Watching The Detectives - Spender


In a series of articles Susan Omand and Steve Taylor-Bryant are going to remember the policemen, spies, and criminal specialists that entertained them over the years. Today Steve looks back at Spender...

"We have a man in a wheelchair strumming a banjo, an officer of the law who looks like he belongs with destitute winos and a convicted felon. What kind of piss pot outfit is this?"

Jimmy Nail was something of a national treasure at the end of the 1980's. The Geordie actor had found worldwide fame in the surprise hit Auf Weidersen Pet and Morons From Outer Space but, as the decade changed, so did Nail, returning to television with something darker and more gritty.

After leaving a stakeout to use a pay phone to call for backup, Spender's partner is attacked and left critically ill. The police force in London think it's time Spender went somewhere else for a bit so he's reassigned. Back to Newcastle. The city he spent nearly two decades trying to get away from. Apart from an ex-wife, his daughters and some lowlifes, no one in the North East knows who he is, which is seen as perfect to take down some scumbags. Spender refuses to use police stations, instead he works out of his friend's music shop, rents a flat and commandeers a pretty sweet car. Unconventional, moody, brilliant.

What Nail and his co-creator, Ian La Frenais (Lovejoy/The Commitments), managed to do was pave the way for the more serious shows with troubled characters that were to come in later years. The likes of Luther, some twenty odd years after Spender debuted, owes a debt of thanks to Nail for making the hard nosed and emotionally unstable copper more palatable to an audience that, at the time, was tired of the great police procedural shows all coming from across the pond. Nail produced a policeman that trod the line between right and wrong and very often fell the wrong side with his actions but not to be corrupt, he did what was necessary to get the job done and I don't remember many other shows from these shores that teamed up an often reluctant officer of the law with a disabled musician and an armed robber quite so effectively. The casting was superb. Nail was as unpolished as you would want from someone in a situation he didn't want to be in and he wore that world weary look like a badge of honour. Teaming him up with the hapless desk jockey, Det. Sgt. Dan Boyd (Berwick Kaler), for the first few episodes allowed the character of Spender to have that verbal punch bag at the start whilst he settled back into his familiar surroundings and got to grips with Newcastle life again. That life included the 'before Coronation Street' Denise Welch as Frances the ex-wife and Welch added some family realism to life as a policeman that you don't often get in drama shows. Sammy Johnson as Kenneth Norman Oakley, or Stick as he was known, was an ever present member of a much fluctuating cast and was funny, talented and a joy to watch in every scene. He had obvious chemistry with Jimmy Nail from their time together on Auf Weidersen Pet and it's no surprise that he went on to star alongside Nail again in Crocodile Shoes.

The pace of the dialogue was slower in Spender than in more modern programming and that led to an almost relaxed watch, you could actually just sit back and enjoy the show. I like edge of the seat stuff, I like rapid fire storytelling but, on occasion, a more deliberate format is very welcoming, especially when you have the regional accent to get accustomed to, and Spender had a lovely blend of emotion, action, one liners and grittiness that is quite hard to match. I'll leave you with Superintendent Yelland's quote from the debut episode Homecoming which sums it up best...

"You're a disrespectful, insolent, hard nosed pain in the arse. But you're my pain in the arse"

Image - Wikipedia