I don't normally watch what are known as police procedurals, television shows that follow police officers through the lengthy process of uncovering whodunit. Truth be told I don't usually watch television, as although I own one, it's not hooked up to either cable, satellite, or even an old fashioned antenna. Instead its sole purpose is to act as a video monitor so my wife and I can watch DVDs. So on the occasions that I end up reviewing the box set of a television series, I don't have much that I can use as a basis for comparison save for memories of what television was like in the 1970s and 80s or other material that I've watched in the same format.
In the past couple of years I've taken advantage of some of the box sets from Acorn Media of the higher end of British police procedurals: Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren, Cracker with Robbie Coltrane, and Rebus with Ken Stott as the irascible Scottish detective created by Ian Rankin. Each of these series were distinguished not only by superlative writing but by the performances of their lead actors. The problem, of course, is that material like this tends to spoil you for most of what's on offer and it takes a pretty special show to match up to any of the above programs.
You wouldn't think from reading the description – disillusioned police officer transfers from London's Scotland Yard to North-East England to fight crime among the pig farmers and fishermen in the early 1960s – that George Gently would stand up toe-to-toe with any of the heavyweights mentioned above. It sounds like a cross between Green Acres and All Creatures Great and Small, not a show that could generate any of the intensity or suspense that makes a good cop show work.
Well, if the three episodes included in the box set of George Gently: Series 1 are anything to go by, this series is every bit as good as its elder brethren. Not only are the scripts intelligent and the plots intriguing enough to be interesting without being convoluted to the point of incomprehension, the show's main character is every bit as fascinating as any cop who has appeared on the small screen.
Commander George Gently (Martin Shaw) is an incorruptible officer surrounded by others at all levels who are on the take. When he starts pushing his investigations into the rot in London's police force a little harder than he should, someone sends him a warning: his wife is killed by a hit-and-run driver right in front of him. When the man he suspects of the murder is spotted at the funeral of a young man who died under suspicious circumstances in County Durham in North-East England, he asks for the chance to take over the case.
One of the nice touches in this first episode, "Gently Go Man," is that instead of meeting George's new colleagues when he arrives at his new assignment, we travel on ahead of him and are introduced to some of the locals who are involved with the crime and the police officers who are investigating it. We get to form our own impressions of Detective Sergeant (DS) John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby), who ends up assisting Gently on this first case. Young, ambitious, and a little slick (he drives an MG), it appears that Bacchus is more than likely to get on the wrong side of the decidedly old school Gently. At the same time, though, we see that he's a good cop and really cares about what he does, even if he's not too concerned about the how's, just the results.
Each of the three episodes ("The Burning Man" and "Bomber's Moon" are the second and third respectively) run just under ninety minutes, which allows plenty of time to develop plot and establish new characters. In "Go Gently Man" they take full advantage of the time to establish the atmosphere of the times. England in 1964 was going through a social upheaval and there was a real change of the guard happening. Those who were born during the war are just starting to come of age and aren't content to be like the generation before who fought in the war.
Yet while Gently is a World War II veteran and Bacchus has only vague memories of it, the writers don't play up the obvious areas of conflict. In fact Bacchus' decision to join the police makes him something of an anomaly among his peers as it's seen as being very conformist. At the same time he's enough a product of his generation that he's considered a bit unconventional for a police officer. While this makes his character that much more interesting, we discover as the episodes continue and we get to know both characters better that Gently is actually the more liberal and forgiving of the two. He can understand that people make mistakes and is willing to overlook minor transgressions in most cases. That the writers resisted going for the obvious and clichéd approach to the characters is just one example of what marks this series as special.
However, as we learn in "The Burning Man" when a Special Branch agent shows up and starts throwing his weight around in Gently's investigation, he has no tolerance for those in authority who abuse their power. "We're supposed to be different from them," he says, referring to those who use violence to get their way. Of course, that's sorely put to the test for him when he confronts the man who ordered his wife's death, or when he comes into contact with evidence of police corruption. While he's able to resist the call of vengeance on some occasions, there are others when he does let his anger get the best of him.
While the second episode, "The Burning Man," involves gun running and the I.R.A. making it a bit more sensational then the typical murder investigation, each of the cases are solved through the boring process of a slow investigation. Every so often Gently has to reign in his younger colleague, but together they make a good team. The relationship between the two characters and the performances by each actor make for some very funny and tense moments. They don't instantly become buddies – even after three episodes they are still getting on each others' nerves – but that only serves to make the depiction all the more realistic.
There's not much in the way of special features included with the three discs of George Gently: Series 1, but those provided are interesting. They've included text interviews with both Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby where they both talk about what appealed to them about the script and analyze their characters. The text is easy to read, which is a nice change, and both men offer some interesting insights making them worth reading. As this is a recent production (the second and third episodes aired last spring in England), the sound comes in high quality Dolby Digital and the widescreen picture is of the best quality.
George Gently: Series 1 contains the first three episodes of what looks to be another great police procedural series from England. Four new episodes are already in production and I am interested to see how the characters continue to develop and what other interesting plots the writers can come up with. One thing I'm sure of, if they continue to produce episodes of the same quality that came in this box set, it will be the equal of any that have come out of England before it.