Cagney and Lacey — Killer TV No 15

cagneylacey8CBS, 1982-86

‘You feel like a little girl. What I see is a woman of great courage.’ – Mary Beth Lacey

Tyne Daly, Sharon Gless, Al Waxman, John Karlen

Identikit: Two women show their strength and vulnerabilities dealing with their private lives and careers as New York detectives.

The TV landscape is awash with formulaic police procedurals. Cagney and Lacey was one that lifted the genre above the norm, for the first time depicting women as buddies in a tough job. Christine Cagney was the career woman, Mary Beth Lacey was the working mother, and here was a drama that cut away a lot of guff usually seen in hero cop shows. Cagney and Lacey did rough police jobs in brutal New York to make a living, usually close and mutually supportive but occasionally dishing out home truths to each other, often in the privacy of the Ladies. The weekly stories had the usual chases and shootouts, along with the odd corny routine for light relief, but what made it distinctive was the human side of the characters – Mary Beth’s breast cancer, her pregnancy; Chris getting shot, being raped, her failed relationships and dread of ending up alone. It also never shied away from the bleak side of policing, such as Chris’s occasional lapses into booze dependancy (like her cop dad before her). The cases they dealt with exposed the underbelly of grimy Gotham – abandoned children, victims of the pornography industry, sexual abuse – some based on true events. And real issues were confronted – abortion, nuclear weapons (Mary Beth was arrested on an anti-nuke demo), date rape. But in addition to its strength as a crime drama, its depiction of working women in a male environment certainly spoke to women holding down jobs in the real world. It was Christine’s boyfriends and frustrations, and Mary Beth’s family crises that always chimed with fans, rather than unravelling the whodunit. Despite early misgivings by some execs in CBS that the characters would be perceived as ‘dykes’, or at least as too unfeminine, executive producer Barney Rozenzweig steered the show through two cancellations. Sharon Gless was brought in to replace Meg Foster as Cagney after the first series to reduce the character’s aggression a bit. When the show was cancelled at the end of the 82-83 season, it was brought back by popular demand when viewers (many of whom were women) wrote to CBS to complain. It became one of the most cherished series of the 1980s, with Daly and Gless going on to share best actress Emmys for six years on the trot – a unique achievement.

Classic episode: Turn, Turn, Turn, the two-part conclusion to season 6. Christine’s dad dies after a drunken fall, and Mary Beth confronts her about her own disastrous boozing, eventually dragging her to AA. ‘My name is Christine, and I’m an alcoholic.’

Watercooler fact: Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday actually developed an outline for the series in 1974, but it was turned down by all the networks, none of whom thought a series about women cops would succeed.

Third Degree – crime author Laura Wilson

Crime author Laura WilsonHauled in for questioning today is British crime writer and Guardian reviewer Laura Wilson, who is currently working on her 10th novel. Laura, whose books include the DI Stratton series among other mysteries set in the recent past, talks about her TV and reading habits, from Cagney & Lacey to Agatha Christie…

Your favourite British crime series or thriller on TV?
I feel a bit of a fraud answering these questions as my television viewing is completely random – I can never manage to commit to a series, crime or otherwise. I have only the haziest idea about what’s on when (and no idea at all of how to record stuff) so I tend to find myself looking at whatever anyone else happens to be watching at the point when I collapse onto the sofa. I did enjoy Cracker, though, and I liked Morse, although I never really managed to figure out what was going on (beyond the fact that if Morse fancied someone, she was bound to turn out to be the killer). I also quite enjoy Midsomer Murders because it’s so completely implausible, and I love the fact that you can always work out who the killer is before Barnaby does because he/she will be played by the most famous actor in the cast whose character hasn’t already snuffed it. Poirot and Marple are good too, although I don’t think anyone’s been a patch on Joan Hickson.

Favourite US crime series or thriller on TV?
Cagney & Lacey was brilliant and I used to like Hill Street Blues as well. As to the rest… I haven’t even got round to watching The Sopranos, never mind The Wire.

Top TV cop?
Columbo, because he’s so splendidly crumpled – and he has a basset hound, which makes him just about perfect.  

Which unfilmed book/character should be made into a TV drama?
I wish somebody would make a decent TV drama of Patrick Hamilton’s Gorse trilogy. Years ago, there was a terrible version of the second book in the series, Mr Stimpson & Mr Gorse, starring Nigel Havers, but I’m sure it could be done really well (the 2005 TV version of the 20,000 Streets Under the Sky trilogy was marvellous).

If one of your novels were filmed, who would you cast to be the hero?
That’s tricky. The people I can imagine playing DI Stratton (Albert Finney, Alan Bates, etc) are either too old or no longer with us – I’m sure that there are plenty of others who’d be suitable (and the right sort of age) but nobody springs to mind.

What do you watch with a guilty conscience (or what’s your guilty pleasure)?

I watch all TV with a guilty conscience, because there’s always something else I ought to be doing…  Watching New Tricks makes me feel particularly guilty. I’m not entirely sure why (probably something to do with the execrable theme tune and the fact that somewhere about the halfway mark I always feel sure I’ve seen the episode before, although – given my sporadic viewing habits – this can’t, 99% of the time, actually be the case). I do enjoy it, though, mainly because of the way Amanda Redman’s character bosses the others about all the time.
Least favourite cop show/thriller?
Not sure I’m discriminating enough to answer this question!
Marple/Poirot or Sherlock Holmes?

Probably Poirot, although I enjoyed watching Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes (I can see that Jeremy Brett is probably better, but he always looks as if someone on the set has just farted).

Wallander – BBC or the Swedish version?

Oh, dear. I haven’t watched either – the ‘gloom factor’ put me off…

US or British television crime dramas?

British ones (but this is probably due to my inertia).

Your favourite crime/thriller writers?
Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, David Peace, Horace McCoy, Eoin McNamee, James Ellory (pre-The Cold Six Thousand), Andrew Taylor… and many, many more.

Which crime novel have you read recently that really knocked you out?

Recently, I’ve loved Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer, Hard Twisted by C. Joseph Greaves and A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar.  

A Willing Victim by Laura WilsonFavourite non-crime/thriller author?Lots – particularly Evelyn Waugh, J.G. Farrell, Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton, Charles Dickens and Daphne du Maurier.

Favourite crime movie or thriller? The Italian Job (original version), Rififi, The League of Gentlemen, Les Diaboliques and Twelve Angry Men.

You’ve been framed for murder. Which fictional detective/sleuth would you want to call up?Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes (I’d have to toss a coin).

Laura Wilson‘s latest novel is A Willing Victim, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Crime Novel. This powerful and disturbing story begins on a dank November day in 1956, when DI Ted Stratton is called to a murder scene – a loner has been stabbed in his Soho lodgings.

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