The Last Detective: Complete Collection (review)

Good Cop, Good Cop

Oh my goodness, I’ve been in love with Peter Davison for 25 years — through All Creatures Great and Small and Doctor Who and Albert Campion and A Very Peculiar Practice — and oh dear, I’ve just fallen in love with him all over again in The Last Detective. This 2003-2007 ITV series never aired in the U.S., but now at least we can watch it on DVD. Which is a damn sight better than the Brits get, actually: a two-disc set is all that’s available in Region 2, which, I’m guessing, includes only the first of the four series in the Complete Collection, just out in Region 1.
We get nine discs and seventeen episodes… although they’re more like mini movies: after the 90-minute pilot, each subsequent story is about 75 minutes long. (There’s also an entire bonus movie: a standalone adaptation from 1981 starring Bernard Cribbins — better known today as Donna Noble’s granddad Wilf on Doctor Who. But I have to agree with Davison when he says, in the bonus interview also included in the set: “I didn’t think the film was terribly good.”) Davison stars as “Dangerous” Davies, a North London police detective who’s the butt of everyone’s joke: the nickname is ironic, because he’s just about the least dangerous man alive. His cop colleagues rib him mercilessly because he’s nice to old ladies, conscientiously follows up on, you know, clues and stuff, and doesn’t let the fact that a bad guy might have a badge stop him from bringing him in. What a dweeb, actually doing his job…

But Davies isn’t a John McClane-style rogue cop. He’s exactly the opposite: kind, gentle, polite, and unassuming. Davies may well be the nicest cop in the world, and a completely un-television one. It’s the perfect role for Davison, who, if he has a dangerous bone in his body, it’s never been apparent in his characters. And that’s really refreshing, actually. His is an unfortunately rare persona in pop culture today: the man who’s still unquestionably strong and masculine while also being good-natured and mild-mannered. In the bonus interview, Davison says Davies is “the kind of policeman you meet whenever there is a problem in your life. I’ve never really met a policeman the kind of which are portrayed on television, who are either supersleuths or hard-nosed in-your-face detectives.” It makes the show feel kinda old-fashioned, but in a good way, as a low-key celebration of doggedness and hard work and stick-to-it-ive-ness that, paradoxically, also becomes a very modern critique of just-good-enough attitudes that anyone who has worked in almost any kind of contemporary workplace will recognize. (The show is based on the “Dangerous Davies” novels by Leslie Thomas [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], but it’s all been considerably updated from their original 1960s settings.)

Not that there aren’t robberies and murders and other felonious shenanigans aplenty to keep Davies busy. He’s “the last detective” because his “guv,” DI Aspinall (Rob Spendlove), says he’s the last of his team he’ll ever choose to get the juicy cases, though Davies manages to stumble into them anyhow, sometimes accidentally. It’s not that he wants the high-profile crimes on his platter, he just wouldn’t mind a little more respect from his coworkers, is all. But no matter how often he actually succeeds in solving a case — which is pretty often, and not by accident — that respect is never forthcoming. So he uses his oddball pal, Mod (Sean Hughes), as his sounding board and sometimes-Watson, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in an ongoing detective series before: the pro and the amateur working together. I wouldn’t have thought there’d be a new angle to be found for a cop show, but there’s one. Here’s another: the laid-back attitude of the whole thing, which is a startling contrast to most cop shows, and a marked divergence from other recent British series such as The Commander and Blue Murder and Prime Suspect, all of which are about high-powered female cops. It’s as if with the women storming the upper ranks, the pressure is off the guys to be ambitious — Davies likes being a lowly detective constable, because it means he can still do some good for regular people.

Still, even the nicest cop in the world sometimes ignores the finer points of police work once in a while, like the need for those pesky warrants. And even the nicest cop in the world has an impossible relationship with his almost ex wife, Julie (Emma Amos: Bridget Jones’s Diary) — the job is still The Job, and it still interferes with a personal life. There’s plenty that’s recognizably “cop show” here for fans of the genre. But it’s a pleasant surprise that there’s something fresh to be mined from the genre, too.

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