The 10-disc DVD release by Network of the complete series of Wycliffe is a cause for rejoicing, particularly when a Radio Times survey of TV’s 50 top-rated Detective series (July 2018) unforgivably did not even include it. This only confirmed my conviction that it is the most underrated British cop series, maintaining, once it hit its stride, an extraordinarily high standard of acting, directing, and writing over around 40 episodes. The interplay of the main characters was constantly evolving and shrewdly developed; the guest performances (from the likes of such redoubtable actors as Bill Nighy, Pam Ferris, Susan Fleetwood, John McEnery, Dominic Guard, Geoffrey Bayldon, Susan Penhaligon and many others) were often remarkable; the scripts were a model of economy and ingenious plotting; and the Cornish setting always heightened the drama without ever dominating it. Even Nigel Hess’s theme tune was one of his best (and every police drama, from Z-Cars and Maigret onwards, should have a good and distinctive theme tune.) A typical 50-minute episode contained more nuance, subtlety and surprise of narrative and characterisation than Broadchurch managed for me in three series.
I always preferred it to the Radio Times’s favourite Inspector Morse, whose plots were laborious and formulaic by comparison. Much as I admired John Thaw’s leading performance, I could never warm to Morse’s brusque boorishness. The character seemed to me far less appealing, complex and humane than Jack Shepherd’s Wycliffe, whose backstory to account for his character is subtly disclosed over a number of episodes. Even Wycliffe’s enthusiasm for Oscar Peterson seemed to ring more true than Morse’s much touted love of Wagner, which I always felt as a patina of culture sprinkled over the character to add superficial gravitas but which threw little extra light on the man or, except in a few minor instances, added much to the narratives. By contrast, Wycliffe’s jazz piano outbursts felt more authentic (relating to Shepherd’s own musical enthusiasms) and served as an extension of the character, for they were always a clue to his mood. Oxford is an attractive background in Morse, but in Wycliffe the locations are often part of the drama (although never overwhelming it) and also provide an outlet for stories which sometimes alluded to Cornish folk-lore but more powerfully to contemporary concerns, notably the impact of modern conditions on the local farming and fishing industries. The plots of Wycliffe also had a great variety of themes and (boldly, considering genre expectations) were by no means all murder mysteries. Also, quite unlike the conventional recuperation and restoration of order of your typical cop series, the endings tended to be thoughtful and resonant, a pause more than a pay-off, and offering contemplation rather than providing complete closure (until the very last episode). Because they were so unusual and original, one could do a separate study on the endings alone.
After a distinctly rocky two-hour pilot episode in 1993 (described below), the series was revamped and recast into tight one-hour episodes, in a manner that completely transformed the franchise. It ran successfully between 1994 and 1998, until a serious illness affecting a key member of the cast (Jimmy Yuill as Doug Kersey) and its repercussions (involving the reluctance of the television company to accept insurance for his return) compelled a reappraisal of the series and a decision by the other key members of the cast to bring the series to a close and end hopefully on a high note. The following notes are an informal collection of personal impressions as I went through the discs and are offered more in the spirit of celebration than of close criticism.
Pilot: ‘Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death’1
Writer: Julia Jones Adapted from the novel by: W.J. Burley; Director: Pennant Roberts
A collector’s item in that it’s one of those pilots (like the unfunny pilot of Dad’s Army) that makes you wonder how the eventual series ever got off the ground. Also one of those family feud dramas where, because you can never remember the names of the characters, the plot becomes almost unintelligible. Gemma Jones over-acts heroically in an endeavour to give it some depth, but to no avail. Yet it’s fascinating to see how comprehensively it got things wrong and the extent of the subsequent changes. Little dramatic use is made of the Cornish background or community, so the action could take place more or less anywhere; Mark Thomas’s theme tune would not be out of place in a jolly programme about a rural vet; the credit sequence lacks any distinctiveness to suggest atmosphere or character; and the two-hour running time (as is often the case in these dramas, e.g. Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse, A Touch of Frost, DCI Banks) can only be sustained by a lot of plot padding and shots of endless driving down conveniently deserted roads. The main problem, though, is an absolute lack of rapport between Wycliffe and his team. He’s given a Liverpudlian background, which was later to be changed. He has two scenes with his wife that are so remarkable for their absence of feeling that one wonders if at that stage that was the point; she hints at her jealousy of Sergeant Lucy Lane and there is a suggestion that this might be a future plot development, which was to be wisely dropped later like a hot potato. The pathologist (a strong character in later episodes) makes no impression. Basically, it’s just bland and dull, and crying out either for rejection as a bad idea or for a complete makeover, which is what it got. It was produced and directed by Pennant Roberts, who had no involvement in the subsequent series, which was true of everyone else, I think, except Jack Shepherd.
Series 1 Episode 1: ‘The Four Jacks’2
Writer: Edward Canfor-Dumas; Director: Ferdinand Fairfax
Completely re-vamped and for the better. The credits foreground the leading characters against the Cornish background. Nigel Hess’s theme is memorable and has an urgency and tension that the original lacked. As usual, in these earlier episodes, a murder investigation propels the narrative (not always the case in later chapters) but one that leads into unexpected areas and has an implicit moral, a series’ trait. Here it’s: “It’s always the innocent who suffer, isn’t it?” (The one at the end of the pilot was something to do with the power of women and was very forced; this is much more to the point.) The murder of an archaeology student leads in a roundabout way to wretched randy writer (Bill Nighy at his most eloquently slimy), whose wife is loyal but long-suffering (that fine actress, Susan Woolridge from Jewel in the Crown and elsewhere). In 50 minutes it seems to contain ten times more character and narrative than the pilot managed in twice the length. It never seems hurried, but the pace has quickened; some good aerial photography; even a great performance by a dog, grieving over its dead master. Already in place is the relationship between Wycliffe, DI Doug Kersey and DI Lucy Lane, superbly acted by Shepherd, Jimmy Yuill and Helen Masters. This will become one of the dependable pleasures of the series. The episode was produced by Geraint Morris, who produced the whole of the first series.
