Think of British TV mystery and you may conjure up images of teacup wielding dowager sleuths, peering through the foxgloves at some suspicious goings on about the Village green. Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple. Arsenic and tweed. But there’s a whole other side to British Crime – a tough contemporary side where hardened detectives battle it out with society’s most depraved and disturbing felons on the streets. In addition to longer narrative arcs and fewer commercial interruptions, the British seem to have a knack for depicting compromised coppers with truly dark sides. American prime time TV might make much of hinting a detective’s brush with alcoholism or insanity; in British crime TV, it’s almost a given. Here are some of my favorite gritty Brit crime shows.
Best known among these is probably Helen Mirren’s star turn as embattled detective Jane Tennison, struggling against twisted baddies and her own sexist colleagues in Prime Suspect. Fans of this might also enjoy another Lynda La Plante created series featuring a lady cop – Clare Blake – whose personal and professional lives get muddled in highly inappropriate ways: The Commander. Then there’s tenacious private eye Cordelia Gray, hero of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, a series loosely based on the novel by P.D. James, and single mother DCI Janine Lewis juggling her messy life in Blue Murder.
Of course there are plenty of wonderfully messed up male detectives, from Robbie Coltrane’s a-bit-too-criminal psychologist Cracker to John Hannah’s portayal of Ian Rankin’s hardened Edinburgh detective John Rebus to Idris Elba as the brilliant but troubled John Luther whose ability to enter the criminal mind leaves him badly scarred. This is also the case with quirky genius Tony Hill in Wire in the Blood, based on one series by the prolific Scottish author Val McDermid. Then there’s the wonderfully twisted odd couple Dalziel & Pascoe, one bent the other a bit too straight, based on the novels of Reginald Hill.
My latest discovery while browsing the stacks was another Lynda La Plante series, Trial and Retribution, which has got some of the darkest crimes and wonderfully shocking scenes I’ve ever seen on TV (particularly one unforgettable bit in which Richard Grant playing a tortured manic schizoid presents DI Pat North with a little gift – a scene that made my wife leap off the couch and run around the house screaming), together with the usual assortment of battered, flawed detectives. We chain watched all five seasons, and can’t wait ’til more come out. In the meantime, I’ve just checked out Case Histories, based on the novels by Kate Atkinson. Not quite as dark, but it looks good. There’s also the cold case squad in Waking the Dead, and what I’ve seen so far compares well with the best American crime drama.
Fans of gritty crime psychodrama will find many other fine British series in our catalog, from The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, standalones based on Minette Walters’ The Sculptress or Val McDermid’s Place of Execution, and the wonderfully perplexing mini-series, Collision. (And yes, of course, we have Miss Marple too).