Reviewer's Note: Way back in 2007, I began reviewing the BBC's boxed sets of Lovejoy for DVDTalk. Those sets subsequently went out of print, and are now being re-released by Acorn. As far as I can tell, these are the same fullscreen transfers used for the previous releases (Acorn's now-standard disclaimer about audio/visual imperfections for these older U.K. TV shows is present). So, I'll port over my older review (with a few minor tweaks)...because my opinion of these delightful mysteries hasn't changed a bit, I found, after watching these charmers all over again this past week.
"Antiques is a lovely but murderous business, filled with love, fear, greed, death, loathing and ecstasy." Lovejoy.
Acorn Media has released Lovejoy: Series 1, a 3-disc, 10-episode collection of the U.K. comedy/mystery's first season ("series" in Brit TV-speak), from 1986. Episodes included in this set include The Firefly Cage, The Axeman Cometh, The Sting, Friends, Romans, and Enemies, The Judas Pair, To Sleep No More, The Real Thing, The March of Time, and Death and Venice, Parts I and II. Based on the best-selling novels by John "Jonathan Gash" Grant, and starring Ian McShane, Chris Jury, Dudley Sutton, Phyllis Logan, Malcolm Tierney, and Charlotte Edwards, Lovejoy is a sure-fire hit for U.K. television fans who like their mysteries delightfully askew, and their semi-anti-hero sleuths roguishly sexy...and mischievously dodgy. With the same transfers used for the previous release--now minus the admittedly meager extras that were then included--there's no need to double dip. However, newcomers to Lovejoy, as I was in 2007, should jump at this delicious bit of U.K. fun.
Back in the 1990s, when A&E aired promos for The Lovejoy Mysteries (their title for the series), I, for some reason, tuned out. I'm not sure why now; maybe it was their too-quaint-for words advertising campaign that sold Lovejoy as a "quirky, quaint" British mystery more in the vein of Murder, She Wrote rather than Ross MacDonald Meets Tom Jones (...or maybe it was because those promos always ran right after I saw Jack Perkins' over-eager, unctuous delivery on some Biography special...which put me right off). Whatever the reasons, I never caught Lovejoy during its initial States' run. However, after watching that first season of Lovejoy back in 2007, I found myself an enthusiastic convert to the enjoyably naughty, ever-so-slightly criminal antiques dealer and his charming adventures in the sometimes dicey world of British antiques--an opinion that still holds seven years later, after re-watching this Acorn set of the show's first ten episodes.
I still haven't gotten around to reading the Lovejoy novels by Jonathan Gash (John Grant), so I can't compare the fidelity (or lack thereof) of the British TV series to the literary character (although I've read that the novels are grittier). For those new to the show, Lovejoy's same-named sleuth (Ian McShane) is a "divvy" of an antiques dealer--that's someone who has an almost supernatural ability to spot priceless antiques, and worthless forgeries, as well as possessing a true, romantic love of the idea of antiques, and of their beauty. Living in East Anglia, and working out of an old barn, Lovejoy's dodgy deals always keep him just ahead of the law and the bill collectors. Often spotting gold among the dross of estate sales and local auctions, Lovejoy isn't above switching lot numbers on items he wants for himself, thereby cheating others out of the opportunity of bidding. And if a forgery (usually crafted by Lovejoy himself) will aid a scheme to get one over on a shady business rival, Lovejoy has no qualms about putting the fake into play. As an acknowledged expert in antiquities, Lovejoy is often sought out by others who find themselves embroiled in a mystery involving a precious object d'art, which Lovejoy can't resist chasing. A charmer who has a close-knit network of associates and friends who help him in his antiquity endeavors, Lovejoy--no first name ever; not even "Mr."--romps his way across the flatlands of Eastern England like a modern-day Tom Jones, constantly hustling for a quick buck and living by his quick wits.