Series 1 Episode 2: ‘The Dead Flautist’3
Writer: Steve Trafford. Director: Martyn Friend
A suspected suicide uncovers skeletons in the cupboard of members of the landed gentry and also of a local solicitor (James Falkner) with a penchant for amateur pornographic photography. The scenes between the solicitor and Kersey are a particular highlight as acted by Falkner and Jimmy Yuill, the latter picking away at the former’s arrogance and bridling almost to the point of violence when the solicitor shouts “Can’t you get it through your stupid plodding policeman’s brain?” Doug’s disappointment that the man is not guilty of the crime is grimly amusing. Elsewhere the acting is typically first-rate: Jeremy Clyde as the gay lord; his wife played by that fine actress, Susan Fleetwood, who died tragically young and whom I remember particularly for her performances in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice and a magnificent television dramatisation of the L.P. Hartley Eustace and Hilda trilogy in the 1970s which has never surfaced since. An early revelation of some important aspects of Wycliffe’s character: his unease around suicide, relating, we will learn, to the suicide of his father, whose body he found when still a boy; his dislike of religious fundamentalism and possibly of all religions (“God save us from religions”); and his hatred of the landed gentry who threw his father out of his job. “A law unto themselves,” he says, “Always have been.” A final shot is of the Bottrell Coat of Arms. Larger roles for two other performers who will become significant members of the team: Aaron Harris as DC Dixon; and as DC Potter, Adam Barker (son of Ronnie). The episode was photographed by Peter Middleton, the regular cameraman on this series.
Series 1 Episode 3: ‘The Scapegoat’4
Writer: Russell Lewis; Director: Martyn Friend
One of my favourite episodes. It starts a bit like The Wicker Man (an ancient Druid fertility ritual which here, inadvertently, includes a human sacrifice) and ends a bit like Westworld (a shoot out in ‘Frontier City’ where Wycliffe, for the only time in the series, draws a gun on someone – it’s a fake one, of course). In between we have a murder mystery and some compelling supporting actors in comparatively small roles: John McEnery (an outstanding Mercutio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet), Hilary Mason (unforgettable as the blind sister in Don’t Look Now) and Susan Penhaligon (reliably fine actress in everything, here playing a sympathetic teacher whose love of Turkish delight will become an incriminating clue). Tim Wytton’s performance as the pathologist Franks is growing in stature (every cop series should have a good pathologist). Nice use of location: someone’s expert local knowledge of the tides is woven skilfully into the mystery. Moves unhurriedly and with unerring logic to its conclusion, which manages to be both thrilling and witty.
Series 1 Episode 4: ‘The Tangled Web’5
Writer: Andrew Holden; Director: Andrew Holden
A body is discovered in a freezer. The investigation will lead to a possibly valuable Impressionist painting and an illicit relationship between an art teacher and his pupil. An unusual story, well told, and with Wycliffe subtly ensuring that justice is done with regard to the painting. An imperious performance from Richenda Carey as the owner of the freezer and the family’s secrets.
Another fine episode. Wycliffe is in a bad mood throughout, barely suppressing his irritation at the way Doug eats his hotel breakfast; refusing to shake the hand of the local vicar (Jeff Rawle); even revealing a phobia about bats. This nevertheless leads to a good scene with Nigel Terry that convinces him that the principal suspect is a flawed but basically good man, whilst the Christian zealots are all ravaged by twisted hatred. The direction is a bit fussier than usual (imaginary laughter over the soundtrack, for example) and the irony is heavily underlined (final shot of a church notice that declares “God is Love” in a plot that suggests the opposite). Potent, nevertheless. Once again it is remarkable how the episodes can convey intense and complicated family relationships so acutely in a short space of time. There have been a few phone-calls home but we have not seen Wycliffe’s family yet; that’s for later.
Series 1 Episode 6: ‘The Pea-Green Boat’8
Writer: Steve Trafford; Director: A.J. Quinn
There’s always a feeling of authenticity about the series, as if the characters have lived in the location all their lives. The fishing scenes are always good. There are invariably around a dozen well-drawn characters in every episode, which is quite an achievement to pack into less than an hour. The Doug/Lucy relationship is astutely and affectionately done, particularly the contrast between her ambition and Doug’s cynical attitude to authority, whilst retaining absolute respect for his boss. Again the direction is fussier than usual, with a Stock car racing scene and elaborate panning and aerial shots, but it keeps the narrative moving. Sinister property developers are on the scene, but the solution to the murder is closer to home. Once again it turns on father/son relationships, about which Wycliffe is sympathetic and insightful; it makes the twist in the tail here particularly painful. Bridget Forsyth gives an excellent performance, outwardly firm, inwardly vulnerable.
Series 2 Episode 1: ‘All For Love’9
Writer: Steve Trafford; Director: Martyn Friend
Cleverly developed, because it sets up three plot strands almost immediately. Will Wycliffe be tempted by the prospect of promotion? How has a hardened criminal managed to get a gun that enables him to escape from a prison van? What is the involvement of his prison visitor? The narrative takes a few unexpected turns and the dogged paperwork of Potter and Dixon eventually pays dividends. Cathryn Harrison is completely convincing as the deadly and duplicitous prison visitor, seeming able to switch emotion for every evolving situation with the ease of someone flicking a switch: one of several compelling female villains in the series and all splendidly acted. Wycliffe is promised valuable inside information on a drugs network that would surely advance his career if he ensures a lighter sentence for her crimes. “I don’t do deals,” he says, “Not with killers.” A measure of Jack Shepherd’s command of the role that he can deliver a line like that without sounding sanctimonious. The photography is by Brian Morgan.
Series 2 Episode 2: ‘The Trojan Horse’10
Writer: Steve Trafford; Director: Patrick Lau
Set on a farm and ostensibly about abduction and ransom; the roots of the crime go much further back than that to a long simmering revenge, in a way that anticipates something like that elegant Denis Dercourt thriller, The Page Turner. “You’ve got a problem with that, Potter?” snaps Doug, when Potter appears to be mocking a plaque “To Our Glorious Dead”. It will prepare the way for a finale (movingly acted by Jimmy Yuill, with Jack Shepherd and Helen Masters also sensitive in their restrained, slightly embarrassed reactions) when Doug sees a connection between the crime they’ve just solved and his experience in the Falklands and the death that put an end to his army life. A near car-crash is one clue that gives Wycliffe the key to the mystery; he notices the young woman’s reaction. The other is her Northern accent, which he picks up and leads him to the solution. “I’m from Leeds myself,” he says, “Well, just outside.” (A nice reference to Jack Shepherd’s own background.) It is a bleak tale but expertly constructed and told.
