True Detective — Killer TV No 29

HERE’S the latest in our series of Killer 50 crime dramas…

True Detective Series 1.Episode 05 "The Secret Fate of All Life"..Charles Halford as Reggie Ledoux and Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle..?HomeBoxOffice

Backwoods terror – Charles Halford as Reggie Ledoux and Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle

HBO, 2014-

‘Who’d want to bring life into this meat grinder?’ – Detective Rust Cohle

Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, Tory Kittles

Identikit: We see Detectives Martin Hart and Rustin Cohle investigating the ritualistic murder of a former prostitute in Louisiana – and then discussing the case 17 years later when another body has been found posed in a similar style.

logosDARK AND unsettling, True Detective is a powerful, beautifully acted eight-part drama from HBO. Its A-lister stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson pin the audience to their sofas and play out a troubling story across several time frames, beginning in 1995 when they are teamed up to investigate the murder of a former prostitute in south Louisiana. The crime scene, in a field, is staged like a ritualistic killing, with the victim wearing deer antlers. While the investigation of the grisly crime is engrossing, the drama is really centred on Detective Rustin Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson). Cohle suspects the killer has acted before, Hart is not so sure. But the fractiousness in their relationship goes deeper. Cohle has a bleak outlook on life, while Hart is more of an average stressed cop with kids and a wife, to whom he is unfaithful. Cohle is damaged by the death of his own daughter, which led to a reckless time as a narco cop. The 1995 investigation takes them into underbelly of the Bible belt, and is intercut with interviews with the detectives 17 years later, when a similar murder is committed and they are asked to review the case. Detectives Gilbough and Panania are interviewing them now, and Cohle and Hart are talking to a digital camera, documentary style. By this time Cohle has succumbed to his alcoholism and is a long-haired has-been, who hasn’t seen his old partner since 2002. Was he more damaged by the investigation or the road death of his daughter? He was always aloof and unpopular with his cop colleagues, often fell out with Hart, who admired his intelligence but couldn’t stand his pessimism. ‘You don’t choose your parents and you don’t choose your partner,’ Hart tells his modern-day interviewers. But do Gilbough and Panania in 2012 actually suspect Cohle of being involved in the killings? Why did Cohle and Hart fall out irrevocably? And if the case was closed in 1995, how can a similar crime have now been committed 17 years on?

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Accused — Killer TV No.33


Stephen Graham and Sean Bean – Tracie’s Story

BBC1, 2010-2012

‘You’re the bitch. Right? Till you prove yourself in battle, till you return fire when under fire, you’re the bitch.’ Corporal Buckley (Frankie’s Story)

Anne-Marie Duff, Olivia Colman, Joe Dempsie, John Bishop, Warren Brown, Peter Capaldi, Mackenzie Crook, Juliet Stevenson, Christopher Eccleston, Marc Warren, Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sean Bean, Stephen Graham

Identikit: As each week’s main character climbs into the dock, the events leading to their being accused and tried for a crime are revealed.

‘No police procedure, thanks very much, no coppers striding along corridors with coats flapping. Just crime and punishment – the two things that matter most in any crime drama’ – that’s how writer Jimmy McGovern described his anthology series. Each story features an ordinary person who ends up in the dock. How did they get there, and do they deserve to walk free or be locked up? The hook for McGovern is the ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ aspect to the lives of many working class people, the fine line between trying to do the right thing and ending up on the wrong side of the law. Such are McGovern’s credentials as the writer of powerful UK television dramas such as Cracker, Hillsborough and The Street that Accused pulled in the cream of British screen talent.

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Oz — Killer TV No.34

1997-2003, HBO
‘The worst stab wound is the one to the heart. Sure, most people survive it, but the heart is never quite the same.’ – Augustus Hill
Christopher Meloni, Ernie Hudson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Harold Perrineau Jr, Eamonn Walker, Rita Moreno, John Lurie, Terry Kinney, Betty Buckley, Kathryn Erbe, Lee Tergesen, B. D. Wong, JK Simmons, Dean Winters, Scott William Winters, Edie Falco
Identikit: At the Oswald State Correctional Facility, the Homeboys, Muslims, Wiseguys Aryan Brotherhood, Latinos and other groups mark out their territory and live on their wits, while the authorities try to keep control.


