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Lovejoy: Series 4
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...including a new bonus for this collection)...because my opinion of these delightful mysteries hasn't changed a bit, I found, after watching these charmers all over again during the Christmas holiday."But won't that be cheating, Lovejoy?"
"No, no, no, no, no, no. It's just a bit of...reshuffling of moral priorities."
Well, our randy East Anglian divvy almost comes a cropper here. Acorn has released Lovejoy: Series 4, a four-disc, 13-episode collection (originally aired in the U.K. in 1993) of the world-wide smash English mystery series that starred almost-mullet sporting, leather jacket-clad Ian McShane as Lovejoy. While antique dealer/seller/forger Lovejoy never wants for a comfy bed (usually alongside a pretty married bird), his financial situation this go-around is even more precarious than usual. Along with his perpetual state of financial unrest, themes of real emotional conflict permeate this 1993 season of episodes, with Lovejoy falling in and out repeatedly with his benefactor and unobtainable love object, Lady Jane Felsham, while coming close to losing his precious "divvying" skills altogether. The mysteries are good this go-around, as well, complementing quite well the central story arc of Lovejoy searching for some sense of balance in his life. Even better...Acorn has added one of the Lovejoy Christmas specials to this set--The Prague Sun from December, 1992--which might inspire hard-core fans to double-dip here.
I've written before about Lovejoy (you can click on Series One, Series Two, and Series Three, to read my earlier reviews), so I won't get into too much background detail about the series. If you're new to the series (and you can certainly jump right into the middle of Lovejoy; its episodes are largely stand-alone, so you needn't be familiar with past episodes to fully enjoy the show), Ian McShane plays Lovejoy, a preternaturally gifted "divvy" (one who can spot and identify rare antiques with absolute accuracy) who also happens to be a horn-dog and a perpetual deadbeat -- as well as a genuine lover of all things priceless and beautiful. Constantly on the run from creditors who want his doss, and from the cops who suspect him of suspicious deals, Lovejoy breezes through life never knowing where his next pay packet is coming from - or where he might lay his head at night. Aiding Lovejoy in his constant treasure seeking is young novice Eric Catchpole (Chris Jury), who is very slowly coming along in his own antiquing skills, and always slightly inebriated Tinker Dill (Dudley Sutton), an old hand at divvying who's as comfortable identifying a rare piece of Restoration furniture as he is propping up the bar at the Royal Oak. And as always, Lovejoy can count on the seemingly endless pounds that flow from Lady Jane Felsham (Phyllis Logan), who now runs her own successful interior design firm. Lovejoy's closest friend, Lady Jane also provides a maddeningly unobtainable object of love/lust for Lovejoy, made all the more unbearable because she obviously loves him, too (although both are smart enough to realize that should anything really serious happen between, all would be lost).
I've written before that I felt one of the series' strongest pulls was the fact that Lovejoy never really "gets over" as far as being financially successful. At the end of each of his complicated deals/swindles, he's either flush with money or somewhere between even and in the hole, but without fail, at the beginning of the next episode, he's flat busted again and looking to make some more cash. And the opening episode of Season Four doesn't forget that necessary hook for the audience (why would we want to watch Lovejoy get richer each episode? We need to pull for the character each time out). Having become quite comfortable setting up shop at shady, absent Freddy the Phone's (Alexie Sayle) mansion, Lovejoy & Associates are brought back to crushing reality when creditors come to confiscate everything on Freddy's property - everything, including all of Lovejoy's stock, his beloved car, Miriam, and just about everything else except the clothes on his back. Wishing to stay with Lady Jane until he can find his footing, he's politely turned away there because he ex-husband's father is staying over. Reduced to living out of his storage unit, Lovejoy is left with one untouched treasure - one of his "emergency supplies" antiques - and that's about it.
Even though Tink and Eric urge Lovejoy to take a loan from Lady Jane (who's more than willing to do so), Lovejoy's latest setback confirms something that's he's been feeling for some time: he's just not an "& Associates" kind of guy. He's become too relaxed, too complacent in his comfy digs and his (relatively) stable business dealings. The old scrounger Lovejoy has gotten fat and lazy. Losing almost everything wakes up the hustler in Lovejoy, and he makes it clear he wants to settle his accounts on his own, without the direct help of Lady Jane. And with frequent references in the episodes to an economic recession affecting the antiques trade, the certainty that Lovejoy will be able to eke out a living each week is put further in doubt. Though he never outright says it - and while he still expects their help and continues to work with Tink and Eric - "Lovejoy & Associates" as a straight, upright business venture, complete with office, home, and dependable transportation, is no more. Lovejoy manages to find lodgings with various married women; he rides Lady Jane's bike around until he buys a beat-up old Datsun truck, and when he hasn't lined up a place to sleep at night, there's always his storage unit.
