While there are difficulties facing any film or television company setting a project in the past, most are easily overcome with just a little research. How did men and women wear their hair? What were the clothes like? Questions like these can be answered through a few trips to any library or museum. Shows set in recent history have it even easier as magazines and other media can usually be counted on to at least give an idea of what was fashionable during the time in question. However, while there is usually no problem in dressing a period piece, other, less tangible aspects, of recreating an era present far more difficulties.
Probably the most difficult of these is to try and recreate societal values and present them without comment, no matter how different they might be from those held by contemporary society. The more recent the history, the more difficult the task becomes as the differences become less cut and dried as attitudes evolve towards ones closer to our own. Complicating the matter even further is having to take into account how the pace of change came at different rates of speed to different areas. This was especially true in a country like England in the early 1960s where the impetus for change ran into into the stone wall of propriety and tradition. While there were some voices calling for change, many, from all walks of life, were happy to maintain the status quo.
However, change can’t be put off, even in the remote areas of Northumberland where Inspector George Gently, former London cop, has settled in an attempt to start over again after the death of his wife. George Gently: Series 3, being released on June 28 by Acorn Media Group, finds Gently (Martin Shaw) and his sergeant, John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) having to navigate through uncharted waters as they investigate two very different murder cases. In both “Gently Evil” and “Peace & Love” they are forced to deal with issues which to us might seem run of the mill, but in that era were barely heard of, let alone dealt with publically.
In “Gently Evil”, a young woman of questionable reputation is found brutally murdered in her apartment. Just prior to the murder, neighbours heard voices raised in argument and one even witnessed a man running from the apartment.
Unfortunately his eyesight is unreliable and can’t be positive about what the person looked like, only that he sounded like he had a Scottish accent. The murder victim turns out to have been a mentally unstable young woman whose family had committed her at one point. In her small flat they discover a birth certificate for the woman’s daughter on which she has crossed out the father’s name and replaced it with Satan. Both the daughter and the woman’s ex-husband were in town that night, and while the daughter was forbidden to visit her mother, it soon comes out that both husband and child had been at the apartment. When the husband confesses to the murder, angry at his wife’s promiscuity and taunting he claims to have killed her in a fit of passion, the case seems closed.
However, there are too many loose ends for Gently, and as he starts to follow some of these threads to their centre the picture that begins to develop is hard for him to believe. First the case starts tie in to the mysterious death of a young child a year earlier. Then, first one child almost wanders off and another disappears, from a local camp ground near where the previous child’s body turned up dead. When it turns out the murdered woman’s brother has some connection to each case, Gently and Bacchus come to the obvious conclusion. Yet how does all this tie into the woman’s death? Even when they discover the ex-husband wasn’t the child’s natural father it doesn’t get them any closer to discovering the real culprit or uncovering the horrible secret behind the murder of the young woman, the missing child and the dead child from the previous year.
The remarkable thing about Gently Evil is not just the way the case is handled without sensationalizing the circumstances, but in the reactions of all those involved with the case as it unfolds. Ingleby, whose character’s marriage has fallen apart and is only able to see his young daughter once a week, does an especially fine job depicting the anger of a man riddled by his own guilt over being a negligent father when he questions people about the children who have disappeared. In fact, from beginning to end, the reactions and actions of all the characters to a set of circumstances (unfortunately I have to be vague or I risk giving spoiling the story) beyond anything they’ve previously experienced, are as multilayered and complex as the situation deserves.
While “Peace & Love,” the second episode of series three, is not as complex as the first, it still deals with a couple of the cans of worms which were being opened during the era. Protests against nuclear weapons started as early as the 1950s in England so a demonstration against submarines armed with nuclear missiles being docked in the local shipyards is almost to be expected even in Northumberland. What’s not expected is the murder of the university professor responsible for organizing it. However, the more Gently and Bacchus find out about the victim, the longer the list of possible suspects. There’s any number of young female students he’d slept with, especially the most recent who he’s just dumped and who is pregnant with his child. There’s also a fellow professor who was once his lover who has any number of reasons for being pissed off at him.
Spending time on campus bring Gently and Bacchus face to face with the societal changes which has barely rippled the surface of the stolid Northumberland waters until now. Free love, open dissent, revolution, ban the bomb and all the baggage, including soft drug use, are not what either man are used to. While Gently is old and experienced enough to look on most of it with a rather benign amusement, unless it contravenes a law or results in people being hurt, Bacchus is nowhere near as sanguine in his reactions. In fact, despite his youth and supposed “hipness” the younger officer is far more conservative and easy to shock than his superior. Again Ingleby does a wonderful job with Bacchus. Confronted by a young woman who takes the initiative, in any way that you can imagine, he is quickly thrown for a loop and left retreating in confusion.
As the two officers wade through the maze of university, sexual and radical politics in order to solve the murder of the much hated professor and the subsequent murder of a young man who had been an early suspect, they discover no matter how many changes take place in society, the motivations for murder remain the same. Blackmail, guilty secrets, ambition, thwarted desires and moments of blind passion have stood the test of time and no amount of sexual liberation or demonstrating against Polaris missiles are going to make a difference. Once Gently and Bacchus discover which of the above ties in with the murder, discovering the murderer isn’t far behind.
The fascinating thing about both episodes of George Gently, Series 3 is how well they have managed to recreate the era. The two cases under investigation delve into areas which might seem commonplace to our eyes, but in the early 1960s were either not talked about or would have been considered too far fetched by most to be believed. Part of the key to their success is how well they’ve managed to avoid imposing twenty-first century standards on the characters as their reactions to what they see are not only completely in character, but are also in accordance with the beliefs and prejudices of the times. We might be a little appalled by what they say or how they act, but to have them be otherwise would have made the show far less believable.
George Gently, Series 3 comes in a two-disc DVD set with 5.1 surround sound. (Its also available as a single disc Blu-ray as well) As has been the case with the previous two seasons of this show the acting from the leads down to the smallest parts is impeccable and the scripts are both attention gripping mysteries and revealing looks at a society in the midst of change. England in the early 1960s was just starting to recover from the trauma of WW II and the split between those who lived through it and those who were born after was just starting to come to a head. It was a messy time with one side desperate to throw aside the conventions of the past and the other just as keen to hold on to them. Watching George Gently and John Bacchus navigate through this world is a treat you really shouldn’t deny yourself any longer. There’s only one shortcoming in this year’s version; only two 90-minute episodes, which while wonderful, leave you wanting more. Thankfully Series 4 is scheduled to start airing August 2011 in England, so hopefully it will end up on disc over here soon after.