Series 2 Episode 3: ‘Charades’11
Writer: Jonathan Rich; Director: Martyn Friend
David Haig is the star turn here, a fine performance of a subtly tormented man in a childless marriage looking for a way to start again but getting in way out of his depth when he attempts a criminal solution. All of this is only revealed gradually; at first it seems to be connected with old Cornish folk lore and the locals’ dislike of the tourist trade and of those who can afford to use the place as a second home. Very good supporting performances as usual, with David Ross particularly notable as the smarmy manager of a not very swanky hotel with a cringe-worthy line in compliments to Lucy. Helen Masters is absolutely at her best when putting male predators in their place; Lucy has clearly seen it all before, though, as the series develops, you will notice that her mistakes occur when she misreads men, particularly those who flatter her intelligence (she has a degree in psychology). Jack Shepherd’s Wycliffe almost instinctively gravitates towards the most emotionally vulnerable person in the tale, in this case Haigh’s wife; their exchanges are very sensitively done.
Series 1 Episode 4: ‘Lost Contact’12
Writer: Isabelle Grey; Director: Patrick Lau
Two wives are missing a husband; which one is genuine? Both of them are excellently acted: Eleanor Bron as the fantasist; Marian McLoughlin as the embittered single mother. (She will reappear in a key role as police informer in the final episode of the whole series.) Again a different slant on the procedural formula: not a murder plot, but a missing person. A long scene between McLoughlin and Jimmy Yuill is exceptionally well acted. Care is always taken to give the impression that the actors have lived in their roles for years, so that the characters they play seem genuinely to belong in their setting and their homes. Wycliffe discloses that his father died when he was nine years old; and when the truth comes out, he counsels Doug to be especially careful about how he breaks the news to the boys, because “they will remember it, word for word, for the rest of their lives.” Neither a thriller nor crime melodrama; just a sad, well observed human drama of loss and despair, illusion and disillusion.
Series 2 Episode 5: ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’13
Writer: Julian Jones; Director: Steve Goldie
One of the lesser episodes, though well enough acted. The episode tends to fizzle out a bit after a dramatic start: someone being hit by a car; a fire; a mysterious phone call; the disappearance of a farmer. Not a murder plot in the end; more an exploration of dysfunctional families (a speciality of the series) and the hardships of modern farming. Short on plot excitement but observant on community life, taking advantage of the importance of its Cornish setting: it’s never simply backdrop.
Series 2 Episode 6: ‘Happy Families’14
Writer: Sian Orrels; Director: Steve Goldie
The title is ironic. Tragedy at a school disco: is it an accident or something more sinister? An adult Dominic Guard (unforgettable as young Leo in Losey’s masterpiece, The Go-Between) is one of the suspects. The school scenes and the parents’ grief are very convincingly done; a Sylvia Plath reference is a clue. Bullying, jealousy and parental pressure are at the root of the crime. Skilfully interwoven are the personal lives of Wycliffe, Lucy and Doug. The ending where Doug, who has formed a friendship with the twin sister of the dead girl, is left on his own and throws a pencil on his desk in sorrow and frustration, is unexpectedly poignant, suggesting (without overstating) how the nature of the job can sometimes overwhelm you and cumulatively take its toll.
Series 2 Episode 7: ‘Wild Oats’15
Writer: Patrick Harkins; Director: Michael Owen Morris
Two great stalwarts of British stage and screen, Geoffrey Bayldon and Rosalie Crutchley contribute significantly to this episode. Bayldon plays an aristocrat whose family dates back centuries and who is loath to move with the times; and Rosalie Crutchley is the protector of Bayldon’s daughter (brilliantly played by Louise Jameson), who is suffering still from a nervous breakdown after a mysterious tragedy in her past. Racism, previously buried, comes to the surface, as does the solution to a murder which has been driven by prejudice, class arrogance, greed and a desire for aristocratic continuity. Wycliffe and team look on with scarcely contained outrage at the lengths (and depths) to which the so-called nobility will go to protect what they self-righteously believe is theirs. The daughter’s re-uniting with her son is one of the most emotionally powerful moments of the whole series.
Series 2 Episode 8: ‘Breaking Point’16
Writer: Steve Trafford; Director: Michael Owen Morris
A body is discovered on the beach, identified as someone who was campaigning for a cleaner sea. The series touches occasionally on environmental issues, but as this tale develops, it veers into drug smuggling, culminating in an exciting boat chase. Lucy gets into hot water when she discovers that her journalist boyfriend of the time has been publishing confidential material concerning police investigation. Wycliffe makes a move to comfort her and then, with strict professional protocol, draws back: a nice touch, and relevant, because the twist in the tale will involve an old-style sexist policeman less concerned with the niceties of his profession if a titbit of information will get him a free drink. In career terms, Wycliffe warns him, that drink could prove very costly.
Series 3 Episode 1: ‘Dead on Arrival’17
Writer: Steve Trafford; Director: Michael Owen Morris
The episode which is the first to feature Wycliffe’s family, his wife Helen (Lynne Farleigh, so much warmer and more substantial a characterisation than that in the original pilot) and teenage son, David and daughter, Ruth (both very capably acted by Gregory Chisholm and Charlie Hayes). The occasion is a surprise party in celebration of the Wycliffes’ twentieth wedding anniversary and even grants Shepherd/Wycliffe the chance to show off his skills as a jazz pianist. The evening will be interrupted, however, by a modern tragedy: human trafficking and the discovery of dead bodies in the back of a truck. It’s a powerful exposé of an immigration scam which also involves Home Office obstructive obstinacy and the sorry plight of desperate people hoping to be re-united with their loved ones in a foreign land. Stuart Organ is particularly good as the lorry driver at first unwittingly and then unwillingly drawn into the scheme.