Furthering the notion of a lower-class, Fielding-type hero battling a corrupt world (and coming out at least even), Lovejoy's chief ally and financial patron is Lady Jane Felsham (Phyllis Logan), the local aristocrat who enjoys a strictly platonic--but deliciously flirtatious--relationship with Lovejoy (Lovejoy frequently offers to step up their relationship, but to no avail). Lady Jane, who's obviously attracted to Lovejoy, as well, is more than willing to part with money and time to help Lovejoy's various schemes, but not so willing to cheat on her often absent husband, Lord Alexander Felsham (Pavel Douglas), an indulgent yet stuffy noble who can't fathom what his wife sees in the commoner Lovejoy. Helping Lovejoy with his operations is loyal "barker" (one who sniffs out possible deals on undervalued pieces) Tinker Dill (Dudley Sutton), the boozy, cynical veteran who has zero scruples when it comes to aiding and abetting Lovejoy in making money for both of them. Apprenticing Lovejoy is Eric Catchpole (Chris Jury), a polytechnic drop-out, rocker, and a bit of a git whose father pays Lovejoy to teach his wayward son a craft. Most often, though, Eric's duties include driving getaway cars for Lovejoy's grifting, or warding off the various criminals who cross paths with the slightly dodgy antiques' dealer. Chief nemesis for Lovejoy's unfettered business opportunities is successful antiques dealer and Lovejoy's landlord, Charlie Gimbert (Malcolm Tierney), a vengeful, at times almost homicidal (he even pulls a shotgun on Lovejoy when his rent is overdue) businessman who enjoys nothing more than beating out Lovejoy in an auction, even if he doesn't particularly want the offered piece.
Like many, many others, I love continuing novels and TV series that create cozy, escapist little worlds where a family of eccentric, witty individuals operate outside the mundane restrictions of our own prosaic world, and Lovejoy certainly fits that bill. Living by his wits to keep some coins in his pocket and more importantly, living the breezy, irresponsible lifestyle he wants to live ("It keeps me ahead of the game, nose in front. That's all I ask of life."), Lovejoy is that same romantic yet shrewd fictional hero that pops up in so many other genres (Travis McGee, for some reason, immediately comes to mind, although Lovejoy's larky adventures are far less violent). He's a fantasy figure whose life appears to be one big silly game (finding valuable antiques for peanuts and selling them for a profit seems far too easy here, doesn't it?); a Boy's Own life filled with sudden windfalls, comical setbacks (he may be in physical danger throughout the series, but nothing serious happens to him this first season), and gorgeous women who immediately fall under his charming spell.
For escapism like that to work, we need a hero we like (as essayed by pro McShane, Lovejoy is waywardly charismatic and attractive), as well as consistently clever, witty writing. Lovejoy series adaptor and frequent episode writer this season, Ian La Frenais (who, along with Dick Clement created classic British television like The Likely Lads and Porridge, as well as two of my favorite "forgotten" British action flicks, Otley and Villain), has a real knack of not only keeping the mysteries rolling along nicely, but also providing plenty of witty, fun throw-away moments that keep the audience tickled, and which further flesh out the characters (when Lovejoy pleads with Charlie Gimbert to explain why he hates him so much, Gimbert flatly replies, "Since my wife died, I need someone to hate."). Lovejoy's adventures stay "light, " while the writers deliberately avoid the "quaint" or "kooky" tone that some Brit TV comedy/mysteries can track. Also of keen interest to the viewer, each episode of Lovejoy incorporates insight into the (for me) baffling world of antiques, explaining the lingo and some of the practices of fraud in antiquing; I always enjoy it when a show takes the time to give me a peek--with plenty of jargon and technique--into a world I'm not familiar with, and Lovejoy does that often, and well.
Snappy writing only goes so far, though; you need an actor to bring those words to believable life, and star Ian McShane (who also owned part of the series and had quite a bit of input into its direction) deserves a lot of credit for the success of Lovejoy. Having perfected an air of the charismatic anti-hero years before (as a kid, I first remember being impressed by him in the comedy If It's Tuesday, This Must be Belgium), McShane admirably plays it straight (even when he breaks the fourth wall, and addresses the audience, Alfie-style), thereby making the more humorous elements of Lovejoy come off cleanly and not overblown. He's ably assisted by a stand-out supporting cast, with Tierney getting special mention as the frequently furious Charlie, and veteran Sutton, who can do more with a weary glance than most actors can do with a page of dialogue.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.