Head to Head: New Tricks

Where do you stand on the merits of BBC1's long-running crime drama? Two writers have their say

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Why I Love New Tricks by Jacqueline Wheeler

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New Tricks is TV’s foremost feel-good crime drama, picking you up with Dennis Waterman’s cheery pub sing-along opening theme and bouncing you forward with jokes and banter, plus a nice dash of unexpected insight, to its satisfying case-solved conclusions.

Anyone can see that Dennis Waterman (Gerry), Alun Armstrong (Brian), James Bolam (Jack) and their been-around-the-block boss Amanda Redman (Sandra) are having a ball and they want you in on the action. Playing ex-coppers who’ve shuffled out of retirement to investigate unsolved crimes – this is just the series for those weary of high-speed car chases. 

Over the course of an hour, the pot-bellied trio bumble around, aggravating each other and their superiors in a highly comedic manner, only for Brian to eventually stumble upon the vital clue that leads to an arrest. At home, you’ll have solved the mystery ages ago, but you’re enjoying the matey atmosphere so much you don’t care.

Gerry is the winningly leery one who can’t resist chasing any bit of skirt that happens to swing by during the investigation. He’s so many miles over the hill – and heading into the valley – there’s no chance he’ll score. It’s all the pleasure of watching the embarrassing uncle at a wedding without the dawning horror – typical of TV drama – that the red-faced, grey-haired male is actually going to bed the hot brunette.

Brian being an anagram of brain, his is the character with the most active grey matter, even though it tends to get in a muddle. If he doesn’t take his pills, he’s taking the investigation onto a new level and there’s only his stoic wife, Esther, to convince him the murderer isn’t an alien controlling events from outer space.

It’s Jack, the quiet cynic, who takes the edge off the antics. None of this mucking about would work without a core of reality. Jack can’t come to terms with his wife’s death and I’m sure his understated grief will strike a chord with many viewers. 

Lost youth, sagging bodies, bereavement – New Tricks has taken on the shiny, glittery world of telly and made it face up to some of life’s harsher points. Who would have thought it could be so much fun?

Why I Loathe New Tricks by David Brown

The problem with New Tricks is a simple one: its plots are now as creaky as the joints of its male actors. Back when the series began in 2003, it was a pleasure to see these dyspeptic ex-cops cocking a snook at newfangled policing methods. But there are only so many times you can crack the same gag before its power to entertain is sapped.

All detective shows rely on the basic formula of crime, investigation and solution, with the invention coming in how a writer juggles these building blocks. With New Tricks, what’s happening now is that you can foresee the way every scene is going to play out just by reading the episode’s premise. For a programme all about mysteries, it’s hardly ideal.

Say the team probes a suspicious death at a casino. You can guarantee, with a wearying sense of certainty, that all of the following things will happen: randy Gerry will make a pass at a croupier (probably with an off-colour joke about filling her slot machine), obsessive-compulsive Brian will become fixated on the technicalities of card-counting, misanthropic Jack will roll his eyes at the way the youth of today throws its money down the drain and glam Sandra will wear a glitzy evening dress that threatens to spill her gold lamé cleavage out over the roulette wheel.

In the end, the murderer will turn out to be someone smug and corporate, Brian will lose all the money he’s won, Gerry will find out that the croupier’s married to the casino boss, Jack will roll his eyes again and Sandra will smile her dimply smile before we cut to Dennis Waterman’s It’s Alright, It’s OK theme tune.

Genre conventions can often be a comfort and fans of murder mysteries recognise that the medium is all about the disruption and reassuring re-establishment of the equilibrium. There’s nothing wrong in this, in fact a tidy answer is sometimes just what we need in our TV drama, especially when all around us in real life is chaotic. But there’s just no excuse for the sheer laziness of New Tricks’s storytelling.

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There’s more subtlety and depth in an episode of Scooby-Doo. In fact, getting Amanda Redman and her squad to rock up to the scene of crime in a specially adapted van might add some much-needed zest. With their jowls practically scraping the floor and the cold cases they look into feeling increasingly tepid, it’s surely time to pension off the old boys for the final time. I bet Dennis Waterman could even do a pretty good version of End of the Line for those closing credits.