Series 3 Episode 2: ‘The Number of the Beast’18
Writer:Jonathan Rich; Director: Michael Owen Morris
Wycliffe in unexpected Hound of the Baskervilles territory, except that he doesn’t hold with superstition, folk-lore, and the like, and always seeks a rational explanation for things. Kenneth Colley is predictably excellent as a mischievous reporter aiming to stir things up with old-wives’-tales about the beast of Bodmin, but the beast is essentially psychological, lurking within an army veteran suffering from severe post-traumatic-war syndrome. Doug is imperilled when he comes into contact, but the two achieve a fragile bond when Doug reveals how he is still mentally scarred by his experience in the Falklands. “And what does the lady say? Rejoice!” he cries in a tone dripping with contempt. Some fine aerial photography and use of landscape, and an intense performance from Robert Perkins as the deranged mercenary. It ends with an argument between Doug and Lucy, who covers her anxiety about the danger Doug was in by getting angry with him. During the series he will pull her leg about her love-life just as she pulls his about his absence of one; and their occasional antagonism is often just another way of indicating how much they look out for, and care for, each other. The expression of affection is mainly conveyed through indirection: a lesson in economical writing and understated screen acting, where less is more.
Series 3 Episode 3: ‘Slave of Duty’19
Writer:Jonathan Rich; Director: David Innes Edwards
Buried treasure is the quirky theme here. Oliver Ford Davies lends weight to the episode as an academic of local history whose marriage is failing and whose academic expertise is leading him into murky waters. Lucy more happily goes scuba diving with an instructor she clearly fancies (Mark Womack) but it all sinks when her investigations lead to his becoming a suspect. A modest mystery episode effectively dispatched without the depth of character of the series at its best.
Series 3 Episode 4: ‘Total Loss’20
Writer: Isabelle Grey; Director: David Innes Edwards
Human misery is foregrounded over murder mystery. The background to the tale is topical: EU rules and regulations are crippling the Cornish fishing industry; and a fisherman is suspected of scuttling his boat – and inadvertently causing the death of his best friend – so he can claim insurance in order to pay off his debts. Doug and Lucy are at loggerheads through their different methods at trying to extract a confession from the suspect. Acting as quiet mediator, Wycliffe facilitates a virtually wordless reconciliation between them, and in just two short scenes the whole dynamic, dependence and affection between the three main characters is marvellously encapsulated. Marjorie Yates gives a fine performance as the widow, but the outstanding performance is that of David Bradley (far and away the best thing in the first series of Broadchurch), who gives a tragic depth to his role of a decent man perplexed in the extreme by a bureaucracy that threatens his livelihood and tormented beyond endurance by what it has driven him to do.
Series 3 Episode 5: ‘Crazy for You’21
Writer: Tom Needham; Director: Martyn Friend
One of the best episodes of the entire series. The wife of a forensic psychiatrist (John Shrapnel) has been murdered; and aided by the psychiatrist’s personality profiling of the potential killer, the investigation seems to point to a former schizophrenic patient of his (Zara Turner); but is the case quite that straightforward? The performances of Shrapnel and Turner are superb; the supporting cast is, as always, infallible; and, as the case proceeds, the writing picks up on key personality traits of Lucy and Doug that can sometimes lead them astray – Lucy’s susceptibility to male charm which can lead to her misreading the evidence; Doug’s instinctive dislike or mistrust of experts or eggheads who seem to be condescending towards him. There is a relevant sub-theme too of manipulation, which Wycliffe appears to sense before the final revelation: that this is all going a little too smoothly, and enough to arouse his suspicions that they are not so much leading as being led. And a terrific triple ending: the revelation which brings no justice (“I’ll bet it’ll prey on your mind more than it will on mine”); Wycliffe’s oblique compliment which causes a formerly chastened Doug to swivel in surprise (“I think your instinct is alive and well, Doug. Don’t ever lose it”); and a return to where the episode started, a fishing expedition with his son, where a monster seems to have been caught but gets away – as in the story. And all told in about 48 minutes. An absolute model of its kind.
Series 3 Episode 6: ‘Faith’22
Writer: Sian Ordds; Director: Martyn Friend
A baby is found dead on a church doorstep. A pagan cult comes under suspicion, but the explanation reveals a deeper sorrow. More loosely constructed than some episodes, but enlivened by the domestic complication caused by the visit of one of Wycliffe’s closest friends (vibrantly played by Malcolm Storry, an old schoolfriend of mine), whose deceptively extrovert swagger is covering a dark secret involving his troubled daughter (a fine performance by Alexandra Milman). It contains one of Jack Shepherd’s finest moments, for his reaction shot when he learns the truth of what has happened is, quite simply, great screen acting. He looks down quickly, the way Jimmy Cagney does in White Heat when he learns of the death of his mother (“the first moment should be private,” said Cagney): that is, needing to internalise and absorb the shock on a personal level before he can trust himself to act then on a professional one. It only takes a moment; but it says everything about him. Wonderful.
Series 3 Episode 7: ‘Last Judgement’23
Writer: Carolyn Sally Jones; Director: John Glenister
One of the things I loved about Wycliffe – and what made it stand out amongst other television detective stories – is that the episodes were rarely whodunits or even straightforward murder plots; they invariably dug more deeply into all-too-human motives of jealousy, revenge, thwarted love, and lives that take a disappointing or disturbing turn. Here a magistrate is found hanging from a tree, but Wycliffe is not convinced it is suicide. It brings him into rare conflict with resident pathologist, Dr Franks (this is one of Tim Wylton’s finest opportunities with the character and he takes full advantage), who petulantly resents the questioning of his judgement and who does turn out to be half right. As usual, it seems able to sketch the background of the characters quickly and plausibly. Pam Ferris is great as the woman who holds the key to the mystery, a character who is victim and villain, and whose motives are both touching and terrifying because of their far-reaching consequences. (“He ruined my life, why shouldn’t I ruin his?”) The open ending resonates some time after the credits and is another aspect of the series’ originality: finales which are not the usual cosy summations of this kind of drama, with a reassuring restoration of the dominant order and status quo, but leave you with something to think about; but quietly, not insistently.