The revolution wrought by subscription TV in the US has its roots here, with HBO’s first one-hour drama series in 1997. Set in Oz, aka the Emerald City, a penitentiary turned ‘correctional facility’, it follows the daily machinations of dangerous and lesser criminals just trying to get by, told in stark, brutal detail. The story is cleverly opened up when the usually law-abiding Tobias Beecher finds himself behind bars for a drink-driving killing – a lamb among slavering wolves, forcing audiences to think, ‘There but for the grace of god…’ Having been roomed with one of the more vicious inmates, he is then ‘saved’ by Aryan inmate Vernon Schillinger, and his life goes from bad to worse under the thumb of the predatory racist. Episodes are narrated by wheelchair-bound Augustus Hill (shot by police during his arrest), who offers insight and some wry humour, and the style is gritty cinéma-vérité. The show took advantage of the freedom in storytelling offered by premium cable, creating plots that were taboo on mainstream TV – male rape, drug use, ethic/religious intolerance, violence and homosexuality, while featuring full male nudity and bad language. The show was raw and gripping, but never captured the haul of gongs that later successes from HBO would – The Sopranos, The Wire etc. However, it lasted for six seasons and won a devoted fan base of viewers who were captivated by its freshness and honesty.
Classic episode: A Game of Checkers (season 1, episode 8) – first series finale during which an argument over a board game flares into a full-blown riot in seconds. Breathtaking episode that put all the tensions and conflicts among inmates and staff into hyperdrive.
Watercooler fact: Luke Perry, Eric Roberts, LL Cool J all made guest appearances, while cast regular Edie Falco went on to some great performances as Carmela in HBO’s The Sopranos.

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Inspector Morse — Killer TV No.32

ITV, 1987-2000

‘Richards didn’t kill her, but I’ll tell you who did. Do you want to know?’ – Detective inspector Morse
‘Are you taking the piss?’ – Detective sergeant Lewis
‘No, no, I’m not. The man who killed Anne Staveley is called Sophocles.’ – Morse
‘Who’s he when he’s at home?’ – Lewis
‘Look, I want you to do a couple of things for me, and then I’ll explain everything.’ – Morse
‘… Do I know this Sophocles? – Lewis
‘Only if you loved your mother, Lewis.’ – Morse
John Thaw, Kevin Whately, James Grout
Identikit: The cases of detective inspector Morse and his sergeant, Lewis, set in the university town of Oxford.


TV schedules, particularly in the UK, are jammed with detective procedurals shot in twee locations, most of which are televisual Horlicks – Midsomer Murders, Rosemary and Thyme, etc etc etc. Inspector Morse, however, got the formula right, and remains an outstanding success that UK television honchos would today still sell their children to replicate – hence the spin-offs Lewis (based on Morse’s successor and former deputy) and Endeavour (1960s-set prequel). The picturesque setting of Oxford was not too gratingly prim, being fairly pertinent to the stories in that Morse was a product of the university (though he didn’t complete his degree). In fact, he is so sharp intellectually that it was inevitable that he should end up a loner in his profession, even baffling his sidekick Lewis most of the time, such as when he alludes to a dead woman’s oedipal predicament in the pilot (quoted above). Based on Colin Dexter’s novels and brought to the screen by Tony Warren, Anthony Minghella and Kenny McBain, the secret to the show’s success was not just the procedural/whodunit mechanics of the mysteries, but the character of Morse and John Thaw’s affecting performance. He was more than the sum of his habits, however – beer, 1960 Mark 2 Jag, crosswords and Wagner. There was always a hint of melancholy about the singleton detective that made viewers root for him. His distinctive character was evident from the very first story, The Dead of Jericho – the real ale, his looking for love (the woman he is wooing in the pilot ends up dead), the mystery of his christian name, the classical music and gruffness. To some extent there was a lack of emotional depth to the drama in that Morse’s character did not develop much beyond these traits during seven series and five specials. But the intricate stories, boldly given two-hour slots in which to unfold by ITV, and the chemistry between John Thaw and Kevin Whately as Morse and Lewis added up to a staggeringly popular formula.
Spin-offs: Lewis, a sequel starring Kevin Whately, ran for several seasons from 2006. Endeavour, the prequel starring Shaun Evans, had its pilot in 2012.
Classic episode: Second Time Around from 1991. Morse believes the murder of a retired detective may be linked to a cold case from 18 years before – an investigation Morse was involved with concerning the murder of an eight-year-old girl, and which still haunted him. 

