Wednesday 22 November 2017

Old dogs show us they can still pull off a few new tricks

The cast of New Tricks
The cast of New Tricks

IT really is, as Dennis Waterman sings in the theme tune of New Tricks, “getting to the end of the day” for television’s most senior band of crime-solvers.

After 12 years, almost 100 episodes and the gradual departure of all but one member of the original cast (Waterman),  the series about a team of retired coppers who are taken out of mothballs to tackle unsolved crimes and cold cases is entering the final straight.

The 12th series, which kicks off tonight on BBC1 with a two-part story, will be the final one, the BBC having decided the time was right to put the old warhorse out to pasture in order to introduce some fresh drama blood to the schedules.

Even before the news that New Tricks had been cancelled broke, Waterman had already decided to bow out. He appears in only the first two episodes of the final series. His place will be taken by Larry Lamb, playing an entirely new character, for the remaining eight episodes.

Apparently, the 67-year-old star of The Sweeney and Minder, whose wide-ranging career in film, television and theatre stretches back 55 years (in the 1960s, he starred in a BBC adaptation of Richmal Crompton’s Just William novels and also played the title character in a West End production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!), felt things hadn’t been the same since his original New Tricks co-stars, James Bolam, Alun Owen and Amanda Redman, left.

Bolam, a famously guarded and reportedly extremely mercurial man (he stopped talking to Rodney Bewes, his co-star in The Likely Lads and Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, over 40 years ago after the latter made what most people would regard as a perfectly innocuous remark in a newspaper interview), abruptly quit the series in 2011, claiming it had “become stale”.


The following year, Owen — who felt the writers had made his character “boring” — and Redman, who said the storylines had grown “bland”, announced they’d be leaving at the same time.

It’s possible their departure was hastened by an embarrassingly public row which erupted after the actors claimed in a Radio Times interview that they often had to rewrite the scripts themselves to bring them up to scratch.

One of the series’ regular writers and directors, Julian Simpson, fumed on Twitter: “I can tell you EXACTLY how much of it the actors wrote: not a f***ing comma.”

New Tricks has never been what you’d call cool. There’ll be no online petition to spare it the from the axe. It’s unlikely Netflix or Amazon will be jumping in to revive it.

But it’s rarely been anything other than extremely polished entertainment, blessed with a rolling group of hugely experienced actors who know their craft inside out.

Throughout its long run, it was frequently the most watched drama series of the week, sometimes pulling in nearly 10 million viewers. While some fans may have struggled to adapt to replacement cast members Denis Lawson, Tamsin Outhwaite and Nicolas Lyndhurst, last year’s run still attracted an average audience of 5.75 million — not at all bad for a 12-year-old series.

Ironically, the writers may be saving the best ’til last. When the remains of a senior detective who disappeared 30 years ago are discovered on a construction site, the team are forced to face the possibility Gerry (Waterman) might be implicated.

It’s a ripping yarn, powered along by a clever dual plot and some evocative 80s flashbacks. The old dogs of New Tricks aren’t going anywhere without one last growl.

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