Hill Street Blues — Killer TV No 4

hsb6NBC, 1981-87

‘Oh, my gawd! Here it is Christmas Eve, and I’m gonna get shot in a moose suit.’ – Andy Renko

Daniel J Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Michael Conrad, Bruce Weitz, Joe Spano, Charles Haid, Michael Warren

Identikit: Chronicling lives of police officers at a station house in an unspecified US city, exploring their work at the front line of law enforcement and the subsequent conflicts with their private lives.

Creator Steven Bochco was king of the cop show during the 80s and 90s, and this series about the characters in a city police precinct was adored by a dedicated following. US magazine TV Guide once voted it best ever cop show, but today it looks a little polished and tame in comparison to more recent grit fests, such as The Shield or Southland. Unlike those recent cable network shows, which were free of network TV’s censorship and advertising demands, NBC’s Hill Street Blues was a little wholesome to contemporary eyes. But it was still a shift towards more realistic, multi-storylined drama, with handheld cameras, African-Americans among the main characters, slang dialogue, a backdrop of urban breakdown and social hardship, along with a attempt to show characters not always going by the book. Skilfully balancing human drama and a little humour, Hill Street Blues took us through a day at the station from roll-call to late-night sign-off, portraying the officers’ trauma and problems in dealing with prostitution, drug racketeers and killers. There was also a gallery of well-liked characters, from station Captain Frank Furillo and his legal adversary come romantic partner Joyce Davenport, to Detective Mike Belker (who bit those he arrested), SWAT squad Lieutenant Howard Hunter, toothpick-chewing Neal Washington and streetwise Sergeant Lucille Bates. It also gave us a great theme tune, the roll-call segment as an intro to each episode and many powerful stories. The series picked up eight Emmys in its first season (only surpassed by The West Wing), and American network TV wasn’t the same thereafter.

Classic episode: Grace Under Pressure (season 4) – Sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) dies while making love to Grace Gardner (Barbara Babcock); Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson) is arrested for prostitution by a rookie cop; and Sandy (Linda Hamilton), the girlfriend of Officer Coffey (Ed Marinaro), is raped.

Music: The series’ famous piano theme was written by Mike Post and was a hit on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Watercooler fact: Steve Bochco followed the huge success of Hill Street Blues by having a hand in creating LA Law, Hooperman, Doogie Howser, MD, NYPD Blue and Murder One – but also the misfiring Cop Rock, a police procedural that combined with Broadway singing and dancing. The series’ theme song, Under the Gun, was performed by Randy Newman and Mike Post was the show’s music supervisor, but the misguided venture was unanimously found guilty of being rubbish by a jury critics and became infamous as one of the mega-flops of the 1990s.

Murder in the First, Fox UK, Taye Diggs, Kathleen Robertson PREVIEW

Murder in the First..Kathleen Robertson as Hildy Mulligan and Taye Diggs as Terry English...Murder In The First
Inspectors Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson) and English (Taye Diggs) in Murder in the First. Pics: Fox

Rating: ★★★

Fox UK: starts Friday, 16 January, 10pm

Story: Homicide detectives Terry English and Hildy Mulligan as they investigate two seemingly unrelated murders. The mystery deepens, however, when they find both murders have a common denominator in Silicon Valley prodigy Erich Blunt.

STEVEN BOCHCO is a legendary name in TV crime drama. The US producer and writer has some landmark series on his CV, including LA Law, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue.

If you look at my Q&A with top British author Ian Rankin below, he cites Hill Street Blues as his favourite US crime series of all time. That drama, which ran from 1981 to 87,  had a comparable impact on television viewing that The Sopranos had 10 years later.

With its multi-stranded storytelling and gritty edge, Hill Street Blues so shook up its network NBC that the honchos were disturbed by the initial audience reaction, which labelled it ‘depressing, violent and confusing… There were too many loose ends.’ Those are the words of an internal NBC memo from 1980.

Tom Felton, aka Malfoy, is suspect one

Yet it went on to win eight Emmys in its first season and revolutionised TV narrative. NYPD Blue is still fondly remembered, too.