Series 3 Episode 8: ‘Old Habits’24
Writer: Scott Cherry; Director: John Glenister
A packed episode, to say the least: two murders (one of them random); a possible serial killer on the loose; an attempted suicide (offscreen); a revenge attack on the wrong person; the stabbing of a policewoman; a local man driven from his home and his life ruined after being wrongly suspected of murder and released without charge; an embittered ex-police officer forced into retirement through malicious injury on the job and driven to the end of his tether by an aggrieved family’s intimidation; and a startling twist whereby a chance overheard remark by Wycliffe leads to a second murder (“You said you weren’t sure it was the strangler, so I had to do it again to convince you.”) In other words, enough in here to keep a whole series going for your average cop franchise, but here dispatched in an unhurried manner in under an hour, with characterisation to the fore, uniformly fine acting from the entire cast, surprising twists that are credible and unforced, and even still finding room for some humour (the neighbour’s barbeque). Wow.
Series 4 Episode 1: ‘Strangers’25
Writer Peter J. Hammond; Director: Alan Wareing
A new series, with new credits (Wycliffe’s mobile phone was looking a bit old-fashioned perhaps?) and with some new characters and narrative strategies to suggest that it is not content to rest on its laurels. There are three narrative avenues opened up at the beginning: Lucy’s being sized up as a high-flyer by the new DCC Stevens (Michael Attwell), much to Doug’s alternate amusement and annoyance (he’s old-style policing and not on Stevens’ radar); Wycliffe’s attending to an old man with a heart condition in a prison cell who refuses to change his plea from murder to manslaughter for the mercy killing of his wife; and a bizarre registry office wedding in which the guests seem not only strangers to each other but also strangers to the bride and groom. Boldly there is no crime for the first 15 minutes or so as these stories unfold; but then the focus narrows to the seemingly inexplicable murder of the groom and the circumstances that led to it. It is a fascinating tale, apparently inspired by an actual newspaper advertisement. The strangeness of the wedding affords some amusement and it is lovely to see Frances White (Anne Bancroft’s eldest daughter in The Pumpkin Eater) in an endearing role as a lonely spinster and perpetual wedding gate-crasher (“it’s the fourth wedding I’ve been to!”)who is humiliated at the reception and so not averse to confessing to a crime she did not commit if it will get her some attention. The final interview where the grieving young widow turns into a psychopath before our eyes is genuinely scary and fabulously acted by Josephine Butler. The Lucy/Stevens saga will carry over into future episodes, which will be a new development in the series; and Wycliffe is left at the end sadly digesting the fact that he has been unable to find time to visit the old man in prison hospital, as he had promised, before his death of heart failure. The last shot is of him as he is left sitting alone on the steps of an old Methodist church, which had been converted into the Police Control room, and reflecting, we suspect, on two kinds of murder: one out of merciful love as the culmination of a life-long partnership; the other out of murderous hate after a whirlwind romance between two young people whose unstable temperaments will have terrible consequences.
Series 4 Episode 2: ‘Close to Home’26
Writer: Isabelle Grey; Director: David Innes Edwards
A relatively low-key episode, in which Wycliffe comes into conflict with his son, David when he begins to uncover unsavoury details about the father of a friend of his who has been stabbed to death outside a pub. David wonders why his father has to keep investigating the case and blackening the dead man’s character when they have already caught the man responsible. It is an acute dilemma and thoughtfully developed, with Shepherd’s Wycliffe doing jazz improvisations on the piano at home (‘My Funny Valentine’) to take his mind off the domestic pressure. There is a nice final scene between father and son when he explains that his job is to find the facts not allocate blame; it is his way of imposing order on a chaotic world. Would he rather have been something other than a policeman, his son asks him. “Yes,” he replies, “Oscar Peterson.” The main force of the story is a death in custody, which will extend over further episodes and put Doug’s career in jeopardy, particularly as DCC Stevens scents blood. Michael Attwell’s performance as Stevens will be a highlight of the new series, epitomising the face of modern policing, which is now all about efficiency savings and public relations. He has a awesome line in jargonistic management-speak that will resonate with anyone who has served in institutions more interested in bureaucracy and balancing the books than in staff morale and their own personnel.
Series 4 Episode 3: ‘On Account’27
Writer: Kevin Clarke; Director: David Innes Edwards
Ostensibly a tale of ransom demand that is actually a tale of heart-rending revenge. One of the unusual features of Wycliffe was that its stories rarely dealt with hardened criminals as such but were more often studies of characters driven to unlawful behaviour by a chain of circumstances. It rarely strayed into melodrama, in other words; and this possibly accounts for the consistent excellence of the acting, because the characters portrayed always seemed psychologically plausible. The revelation of the motivation at the root of the crime here is conveyed in a single photograph of a child as Wycliffe enters the house of the perpetrator; and the short scene that follows is acted by Shepherd and Mary Woodvine with a quiet dignity that is very moving. Running alongside the main narrative is the ongoing investigation of the death in custody; and the embittered Doug almost ruins a police operation through his drunken self-pity. The ensuing angry reprimand from Wycliffe, particularly triggered by Doug’s insinuation that Lucy has squealed on him (“I saw you!” Wycliffe retorts indignantly, instantly putting the record straight) shows both actors at their best. Stevens is hovering in the background, hoping for a harsh judgement on police malpractice that will boost his reputation in the eyes of the media as a severe taskmaster. Sharon Duce’s investigator is unfazed by the pressures on both sides and has her own means of going beyond the immediate case to a general sense of the policing situation. Compelling viewing.
Series 4 Episode 4: ‘Lone Voyager’28
Writer: Philip O’ Shea; Director: Michael Brayshaw
A yachtswoman of international renown has gone missing and, although her disappearance might be accidental, she has enough enemies to suggest it might be more serious than it looks. The body of a woman is found in a clay-pit, but it is not her, but the body of her doctor. The twists and turns of the narrative certainly grip, but the outstanding feature is the performance of Con O’ Neill, the young husband of the missing woman. “Stay for lunch?” he says to Lucy when she is updating him on progress, and the request is just a little too quick for comfort in the way it is delivered; her detective’s antennae are raised about his character. The final scene when the missing woman returns to find her husband accused of murder is a humdinger; and the last shot is a powerful freeze frame close-up of the husband as he is escorted out of the room, in which O’ Neill seems to catch in mid-air the character’s arrogance and the cruelty under the charm. The man is guilty, certainly, but he has a wealthy ally in his gullible wife, and his fate is left hanging in the balance. The endings of Wycliffe were invariably good; and, dramatically and visually, this is one of the best.
