Moustaches and turtlenecks: the glory days of TV detectives

From Bergerac to The Persuaders, we remember the time when dapper detective duos and regional crime-fighters ruled the TV schedules – an era fondly lampooned in the new comedy Mindhorn.

Jon Spira

Mindhorn (2016)

Mindhorn (2016)

Capoeira-ing gracelessly into cinemas on 5 May is Mindhorn, a comedy so British it contains references to John Nettles and ill-judged appearances on Wogan.

Mindhorn is the 1980s TV detective played by actor Richard Thorncroft who, in turn, is played by co-creator/writer Julian Barratt. The film finds Thorncroft three decades past his prime, down on his luck and out of shape mentally and physically. When a deluded young man suspected of murder refuses to talk to anyone but Mindhorn, Thorncroft finds himself in the grip of an unlikely career resurrection.

Above being a hilariously silly and occasionally poignant comedy, director Sean Foley’s film is also a comprehensive pastiche of a long-gone era and genre in British TV. With its influences actually spanning some three decades, from the 1960s through to the 1980s, Mindhorn serves as a cultural touchstone to a time when political correctness simply meant being on the same side as the police and when being a loose cannon meant getting the job done.

Watch the Mindhorn trailer

Locality

“Shoestring, Taggart, Spender, Bergerac, Morse – what does that say to you about regional detective series?” asked Alan Partridge while pitching his own concept, ‘Swallow’, about a Norwich-based detective to the director of programming at the BBC in an episode of I’m Alan Partridge. “There’s too many of them?” was the response.

This came at the end of an era where the maverick local detective was king on British TV. In the above list, territories were, respectively, Bristol, Strathclyde, Newcastle, Jersey and Oxford. Throughout Mindhorn, Thorncroft compares himself and his fortunes to John Nettles, star of Bergerac, suggesting that Mindhorn’s Isle of Man stomping ground is more appropriation of Bergerac’s Jersey than mere pastiche. 

Bergerac (1981-91)

Bergerac (1981-91)

In many ways, the regional TV detective served as an embodiment of the provinces they swore to protect. Shoestring was a scruffy but intelligent protector of Bristol. Taggart was a hard-edged, stony defender of the decent citizens of Strathclyde. Spender was a canny, grimy force for good in Newcastle. Morse was a refined, educated crime solver in Oxford – and Bergerac, well, Bergerac was the suave partially reformed hedonist that Jersey deserved.

Clothes

Mindhorn (2016)

Mindhorn (2016)

Sartorially speaking, Mindhorn is at the smart-casual or casual-smart end of the spectrum. His trademark jeans and leather jacket could be considered a nod towards Ian McShane’s crime-solving antiques dealer, Lovejoy, but that would be a mistake. Mindhorn’s signature fawn-coloured leather jacket bears a striking resemblance to one of Tony Curtis’s regular garments of choice in The Persuaders!, an early-1970s ITC series that saw him uneasily paired with a dapper Roger Moore.

The Persuaders! (1971-72)

The Persuaders! (1971-72)

Moore was no stranger to a high-ribbed turtleneck on this show, so perhaps Mindhorn’s whole get-up owes a debt to this playboy adventure series.

Car

Mindhorn (2016)

Mindhorn (2016)

Mindhorn drives a flashy red vintage sports car, although Thorncroft himself can’t. A detective’s wheels are a de facto part of their value, and Mindhorn’s could be rooted in any number of examples. Inspector Morse drove a 1960 burgundy Jaguar Mk 2. Spender was never far from his Ford Sierra, but it would seem we’re looking at Bergerac in terms of key influences. John Nettles in his burgundy 1949 Triumph Roadster combined class and cool, just as his theme music combined light jazz, Ronnie Hazelhurst-style brass, traditional French accordion and a skanking reggae rhythm section.

Fighting style

Mindhorn (2016)

Mindhorn (2016)

James Hazell was a Cockney private detective somewhat improbably created by football manager Terry Venables. Rooted in a late-70s noir pastiche style with a hard edge, he lasted two series on ITV and achieved – according to the back of the DVD box – “highly credible” action scenes. This could be considered a genre high, among the stylish cartoon combat of a bowler-hatted Patrick Macnee in The Avengers or Roger Moore, again, in the fight scenes from his series The Saint, which were so delicately choreographed that they bore more resemblance to a children’s ballet recital.

The Avengers (1961-69)

The Avengers (1961-69)

Mindhorn’s style – which he defines as Capoeira – is a wild mash-up of styles running the gamut of 60s to 80s TV combat, incorporating the oriental artistry of Monkey and the gonzo jump-and-roll style originated by mid-80s Michael Brandon in Dempsey and Makepeace.

Special power

Mindhorn (2016)

Mindhorn (2016)

Mindhorn is a breed slightly apart from most of his Brit-dick contemporaries in that he has a special power. His eye has been replaced with a robotic one, which can literally see the truth. His closest ally in this area would be across the pond – Lee Majors, who, in The Six Million Dollar Man, also benefitted from bionic implants, most famously his infrared eye with a 20:1 zoom lens.

Sapphire & Steel (1979-82)

Sapphire & Steel (1979-82)

Back on these shores, however, the sci-fi alternative to Dempsey and Makepeace’s man/woman crime-solving team was Sapphire & Steel (1979-82), which saw Joanna Lumley as Sapphire, with the ability to manipulate time. David McCallum’s Steel had the slightly less enviable abilities of being able to freeze himself, weld metal with his bare hands and unlock deadbolts with a gesture.

Moustache

Mindhorn (2016)

Mindhorn (2016)

There are several likely culprits that could have inspired Mindhorn’s lip furniture, though Peter Wyngarde in the title role of Jason King rocked perhaps the definitive Brit-stache. Jason King, a spin-off from ITC’s popular 1960s spy-fi series Department S, was the key influence on Mike Myers’ hugely successful Austin Powers film series.

Jason King (1971-72)

Jason King (1971-72)

King was a dandy novelist, a frilly-cuffed, cocksure ladies’ man who travelled the world researching his adventure novels and providing his own inspiration. His moustache was of the handlebar variety, with considerable winged edges that, at times, gave the impression that a falcon might have nested in his septum.

Another inspirational candidate could be the moustache of DC Tosh Lines from ITV’s The Bill. Played by Kevin Lloyd, Lines’s no-nonsense, almost grittily real moustache saw the defeat of many a wrong-doer’s nefarious scheme. Unlike the fanciful facial topiary that had gone before it, Tosh’s ‘tache carried with it a vérité obstinance that was somewhat of a game-changer.

Shoestring (1979-80)

Shoestring (1979-80)

The most obvious inspirational claim, however, lies with Shoestring. Shoestring, a 1979-80 BBC series about a private detective with his own radio show, lasted just two series before its star, Trevor Eve, declined to return, citing a need to “diversify into theatre roles”. This decision lead to the Shoestring production team reworking the key elements and highly successful format around John Nettles and, one year later, Bergerac began its decade-long siege on the hearts and minds of the British public.

One feature not to carry across to the new series, however, was the moustache. By now, these had all but gone from British screens.

Read more

Back to the top