Watercooler fact: John Thaw, who died at the early age of 60 from cancer of the oesophagus, was a hugely popular TV actor in the UK who won numerous awards for his portrayal of Morse, including two Baftas and three National Television Awards, the latter being voted for by viewers.

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Life on Mars — Killer TV No.36

BBC, 2006-2007
‘A word in your shell-like… Don’t ever waltz into my kingdom playing king of the jungle.’
– DCI Gene Hunt
‘Who the hell are you?’ – DI Sam Tyler
‘Gene Hunt, your DCI, and it’s 1973, almost dinner time, and I’m having hoops.’ – DCI Gene Hunt
John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White, Dean Andrews
Identikit: A detective has an accident and is plunged 33 years back in time to an era when policing was more ‘robust’.
HIGH-CONCEPT crime drama – time-travel being the concept – that won a following through its freshness and cheekyness, principally in the character of Gene Hunt, the 1970s cop with unenlightened views on everything from women to coppering. Played with gusto by Philip Glenister, this throwback to 70s shows such as The Sweeney was the show’s star, making a straight man out of John Simm’s Sam Tyler, the contemporary cop pitched back in time. Sam, circa 2006, is distracted when his girlfriend, also a detective with Greater Manchester Police, is abducted by a killer. While David Bowie’s Life on Mars plays on his iPod, he is hit by a car – and wakes up in flares and butterfly collars on his shirt, with Life on Mars again playing, this time on an 8-track tape in his new car, a 1970s Rover P6. ‘I need my mobile,’ he tells the PC who finds him. ‘Mobile what?’ Plod responds. And so Sam finds himself part of Gene Hunt’s team, investigating a killer who may be related to the killer who has abducted his girlfriend in 2006. The first series is great fun, with Sam struggling with voices coming from his telly, apparently from a doctor treating him while he is in a coma in 2006, dealing with Hunt’s instinctual approach to crime solving – ‘Anything you say will be taken down, ripped up and shoved down your scrawny little throat until you’ve choked to death’ – and trying to find his way back to the present day. The culture clash between Sam, used to do everything according to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and bullying, bigoted, boozing Gene was beautifully written and played. The series – created by Tony Jordan, Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh – juggled its crime plots and Sam’s story well, but is best-remembered for the chance it offered to chortle at the good old/bad old days when women were ‘birds’, offices were thick with fag smoke and fingerprints took two weeks to process. Forgotten how we used to booze heavily at work? Gene reminded us – ‘I’ve got to get down the pub and give the papers a statement, and if I don’t get a move on, they’ll all be half cut.’ Two series of Life on Mars were followed by three further series of 80s-set Ashes to Ashes, with the focus on Keeley Hawes’s Alex Drake, but the retro-novelty and humour deflated during this run. Still, inspired mergings of the crime and sci-fi genres are rare, particularly ones with characters as memorable as Gene Hunt – ‘What I call a dream involves Diana Doors and a bottle of chip oil.’ It won an International Emmy for best drama in 2006 and 2008.
Classic episode: The finale of the first series was emotional and clever, with Sam coming across his parents in 1973 and trying to prevent his father, Vic, from running away, which he thinks will enable him to emerge from his coma. Gene reveals that Vic is a ruthless gangster, and Sam’s flashbacks through the series are revealed to be memories of his younger self that he only now remembers.

