Hustle, I’ll miss you

As the gang bows out, Alison Graham blames The Only Way Is Essex for the demise of the fun and frothy con drama

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I will miss Hustle, which ends for good tonight. It was a playful little daub on the schedules and was so much more welcome for being disposable. There were no life lessons, no searing indictments of poverty or societal inequality. We were never expected to be inspired or learn anything about ourselves or others (apart from incidental tips about distraction techniques and how not to get pick-pocketed on public transport. Or taken for a mug).

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Hustle was a nice little trinket, a bauble of glamour and a celebration of excess, though not in a Fred Goodwin sort of way. The attractive and engaging team of grifters always picked “marks” (targets) who deserved to be taken down a few pegs, while having their pockets and bank accounts emptied. These people were brutes or meanies and watching them get their comeuppance was neatly satisfying.

Of course, Hustle’s plots could never stand up to close scrutiny, but why should they? That wasn’t Hustle’s job. It was there to provide a light touch, and we don’t get many of those on British TV. I don’t mean that we don’t do comedies well – we do, of course – but our dramas eschew escapism; they always have to be “about” something. Hustle was never about anything; it just was what it was. Glib, funny in an Ocean’s Eleven/The Sting kind of way, with its satisfying little morality tales (bad guys don’t win).

Shows like Hustle have their place. They’re like froth on coffee. Not strictly necessary, but oddly pleasurable all the same. Now it’s gone and the dramatic landscape is dark and cloudy. Of course, I blame The Only Way Is Essex and its ilk for Hustle’s demise. It’s these “structured reality” series that provide the marshmallow on television; sweet, light, pointless and escapist. Who needs gaudy dramatic fiction when you can have gaudy dramatic “fact”?

Friday’s final episode is a good send-off that repays the devotion of Hustle fans who joined the ride at the start in 2004, notably with the return of original cast member Jaime Murray as Stacie. And, as a fan of Robert Vaughn since he was my first love at the age of six as Napoleon Solo in The Man from UNCLE, I enjoyed a sweet little nod to his Hollywood career.

And so we say farewell and to paraphrase Hustle’s motto, the con is…gone.

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The last ever episode of Hustle is on tonight, 9pm, BBC1