Friday, September 4, 2015

Inspector George Gently: “Peace and Love” (BBC-TV, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I was interested in watching an episode of a British detective series, Inspector George Gently, on KPBS because, though the show debuted in 2007, it takes place during the 1960’s and attempts to work the political, social and moral ferments of that decade into its plots. The characters of George Gently (Martin Shaw), an avuncular middle-aged police inspector in Durham, England, and his assistant, detective sergeant John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby), who’s actually considerably more strait-laced than Gently even though he’s considerably younger and looks countercultural (“What’s Ringo Starr doing in the middle of this?” Charles asked when he came home while the show was on, and though I thought he looked a bit more like John Lennon than Ringo, he did appear as if he’d shown up at the BBC studios expecting to audition for a Beatles biopic and ended up on the George Gently set by mistake, were originally created for a series of novels by Alan Hunter. Alas, this particular incarnation was twice removed: the show was billed as “created for television” by Peter Flannery, and the script for this episode, “Peace and Love,” was written by Jimmy Gardner and directed by Daniel O’Ham. (Charles no doubt would have a lot of fun making jokes about that name!) “Peace and Love” turned out to be a surprisingly dull show, though with a few interesting moments, about the murder of a Durham College professor, Fraser Barratt (dead at the beginning but seen in enough flashbacks an actor, Emun Elliott, was needed to play him), who was also active in the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament (CND, the people that gave us the “peace sign” — supposedly it’s the semaphore signals for “N” and “D” superimposed) and had hatched a plan to break into the offshore base where the U.S. Navy was planning to put nuclear-armed Polaris submarines in order to do some act of sabotage against them. 

Fraser also turns out to have been an inveterate womanizer who took the free-love ethos of the young at the time (some of the young, anyway — detective sergeant Bacchus is too broken up about the impending breakup of his marriage and the fate of his baby daughter to want to participate in “free love” even when it’s offered to him) to such extremes that he knocked up one of his students. An older female professor who had been a mentor to Fraser both in the classroom and in the bedroom offered to arrange for an illegal abortion for her, but she refused even though having the kid meant that she would have to withdraw from the college she had worked so hard to get into and afford, and instead be relegated to the proletarian existence back in Liverpool she had worked so hard to escape. (The scene of this character, Elizabeth Higgs — played by Kerrie Hayes — getting on the bus home at the end is the most heart-rending sequence in the show, far more interesting than either the politics or the murder.) One of the early suspects is David Swift (James Atherton), who gets linked to the investigation when it turns out both he and Fraser Barratt had matchbooks from a private club/pub (its front window contains simply the word “Bar,” which couldn’t help but remind me of the joke the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 people made about the similarly signed “Bar” in the film The Leech Woman — “Hey, let’s go to Bar, order Sandwich, and have Drink!”) that turns out to be, as Bacchus disapprovingly calls it, “a teapot place” — i.e., a Gay bar. David had been taught by Fraser’s former professor to read and write as part of a program the college had started to reach out to the illiterate locals, which had led to rumors that they were having an affair, and in the middle of all this Bacchus gets an offer of strings-free sex from a hot-looking blonde co-ed and it’s a bit hard to believe that someone his age whose marriage was on the rocks anyway wouldn’t at least be tempted — but he isn’t.

Eventually the killer turned out to be Charles Haxton (Warren Clarke), a middle-aged security guard at the naval base that was supposed to house the Polaris sub, who’s a self-hating Gay closet case who discovered the Seagull and got infatuated with David (well, James Atherton is easily the hottest guy in the dramatis personae so that’s easy enough to understand!) — he tearfully confesses that “God gave me a mortal sin” and that for weeks he’d stay away from the Seagull, only his drives would bring him back there. Fraser discovered Charles’ secret and used it to blackmail him into opening the locks for him to get into the Polaris berth to sabotage it, only Charles had a fit of anger and killed Fraser, then killed David and threw his body on the train tracks of the Flying Scotsman (which Alfred Hitchcock fans will remember as the train on which Robert Hannay, played by Robert Donat, made his escape in The 39 Steps) after David, who seemed genuinely in love with Charles even though David was young and hot and Charles old and ugly, tried to get the two of them to run away together, infuriating Charles, who bellowed out, “I’m not in love with you!,” as he strangled his former sex partner. Inspector George Gently is an O.K. program but there’s an uncomfortable aspect of dèja vu in the writing, as if we’re being encouraged to look down at the attitudes towards abortion, homosexuality and women’s advancement of 1966 and feel superior for having become at least relatively more enlightened since. The fact that homosexuality was still illegal in the U.K. in the 1960’s (the 1957 Wolfenden Report had recommended repeal of the nation’s anti-sodomy law of 1895 — the one under which Oscar Wilde had been convicted — but the repeal didn’t happen until 1969) is a major plot point, as it was in Basil Dearden’s 1961 British thriller Victim — but whereas making a film against the anti-Gay law was nervy and daring when the law was still in place (it was obvious that Dearden was making the movie at least in part to propagandize for its repeal), it’s no particular act of courage in 2010 when, to all but a few hard-core Rightists both in the U.K. and the U.S., homosexuality is no longer such a big deal.