The ninth series of Britain’s most popular TV drama has just wrapped and its stars, Amanda Redman, Alun Armstrong and Dennis Waterman, have broken out the wine. “This,” says Armstrong, with a seigneurial wave at their communal trailer, “is the only bit of luxury we get.”
“Most people would have their own trailers,” puts in Redman. “We’d rather be together.” The solidarity is palpable. And for all the easy hilarity, it’s clear that on this show, it’s the stars who call the shots. In an age of executive-led drama, the left-field charm of New Tricks owes much to the shared humour and uncompromising principles of its lead actors.
“The fact that we were all slightly rebellious means that we have always stuck together and supported each other,” explains Armstrong. “On everything. From the off, nobody was really interested in making their part any bigger than anyone else’s. If anything, we’d be giving our lines away.”
“Yeah,” puts in Waterman. “You’d be in makeup before a big heavy scene thinking, ‘I don’t say much in this – that’s quite good’. And then you hear the hairdryer go off and it’s Amanda, going [cue girly wheedle], ‘Oh Den, doesn’t this line sound more like your character?’ And you think ‘Oh gawd, I’m going to be given seven more speeches to do.’ But that’s how we work. We just want to do the job; there are no egos on the show.”
Which is not to say the cast are any kind of pushover. On the contrary, they are fierce in protecting the integrity and idiosyncracies of their characters. There is, the actors argue, a general tendency in contemporary TV drama to overstate and oversimplify, to spoon-feed the viewer. New Tricks, despite, the talent’s best efforts, is apparently no exception.
“It’s more bland now,” says Redman, bluntly. “The characters are not being as anarchic as they used to be, which I think is a huge shame.”
“Well,” counters Armstrong, “Denis Lawson is joining us this series and he brings a bit of anarchy. But that’s the thing about teaching old dogs. They’ve learnt the new tricks, so they’ve all settled down a bit now. My character has got saner. Which I’m not too enamoured with. And it’s about time Amanda’s character got her leg over (‘So hard to cast,’ titters Waterman). I don’t know. Maybe the writers have become more concerned with the investigation.”
Waterman holds the line: “I don’t think it has become just another police procedural, but there was a danger. It’s partly because of dealing with cold cases. We’re always talking about history and some writers – not all of them – can go on and on about that, repeating themselves. You have to remind yourself that people aren’t as stupid as writers think. But that’s the way things are going in the industry. Basically, we all want to move to Copenhagen to get to do some really extraordinary television.”
The alternative is for actors to dig in their heels and fight for the right to complicate. The New Tricks cast is not, you suspect, shy of having a scrap.
“We put a lot into making the scripts work,” says Armstrong. “If we felt that a story didn’t work, or that bits of the story could be improved, then if the writer wasn’t around we would set about rewriting it ourselves.”
“It’s not that we bully directors,” says Redman (‘No, no, no!’ chime Armstrong and Waterman, smirking like choirboys), “but in any creative process, it has to be collaborative. They [programme executives] are not dealing with young kids. We do things for a reason. We’ve had officers from the real Unsolved Crime Unit come in to talk to us. And they said they think this is the most accurate police show on the telly. So we’re terribly careful to be really exact with procedure. But they also say that, in order to deal with what they’re dealing with every day, you have to have humour. So our characters’ silliness and stupidity isn’t just a bolt-on. It’s part of dealing with the horror of the job.”
We have never tolerated anybody – and we’ve had the odd one – who will come on to the set and say, ‘You will do this’ or ‘You won’t say that,’” says Armstrong. “They get short shrift or there’s an almighty battle until they’re forced to collaborate.”
For a show that is all about the triumph of experience over protocol, it’s a fitting sentiment. “You could say,” remarks Armstrong, “that we’re cheerleaders for a different way of looking at things. That you know you’re not dead until you die.”
You could also say that the stars of the show are as gloriously ornery and unpredictable as the characters they portray. Amanda Redman has already announced her departure from the drama in 2013 and yesterday Alun Armstrong followed suit. In an entertainment industry where fashion is dangerously confused with formula, new tricks come and go. Old dogs can bite with the best of them.
The ninth series of New Tricks starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1