TV - Watching The Detective: Waking the Dead

Waking the Dead

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 Taylor-Bryant takes a look back at a British cold case classic...

When it comes to certain types of investigation the United States tend to do them better. Forensic analysis, autopsy type stuff, computer thingamajig, the States have excellent shows and an almost flawless back catalogue dating all the way back to Quincy M.D. We Brits tend to do gritty characters and villains that you could actually see yourself becoming better than anyone, and that’s fine too. Sometimes though a show comes along and takes the good from its cousin over the pond and blends it perfectly with the tropes we love here in our country. One such show was the incredible Waking the Dead.

Each case was split into two hour stories aired as one hour parts. There was your usual detective types that we love so much over here but there was elements of the United States fascination with cold cases, the psychological profiler was included a lot, something I hadn’t witnessed on British television since the excellent Cracker, and you had the forensic science that we love our US counterparts for. In the same room. Working the case hand in hand. It was an American show structure done with British values and my goodness didn’t it work.

The lead detective, the head honcho, the father figure, was Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd, played by the magnificent Trevor Eve who I adored in A Sense of Guilt and just about remember from Shadow Chasers. Boyd loved his team, drove them to produce but would always back them to a fault, but was less kind, shall we say, to suspects. His involvement in cold cases stemmed from the disappearance of his son so each case Boyd ran, a total of about 45 if memory serves, was personal to him and that showed in Eve’s portrayal. If I ever find myself in the terrifying position of needing a team like Boyd’s I want the lead detective to be Boyd. Boyd, as good a detective as he was, couldn’t wrap up these unsolved crimes on his own though. Some of his detection techniques were the old school techniques that had left these cases unsolved for so long as it was, so he was backed up by a profiler in the form of Sue Johnston’s Dr. Grace Foley.

If there is a more talented and versatile actor working in television than Johnston then I’ve never seen them. Johnston was epic playing the experienced profiler with aplomb bringing a different way to the table to Boyd, producing an almost perfect Ying and Yang relationship to the screen. Then we come to the forensic pathologists. Holly Aird was the original actress, working four seasons as Dr. Frankie Wharton before the death of a colleague drove her to leave police work and return to pure research. Frankie was followed up by Dr. Felix Gibson (Esther Hall) who I didn’t really like in the role, probably because I don’t handle change well, before Tara Fitzgerald took the role of Dr. Eve Lockhart for the remaining three seasons.

I really liked Holly Aird. She reminded me of my doctor, stern and serious but always completely professional which you sort of want in a medical practitioner, but whilst I enjoyed the serious approach her doctor to the cases I felt there could have been a bit more inclusion into the team dynamic. She always seemed a bit to abrasive to her colleagues and after a while that character trait becomes grating. Maybe because her character was a scientist first and a police investigator second? I don’t really know but after a while I stopped caring so much for her. In fact I didn’t really care so much for the pathology side of Waking the Dead again until Tara Fitzgerald was introduced in season six. Her doctor was pathologist through and through, she even had her own body farm where she could study different aspects of a body’s breakdown after death (whilst great in Waking the Dead do not under any circumstances watch the spin off The Body Farm. It’s awful, awful television).

Add in some great junior detectives, Claire Goose as DC Mel Silver was my favourite and her death a catalyst for a lot of the shows changes, and you have some great serious and gritty British police procedural drama mixed with the best, more scientific approach of the American shows. It worked and it worked well, for the most part, and it’s the blueprint for most shows to come. It maybe ran too long, nine seasons of two hour murder cases is quite a lot, but it took on stories that were uncomfortable and not your usual television delights. There was religion taken on, fanaticism, race, homophobia, war crimes, and child abuse.

These weren’t the usual crimes of passion, these were difficult topics to cover, they needed covering to bring the real plights to the public attention, but to be able to take an abusive subject matter and make that entertaining enough that a fair few million people would tune in each week? That takes guts, writing of higher level than most television shows get, and a cast in tune with their subject matter. There has been police shows I have preferred since but none seemed to capture every element quite as well as Waking the Dead managed.

Follow Steve on Twitter @STBwrites

Image - IMDb.