Denis Lawson is looking Sharp – like a white-haired Paul Weller complete with shades and neatly tailored suit. He strolls easily across the room, a half smile playing on his lips, and the flash bulbs pop like crazy. Suddenly a cockney voice cries out from the shadows: “Oooch aye the noo, ya Scottish poseur!” Lawson collapses in a fit of helpless laughter and Dennis Waterman – for it is his voice – gives a victory cheer at his successful bit of sledging.
Shooting the New Tricks team can sometimes feel a bit like taking a rugby team on tour. Despite the sweltering heat and crowded studio, Lawson, Waterman, Amanda Redman and Nicholas Lyndahurst are cracking jokes, teasing everyone and horsing around like they’ve just won a trophy. Which seems unlikely given their advancing years – Lawson and Waterman are 65, Redman is 55 and Lyndhurst is 52 – but it isn’t far from the truth. The next season of New Tricks is on the way and it looks certain to keep its current title as one of the most-watched dramas on television.
The previous series averaged almost nine million viewers – out performing the likes of Eastenders, Doctor Who, The Voice and almost everything this year apart from Andy Murray’s Wimbledon final. When the new series of Luther debuted with five million viewers at the start of July, headlines trumpeted Idris Elba’s well-earned success. Which is fine, but five million viewers is what New Tricks gets for repeats. Not bad for a drama about retired policemen and their detective handler, starring actors with a combined age of 237. It is also quietly changing the face of entertainment.
New Tricks launched in 2003 – the same year as BBC3, Little Britain, Peep Show and the first gay kiss on Coronation Street. Doctor Who’s funky new re-launch had just been announced. So the idea of a TV show about craggy-faced and foul-mouthed old detectives with bad hygiene and hopeless emotional problems called out of retirement to solve cases left open for decades was almost unimaginable.
Indeed, when ambitious Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman (Redman) first took charge of the Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad, it was only for a one-off pilot.
The reputation of the original team of Waterman, Redman, James Bolam, and Alun Armstrong may have pulled in enough viewers for the BBC to grudgingly commission a full series of six episodes – but then something strange happened.
These curmudgeonly coppers baffled by new technology, hating modern policing methods and clearly in no state to mount a rooftop chase proved gripping to viewers across the globe. In a reversal of UK TV’s HBO/Mad Men obsession, Americans love the show. Indeed, in the face of falling ratings across every channel, New Tricks’ audience grew with every season until, in March 2008, it officially became the most popular programme on British TV, a position that’s hardly changed since.
At which point everyone on both sides of the Atlantic woke up and started copying the idea, with Last Tango in Halifax, Quartet, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and even Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables and Bruce Willis in Red. In some cases, however, they’re missing the point Lawson says.
“When I joined, I asked the other cast members why the show was so huge,” he muses. “They had no idea. Some say it’s because young people are too busy watching online or on iPad or playing computer games. But the show is a hit in universities and its fastest growing audience is in its 30s. It’s huge overseas – Waterman has heard from people in Indiana and the Middle East, and I get big hellos from Australians over here. It’s bafflingly huge.”
Lawson is relatively new to the show – although Redman points out that he’s an old friend of the old school. “We all knew him; we’d been mates socially so it really wasn’t much different when he came in,” she says.
This series sees the arrival of two more new faces: Nicholas Lyndhurst, who will join mid series after Armstrong leaves, and Tamzin Outhwaite, who will eventually replace Redman. But Lawson is already in his groove – appropriately for a character whose catchphrase is, “Let’s boogie!” He replaced Bolam, who left in 2012 saying the scripts had gone stale.
Much was made of his comments at the time, and other grumblings a year later from Waterman, Redman and Armstrong about plots and scriptwriting. It made for good headlines – but long-term fans of New Tricks delight in the fact that the cast are clearly as irascible as the characters and seem to be in a near-constant state of mutiny.
Back in 2008, a racism plot made the BBC nervous and they almost pulled the episode until the cast intervened. At the Radio Times shoot Waterman seems on the verge of rejecting the expensive suits hand picked by our stylists, muttering that fine tailoring had “nothing at all to do with our show”.
“It’s an anarchic show,” says Lawson, picking up on the theme. “We’re strong personalities on- and off-screen, for sure. It might be a product of our generation – the Baby Boomers are rebellious. We were never going to do things the same way as our parents. We’re optimistic and believe that anything is possible but we also have a mistrust of authority and we’re anti-establishment. Nobody trusted the police, for a start. And these coppers are the ones who didn’t trust the corrupt police, so you can imagine if students stormed a building to occupy it and we were protecting it we might even open the door to let them in.” He gives out a big guffaw.
Certainly the show’s crimes reflect this Baby Boomer distrust of authority. Plots have revolved around pension-fund rip-offs, incest, corruption and MI5 assassinations of Seventies trade union leaders. And the final episode of last season had to be held over for a week as it had striking similarities to the Jimmy Savile scandal reigniting the headlines.
