Monday 4 May 2009

Inspector George Gently

It’s a tragic irony that Alan Hunter’s novels about George Gently should only be televised subsequent to his death, at the age of 82, back in 2005. The Gently series began in 1955, and Alan went on to write roughly one a year for over forty years. I never met him, though we were in touch briefly when he contributed a story to Anglian Blood, an anthology I co-edited with Robert Church. It was, in fact, a story he’d originally written before that first novel appeared, at a time when he was working as a book-seller and was known as a poet rather than a crime writer.

I’m not sure what he’d have made of Inspector George Gently, and my own feelings about it are rather mixed. I saw the pilot episode, but missed a couple of episodes shown last year. This story, Gently and the Innocents, featured the murder of an elderly man at his large, dilapidated home, which was just about to be bulldozed to the ground to make way for a building development.

Gently is played by Martin Shaw, in a performance I thought strongly reminiscent of his interpretation of Adam Dalgleish, another widower capable of being both sharp and benign. Shaw has a compelling presence, but the casting decision strikes me as unadventurous. I’m also baffled by the decision to move the setting from East Anglia to the North East – and then to film on location in Ireland!

The script was written by the acclaimed Peter Flannery and it was something of a curate’s egg. The ending was strong and effective – Flannery did a very good job of drawing out the theme and implications of the story. The story was set in 1964, and the period was well conveyed for the most part, although there were a couple of jarring notes. But I did experience despair when the Chief Constable threw Gently off the case for no good reason – only, of course, for Gently to carry on investigating and solve the mystery. One can only conclude that Flannery believes this cliché is a compulsory plot element in all television police dramas. And the moment it was revealed that the dilapidated house had once been a children’s home, I had a sinking feeling that child abuse would loom large in the unravelling of the mystery. And guess what?

Despite the flaws, Inspector George Gently is a well, and no doubt expensively, made show, and I shall watch it again. But I hope that the detection part of the script has a fresher feel to it next time.


BooksPlease said...

I watched this and thought it OK although it was predictable. I've not read the novels, but I take it that this version departed from the original story in more than just changing the location.

A novel a year for 40 years! I'm going to check the library to see if I can read a few of them.

gryphondear said...

Just musing: Surely not any relation to Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams's holistic detective?

:^) Jan the Gryphon

Bob Cornwell said...

I’ve not read the novel either,but was impressed that, with an explicit theme of the abuse of children,Hunter’s book (1970) was perhaps a pioneer in that respect. Then I read Hunter’s entry in 20th Century Crime & Mystery Writers, and find the book described as “one of Hunter’s best containing a delapidated Elizabethan mansion surrounded by urban decay, some priceless gold coins, and a band of young hoodlums.” An advanced case of screenwriter’s licence perhaps? Or perhaps a critical blind spot? Can anyone comment?

Nan said...

Over here, we've just recently gotten what they call, George Gently: series 1. There were three episodes called -Gently Go Man, The Burning Man, and Bomber's Moon. Sadly, this is all that's available from Netflix. We thought Martin Shaw was perfect. I've not seen him as Dalgliesh. I stopped watching when they switched actors! Honestly, we liked everything about the shows. I would like to try and read the books. I don't know why movie and television productions don't shoot where the original books are set.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Martin. I've only read one book, but liked it a lot. And modern television is a law unto itself, I'd say. I just sit back and enjoy Martin Shaw...

John Walker said...

Hello Martin,

I can understand why you were disappointed with the predictability of the plot in this episode of George Gently.

However, speaking from both sides of the 'literary fence' where crime drama is concerned, I know only too well the barriers that Officers faced in those times when it came to the subject of child abuse.

I do feel the plot leant heavily towards the recent high profile case in the Channel Islands though. I was also fully expecting the revelation of the Police Sergeant's true antecedents.

Plotting crime fiction in the 1960's and before is becoming popular. One reason I feel is the rise of modern detection methods. It is becoming much harder to devise a convincing puzzle because writers have to take modern developments into consideration.

