I try to remain aloof from New Tricks, mainly because that infuriatingly jaunty theme tune with its in-built chortle drives me mad. It has lazy lyrics (“It’s all right, it’s OK/Listen to what I say”) and you can just imagine Dennis Waterman (he sings it, of course) clicking his fingers during the recording.
But I know when I’m beaten. New Tricks is a tank, a great big turreted panzer of a television series that gets you in its sights then pins you up against a wall. It’s a beast that brings in audiences of more than eight million every week – even its repeats clock up the kind of figures that would make most dramas put up bunting and snog each other in the emergency exit stairwell.
New Tricks’ male characters are jolly dinosaurs, coppers of the old school who get things done with guile and guts, rather than la-di-da, newfangled investigation techniques. Then they go down the pub. In a recent episode, the gang reopened an investigation into a death at a brewery when someone drowned in a vat of beer. Perfect New Tricks territory – of course Jack and Gerry (James Bolam and Dennis Waterman) sampled the produce and got drunk.
In New Tricks, being drunk is still a minor miracle of comedy. As is Gerry’s much discussed success with the ladies. In the brewery episode, he was given short shrift by a Dynasty-type posh bitch, one of New Tricks’ many stereotypes. Gerry was baffled: she patently didn’t fancy him, but worse: “I don’t fancy her. It’s weird.”
And yet…for me, New Tricks features the best performance by an actor currently on television. I’m not ashamed to say that in this week’s episode, Alun Armstrong (below) as Brian, makes me cry. I even got a bit teary a couple of weeks ago when he recited a chunk of Macbeth during some nonsense about a dead actor. It was beautiful. (Armstrong is a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran.)
Brian is an alcoholic whose grip on sobriety is delicate. He is loved and respected, but addiction is isolating and he’s drowning in a well of loneliness. It’s a brilliant pen portrait from Armstrong.