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Stephen Gallagher’s Top 10 Crime TV Shows

We’re big fans of crime and thriller related Top 10 lists.

So, we asked Dead Good novelist, ‘specialist in suspense’, screenwriter and all-round nice chap, Stephen Gallagher to list his top 10 crime TV programs.

Stephen really knows his ‘small screen’ crime and thrillers. During a 35 year career, his TV/Film writing and directing credits include Chimera, Chiller, Bugs, Oktober, The Forgotten, Doctor Who, Rosemary and Thyme and Silent Witness amongst others.

His concluding paragraph made us laugh so hard that we have changed it to an introductory one:

“And that’s my top ten. If the point of these lists is to engender discussion – which it is – then I hope you’ve found something you can disagree with.

If not, try this: I’ve never made it all the way through an Inspector Morse. Everyone who loves The Wire is lying. A Touch of Frost is part of a plot to destroy humanity’s will to live. Jonathan Creek went steadily downhill after Caroline Quentin left. The writers on The Mentalist are all fat and ride a golf cart to lunch.”

Thanks to Stephen Gallagher for reminding us about some forgotten TV greats. You may agree or disagree with his choices but ‘Vive la difference’! We can just about forgive him for never finishing an episode of Morse…


Sergeant Cork – ITV – 1963-1968

A period procedural created by Ted Willis, this was a live studio drama that now exists only in the form of scratchy old 16mm telerecordings. But it’s a vivid early TV memory that I’ve been able to revisit with the DVD release of the surviving episodes.

Set in the 1890s, they feature the magisterial John Barrie as the eponymous CID investigator, with William Gaunt as his gauche but likeable trainee/sidekick Bob Marriott. Cork is a career detective, feared and respected on the streets in equal measure, Marriott a young man from a ‘good family’ determined to knuckle down and make a go of policework. The writing is tight and inventive, the staging slick, the performances a joy.

Out – ITV – 1978

Euston Films changed British TV crime with its pacy, location-shot film dramas. It’s said that the revolution owed a lot to the gritty feel of Get Carter and I’m inclined to agree. While The Sweeney would have been an obvious choice I’m going for this subtle, authored six-parter from Trevor Preston to represent Euston’s output. Tom Bell plays Frank Ross, a professional criminal just out of jail and looking to weed out the snitch who put him there. A character-driven slow-burner, if this was made today you’d expect it to be in Danish.

Gangsters – BBC – 1976

Around the same time, over on the BBC, Philip Martin’s feature-length Play for Today was finding crime-drama gold in the racism and civic corruption of Midlands Britain. Sharp, shocking, and consistently entertaining, Gangsters was a true zeitgeist thriller, drawing life from contemporary issues without ever being issue-driven. And, as an extra bonus, it wasn’t set in London. No geezers.

The Rockford Files – NBC – 1974 – 1980 (broadcast on BBC1 in UK)

As if the creation of 77, Sunset Strip, Maverick and The Fugitive weren’t enough for one TV career, noir novelist Roy Huggins also co-created this quintessential Private Eye drama built around the easy charm of star James Garner. Rockford had a cool car and he lived by the beach. But his car was somewhat clapped-out, his home was a trailer, and he was usually broke. While his clients always seemed to come out with what they wanted, Rockford mostly had to content himself with a moral victory when his fee disappeared. A reboot was attempted a couple of years ago, but without Garner I suspect it was always going to be doomed. I’ve heard that they’re trying again, only this time it’s a feature with Vince Vaughn. Good luck with that.

Spiral (French: Engrenages) – Canal+ – 2005 – present (broadcast on BBC4 in UK)

I love a good French policier, always have, ever since 1982’s La Balance. In fact I was going to call this entry “anything French” and subvert my purpose with some big-screen favourites – Bertrand Tavernier’s L.627 (Parisian Drug Squad ensemble piece), Jacques Audiard’s Sur Mes Levres (parolee Vincent Cassel teams with put-upon office minion Emanuelle Devos to rob the outfit they work for) and heist thriller Le Cercle Rouge or anything else by Jean-Pierre Melville. But then I thought of the cops’n’justice drama Engrenages and realised I could do it and still stay within the bounds of my small-screen purpose. The French inquisitorial system gives prosecutors a proactive role in investigating crimes, which allows for more layers, more angles, and more conflicts in the pursuit of a case. Retitled Spiral in translation, the show balances grit and gloss with quality handheld camerawork, none of that pretendy ‘shake the camera’ crap. True Gallic noir.

Terriers – FX – September – December 2010

The finest TV show you’ve never heard of. Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James scratch a living as unlicensed private eyes in a beachfront suburb of San Diego, equipped with little more than a pickup truck and their good intentions. It aired on the same channel in the same year as Justified, but for some reason the audience never showed up and it was cancelled after one perfect season. There isn’t even a DVD so I suppose it’s cruel of me to dangle it before you. But it’s smart, funny, tense, even a little bit heartbreaking.

Murder Rooms – BBC2 – January 2000

I was involved in this one, and at my publishers’ urging stole my own episode title for my (unrelated) novel The Kingdom of Bones (that being a story for some other time). The series was spun off from a standalone drama made by BBC Films. David Pirie’s stroke of genius was to cast the young Conan Doyle and his real-life mentor Joseph Bell in a Watson/Holmes relationship, creating a legitimate opportunity to echo the Holmes canon without being bound by it. The show was a critical success, and the viewing figures were good. But as we began work on our second-season stories, word came through that it wasn’t going to happen. The show was “too successful for the wrong department”. Murder Rooms was canned and BBC Drama reclaimed the turf with their own offering, a remake of Hound of the Baskervilles with Australia’s Richard Roxburgh.

CSI – CBS – 2006 – present

It’s been around for years, and with all the spinoffs and imitators it’s easy to forget how unlike anything else on TV the original show was. There had been forensics shows before – The Expert, with Marius Goring, springs to mind – but those early Las Vegas episodes were lean, stripped-down, purist procedurals with feature-film production values and no time wasted on the private lives of the team. The setting was well-chosen, a city of artifice that lived by night, and the mysteries had a reality-based ingenuity to them. You learned new stuff. After 13 seasons and still counting, the focus has inevitably drifted and the freshness is a memory. But the robust nature of the concept is beyond question.

Jesse Stone – CBS – 2005 – 2012

Based on the character created by novelist Robert B Parker and played by Tom Selleck, Jesse Stone is a former LA cop, reluctant divorcee, and drinker-to-oblivion who’s now the police chief of a small New England fishing town. Selleck is one of the producers of this one-a-year series of TV movies on the CBS network. The early films, based on Parker source novels, are excellent; the last couple haven’t been so good. It’s a show for melancholic doglovers with a strong sense of natural justice. Mood and tone are everything, here.

The Killing (Danish: Forbrydelsen) – 2007 – present (broadcast on BBC4 in UK)

Mood and tone drove The Killing, as well, and I suspect that if you liked one you’ll like the other. I’ll be honest – I didn’t think seasons 2 and 3 were up to much. But that first 20-episode serial – wow. Everything was in the nuances, which is why the American remake struggled to repeat the magic. You don’t recreate lightning in a bottle by just buying the bottle. For my money, the key to this kind of high-end popular entertainment is a marriage of truth-in-art with classic showmanship. The sense of real loss was palpable, but it never became depressing; rather, it made a significant contribution to the forward drive of the story. While people blather on about Sarah Lund’s jumpers (to take nothing from the marvellous Sofie Gråbøl) it’s Bjarne Henriksen’s performance as the stoical, undemonstrative but heartbroken father of the victim that has stayed with me the most.

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