Between 2003 and 2007, my favourite Doctor Who, Peter Davison, starred in an ITV series called The Last Detective. I’d heard about this at the time, and for many years afterwards, particularly with regard to it being quite good. Knowing that it co-starred a comedian I enjoyed – the late Sean Hughes – was a plus too, but it took until earlier this year for me to find time to watch the series.
What I found was… interesting. Over the years I’d built up an idea that the series would be about an old-school detective doing things his way and earning the unofficial title of, “the last detective”. A man out of time, essentially, operating in a way that detectives no longer do. That sounded very grand and romantic to me. Right up my alley. I’m a sucker for that kind of story, absolutely.
Imagine my surprise when the first episode reveals Davison’s character, Detective Constable “Dangerous” Davies, to be a beat down, middle aged guy, separated from his wife and constantly on the wrong end of situations or even just remarks from his colleagues. Indeed, “the last detective” is revealed to mean he’s the last guy his commanding officer would like to send out to a crime scene.
It’s a curious situation though, as each story reveals that despite Davies having a lot of bad luck and being the butt of jokes, he is actually quite perceptive and good at what he does. So in some ways he does indeed embody old(er) values and see things that his young(er) colleagues don’t. So the title isn’t entirely misleading, however, the fact remains that the character is written as a guy who has risen has far as he ever will and that always feels like a downer – even when he’s succeeding.
This makes for a distinctly English series whereby you’re always rooting for Davies and he does get some wins here and there, but never rises to become something more. I get the feeling that, in a US version of the series, he’d get his own back on the colleagues who harass him, get a promotion, and be seen for the good guy he is. That never happens in the series which is perhaps why I felt a kind of love-hate relationship with it. Indeed, “hate” is far too strong a word, but you get my drift. I would watch episodes, intrigued by the investigation at hand and always loving Davison’s performance. Yet I’d feel almost as beat down as his character by the end of each story when there were no huge uplifting moments to speak of, either. But maybe that’s the point even if it’s not what I’d prefer.
All cards on the table, by the time I got to the final few episodes, I was actually glad it was ending as there was no real character development or change throughout the series. Even when Davies starts spending more time with, and then living with his wife again in later stories, you’re never really sure from episode to episode whether they’re back together for real, or whether she’s really happy with him. It’s kind of maddening, but I guess it makes the stories a little more realistic in some ways?
Watch this series if you enjoy mysteries and detective work or if you simply enjoy Peter Davison’s acting. Don’t watch this series if you think there’ll be tons of action or cutting-edge CSI style investigation going on. This really is a, “they don’t make them like that any more” kind of series.
To end on a bonus Doctor Who twist, the first novel in the Dangerous Davies series was made into a TV film 1981. It starred Bernard Cribbins better known as Wilf from several episodes in modern Doctor Who. And as far as the Peter Davison series goes, one of its producers was Nick Hurran, who keen-eyed Who fans will recognise as a director between 2011 and 2013 on The Girl Who Waited; The God Complex; Asylum of the Daleks; The Angels Take Manhattan; and The Day of the Doctor.