Watercooler fact: Life on Mars was remade in America, lasting one season; in Spain, where it was called The Girl from Yesterday; and Russia, which gave it the title The Dark Side of the Moon.

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Appropriate Adult — KIller TV No.43

DC Savage (Sylvestra La Touzel) with Leach (Emily Watson) and West (Dominic West). Pics: ITV

2011, ITV1

‘You’re helping me through the most terrible time. You’re my only friend.’ – Fred West
‘I’m not your friend, Fred.’ – Janet Leach
‘You are. We’re going on journey together, Janet.’ – Fred West
Dominic West, Emily Watson, Monica Dolan, Robert Glensiter
Identikit: The true story of how ordinary housewife and mother Janet Leach became the Appropriate Adult, or civilian counsellor, for one of Britain’s most notorious mass killers, Fred West, during his questioning by police.


The crime genre – books and films – frequently and luridly dabbles in depictions of serial killers, but few if any capture some of the mundane and evil truth of such criminals as powerfully as this two-part ITV drama. Extraordinary, sensitive and chilling, it offers a glimpse into the depraved world of Gloucestershire murderer Fred West and his wife Rosemary. It was criticised as insensitive in some quarters, but it is nevertheless a serious and carefully produced mini-series revealing some of the reality behind a crime few people could comprehend. It is based on the true story of Janet Leach, a social worker who volunteered to act as an Appropriate Adult, a liaison to help and support juveniles or vulnerable adults in police custody. Her very first appointment is to assist a 52-year-old man. No sooner has she entered the police interview to sit alongside him than the man is describing how he strangled his own daughter, Heather. ‘Hadn’t wanted to hurt her,’ he explains. ’I was scared, so I was gonna put her in the Wendy house, but then I thought I’d put her in the dustbin…’ He matter-of-factly describes using an ice saw to cut off her legs and head. He is, of course, Fred West, and Janet Leach finds herself acting as a supporting shoulder for one of the most disgusting mass killers in British history. Emily Watson plays Janet with wide-eyed dismay, and watching her the audience cannot help wondering what a trauma she went through. Dominic West, a long way from The Wire here, is extraordinary as the West Country bumpkin who lies, wheedles and charms as easily as he breathes, and who is by turns maudlin and monstrous. ‘Time for a cuppa, I’d say, Hazel,’ he chirps to the detective questioning him. When a third thigh bone turns up in his garden, Fred says innocently to the same detective, DC Hazel Savage, ‘Don’t know where that came from.’ Janet is a woman who must go home to a partner and her children at night and somehow keep a lid on the nightmare she is exposed to at the police station, while also finding it difficult to stop listening to the unfolding horror story she hears as Fred’s confidante. This is an appalling burden for her, but at one point she talks him into telling the whole truth and he admits to a further eight, ‘all right, nine, killings’. It was a controversial production, as any dramatisation touching on victims of recent crimes will be (some police officers were particularly critical), but the portrayal was not sensational or leering at the Wests’ crimes. No horror or crimes were depicted, just a disturbing portrayal of horrendously dysfunctional people. Dominic West, Emily Watson and Monica Dolan, who played Rose West, all won Baftas for their performances.
Watercooler fact: This was the third of ITV’s major dramas exploring real crimes, following This Is Personal (2000, about the Yorkshire Ripper) and See No Evil (2006, the Moors Murders).

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Out — Killer TV no.46

ITV, 1978

Tom Bell, Brian Croucher, Lynn Farleigh, Peter Blake, John Junkin, Brian Cox
‘Never thought I’d see you in the sewer with the shit up to your neck… I feel sorry for you.’ – Frank Ross to Det Insp Bryce
Identikit: A blagger emerges from prison determined to uncover those who betrayed him and his gang to the police.