Series 4 Episode 5: ‘Seen a Ghost’29
Writer: Isabelle Grey; Director: Michael Brayshaw
Dark family secrets are uncovered when a young woman Morna (Emily Joyce) deliberately drives her car into someone whom she claims is a ghost. Gwen Taylor is particularly fine as the mother, with her elaborate politeness and ritualistic domestic routine that become increasingly disorienting, suggesting a façade to ward off horrors. It is the episode also in which Doug is exonerated from blame for the death in custody: all the more moving for its avoidance of exaggeration and the flawless acting of Jimmy Yuill and Sharon Duce. Stevens’s exasperation is wondrous to behold, but as Wycliffe has told him earlier: “I leave public relations to you.” Doug has struck up something of a rapport with Morna’s brother, who decides eventually that he would rather make the best of what he has than attempt a new start. The message is not lost on Doug.
Series 4 Episode 6: ‘Bad Blood’30
Writer: Scott Cherry; Director: Alan Wareing
One of the series’ grimmest episodes. A young family is being threatened with eviction by angry farmers who need the land for their own plans of survival. When one of the farmers is shot, tempers rise to fever pitch and a vigilante mood takes over. With Wycliffe away attending the funeral of his wife’s uncle, Lucy is put in charge of a volatile situation and, against the advice of Doug, makes a catastrophic decision which will lead to a baby’s death. The whole episode is uncharacteristically unrelenting, with not much in the way of light and shade or time for subtle interplay between the leads. It’s well enough done, but, along with the pilot (and the later ‘Standing Stones’), it’s probably the episode of Wycliffe I would least wish to see again. Yet how many other cop series have the honesty to feature an episode which highlights a serious lapse of judgement by one of its officers that will have tragic consequences; and which then refuses to offer any conventional comfort at the end, which would soften the blow? The final shot is of Lucy sobbing, with her head in her hands, on her own, inconsolable. High marks for courage, then, if not for entertainment value.
Series 4 Episode 7: ‘To Sup with the Devil’31
Writer: Carolyn Sally Jones; Director: Graeme Harper
A literal cliffhanger, with Lucy hanging on for dear life. Being lined up by Stevens for attendance at a Leadership Management course (Wycliffe thinks this is premature), Lucy quarrels with Doug over his harsh interviewing of an unreliable police informant (an unnerving performance from Darren Tighe) who has information about a pub manager’s suspicious death. She believes she can get better results if she sees him on her own. Unfortunately the informant turns out to be a deeply disturbed personality with a violent past, who entraps Lucy on the Cornish cliffs. The physical danger of the setting is thrillingly rendered; and the episode adroitly combines a suspenseful narrative with the usual insight into the characterisation and skills of its three principals, the occasional antagonism between them, but their absolute loyalty to each other when one of them is in trouble. Elsewhere it lays the groundwork for future developments in the series, most notably the conflict between the traditional policing methods of Wycliffe and his team contending with Stevens’s management style, which is all about targets, public relations, cost-effectiveness; and the potential of Lucy for rising in the ranks which might put her at odds with her more traditional colleagues, particularly Doug, who represents the kind of policing Stevens sees as anachronistic and disposable. Very funny on management speak (Wycliffe doodles on his pad as this drones on); but these additional elements do not distract from the central narrative, which concludes with a pulsating rescue, finely photographed by the series’ cameraman, Brian Morgan.
Series 4 Episode 8: ‘Old Crimes, New Times’32
Writer: Arthur McKenzie; Director: Graeme Harper
One of the more experimental episodes, with several narrative threads deftly intertwining rather than one predominating. A case falls through because of flawed police procedure, which makes crucial evidence inadmissible. The legal roles are played with particular authority, with Jim Norton a formidable barrister who puts Wycliffe on the spot, and Geoffrey Bayldon as the imposing judge who has reluctantly to throw out a compelling legal case because of improper police procedure. During his professional appraisal, Wycliffe clashes with Stevens over the methods and priorities of modern policing and is told to adapt to changing times (“You’re a manager and I’m an enabler”). At Stevens’ prompting, Lucy’s attempt to extract a confession for an old crime, against Wycliffe’s advice, goes badly wrong. Doug attends to a grieving widow whose policeman husband has died only six months into retirement, and we are given a sense of the strains of the job. Wycliffe then has to reprimand a junior colleague for slovenly work and its consequences; and we appreciate that a policeman’s lot has more to do than with just catching criminals, it must also serve the public. The interweaving of these separate strands even leaves room for some humour at Stevens’ expense (taking charge of a ‘major incident’ which turns out to be nothing of the kind) and for some domestic detail, with Wycliffe typically taking out his frustrations on the home piano, fretting needlessly over his teenage daughter, and being brightly reminded by his wife that he’s only as old as he feels (“Fancy an early night?”). As Stevens reads out his appraisal report in the car, Wycliffe chuckles to himself (it is eminently fair), but then gets a phone-call that brings things full circle: the unresolved court case at the outset has resulted in the aggrieved parent taking the law into his own hands. For anyone watching Wycliffe for the first time, this might have proved a baffling episode: where are the usual chases, crimes and criminals of your average cop series? It’s more a reflective ‘ Day in the Life of…:’ structure with a semi-documentary feel, held together by the excellence of the acting, the intelligence of the writing, and the efficiency of the direction. The underlying concerns of the episode and the series – presentation and public relations over actual policing, the impact of underfunding on morale and on crime rates etc – now seem very prescient.
