Friday, November 13, 2009

Heartbeat: Deadlier Than the Male (British TV, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles asked if I had anything relatively short for us to watch, and it turned out I did: an episode of a British TV show called Heartbeat, which apparently has been on the air since 1992 although the current season, from which this show derived, hasn’t yet been shown in Britain but has been shown in Sweden, from which my download derived (which meant it had “hard” Swedish subtitles permanently embedded in the image). I had stumbled on this when I was looking for the 1966 film Deadlier Than the Male, an attempt to enliven the Bulldog Drummond franchise by essentially remodeling Drummond from a James Bond precursor into a James Bond clone, because the episode title was “Deadlier Than the Male.”

The overall series centers around the police department in a small British town called Aidensfield, and is set in the 1960’s — which is indicated mostly by the presence of a lot of British Invasion music on the soundtrack (and it’s interesting to listen to snatches of the work of bands that did not make it to the States and become enormous stars the way the Beatles and the Rolling Stones did); the theme song is by Buddy Holly (though it’s not heard in Holly’s own performance — which made it all the more startling that when one of the characters got arrested the soundtrack burst forth with Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” — and unless there was an amazingly convincing Elvis impersonator in Britain covering the song, the record is Elvis’s own) — and this particular episode centered around a married couple, Vic and Eileen Needham (Hugo Speer and Michelle Holmes), who seem out to give the characters Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner played in The War of the Roses lessons in how to have a dysfunctional relationship.

She starts the tit-for-tat by pouring his liquor supply down the kitchen sink; he responds by tearing up her favorite dress; she takes his Jaguar sedan and deliberately crashes it (she doesn’t destroy it but she does leave it severely dented and scratched); and he responds by smashing her collection of knickknacks, many inherited from her mother and therefore literally irreplaceable. That gets her upset enough that she files charges against him, and she also calls in a woman solicitor from Leeds, Sylvia Swinton (Samantha Bond), whose cool authority makes her the most interesting character in the piece, to represent her in a divorce action. Not only that, she throws him out of their house (one which, as he tells everyone he meets, he actually helped build with his own hands) and has the locks changed — to which he responds by breaking a window, only the police arrest him before he can actually enter illegally. While this intrigue is going on, there’s a subplot involving local knife sharpener Stan Bickle (Sam Kelly), whose daughter Josie (played by a dark-haired, heavy-set and quite striking-looking actress named Jenna Boyd) is trying to date a local man named David and running into interference from the aunt who’s living with him and being ludicrously overprotective even though David is not only a fully grown adult but a rather seedy-looking middle-aged one at that.

Neither the guest performers nor the series regulars are all that good-looking (even the younger member of the two-man police team at the center of the action. Steven Blakeley, is homely and rather nerdish rather than the hot babe magnet an American producer would have cast in a role like this; ironically, though we’re supposed to dislike him Hugo Speer is the best-looking male on the show!), and though Heartbeat is nominally a crime show its intrigues are more the garden-variety problems in human behavior dealt with routinely by real cops but almost never by TV ones. It’s not a great show but it has a certain degree of charm and it’s refreshing, in a way, to watch a show where the people aren’t expertly coiffed actors but actually look like ordinary human beings without unlimited wardrobe and makeup budgets — and writer Peter Gibbs has a knack for clever situations, like having Sylvia Swinton stay at the same inn as her client’s husband — the one she’s accusing of all those terrible things to get his wife a divorce — with neither of them happy about the situation (nor is the innkeeper, who tries to figure out a way to get rid of one of them).

It’s an interesting show, and it’s amazing to think that a show filled with not only people but cars (the police’s principal vehicle is a baby-blue Ford Anglia, one of the most aggressively ugly vehicles ever manufactured — though the very relentlessness of its ugliness gives it a certain charm) that wouldn’t have lasted two days on American TV has been running almost twice as long as Law and Order.