Aidan Smith: Thought of bringing back Taggart again is criminal

Mark McManus who played CDI Jim Taggart died in 1994 but the programme carried on ' and a return is rumoured. Picture: Shutterstock
Mark McManus who played CDI Jim Taggart died in 1994 but the programme carried on ' and a return is rumoured. Picture: Shutterstock
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We couldn’t do justice to No Mean City again so let’s have something new, writes Aidan Smith

Before the 2014 Commonwealth Games, stand-up comedians had great fun at Glasgow’s expense, cracking jokes about local athletes having an excellent chance of winning medals because of their natural affinity with guns and pointy implements and their ability to run fast, established over many years of the police being in hot pursuit.

The legend of No Mean City endured in this lazy stereotyping, but how much of that was down to Taggart enduring, even after the show ended? The last instalment of the detective drama was broadcast on Scottish screens a good four years before the sporting spectacular but even now, somewhere in the world, Outer Mongolia perhaps, they may only have reached Season 2.

They might be believing what they see. That Glasgow is a place of big, square-shouldered overcoats for the living – Season 2 was the mid-1980s, the height of the wine bar era – and concrete overcoats for the dead. A place of rain-drenched streets and blood-spattered corpses. A place populated by dour men of few words, whether or not they’d had their throats cut.

Taggart survived the passing of the main man – Mark McManus who played CDI Jim Taggart. And even when, in 2010, the show staggered up a dingy close and collapsed in an oily puddle, deprived of the sustenance of any more new episodes, it didn’t really choke its last, thanks to endless repeats. When STV2 launched 16 months ago, what was the primetime treat? You guessed it: there had been a mhur-dhur, way back in 1992 or thereabouts, and the station’s bosses thought we’d like nothing better than to relive how our hero solved the case.

You wondered what the good law-abiding folk of Glasgow and the civic leaders thought of this. A bright and shiny new network and the best they could offer, the kind of programme they reckoned the citizenry would most enjoy, the show which STV2 decided was most representative of attitude and aspiration, was an old episode of Taggart.

You wonder now what Glasgow thinks about Taggart coming back. STV2 didn’t survive but Taggart could be about to return in a kind of prequel version. This would follow young Jim through the 1960s and presumably the grisly slayings which turned him into Scotland’s gloomiest man. Taggart’s creator, Glenn Chandler, is helping get the revival off the ground. “I think it would be a good idea,” he says.

Well, it’s certainly not a new idea. Inspector Morse has already returned as Endeavour, charting the early career of the crimebuster who became Oxford’s most melancholy man. But Endeavour is gentle Sunday night drama, with a gentle bump on the back of the head with the lead piping being typically the worst we see. Taggart has never been that.

Before Taggart began in 1983, our only regular exposure as viewers to crime carried out in Scotland had been the ten-minute bulletins of an avuncular fellow called Bill Knox. Crimedesk would round up the thefts of road compressors in the Central Belt, the suspects invariably being described as “toerags in brown anoraks”. But Taggart, which don’t forget was first called Killer, seemed to stretch back to the grisly tales found in the Penny Dreadfuls, and to the era when the High Court in Glasgow with a murder trial in full swing was the most popular live theatre around.

The court’s public benches were always jam-packed so maybe the show with its early success could be said to have been satisfying a guilty pleasure for blood ’n’ guts. McManus provided pawky humour to occasionally lighten the downbeat mood, usually at the expense of Taggart’s initial sidekick, the uni-educated Peter Livingstone. “Strangulation by ligature,” suggested Livingstone at the scene of the very first slaying. “We don’t have ligatures in Maryhill,” growled Taggart. But at the same time as the stiffs were piling up on our screens, Glasgow’s municipal leaders were striving to improve the city’s image.

A grim joke from the reign of terror of the razor gangs had a victim shout “Missed!” only for the attacker to confirm: “Try shaking your head.” The Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign presented a smiling face to the world, with the head still attached to the body. Mayfest was a cheeky attempt at stealing some of the Edinburgh Festival’s glory and hopefully avoid turning up on Crimedesk. Then in 1990 Glasgow had conferred on it the title of European City of Yer Actual Culture.

Taggart acknowledged the attempts at reinvention by parading a rogue’s gallery of vicious opportunists who’d think nothing of stuffing you into the foundations of the garish monuments to their greed. McManus died in 1994 and his last-ever scene, though he didn’t know it, was poignant indeed. Leaving the hospital bedside of his superior, who’d suffered a heart attack following an argument between the two men, his craggy features broke into a smile – the only one of his entire tenure.

In an astonishing act of pure dead gallus brazenness the show retained his character’s name as the title, even though the new bossman was called Burke. But the programme missed him. And then TV drama started to get bigger, deeper, subtler, cleverer and braver and Taggart – and many others like it – got left behind.

Not every show can be The Sopranos or The Wire but I would worry about this disinterment of Taggart because our expectations of the idiot-lantern in the corner of the parlour are now huge. Like the just-saved Hampden Park, another Scottish institution, would the Son of Taggart get the vision required and the budget? Probably not.

I would worry for the show if I cared about it but, no offence to its actors and especially those bumped off, I don’t. Let’s have something new. We produce so few dramas in Scotland and that’s criminal.