With a deadline looming for the new Bev Morriss novel, I asked a colleague from my radio days if he’d sit in my blog seat this month. So over to . . . Adrian Juste.
As someone who’s spent a lifetime writing comedy, I’ve always admired the work of the ‘serious’ scribe. A crime writer could invariably do comedy, but it’s far harder the other way round. Some of the gags I’ve committed to print over the years might be verging on the criminal, but that’s the closest I got!
When Maureen asked if I’d like to do a piece here, it got me thinking: our respective styles aren’t the polar opposites you might imagine. Humour is a very useful tool for the crime writer: I liken it to sea fishing – you release a bit of line with a tension-busting gag, then slowly wind the reader back in again.
It’s that cadence that keeps them hooked.
Television too has always known about laughter in dark places: The best TV cop shows have always used it to great effect.
The Americans started the ball rolling in the ‘70s with assorted detectives in flasher Macs, overweight ones, bald ones crunching lollipops, and even one on horseback !
They certainly weren’t taking it seriously.
And of course, Peter Falk had things easy – his villains invariably nestled in the sumptuous Rodeo Drive end of Beverly Hills.
I’m sure Maureen would have loved writing for that . . . cold-blooded murder doesn’t have quite the same resonance in a Kings Heath chippie !!
While all that was going on, back here in the UK the vaguely gritty tenor of Z-Cars was laid to rest as TV turned towards pure grit with the heightened realism of Thames’ blockbuster The Sweeney – another series tempered with comedy . . . bad-tempered comedy!
If you’re of an age, who can forget grouchy Jack Regan spitting out the classic line: Get your trousers on – you’re nicked or, We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner – both delivered with the venom-ometer set to 11.
But those tetchy barbs still provided light relief from the violent wages blags and non-stop boozing and carousing which occurred on ‘the manor’ back then.
The 80s proved a rather fallow period for good crime series here in Britain; but Hollywood’s hit factory was on a roll, with biggies such as Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and Cagney & Lacey.
We rolled over, countering feebly with The Bill – which turned into a soap opera, with the consequence all villains Sun Hill way kept their trousers on before being nicked.
Thankfully the 90s proved more fertile ground for the crime writer.
We were treated to David Jason balancing his distinguished comedy background against the ‘legit’ role of maverick DI Frost in A Touch Of . . .
Played for more laughs than creator Rodney Wingfield ever intended, running gags came aplenty: we had the office radiator which only worked with a well-timed kick, and the stuffed mullet on Frost’s wall (a nod to his straight-laced Superintendent of that name).
But two really amusing scenes spring to mind: the time Jason was confronted by a twelve-foot ’gator at an exotic animal dealer’s home, which saw our hero scrambling to safety atop a high fence, and getting on the radio to shout: It’s Frost! We’ve got an alligator chasing us! Get the exotic animal unit down here – and make it snappy. Corny, but what writer would leave it out!
Or the time he was investigating a murder, the trail of which had led to a crypt. He radioed back to HQ: Tell George I’ve found a dead body in the cemetery – and when he’s stopped laughing, tell him to get down here pronto.
Again, it’s that well-aimed use of laughter to break the tension; a convenient emotional turntable before you start ramping the plot up again.
More recently, a series I’m ashamed to say I’ve just got into is New Tricks – with the original cast. It started to wobble a bit for me after James Bolam and Alun Armstrong quit.
The writing here is wonderful. A favourite scene is where wrinkly computer whizz Brian Lane is barred from investigating a case and ordered to keep away, but his two middle-aged compatriots conspire to sneak him into the hotel just the same – as blokes do!
Their feisty boss DS Sandra Pullman discovers they’ve been smuggling bits of their breakfast into his room, and when she discovers one of the guys bringing a cup of tea in to him, erupts into Krakatoa mode. After giving them a protracted and emphatic piece of her mind about how she’s dealing with a bunch of children, she sweeps out. As she slams the door behind her, Brian Lane turns to Bolam’s character and whispers in a line timed to perfection: Did you bring any milk?
As with criminal plots, comedy works best when given an unexpected twist . . .
Maureen has always had a good eye for TV drama, and earlier this year steered me towards Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley.
Sadly I, along with many other viewers, struggled with the sound of this production, and had to really concentrate – and often replay scenes to catch what was going on. Maureen appears blessed with bat-like hearing, as she heard every word and couldn’t understand my protests.
Us lesser mortals really did struggle to keep up.
But it’s an ill wind . . . so when Bev Morriss DOES make it onto TV, this new way of doing cop drama may be no bad thing.
Let’s imagine the script . . .
Bev was right, the frenzied attack HAD taken place in the East Midlands – and the main witness sitting across from her was nervous and sweaty; she’d obviously given up her Pilates membership for Lent some years back and hadn’t renewed, taking the fitness to fatness route by dialling in to the pizza and kebab programme.
The large tattoo on her upper arm glistened as the sun shone through the crack of the interview room window, beads of moisture had formed on her brow and top lip.
This was obviously the gal who’d put the Leicester in cholesterol.
Bev re-established eye contact and said: One last time, Leanne, who was with you that night?
Well, if you must know, cozzer – it was Mmmpphhmmwrrdy . . .
Plot lines? Character development? Why knock yourself out if no one’s able to hear it?!
Hey! Thanks to trendy TV production, crime writing just got easy . . . !