This thematic development is good for the series, since a repeat of the third season - Lovejoy working out of his office and having Tink and Eric always hanging around - would be just that: a repeat. It's good to see Lovejoy scrabbling again for a pound, adding a layer of tension to the lighthearted episodes that provides a nice dramatic subtext. As well, with this change in Lovejoy's financial fortunes, the normally topsy-turvy relationship with Jane becomes even more fraught with conflict, as the two friends fall-out repeatedly during this season. In The Ring, Lady Jane is enraged when she learns that Lovejoy used her without her knowledge to falsely bump up the price of an antique; in effect, he engaged her to commit fraud (although Lovejoy parses that definition very finely to a matter of "association," not outright "fraud"). In Dainty Dish, they almost break off their friendship entirely when Lovejoy claims a set of invaluable Wedgewood dishes are his (through his efforts to gather them up from various sources), while Jane believes they belong to her friend who clued Lovejoy in on the set in the first place. It's obvious that they both have strong feelings for each other. When Lovejoy suddenly ups and leaves the group after the first episode, Lady Jane is deeply concerned for his well being. And when Jane disappears for a romantic weekend in Fly the Flag, Lovejoy is clearly jealous. But strong romantic feelings don't seem to be enough for them to overcome the obvious drawbacks of their personalities (Lovejoy doesn't want to be tied down to one woman, and Jane doesn't trust Lovejoy as far as she could throw him, either in finances or in fidelity).
Further deepening the Lovejoy character this season, the writers have the divvy actually questioning his own powers of deduction and more importantly, scamming, when in the opening episode, they have Lovejoy bested in a deal. Apparently this throws Lovejoy (Tink says it's like a boxer who's lost his confidence), and he never entirely loses the feeling that he's on emotionally shaky ground, culminating in the excellent final episode, Lovejoy Loses It. Having appeared on a TV news program, showing off his special divvying skills, this display immediately concerns Tink, who warns Lovejoy that he may be heading down the same road as legendary divvy, Harold Richards (Peter Copley), who lost his skills and had a breakdown when he courted more money and fame. Sure enough, Lovejoy begins to lose his touch, and comes dangerously close to fulfilling Tink's prophecy, before he learns from Richards that he must balance his mad dash for more and more cash, with his earlier ambitions to find true beauty among his searches. It's almost as if Lovejoy comes to peace with himself in this final episode of the season...which makes me wonder just what the writers did in upcoming Season Five to upset that applecart.
Lovejoy: Series 4 has a particularly strong line-up of episodes, with mysteries that are certainly as engaging as they are amusing. Malcolm Tierney makes a welcome return to the series as cheating snake Charles Gimbert in several episodes, hitting a home run in the marvelously entertaining Dainty Dish, which plays like a frenetic Ealing comedy, with Lovejoy and gang on "holiday" in Brighton as they employ Tink's psychic ex-girlfriend to help divine where all the pieces are to an elusive set of Wedgwood china. Lovejoy needs a constant, familiar villain like Charlie to bounce off of, not only because it ratchets up the comedy elements of the show, but also because it helps put Lovejoy's sometimes shady dealings in a more positive light - particularly next to Charlie's out-and-out thievery. Fly the Flag features a wonderful performance by that brilliant British character actor, Michael Hordern, as a toy-obsessed old geezer who wants nothing more than to play with his tin soldiers (Hordern has a wonderful serious moment as he describes growing up in a well-to-do aristocratic English family, when as a boy he didn't even recognize his parents when they rode up to him on horses one day). Second Fiddle features one of those great Lovejoy peripheral characters that Lovejoy seems to know in scores: Tommy Norris, the king of the fiddle faddlers, who only thinks in terms of English football (one of the hallmarks of Lovejoy is that we actually get some real information on antiques, and this episode is no exception: after forty years of watching TV, I finally understood what made a Stradivarius a Stradivarius). The Galloping Major has a great turn by another legendary English character actor, Leslie Phillips ("I say, Ding Dong!"), as a wily cannon expert who matches wits with Lovejoy (Tink has a wonderful moment where he thinks he's ruptured himself after trying to move the cannon...before discovering it was only his braces that he heard snap). And Taking the Pledge is a series' highlight, featuring a highly amusing sequence where Lovejoy takes 43 pence and turns it into serious money, all by going from antique shop to antique shop, buying, selling and trading up (a great moment that firmly encapsulates the character's appeal).