Christmas Special / Series 5 Episode 1: ‘Dance of the Scorpions’33
Writer: Arthur McKenzie; Director: Paul Harrison
After one of its more leisurely experimental episodes to close the last series, the final series opens with one of its most intense. Another great plus of the series overall: it never settled into a rut; it could be unpredictable. This is Wycliffe’s darkest hour; he is even given a bad cold. The simmering anger of his wife at his prioritising his job over his marriage comes to boiling point and she leaves on a Paris holiday without him. After procedural conflicts with Stevens, when he is not fully informed about a case on which is working, he accidentally almost sabotages an undercover operation to trap a dangerous arms dealer (Leslie Grantham). By now disillusioned with his lot, Wycliffe concedes that he was wrong and his wife was right, but the realisation comes almost too late. It is an unusual high-octane episode, both in terms of subject (Wycliffe’s investigations usually concern themselves with subtly domestic or local tragedies rather than the heady world of organised crime) and in terms of style, with an elaborate use of freeze frame and cross cutting, and a Bond-like helicopter and boat chase. The finale explodes into the realms of almost surreal melodrama, as the arch-villain seemingly comes back from the dead to terrorise Wycliffe in his own home (is it a nightmare?); and then ends on a violent, visually imaginative flurry that leaves Wycliffe’s future up in the air. Amidst the customary high professionalism in every department, there are shocks aplenty; it is a great way to start a new series.
Series 5 Episode 2: ‘On Offer’34
Writer: Arthur McKenzie; Director: Jack Shepherd
A relatively quiet episode after the highly dramatic opening one, mainly concerned with Wycliffe’s recuperation in a nursing home, which allows Jack Shepherd in his first outing as director some licence for discreet stylistic flourishes to convey Wycliffe’s occasional lurches into nightmare. Although restrained overall, the episode has its undercurrents of anger, not only relating to Wycliffe’s violent mood swings but extending even to Lucy’s hapless partner, Angus, who practically throws Lucy’s dinner at her in exasperation when she is in danger of following Wycliffe’s now dubious example: i.e. prioritising work over relationships. It is a tough episode for Lucy. She falls out with Doug over her handling of a case; when she’s offered promotion by Stevens, she tentatively enquires of Wycliffe if he’s planning to return to work as this might influence her decision, only to realise immediately from his shocked expression that it was the wrong thing to ask; and then the promotion falls through, because her hesitation convinces Stevens to go with someone else. Difficulties experienced by the farming community are again prominent and sympathetically dramatised. A freeze frame ending as Wycliffe, on leaving the nursing home, throws off his neck brace; but there is a sense that this gesture of recovery might be illusory. He still has some way to go.
Series 5 Episode 3: ‘Time Out’35
Writer: Peter J. Hammond; Director: Alan Wareing
A meandering episode but still mesmerising. Everyone seems in a state of limbo: Wycliffe still far from full health, moody, touchy, paranoid; Lucy in an indeterminate relationship and feeling she’s missed the boat professionally; Doug slogging away at a routine investigation which may lead nowhere. Nothing much happens but slowly the strands come together, as Wycliffe’s suspect neighbour is revealed to be indirectly involved in the secondary story involving a sex worker (a fine performance by Pauline Turner) who has been told by one of her clients that he has recently committed a murder. Is it true; and, if so, who was the victim? The clues are dutifully followed but the story seems to gather its own momentum independently of the police investigation. As is often the case in Wycliffe, the tale becomes one of human frailty as much as criminality, and the trail leads not to capture but to suicide. (There are an unusual number of committed, attempted and assisted suicides in Wycliffe, almost as many as in the films of Billy Wilder. This motif perhaps reinforces one of the series’ most original features for a police drama: that it is less about crime than psychological breakdown, and the destructive demons are not outside on the streets but inside in the mind.) The story’s lurid premise which, in other hands, might have led to a conventional serial-killer narrative, here goes off on a decidedly unorthodox path that ends in calculated anti-climax. There is an urgency to the filming, and the relationships keep you interested: even the taxi-drivers have a story to tell. Another praise-worthy feature of the series: its attention to the minor characters, infallibly well written and acted, avoiding dramatic cliché and adding to texture and authenticity. You notice this because no other police series in my experience has done this so often, so concisely, and so well.
Series 5 Episode 4: ‘Standing Stones’36
Writer: Carolyn Sally Jones; Director: Jack Shepherd
Sadly this is one of the weakest episodes in the entire series, though not without some redeeming features. For once the performances are below-par, largely because of the unsubtle characterisation: the heroine an unhappy one-note neurotic on the run, her male partner a tiresomely unstable obsessive, which in turn means that there’s very little in the way of narrative surprise when he turns out to be the cause of her disappearance. The mumbo-jumbo about some ancient legend concerning the Devil’s Gateway is a red herring and less well integrated than the usual use of folk-lore. The musical interludes from the folk band Scatter the Mud are enjoyable enough in themselves, but again (very unusual for the series) indulgent and essentially irrelevant. Shepherd even sneaks in a redundant sequence at a jazz club. With hindsight, one can sense that the series might itself be aware that it is running down; and indeed starts building this into the narratives. Wycliffe is now wandering around like a lost soul, marginalized and something of an embarrassment when he returns to work for a visit; Stevens is about to leave for higher things, and there is a witty leaving do, where we can see him consoling someone about his departure, then having a quietly barbed exchange with Doug (“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Doug tells him about the reception for his departure) and pointedly ignoring Lucy; and Lucy, rebuffed by Stevens, uncertain about promotion, in an unsatisfactory relationship, wondering whether “to chuck it all in”. There is another cliff-hanger from the same writer who gave us the riveting episode ‘To Sup with The Devil’, only this time it is not a very imposing cliff and the villain’s death is dramatically perfunctory. It is the incidentals that provide the pleasure. The whole episode is almost rescued by a lovely scene between Doug and Lucy when he has to take her home as she is too drunk to drive and they start talking about their current professional and personal frustrations and misgivings about their respective futures. Doug starts to open up and one feels he is on the point of telling Lucy of his feelings for her (“The thing is… I still…”), only to find that she has fallen asleep. When she asks him at the end what happened on their night together because she has completely forgotten, Doug replies: “Nothing… nothing at all.” Those are the last words he will say (before the splendid Jimmy Yuill had to retire from the series because of illness); and it’s a resigned, slightly melancholy signing off of a great character, touchingly appropriate and (as always) perfectly acted.
