Northumberland Detective Inspector George Gently is back for a pair of movie-length episodes from 2010, a complete "Series 3" in the dictionary sense. Colleague Paul Mavis didn't think much of Series 1 and I had mixed feelings concerning Series 2, but these latest TV movies reflect the program's steadily improving teleplays. Set in 1966, its slick production values, especially the high-def videography, still outweigh the only-slightly-better-than-routine scripts, but star Martin Shaw's world-weary title role performance compensates somewhat.
Based on the "George Gently" novels (about three dozen, published between 1955-1999) written by the late Alan Hunter, the set-up is rather gimmicky: mysteries tend to revolve around '60s-era taboos with a slightly smug 21st century hindsight. One episode's plot, for instance, has an undercurrent of male homosexuality, which in 1966 was still technically illegal among consenting adults. George Gently's other twist is that it's the seasoned detective's much younger protégée that is the more conservative, judgmental, and intolerant, instead of the other way around.
This set, called Inspector George Gently onscreen but simply George Gently on the packaging, consists of two TV films on a single Blu-ray disc running 88 minutes apiece. Acorn Media is releasing both the DVD and Blu-ray versions simultaneously and with the same SRP (though the Blu-ray is marked down even further on Amazon as I write this).
The first two series of George Gently were set in 1964 but as it inches toward the Summer of Love the interestingly drab, rain-soaked look of early episodes gradually giving way to mod and psychedelica. The first episode, "Gently Evil," is a solid mystery about the murder investigation of a promiscuous woman, a handkerchief carefully draped over her staring, dead eyes. Gently (Shaw) and his undisciplined junior, Detective Sgt. John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby), gradually come to suspect the murdered woman's Bad Seed young daughter, Agnes (Natalie Garner, in a chilling portrayal), though the truth is far more complex. In "Peace and Love" a radical academic, Fraser Barratt (Emum Elliott), is found dead, strangled and dumped off the Jarrow docks following a Durham University antinuclear protest rally against a Polaris submarine visit.
It took me a long time to realize Bacchus's grating personality - his constantly jumping to (the wrong) conclusions, bellyaching about his unhappy wife (Melanie Pullen Clark), acting sanctimonious around the pot-smokers, free-lovers, and student radicals while he can't keep his own house in order - is exactly the point. Instead of representing the audience's perspective a la Dr. Watson, Bacchus is almost repellent and certainly more pathetic than sympathetic. He gleefully clubs student protesters, is quick with the racial slurs, and condemns the morality of others while having no sense of self. He may look like a cross between George Harrison and Roman Polanski (c. mid-1960s) but his politics are closer to Ben Stein.
A typical scene has Bacchus interviewing the friend of a missing student in her dormitory room. He spots a picture of Che Guevara on her desk. "Who's that?" he asks. "Che Guevara," she answers. Studying the picture, he asks, "Who is that, her boyfriend or something?"
Because of this one might easily assume Shaw's Gently is written as his opposite number but in fact he's not so much liberal as non-judgmental, which is a big part of the character's appeal. Backed by Shaw's terrific-as-usual performance, Gently tends to quietly observe while an impatient Bacchus grills their suspects, intervening only to rein in his junior or make an important point.
Though set in Northumberland, the first two seasons of George Gently were actually shot in Ireland. Both TV-movies in this set were produced in Britain's North-East, yet the change in locations is seamless, at least to my American eyes. A bigger issue for this reviewer is its visually attractive but too idealized depiction of the past. I may be partly influenced watching the show for the first time in high-definition, but it seems to me that series three suffers from a problem all too familiar with period shows, one especially noticeable to those old enough to remember that era. Everything is too clean, and too stylish. The '60s cars are pretty darn cool, yes, but they also look like they've just rolled off the assembly line. Where are the dents, the dings, the salt stains and, especially, where's the rust?
Also, when costume designers, hairdressers, set decorators and the like research these period shows, they tend to cherry-pick styles and designs that might still be regarded as fashionable today, rather than dated, even goofy, but emblematic clothes and hairstyles and furniture people actually wore and used.
Video & Audio
Episodes are presented in extremely good and apparently complete and unaltered 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfers. The 1080i image is impressively sharp and rich in color throughout. The 2.0 PCM stereo, supported by optional SDH English subtitles, is state of the art. There are no Extra Features.
I'm still not entirely satisfied with Inspector George Gently, but it's entertaining and reasonably clever in its own leisurely way, and Martin Shaw's central performance adds weight. A fourth series has been announced. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.