Jumping into a series you've never seen before - particularly when it's the final season - can be confusing if you don't do a little research after watching the show. Putting on BBC Video's Hamish Macbeth: Series Three, I didn't want to know too much about it because any new TV viewer coming to the series back in 1997 (its final year) would have been in the same boat as I. Could the series grab me and hold my interest without me knowing the first thing about it?
Well, yes it did - and most delightfully so, too, I might add. There's a scene in The Lochdubh Assassin, one of the episodes featured on this two-disc, eight episode collection, that I replayed twice, just to fully appreciate the cockeyed, quirky humor and charm of this wonderful little series. A group of gangsters - straight out of watching too many reruns of Reservoir Dogs -- enter Lochdubh's pub and begin to menace some of the locals. I've seen literally hundreds and hundreds of similar such scenes before in movies and TV, and I was pretty sure how it would play out. But almost immediately, the dynamics of the scene took a marvelous left turn, with the locals immediately showing themselves to be this scary little group of tricksters whose playacting immediately sets the gangsters' nerves on edge. A few of the unprepossessing men, including grocer Rory Campbell (Brian Pettifer) and Major Roddy Maclean (David Ashton), remark how pretty the gangsters are, and how they'd be welcome comfort on a cold desert night. One woman, Esme Murray (Anne Lacey), the town's schoolteacher and the object of one gangster's unwanted attention, immediately comes on to him, telling him that "sex energy" is her guiding force. Strange, unfamiliar Gaelic phrases are thrown out, unnerving the gangsters, as the locals laugh at them. And TV John McIver (Ralph Riach) pulls eggs out of thin air, astounding the head thug, before painfully grabbing his nose, demanding an apology. It's a beautifully unexpected scene, punctuated by John Lunn's creepy, mystical music cues, that gets across the whimsical, funny tone of Hamish Macbeth.
Reading up a little on Hamish Macbeth, the show (which ran from 1995 to 1997) was based on a series of detective novels written by M.C. Beaton. I've never read the books, so I can't say with any accuracy how the stories are translated to the small screen (apparently, the books are quite a bit different from the TV show). But the saga of Police Constable Hamish Macbeth (Robert Carlyle), quite happy to avoid promotion and hide away in tiny Scottish Highland village Lochdubh, is quite engaging, with a light, almost mystical charm to it that reminded me of some of filmmaker Bill Forsyth's work.
I'm not surprised that the Macbeth character is popular not only in Great Britain, but also in Australia and the United States, considering his iconoclastic, anti-authoritarian nature. Hiding out from the big wig authorities in Inverness, Macbeth knows how to do his job - he just doesn't want anybody looking over his shoulder while he does it. Much more likely to "keep the peace" rather than enforce the law, Macbeth is that kind of loner hero, suspicious of his bosses and easygoing - up to a point - with his neighbors, that Western audiences love. In this third season, the mysteries, if they can be called that, are secondary at best next to the emphasis on character development and atmosphere. A straight mystery episode like Deferred Sentence, where Hamish solves an old murder case, is far more focused on exploring the supporting characters and their motivations for their involvement with the crime, rather than the crime itself (which features a pretty standard denouement). The Good Thief doesn't even sport a crime in its plot; it's really concerned with the town's singing contest, and the inclusion of a troubled boy into the community (More Than a Game is also crime-less, with a heated shinty match at the center of the episode). Hamish Macbeth isn't Murder, She Wrote; it isn't about the process of the crime and the mechanics of solving it - if there even is a crime featured. Character and atmosphere dominate, with a marvelously askew reading of the standard "weird little British village" convention that's a lot of fun.
The cast of regulars are most impressive here; regular viewers of British TV and features will no doubt recognize them from numerous other efforts. Brian Pettifer and Anne Lacey, as couple Rory and Esme, have a delightfully erotic, playful rhythm together, made all the more amusing because they're not exactly Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. David Ashton as the befuddled Major had me on the floor when he's first introduced in the premiere episode, making little baby tiger pawings at his sexy new finance. And Ralph Riach is letter-perfect as the tall, wise sidekick of Hamish. There's a watchful, genial quality to his TV John character that's right in keeping with the laid-back tone of the series. And he's quite adept at stealing scenes just by striding in his tall, lanky frame within camera shot. Carlyle, now one of international cinema's most sought-after actors, is quite light and charming here - very unlike his usual brooding, intense portrayals. The opening episode, The Honorable Policeman has Carlyle coming as close as he can to outright parody of a stereotypical, straight-arrow police officer, but he's careful to set just the right tone of distance to the caricature, never letting it spill over into clownishness. It's a shame he didn't do more seasons of the show (I wonder if it was ratings or his film career that put Hamish Macbeth out of business after only three series?), but fans of quirky, light British mysteries and rural comedies can at least enjoy these few episodes.
Here are the eight episodes included in the two-disc set, Hamish Macbeth: Series Three, as described on the DVD hardcase:
The Honorable Policeman
Local laird Major MacLean returns from holiday with a glamorous fiancée - but is it his animal magnetism or his Highland estate that Serena finds so irresistible?
Holidaying alone on the island of Laggan-Laggan, Hamish is drawn into a twenty-year old mystery which has poisoned the community.
The Lochdubh Assassin
A gang of ruthless villains descends on Lochdubh, placing Hamish in a tough predicament.
The Good Thief
Esme has discovered that young Frankie Bryce has an unexpected musical talent, but trouble arrives in Lochdubh in the shape of Tusker Gray, Frankie's best friend from Glasgow.
The Trouble with Rory
When fire destroys part of Lochdubh Primary School, strong passions are aroused by Esme's ensuing media campaign and Isobel's return as a TV reporter.
More Than a Game
Lochdubh prepares for the annual shinty match against Dunbracken. Hamish suspects that all is not what it seems, and the villagers hatch a plot to overcome foul play at the match.
Destiny (Part 1)
Kenneth McIver, TV John's long-lost brother, is sprung from a South American jail by millionaire Torquil Farquar McFarquar, who is searching for the real Stone of Destiny, coronation stone of the ancient Scottish kings. Scenting a fortune in the offing, Kenneth sets off for Lochdubh, accompanied by mysterious hypnotist Ava Grimm.
Destiny (Part 2)
Kenneth and Ava have stolen the Stone of Destiny, and TV John is missing. Hamish, Isobel and a posse from Lochdubh embark on a death-defying trek across mountain and moorland in order to rescue their friend and save a treasured symbol of the nation's heritage.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video image for Hamish Macbeth: Series Three isn't the best, with grain apparent throughout the episodes, and a muddy, faded look to the colors.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo mix is perfectly adequate for this largely dialogue-driven series. Thankfully, English close-captions are available for some of the heavier Scottish brogues.
There are some simple text bios for the cast and the author of the original Hamish Macbeth books.
Laid-back, quirky, and at times almost mystical in tone, the genial rural comedy/mystery series, Hamish Macbeth: Series Three comes to an end with these final eight episodes. If you've never seen the series before, don't let that stop you from catching these - I never viewed the show before, either, and I found it a delight. A welcome change of pace for actor Robert Carlyle. I recommend Hamish Macbeth: Series Three.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.