Inspector George Gently starring Martin Shaw PREVIEW

Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby in Gently Northern Soul
Martin Shaw as Gently and Lee Ingleby as Bacchus. Pics: BBC

Gently Northern Soul is the 90-minute story opening this new series. 

Rating: ★★★½

BBC1: Sunday, 26 August, 8.30pm

Story: It’s 1968 and after a Northern soul dance night at a Newcastle dance hall, the daughter of a West Indian family, who had been at the event with a friend, is found dead on waste ground. A difficult case for Gently and Bacchus is made more challenging by the racist attitudes that were common at the time. 

This is series five about the 1960s detective inspector nearing retirement. It’s the kind of series British TV chiefs love to make – basically, a period drama in a nice setting, Northumberland having been substituted for the less spectacular Norfolk of Alan Hunter’s novels.

Sign of the times – Maggie O’Neill as Matilda

For this series opener we’ve got a Northern soul dance night to jog memories, plus Harrington jackets, big hair, and Corsairs and Rovers on the streets. One less attractive piece of memorabilia from 1968 is the overt racism often seen at the time. ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs,’ as one landlady stipulates in her front window.

It is still shocking to be reminded how brazen and recent such views were, just as the 1968 Race Relations Act was about to become law, making it illegal to refuse housing, employment and services to anyone on the basis of race or national origins.

Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell
Racism is the powerful backdrop to this story, as a young black woman, Dolores, is found murdered on waste ground on the night after the Northern soul do at Newcastle’s Carlton dance hall. The crime exposes the nasty attitudes of the time, as shown in vicious notes through the door to Ambrose, Dolores’s West Indian dad and RAF veteran, and the hostility of others, including that landlady and the local ‘businessman’.

In the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination and Enoch Powell’s notorious rivers of blood speech, the glimmer of hope is that the mixed audience of young people enjoying the soul night don’t give a fig about the colour of their dance partners or their vinyl heroes.

When it turns out the dance’s DJ, who is related to the infamous Webster family, was dating Dolores, it seems Gently and Bacchus may have a motive because the lad’s father is against interracial relationships. But Bacchus also uncovers a culture of drugs and criminality behind the dances…

Eamonn Walker as the victim’s dad, Ambrose

Martin Shaw as Gently
Bacchus is meant to be headstrong, but is a hard character to like much. One minute he’s feeding a story to the local press that Dolores was a prostitute – because she was black and had money on her – the next, he is meant to be a figure of fun as he tries to learn soul dance steps so he can go undercover.

I was hoping Gently would chin him when he found out about Bacchus’s press leak, but happily one of the gangsters headbutts him instead.

All in all, this is a strong opening story, mixing harsh truths with the nostalgia. The setting and themes captivate, but Martin Shaw’s Gently is a bit distant, while Bacchus is plain annoying.

Cast: Martin Shaw George Gently, Lee InglebyJohn Bacchus, Simon Hubbard PC Taylor, Craig Conway Gary Watts, Pippa Bennett-Warner Dolores Kenny, Lenora Crichlow Carol Morford, Philip Correia Charlie Watts, Eamonn WalkerAmbrose Kenny, Gary Carr Joseph Kenny, Cliff LeeAlfred Braxton, Maggie O’NeillMatilda Braithwaite, John BowlerBernie Watts

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Inspector George Gently – Gently Upside Down PREVIEW

Rating ★★★

BBC1, starts Sunday, 4 September, 8.30pm

Story: The body of a missing schoolgirl is found in woods. As Gently and Bacchus investigate, they are drawn into the burgeoning world of pop and media celebrity

Crime fans on Twitter and elsewhere have still got ruffled feathers over the Beeb’s decision to axe the stylish drama Zen after just one series. Why chop that and not Inspector George Gently, has been a recurring complaint.

The reasoning of BBC1 controller Danny Cohen that there were too many male-dominated cop shows is pretty daft. If anything, Gently‘s leads of Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby are more hairy than Zen‘s (Rufus Sewell and Caterina Murino).

What’s more likely is that Gently is a settled brand, now in its fourth series, that’s ticking over nicely with overseas sales and an audience of around 5.5 million, it ticks the nostalgia box and presumably it has been cheaper to film in the UK/Ireland than Italy.

Bacchus ‘on a promise’
But while Gently is not bad, it’s not that special either. It is one of many by-the-numbers procedurals that fill the schedules, right down to the gruff detective and his regulation sidekick saying lines such as, ‘Where were you on the night of Friday the 29th?’

Pitch this well-worn template to any channel boss, throw in a nice regional setting (in this case, the North East) and a bit of nostalgia (Swinging Sixties), and it seems you can’t fail to get your cop show commissioned.

The shame is that this plodding formula never allows the plods we see every week to come to life. Apart some a couple of throwaway exchanges at the beginning and end of Gently Upside Down about Bacchus being ‘on a promise’ after work, the detective and sidekick remain crime-solving automatons.

Schoolgirl victim’s affair
At least the 2007 pilot gave Gently some human interest, when he postponed his retirement to track down his wife’s murderer in Northumberland (based on Alan Hunter‘s Inspector Gently novels).

Anyway, this first of two 90-minute films (the second is Goodbye China), sees Gently and his mop-top sidekick investigating the murder of a schoolgirl, Mary. It cleverly uses the explosion in youth and celebrity culture by having a couple of the victim’s friends getting mixed up with the makers of a hit regional pop show. 

Newcomer Kate Bracken – a very good ‘It Girl’
Detective and sidekick think Mary was having an affair with an older man, and proceed to suspect every older man who crosses their path – Mary’s father, the music teacher, the deputy head, the fading, ageing TV presenter. The latter is played by Neil Morrissey, who does a nice turn as a dissolute, lecherous has-been.

The mystery’s resolution is tinged with sadness, and the guest performances are good, particularly Sean Gilder as Mary’s father, and newcomer Kate Bracken as her friend and potential Sixties It Girl, Hazel.

So, a decent episode. But it’s still hard not to miss Zen.

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