Farewell to New Tricks: “Grumpy Old Men with dead bodies – and the BBC’s secret weapon”

As the uncool detectives return for a final series, David Butcher hails the hugely popular cop show that apparently embarrassed the BBC

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Hold on, this isn’t right. Series 12 starts with an episode very much not from the New Tricks playbook. It’s got snappy lines, a feisty plot and plenty at stake for a main character. What’s going on?

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We know what to expect from this show. It used to get nine million viewers at its height, and it didn’t do that by frightening the horses. It did it by serving up straight-ahead, join-the-dots crime drama with the twist that our heroes were all over 50.

That meant they could tackle unsolved murders while grousing about political correctness or police computer systems or whatever bugbears might chime with the audience. It was Grumpy Old Men with dead bodies.

At its height it became an unlikely cause célèbre, the BBC success the corporation was ashamed of, or so some newspapers claimed. The tastemakers of the BBC were said to be embarrassed by a middlebrow procedural that played it safe and catered to an uncool demographic – but proved a monster hit.

It soon became the schedulers’ secret weapon. If the BBC ever needed to torpedo a new ITV drama – without sending a fresh offering of their own into battle – they would counter-schedule with a New Tricks repeat knowing their bunch of out-of-retirement coppers would nobble the ratings for them.

Then came the cast changes and a slow decline. First James Bolam left, then Alun Armstrong, then Amanda Redman. Decent replacements (Lawson, Lyndhurst, Outhwaite) couldn’t hide that this was a team of invincibles no longer.

And now the last of the original Tricksters has his testimonial. Dennis Waterman’s ageing swordsman Gerry was never the strongest link in the cast, but this two-parter (written and directed by Julian Simpson) comes up with some believable back-story for him, fleshing out the character in ways that would have been good to see about eight series ago. And in the flashback opening scene there’s a nice throwaway moment when the young Gerry is caught flirting with Sandra – one day to be his boss.

The plot revolves around the bad old days of 1980s policing when Gerry’s colleagues were on the take from gangsters. The body of his then-DCI is found in a basement with its skull caved in and Gerry is looking shifty about the whole thing.

“The lines were blurred back then,” he blusters. “It was hard to tell who was properly dodgy and who just had a few tasty mates.” It’s to the credit of the script that as it unfolds, we’re never entirely sure which side of the line Gerry himself sat.

And I’ll be forever grateful to Simpson for devising a scene where Gerry’s daughter, handing over his grandson for babysitting, urges her dad “Oh for God’s sake, don’t sing to him.”

David Butcher is deputy TV editor of Radio Times

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New Tricks returns tonight (Tuesday 4th August), 9pm on BBC1

Dennis Waterman: Why I’m leaving New Tricks

BBC1 calls time on New Tricks