Series 5 Episode 5: ‘Feeding the Rat’37
Writer: Isabelle Grey; Director: Alan Wareing
An intense character study more than suspenseful police drama. In a way, it anticipates Kevin Macdonald’s highly acclaimed docudrama of 2003, Touching the Void in its spectacular climbing footage and its insight on the psychology of climbers who are drawn to the sport for its danger, competitiveness, and the excitement of living on the edge. A talented and fearless mountain-climber falls to his death: is it the kind of occupational hazard to be expected in this most perilous of sports; or has something untoward occurred that has precipitated the fall? As he investigates the matter, which at first sight seems an innocent enough case of an unfortunate accident, Wycliffe has to confront some inner demons of his own and be reminded of his recent near-death experience that has undermined his own emotional stability. The way the mountain mystery is woven into a simultaneous examination of Wycliffe’s still fragile mental state is very imaginatively done. The impact is enhanced by a tremendous glowering performance from Paul Venables as the dead man’s climbing partner, who seems deliberately to intimidate Wycliffe through his self-confident bravado, but whose arrogance might mask a personal insecurity and possibly lethal envy. Everything gathers to a sharply written and expertly acted final scene between Shepherd and Venables, where the anticipated confrontational interrogation develops instead into a much more subtle revelation of mutual fears, and where Wycliffe’s quiet admission of personal weakness cunningly (and possibly consciously) leads the suspect into lowering his guard. The culmination will be a confession that is as sudden and shocking as the ‘accident’ itself, with a damning last sentence and startled final close-up that is edited and timed to perfection to provide a devastating climax. A hugely satisfying slice of mature drama, edited with diamond-sharp precision by Steve Eveleigh.
Series 5 Episode 6: ‘Scope’38
Writer: John Milne; Director: Alan Wareing
More plot-driven than character-driven, though very well acted by Shelagh McCleod as the series’ most devious femme fatale since Cathryn Harrison in ‘All for Love’ and by the infallible Clive Francis in a role which combines the two qualities which, almost more than anything else, undermine Wycliffe’s sense of order, justice and belief in his job: the fallible friend and the untrustworthy professional colleague. A stakeout goes wrong when an unpopular policeman on watch is shot; another policeman, who was having an affair with the dead man’s wife, is framed for the killing; but Wycliffe lays a trap to ensnare the guilty party. Even if all the loose ends of the plot are not fully tied up, the ending delivers on the surprise. Not as imaginative as the best Wycliffe, but you can see how he is being pushed to a disillusionment with a profession to which he has devoted his life and which represents everything he stands for as a human being. Did they have this in mind when planning the final episode?
Series 5 Episode 7: ‘Land’s End’39
Writer: Kevin Clarke; Director: Alan Wareing
Journey’s end: and how fitting that this great series should end on such a high note, delivering with its customary consummate professionalism a tale that excites however many times you watch it. For the first and only time, it introduces a master-criminal into the narrative scheme (played to the hilt by John Carson as the very personification of evil), whose computing expertise is used to plunge Wycliffe into a position where both his career and his life will be at stake. There is a satisfying symmetry to the episode: Doug has faced a life-and-death situation in ‘The Number of the Beast’, helpless, and reliant on his partners for rescue; so has Lucy in ‘To Sup with the Devil’; now, and finally, it is Wycliffe’s turn. Until re-viewing, I had forgotten how cleverly oblique the structure was; but that is so characteristic. It begins as if it is about the murder of two notorious drug-dealers in the area, and also about Wycliffe’s protection of a police informer whose vengeful husband is due out of prison and has discovered where she lives and her new identity. Yet suddenly police cars roll up outside Wycliffe’s house; and he finds himself being accused of taking money from criminals and is suspended from service. Meanwhile an ostensibly placid gentleman has taken up residence in an off-season Cornish guest house and is the essence of quiet charm until his landlady has the misfortune to catch sight of a gun on his desk: Carson’s look at her through hooded, pitiless eyes is sufficient to seal her fate, and chills the blood. Even as the suspense mounts (the pile-up of compromising evidence, secret meetings, missed phone-calls, unexpected betrayals, races against time), it still finds room for the human elements: Lucy’s maternity classes, and her exasperation with the hapless Angus (always nicely played by David Firth), who has an unfortunate gift for turning up at the wrong time; a rather touchingly observed scene between Wycliffe and his son David, who has returned home from college to offer moral support and, clearly moved by his concern, Wycliffe cannot quite find the right words to express his gratitude; and the last look shared between Wycliffe and Lucy (i.e. between Shepherd and Helen Masters) as if both know this is the end of the line. It has you in its anxious grip until the very last moment, when Wycliffe can confront his intended nemesis and essentially sign off the episode and the whole franchise with the last line: “This is as far as it goes. It’s Land’s End.” It is a stylish, deeply satisfying conclusion to a series which was a triumph of teamwork; and which imbued and enriched the standard police procedural format with a humanity and craftsmanship that was altogether exceptional and exemplary.
You may be interested in visiting this website, a sister site of ours, which compiles some of Neil Sinyard’s writing on film and other topics.
Originally posted: 31 January 2019.
Wycliffe has been released on DVD by Network and is available here.
HTV for ITV, tx. 7 August 1993. A Red Rooster Films production. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 24 July 1994. Series 1 was a Red Rooster Films production. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 31 July 1994. ↩
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HTV for ITV, tx. 14 August 1994. ↩
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Printed and screen sources disagree whether this is A.J. Quinn or Roger Bamford. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 28 August 1994. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 18 June 1995. Series 2 is a Red Rooster Films production. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 25 June 1995. ↩
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HTV for ITV, 9 June 1996. Series 3 is an HTV production. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 16 June 1996. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 7 July 1996. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 14 July 1996. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 21 July 1996. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 28 July 1996. ↩
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HTV for ITV, tx. 11 August 1996. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 29 June 1997. Series 4 is an HTV production. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 6 June 1997. ↩
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HTV for ITV, tx. 27 July 1997. ↩
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HTV for ITV, tx. 27 December 1997. A United Films & TV production. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 17 May 1998. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 24 May 1998. ↩
HTV for ITV, 31 May 1998. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 7 June 1998. ↩
HTV for ITV, 21 June 1998. ↩
HTV for ITV, tx. 5 July 1998. ↩