This is without the 'liberties' Police Officers could take then, as opposed to the rules and regulations they work under now. Would you agree? :)

John Walker

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments - much appreciated.
BooksPlease - Alan Hunter was an admirer of Simenon, and if you like Maigret (or the rather similar Wycliffe) there's a good chance you'll like Gently.
Jan - not quite!!! Your blog is not on the blogroll...
Bob - I strongly suspect screenwriter's licence! Alan Hunter wasn't really noted as a pioneer, and I guess the book was massively changed for tv, though it would be good to track down the original novel.
Nan - I'm sure the new series will cross the ocean before long. Nan Martin Shaw is pretty good as Dalgleish, I think. He's an actor I certainly like, though possibly, Bookwitch, you like him more!
John, nice to hear from you and I very much agree. There's a lot of discussion about how advances in DNA, plus changes in investigation methods, make it rather tricky to set a 'traditional' style police series, along the Morse lines, in the 21st century. Though various writers make a jolly good job of it, and in my Lakes books, I try to dodge the problem by focusing on Cold Cases.

Leigh Russell said...

Yes, it was rather obvious - although perhaps not quite so predictable when it was written? It was also very close to a case recently in the news. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable and I'll definitely watch it again, but won't record it if I'm out when it's broadcast. Very watchable, but missable.

Paul Beech said...

I’m a sucker for 60s dramas as this was the period of my youth and young manhood. But rarely do I find one that really captures the flavour of those times, just a couple of decades after the war, when the Beatles might have been taking the pop scene by storm but the fear of nuclear war hung over everything like a dark cloud. Crowds outside prison gates awaiting the posting of execution notices. New ideas clashing with old, setting the generations apart. It was not all ‘Heartbeat’ or ‘The Royal.’

Watching ‘Gently and the Innocents’ I thought “Yeah, not bad.” There were things that couldn’t be spoken of back then, things brushed under the carpet, and the Chief Constable’s removal of Gently from the case, although a hackneyed plot device, at least illustrated this, the uncomfortable fact here being organised paedophilia.

It’s a shame, though, as you say, that George Gently has only hit our screens since the death of Alan Hunter. Gently is a fascinating character, a WWII Army veteran and a detective of the old school, gruff, uncompromising and honest, who gets results through traditional sleuthing coupled with a pretty robust approach! I for one would like to know much more about his creator. A farmer turned antiquarian book dealer,and a poet before becoming a crime writer.

Strange, isn’t it, how some poets make excellent crime writers, Julian Symons and Cecil Day-Lewis (as Nicholas Blake) amongst the late-greats, John Harvey and James Sallis amongst the living. Day-Lewis commented that crime writing was a way of sublimating our violent and criminal instincts – better to write a murder than commit one! Of course, there’s a certain ‘noir’ feel to a lot of modern poetry! Poets are constantly searching for hidden meaning, aren’t they, and isn’t there a parallel in the crime writer’s impulse to demonstrate that every mystery has a solution?

As for the production of Gently in Ireland, surely this was a cost thing? I believe it was with the production of Peter Flannery’s English Civil War drama ‘The Devil’s Whore.’

Regards, Paul

Paul Beech said...

CORRECTION - last sentence should read:

I believe it was with the production of Peter Flannery's English Civil War drama 'The Devil's Whore' in South Africa.

Martin Edwards said...

Leigh, you've summed it up well.
Paul, you're spot on about poets and crime - and the 'hidden meaning' point is very true.

Unknown said...

I had mixed feelings about Gently and the Innocents, too. I didn't like the casting and I hated the way Gently was pulled off the case for no valid reason. As I'd read a taster on the BBC web site, I knew it was going to feature child abuse and wondered then if a novel written at that time would feature such a story.

However, like many other people, I'll now be tracking down Alan Hunter's novels. As you say, it's tragic that they should only be televised after his death.

Ray said...

I always wished that George Gently would make it onto the TV screen but nothing will compel me to watch the series now.
The reason being that I read every Gently novel by Alan Hunter and the pilot for the series 'Gently Go Man' had nothing to do with the book.
First, George Gently was a bachelor right up to the 'Honfleur Honour' when he marries Gabrielle.
So the character in the film who killed Gently's 'wife' never existed and was inserted into the storyline.
Secondly, 'Gently Go Man' was set amongst the early 'rockers' of the Sixties and the setting very down to earth.
'Gently Go Man' was a Friday's Forgotten Book on my blog a while back.
After watching the TV version I came to the careful about what I wished for.