As sometimes happens, I'm reviewing the British (and Irish) mystery series George Gently (2007-present) out of sequence. I examined Series 2, a DVD release, in May 2010, and then took a gander at Series 3, on Blu-ray, in June 2011.
Acorn Media has smartly opted to reissue the first series, initially released as a DVD in November 2008, on Blu-ray; a worthwhile endeavor considering how beautifully photographed the series is. (Though set in Northumberland, the first two series/seasons of George Gently were actually shot along the coast of Ireland.)
Finally seeing how it all began, as it were, I confess to having a better appreciation of the show's ambitions and strengths, some of which weren't terribly clear joining it midstream.
Based on the "George Gently" novels (about three dozen, published between 1955-1999) written by the late Alan Hunter, the set-up has a humanist, incorruptible chief inspector from London relocating to Northumberland where he's paired with a cocky, much younger protégée, a detective sergeant bemused by Gently's gentle yet highly effective approach to police work. The pilot and first season take place in 1964, in a very different England rife with routinely corrupt, violent, and racist coppers, and a society on the verge of earth-shaking socio-political change. For me one of the weaknesses of subsequent series, set a few years later into the sixties, is that they don't quite capture the era as authetically as it might. This series, however, captures the flavor of 1964 Britain spot-on.
George Gently - Series 1 consists of three episodes, actually three full-length TV movies running just under 90 minutes apiece. "Series 1" is debatably a misnomer. The first episode is a de facto pilot film, aired in April 2007 while the two later shows/movies aired a week apart in July 2008. The program's popularity has risen steadily with the latest episodes, two movies airing in September 2011, seen by several million more viewers in Britain than the 2008 shows.
The pilot show, simply called "George Gently," is an adaptation of Hunter's eighth George Gently book but nonetheless establishes the program's premise. London-based, virulent anti-corruption police commander Gently (Martin Shaw, who before this was Judge John Deed) considers retiring after his wife is killed in a hit-and-run, in fact a cold-blooded murder by a notorious gangster.
However, after getting a tip that the gangster may be involved in a murder in far-flung Northumberland, he agrees to take on this one last case. There he's paired with DS (Detective Sergeant) John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby, Nicholas Nickleby, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), a young but reactionary Old School cop. Gently, conversely, is his polar opposite: methodical and nonjudgmental where Bacchus jumps to conclusions and is gratingly sanctimonious. Each personality belies his appearance. This episode's mystery has an undercurrent of homosexuality, still technically illegal in 1964 Britain, and it's a topic that turns up again in a later episode.
The second two shows improve on the first. "The Burning Man" explores hypocrisies of British-Irish (and, specifically, the IRA) relations circa 1964, in a plot involving a hidden cache of guns and a Special Branch investigator (Robert Glenister, Hustle) who may be putting his own career ahead of the local community or even national interests. In the third and best episode, "Bomber's Moon," Gently and Bacchus investigate the murder of a wealthy German pharmaceutical company president, in the area to nostalgically visit friends from his days as a POW during the war. This episode is particularly interesting in the way it examines anti-German sentiment still strong nearly 20 years after the end of World War II.
Peter Flannery (Our Friends in the North) adapted all three teleplays. Euros Lyn directed the first while Ciaran Donnelly helmed the latter two. Simon Hubbard has a small but reoccurring role as a police constable that would play a bigger part of later episodes. Sean McGinley (single-handed) appears as Gently's alcoholic informant in the pilot, but Tony Rohr replaces him for subsequent episodes.
As always, George Gently's biggest strength is Martin Shaw's quietly dominating performance. Unlike Judge John Deed, his previous major role, in which he imbued that character with larger-than-life virility, the kind of overconfidence that often ends up tarnishing great men of power, in George Gently Shaw is just a cop. By not judging others he's able to study them more closely, versus Bacchus's instantly adversarial approach. Shaw's been doing this sort of thing forever; he's as much a veteran of policiers as genuine policemen his age (Shaw was 62-63) are in their jobs, and it shows.
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 very good optional SDH English subtitles, is state of the art.
Supplements are limited to text interviews with Shaw, Ingleby, and Flannery, most of which reads like standard presskit material. (To Shaw: "How do you feel about being a sex symbol?")
Watching these early George Gentlys I'm tempted to revisit the subsequent TV films I saw first but which left me somewhat dissatisfied. If you're going to give the series a try, this is the place to start. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.