.Murder in the First..Tom Felton as Erich Blunt...Murder in the First 1, ep. 1 "Pilot".
Whiz-kid Erich Blunt (Tom Felton)

So, news that Bochco, now aged 71, has co-created a new series (with Eric Lodal) should have us all putting out the bunting. Murder in the First is made by TNT in the States and will appear on Fox UK here.

Set in San Francisco, it follows a single case across 10 episodes. Two murders, at first appearing unconnected, land on the desk of inspector Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson) and Terry English Taye Diggs). They soon discover that both crimes are connected to Silicon Valley prodigy – and complete git – Erich Blunt.

Harry Potter fans will recognise Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy, as Blunt and immediately start hissing.


[Read more…]

Third degree: Ian Rankin

Ken Stott as Rebus with Claire Price as Siobhan Clarke

WE’VE dragged one of Britain’s major crime practitioners in for questioning. Multi-award-winning Ian Rankin is the creator of Edinburgh detective inspector John Rebus, the tenacious but chippy hero of bestsellers such as Black and Blue, Fleshmarket Close and Resurrection Men. The character was turned into a series by STV with first John Hannah and then Ken Stott portraying him. ITV filmed Rankin’s standalone novel Doors Open in 2012. After retiring Rebus in Exit Music, he introduced his readers to Malcolm Fox in The Complaints, before bringing Rebus back in 2012’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave.

Your favourite British crime series or thriller on TV?

Edge of Darkness.

Favourite US crime series or thriller on TV?

Hill Street Blues.

Do you watch much TV these days, and if you do, which crime series are you enjoying?

I don’t watch much TV. Other media seem to get in the way. I find myself stockpiling DVD box sets for that elusive rainy day.

All-time top TV cop?

Top TV cop has to be Jack Regan. No, wait – Columbo. Or Jane Tennison…

Which unfilmed book/character should be made into a TV drama?
I’d love to see Adrian McKinty’s Troubles-era Northern Ireland books on TV or film.

Rebus has already been filmed by ITV, but what about Malcolm Fox? Which actor would be good playing him?

I never have a clear idea of my main characters’ faces and physiques so it’s hard for me to say who
the perfect actor would be. Sean Connery once told me that if he’d been 20 years younger he’d have jumped at the chance to play Rebus.

Least favourite cop show/thriller?

I thought TV made a right hash of Liza Cody’s terrific Anna Lee books.

Do you prefer The Wire or The Sopranos?

The Sopranos probably edges it, despite the ending.

Marple/Poirot or Sherlock Holmes?

Never a huge fan of Agatha. So it has to be Sherlock. I was very impressed by the modern reworking of the character and stories.

Wallander – BBC or the Swedish version?

Ooh, tough. Branagh is always watchable, even when not doing very much. But I have to plump for the original, don’t I?

US or British television crime dramas?

Robbie Coltrane as Cracker

I like both, but I’m feeling patriotic, so I’ll say UK. Prime Suspect, Life on Mars, Cracker – all British, all class.

Your favourite crime/thriller writers?

To be comprehensive, it would be a very long list. It would include Ruth Rendell, Lawrence Block, Leo Malet, Michael Connelly, but also Pascal Garnier (who I’ve just discovered), etc etc…

Have you read a crime novel that’s really knocked you out lately?

Pascal Garnier’s The Islanders. Is it crime? Psychological suspense? His books are like non-Maigret Simenon novels.

Favourite non-crime/thriller author?

Again, there are so many: Muriel Spark, Thomas Pynchon, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson…

Favourite crime movie or thriller?

The Third Man. Or The Godfather. Or The Maltese Falcon. Maybe The Long Good Friday. Or Get Carter…

You’ve been framed for murder. Which fictional detective/sleuth would you want to call up?

It would have to be Rebus. He knows the territory and has a pretty solid record.

Ian’s latest Rebus novel is Saints of the Shadow Bible, which is out now in paperback. For all the latest on him, check out ianrankin.net

Follow @crimetimeprev

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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