Lawson, in fact, is almost too cheerful to be a New Tricks cast member. His character Steve McAndrew is a disgruntled Glaswegian, who resents being away from home, wishes he could administer tough justice to criminals and carries a set of housebreaking tools. When we meet in a pub garden, however, he is clearly enjoying himself immensely. It’s refreshing to see him so merry. He’s spoken in the past of battling depression and his wife and partner of 20 years, actress Sheila Gish, died in 2005 after a battle with cancer. He’s not keen to discuss his personal life – although at one point, to underline the difference between his generation and his parents’, he points out that sixty-somethings such as Helen Mirren, Cherie Lunghi and Mick Jagger are still sexy. “Your drive, your libido keeps rolling on. The previous generation might have stopped, but not me, baby…”
Back in the studio, Waterman pauses his sledging and offers his take on Lawson. “He’s a top bloke – there’s real chemistry,” he says. “That’s the thing you have to understand about the show. Great plots, yes. Plus it’s got hard coppers who love the old ways – which meant I was worried Nicholas was too lightweight until I saw him as Uriah Heep. But most of all it’s about the on-screen chemistry and you can’t cast for that. John Thaw, George Cole – we had that ‘it’.”
He pulls hard on a cigarette and gives a big chuckle. “There’s no way you can predict that until you’ve made it. Maybe that’s why audiences love us and TV execs are terrified…”
Obviously it’s very sad that I’m the last one left of the original New Tricks lineup, because we were such a team. But I think we can re-evolve with the new additions. We all knew Denis Lawson would be fine because we knew him socially. And my wife kept on about how fantastic Nicholas Lyndhurt had been playing Uriah Hepp in David Copperfield back in the 90s, but I’d only seen him in lightweight roles. He’s come up with the goods, though – this guy who’s really steeling and off the wall. Tamzin Outhwaite has only done two episodes, but she’s going to be great.
The BBC wasn’t very keen when we started out because the programme had old people in it – and we’re still fit enough as long as they don’t put in too many chase scenes. I do a chase as best I can but I can’t be seen catching them. I’m 60 odd – I couldn’t catch anyone who was 40, let alone 20.
We get 12-year-olds watching us now and there are people from all over – even in Indiana. I mean, they’re still playing banjos in Indiana. And the Middle East!
It’s difficult to know why people hook on. Viewers say we all look like we’re really having fun – and that comes through on-screen. The point of us is that we’re anti-political correctness. Don’t forget that. We’re not just doing a police job – we’re doing it the old way. That’s why the cops love it. We had a group up from Kent who’d named themselves after our characters – they had a woman boss, too. They liked the banter. Plus, we hate paperwork and that’s what drives real cops mad.
We weren’t surprised that the pilot went to a first series, but the fact that it kept growing was extraordinatry – and then the demographic kept changing. The BBC expected it to be older viewers and actually that’s no the demographic; it’s across the board, it’s extraordinary. It’s a cult in universities. It’s really odd.
The joy of it is that in a world that’s so PC there are three blokes who just aren’t going there, they don’t want to be like that. I think a large part of the population feels the same way.
The greatest compliment is to be copied. The new film Red 2, starring Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis and John Malkovich, is New Tricks on the big screen, it absolutely is. I hear they took the idea from us. But that’s the marvel of America– they add machine guns and fabulous stuff. When I decided to leave, however, I definitely didn’t want to go in blaze of 9mm. There’s an actor superstition with that, actually. If you are killed on screen it’s a bit worrying. Instead we all sat down and talked and came up with ideas as to what the best leaving story would be.
Even though I’ve had the best time, after a bit you go, “Oh come on now, I need more challenging stuff.’ I was very lucky in the first eight years because I was able to do other work in between. I’ve never been the sort of actor who is happy just doing one thing. When we went to ten episodes, it became impossible to do that. I knew it was time to move on.
I used to watch the show long before I joined. It’s got great writers, a genuine warmth and a tremendous truth in the acting. From my character Danny’s point of view, the hardest part is fitting in – you can’t have the audience not liking him. Nothing would make me happier than joining the old cast but times change. It’s a TV show not a bus route. You don’t go from A to B – you want to turn left or right every so often.
Danny is quirky. His background is in diplomatic protection, so he’s got contacts that other officers couldn’t possibly get access to. His whole MO is to make sure that someone’s uncomfortable and off guard.
The thing I admire about New Tricks is it’s very quietly stayed at the top of the ratings, taking down the talent shows and the reality shows that are banging their drum about how wonderful they are. I think there are TV companies that should remember who their audience is. We don’t all want to pick up an iPad or watch TV on the phone. We like to draw a little ring on Radio Times and go, “I’m going to watch that today.” Of course, we’re all getting older and, yes, we have to have young actors coming up. There’s a place for beginners, but you don’t necessarily want them filling your favourite soap opera. The New Tricks crew that I joined has decades of experience of how to just do something differently. There are more nuances because they’ve been doing it for 30, 40 or 50 years.
New Tricks starts tonight at 9pm, BBC1