Here are the 13, one-hour episodes of the four-disc boxed set, Lovejoy: Series 4:
The Napoleonic Commode
Lovejoy loses almost everything but his shirt, before scamming a crooked Frenchman into taking a chance on Napoleon's toilet.
Lovejoy uses Lady Jane to fill in when one of his newly assembled gang fails to show for a crooked auction - an act of betrayal that seriously strains Lovejoy's and Jane's relationship.
Why would anyone want Lovejoy to take a genuine Stradivarius and alter it so it wouldn't look like a Stradivarius anymore? Lovejoy aims to find out.
The Colour of Money Lovejoy is on the hunt for the non-existent pool table of Mary, Queen of Scots. Non-existent? That's right. So Lovejoy has to cobble one together to fool Charlie Gimbert.
Fly the Flag
The discovery of a battle flag from the American Revolutionary War, hidden in a hole in the wall of a local church, soon sets into motion a frantic set of bidding over the prized object, including a gruff, ticked-off U.S. military officer.
Judgment of Solomon
A priceless collection of Jewish antiques smells fishy to the expert Lovejoy called in to evaluate them, with everyone wondering where, exactly, the ex-Wing Commander who claims the items were his wife's, got them.
The Galloping Major
An old Scottish sword proves to be a treasure map, but what is Lovejoy to do when the treasure winds up being buried under a shopping mall?
God Helps Those Is Charlie working with a smash-and-grab group of thieves, targeting businesses with a "shopping list" of desirable works of art? And what of Jane's new, young helper around the mansion?
They Call Me Midas Lovejoy helps out his mentor, Jim Leonard, who's aiding his wife in swindling a famous German art dealer out of a valuable Klimt painting.
Irish Stew Up in the wilds of Ireland, the gang happen upon a valuable manuscript page that involves a local hermit...who may be a world-renowned scholar.
Dainty Dish Lovejoy and company are in the vacation resort of Brighton, tracking down an elusive set of Wedgwood dishes.
Taking the Pledge A friend of Lovejoy's, down on his luck, desperately wants to get back a painting that his mother gave him that's in hock, before his ex-wife snags it for the divorce settlement.
Lovejoy Loses It Lovejoy begins to suspect that he's lost his magical "divvy" powers, before he learns a valuable lesson of balance in one's life.
As with the previous Lovejoy releases, Lovejoy: Series 4 will look better on a smaller monitor. The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfers look reasonable for this type of program, but the bigger your monitor, the more you're going to notice a slight blur (PAL conversion issue?) whenever the camera moves. It's not too distracting, though, and again, a smaller monitor will help. Colors look a little faded (or sometimes valued incorrectly), but that's about par for these unrestored elements. The picture is at times soft, but overall, this presentation is about on par with other vintage British TV releases from Acorn.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 soundtrack for Lovejoy: Series 4 is adequate, with all dialogue heard cleanly and crisply. English subtitles are available.
The Ian McShane interview clips from 2004, included on the previous BBC TV release, have been ditched here in favor of The Prague Sun, a Lovejoy Christmas special from December, 1992. Written by series co-creator Ian La Frenais and his usual partner in crime, Dick Clement (everything from TV classics like The Likely Lads and Porridge, to great big-screen outings like Otley, Villain, and The Bank Job), The Prague Sun is a suitably Byzantine outing that finds Lovejoy mixed up in a search for religious gemstones, sought by Peter Vaughan and Donald Pleasence. Featuring great location shooting in the Czech Republic, The Prague Sun has the unmistakable La Frenais/Clement touch of self-aware whimsey amid the mystery goings-on, with a noticeable uptick in funny lines running throughout this sprightly episode (when Tink, free to raid Lady Jane's wine cellar, brings forth his moocher's choice, he wisely states, "I have tried to tread that delicate path between gratuitous indulgence and self-denial."). The video, however, for this episode, is close to atrocious: noisy and blown-out, with muddy colors. Shame, that.
Lovejoy goes through quite a bit here in Lovejoy: Series 4. He loses pretty much everything connected with his Lovejoy & Associates business...and not a moment too soon, as he re-discovers the joys of being flat-broke and hungry for the next scam. He falls in and out with Lady Jane, unfortunately, but nothing, ultimately, can get in the way of their friendship...even when she finds a new lover. A particularly strong group of episodes this go-around, with mysteries that are equally suspenseful and funny. A winner all the way down the line--as usual with the Lovejoy series. And the addition of a Christmas special bonus doesn't hurt. I highly recommend Lovejoy: Series 4.
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.