"Under the Hammer" might come from the same brilliant pen that crafted "Rumpole on the Bailey," but viewers expecting a repeat of that series should definitely check their expectations at the door. Set in the riveting world of the auction circuit, John Mortimer's series pairs up Richard Wilson (of "One Foot in the Grave" fame) and Jan Francis as colleagues and platonic couple Ben Glazier and Maggie Perowne, art appraisers. Running only seven, 50-minute episodes, "Under the Hammer" will leave viewers frustrated with a finale that leaves a lot of questions, but that doesn't diminish the buildup from being any less fun.
Fans of "One Foot in the Grave" will instantly get a chuckle at Wilson's performance as lead appraiser. Both Victor Mildrew and Ben Glazier share a common trait of scowling and general disdain for horsecrap flung their way by braggarts and buffoons. However, Glazer is a much more warm character under the surface and professionally is not a force to be reckoned with. His friendship with Maggie is a series highlight and allows his ability to be caring and humane to shine through. On the flipside, Maggie is in many ways a softer, more open version of Glazier. Equally competent at her job (including deriving some satisfaction from sticking it to a fraud), Maggie's personal life always seems to be a mess, but an open book. Her iffy relationship with boyfriend Nick provides the series with a handful of secondary plot threads and a nice chance for the two leads to comfort each other with emotional support.
In retrospect, "Under the Hammer" was likely as perfect as one could hope from its seven episodes. Following a basic formula of providing our leads with a piece of art to investigate and one tow two secondary stories to keep viewers and characters alike on their toes, the series remains a consistently pleasing outing. Never aspiring to higher art aside from the topics explored, it's a product of a bygone time, when a pleasant, inoffensive mystery series could get by with just being charming. The series does begin to work itself into a corner, hinting at Glazier and Maggie's friendship becoming something more, a logical plot leap, but introduced far too soon and when the final episode rolls in where both are pulled separated by the story of the week, viewers may be left scratching their head wondering if such a tease was a wise move in the first place.
"Under the Hammer" definitely doesn't reinvent the mystery series wheel; you'll always know where the main characters will end up by the end of an episode, but the mystery of the week does manage to be intriguing and keep you on your toes, even if some twists are contrived. Keeping things extra interesting are the steady supply of guest stars who British TV and film fans will recognize as being competent stalwarts. Ultimately the series is a tough to nail down concisely; one hand it's fairly generic entertainment, but from the very first episode the series makes no pretenses about what it has to offer and remains consistent to the end; on the other hand, the series is led by two competent leads (as well as a thankless performance from Robert Lang as Lord Holloway, the employer of our duo) given sharp scripts to work from, with few words wasted. Perhaps the best way to approach it, is that like the art featured in the series itself, the enjoyment is subjective: know what you're getting into and you'll have a blast, expect the series to actively move you and prepare for disappointment.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is an above-average affair from what appears to be video origins. Detail is middling, while color levels are simultaneously warm and lightly washed out. Watchable, but far from stunning.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track is acceptable, with clear dialogue reproduction but limited range. Thankfully devoid of any audible hiss and distortion, it's about all one could ask from an early 90s mystery series. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
A text-based biography of John Mortimer on disc one is the lone extra.
Inoffensive, well written, and well acted, "Under the Hammer" is almost a farewell to the generic mystery series. What sets it apart from competitors is its setting in the world of art and auctions, giving viewers a mystery element they can't try and connect to other series, which is often the case in your standard crime series. Come for the duo of Glazier and Maggie and stay for their quaint little world. Recommended.