Tom Bell completely dominates this hard-edged six-parter as Frank Ross, a gangster released from an eight-year stretch inside and determined to find out who ratted on his gang’s last robbery. Friends and foes, particularly the seedy cops, warn him to leave the past alone, but Ross can’t be deterred – ‘Faces to see, questions to ask…’ Like Walker in Point Blank and Jack Carter in Get Carter, Ross is mean and obsessed with rooting out his enemies, whatever the cost. But this minor classic from Euston Films, written by Trevor Preston, was more than a violent revenge saga. The characters are detailed and troubled, including Ross’s wife, Eve, who’s had a breakdown, and his son, Paul, who’s becoming a delinquent. Where some shows from this era can look sadly dated (try Widows, for example), Out had psychological depth and was packed with a seedy atmosphere and plenty of menace.
Classic episode: the finale, I Wouldn’t Take Your Hand If I Was Drowning, featuring Frank’s showdown with the detective who put him away, Bryce, deftly turning the tables on the morally superior but bent copper. 
Watercooler fact: By the time he died aged 73 in 2006, Tom Bell had had an acting career taking in theatre and 104 film and TV roles. While he gave many superb performances along the way (just watch him in Prime Suspect), he never really achieved the star billing and acclaim he deserved.
NEXT: 45 Homeland
PREVIOUS:  47 The Cops 48 Moonlighting 49 Brotherhood 50 Copper

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The Cops — Killer TV no.47

BBC2, 1998-2001

Katy Cavanagh, Rob Dixon, John Henshaw, Steve Jackson, Jack Marsden
‘Just go back to your house, Mr Bassett.’ — WPC Mel Draper
‘You can’t talk to me like that. You’re only a slip of a tart.’ —Bassett
I’m a police officer, and I can do what I like.’ — Draper
Identikit: The lives, stresses and small triumphs of officers on the beat in the northern town of Stanton.
logosA drama that early on utilised the verite style of filming, which suited a series dedicated to portraying ordinary coppers in a realistic, sometimes harsh, light. Arguing, bantering crudely, dealing with foul-mouthed locals, the officers are caught in the hurley-burley of unglamorous, street-level law enforcement cum social work. This was a show that so displeased the police that they withdrew their assistance for the second series. No wonder when The Cops opened with a young female constable, Mel Draper, turning up for a shift straight from a druggie night out at a rave, when a more experienced officer played by John Henshaw was shown abusing the rights of a young suspect, or when another constable has sex with a female member of the public he is assisting. But the series also exposed the difficulties officers faced – the rancid corpses, poverty and abuse they encountered. The drama was done with higher levels of adrenaline and panache by the US series Southland more recently, but The Cops was far more compelling than The Bill ever was and way better than most of the ‘warm bath’ cosies and period cop shows made in the UK these days. It was nominated for three Baftas for best drama, winning twice. The Cops ended after series three because executive producer Tony Garnett – who’s got form for producing gritty policiers, such as 1978’s Law & Order and Between the Lines – did not want to make any further episodes. Which was a shame.
Classic episode: The pilot sets the tone perfectly as a new-broom sergeant – or ‘tosser’ as one wizened PC immediately christens him – turns up at Stanton nick after his predecessor has died of a heart attack while chasing a scrote. Unreconstructed copper Roy Bramell is launching a one-man vendetta to nail said scrote, Vince Graves. Vince lives on the Skeetsmore Estate which, according to Roy, is full of ‘dirty, thieving, lying scumbags’. And a probationer WPC has to fend off the advances of a horny SOCO officer at a flat where she’s found a stinking, fly-infested corpse. The series’ infectious style of overlapping stories, street-shot action and realistic dialogue all immediately mark The Cops out as a sharp drama that still holds up well if viewed today.

Watercooler fact: The Cops put John Henshaw on the cover of Radio Times and on the TV map. Quite a feat for a former bin man who only decided to become an actor at the age of 40. He has since been in constant demand, appearing in series as wide-ranging as Emmerdale, Casualty, Early Doors, Heartbeat, Downton Abbey and By Any Means.

NEXT: 46 Out

PREVIOUS: 48 Moonlighting 49 Brotherhood 50 Copper

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