to New Tricks, without serious damage to its gentle straddle of comedy and drama.Feet are still maintained in both camps and there’s still the likelihood of a certain revivification by phasing out a cast too comfortable in, and defined by their roles. New options are available for exploration, and if the BBC can take advantage of this without straying too violently for the programme’s comfortable core, there’s every prospect of a season 12, this time next year.

It’s still Insubstantial Airfill, but I unaccountably like it, and am happy to continue doing so.