TV review: New Tricks | Caligula with Mary Beard

EVERY year around this time I watch the first in the new series of New Tricks, try to get into it because millions watch, try to understand its weird allure – and fail miserably.

New Tricks, BBC1, Tuesday, 9pm

Alan Whicker: Journey’s End, STV, Sunday, 10.15pm

Caligula With Mary Beard, BBC2, Monday, 9pm

It’s our most popular drama and a phenomenon. America, home of cool shows, loves it and a slew of copycat codgers have come in its wake. Applications for the most recent Mastermind included no fewer than 14 choosing its case history of caperish crimes for a specialist subject.

Okay, that was a joke, but if New Tricks started out as one – maybe some BBC trendies commissioned it ironically – then the gag has succeeded brilliantly or backfired horribly, depending on your view. Me, I can do old folk. I can do gentle. And even though he remains the grumpiest actor I’ve ever had the misfortune to try and interview, I can do James Bolam, although he’s since left New Tricks complaining the show has gone stale. No problems with any of that, but New Tricks should be cleverer about the fact that none of the principals could give chase down long flights of back stairs or too far into an abandoned warehouse without tripping over a predictable hazard (cabling belonging to another film-crew shooting another crime show, for instance). It should be wiser about advancing years, too. And without doubt it should be funnier.

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“Er, Vince Table.” This was what Alun Armstrong’s character chose to give as a false name to a suspect last week. He was sat at a card table at the time. I’d like to chat to Bolam about the rottenness of gags like that one but probably we wouldn’t get very far. I’d mention The Likely Lads within the first three minutes and he’d walk out (our greatest-ever sitcom, but he doesn’t like talking about the past). Anyway, maybe I’m being unkind to Vince Table. He’s under stress from being suspended from duty, never mind that Armstrong is about to be written out of the show. He’ll be replaced by Nicholas Lyndhurst, which should bring the combined age down a bit. At its height it was 266.

Nothing against oldsters on our screens, as I say, and in fact we’re seeing New Tricks fall victim to a sad and all too familiar trend. I’ve long complained about dramas casting youth in mature roles in a desperate attempt to get the pimplier end of the population to watch; it doesn’t work. And in New Tricks, in place of Bolam, we now have Denis Lawson, who not only thinks he’s got a chance with comely hotel receptionists but last week – in a yarn with the show-offy setting of Gibraltar – BROKE INTO A SORT-OF JOG. Surely this is against the fundamental principles of New Tricks? Well it would be if I could remember what they are.

The memory plays games. The way I like to think it happened, back in the 1960s, was this: one night I’m being introduced to Whicker’s World with its incredible title sequence – the show’s name surely painted on the runway because CGI hadn’t been invented, the presenter actually striding out underneath a jet airliner because CGI etc – and the next morning I’m on a plane for the first time, peas bouncing thrillingly on my in-flight tray.

I was worried the tribute Alan Whicker: Journey’s End, being on ITV, might have skipped over his earlier BBC work, but with Stephen Fry narrating – “He was the James Bond of documentary TV, the original Whickerpedia of world affairs” – there was some cracking black-and-white footage of the great man finessing his style. Even on a fast police speedboat in Hong Kong harbour, chasing junks, spray everywhere, he wore a suit and tie, hankie poking out, and never missed a beat as he intoned into a cumbersome microphone resembling a medieval orb. Today’s reporters would wear trendy waterproofs and expressions reading: “Aren’t I brave and questing?”

It became easy to mock his style. It became easy to sneer that latterly he was only interested in hanging around the monogrammed swimming pools of the super-rich. Well, here were reminders of how he put the world’s wealthiest man on the spot, how he elicited “upper-class tears”, how he told Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier the rest of the planet didn’t like him with the dreaded Tonton Macoutes lurking nearby. What this programme didn’t relate was that Whicker, confronted by machetes, insisted: “Make way, British television.” This was pre-New Tricks British television, obviously.

He had flamingos sacrificed, an affair with his sister and elected a horse as his consul. So the story about Caligula goes, anyway.

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Mary Beard dispelled quite a few myths but still concluded, in an engrossing profile, that any “porn movie, Roman-style” would have to have him as its lead.