In the late 70s, I heard a song by Elvis Costello called ‘Watching The Detectives’. I thought the lyrics were great, and very clever.
“She’s filing her nails, while they’re dragging the lake”.
Still one of my favourite lines in a song, ever.
At the time, it got me thinking about all the detective shows I had watched. But I didn’t have the Internet then of course.
Detective/Police shows are one of the first genres I remember being interested in. And they were very popular, almost right from the start of television. One of the first I can recall dates back to 1957. Called ‘Sabre of London’, it was about a British man, Mark Sabre, working as a police detective in America. The second series featured Sabre now working in London, and later as a private eye. It extended location filming as far as Europe, or in studios representing European locations. I can’t be sure about that. The 30-minute episodes were rather exciting to me, as a six to eight-year old boy.
This is a whole episode, but it gives you the idea soon after starting.
By 1962, we had Roger Moore starring as Simon Templar, in ‘The Saint’. Suave, debonair, and in exotic locations, this private detective always got the girl, and solved the cases too.
Four years later, and the BBC had developed the popular cop show ‘Z-Cars’ into a full detective series, called ‘Softly Softly’. No-nonsense coppers, gruff accents, and no attractive stars. This was the first time such shows attempted to show the realistic side of policing.
A popular US import in 1967 was the show starring Raymond Burr, in a wheelchair. In ‘Ironside’, he played a consultant detective for the San Franciso Police. Paralysed from the waist down after being shot on duty, he solved his cases with the help of some sidekicks, and travelled around in a van converted to take his wheelchair.
1971, and larger than life actor William Conrad came to our TV screens, as the American cop, ‘Cannon’. Conrad had usually played a screen villain up to that time, and in this Quinn-Martin production, he played a cop who had retried from his job in the police to chase the money as a well-paid private investigator. It introduced the concept, new to me then, of famous ‘guest stars’, usually well known actors, or up and coming hopefuls who would go on to become household names. Unfortunately, it also taught me the golden rule of such dramas.
“The Guest Star Did It!”
Around the same time, pudgy-nosed film star Karl Malden, and new boy Michael Douglas arrived on British TV screens in the police detective series, ‘The Street Of San Francisco.’ Another Quinn-Martin production, this was filmed on location in that city, and ran for a staggering 121 episodes, indicating how popular it was.
Next to grace the TV screen in my house was the iconic ‘Kojak’, played to perfection by Telly Savalas. This epitomised the 1970s approach to modern police dramas. Filmed partly on location in New York City, and in other places purporting to be that city, the lollipop-sucking Theo Kojak was the king of his beat. He gave us a catchphrase that many people still remember to this day.
“Who loves ya, baby?”
I could go on and on. The popularity of the detective show endured, with series as diverse as ‘Colombo’, ‘Murder She Wrote’, and many more. It continues to this day; grittier, often more gruesome, and much more violent. Now we have Idris Elba as ‘Luther’, a revitalised Sherlock Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and evil adversaries who are as popular as the detectives themselves. Sixty-two years after ‘Sabre of London’, I am still ‘Watching The Detectives’.
Let me know your personal favourites, in the comments.