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Thursday, 25 July 2013

It's Alright, It's OK: 10 Years of New Tricks

Tuesday sees the tenth series of BBC1's hugely popular crime drama New Tricks. In those ten years the series has grown in popularity and is consistently one of the channel's highest rated and most repeated drama series. New Tricks has never been a critics favourite, that often seems the way when a show garners huge public appeal but I've seen every episode of the nine series to date and it continues to deliver every year.

The premise behind New Tricks is so simple it's hard to believe it hasn't been done before. UCOS (Unsolved Crimes and Open Case Squad) brings together the skills of three retired policemen to look into crimes from the past. Of course with such a simple premise it's important the team bounces off each other well, and that is perhaps the key to the shows success and longevity.  The four leads - Amanda Redman, James Bolam (he left  in 2012 after nine series) Alun Armstrong and Dennis Waterman (he sings the theme tune but didn't write it ha!) compliment one another so well that even if you're not particularly fussed about the crime story their performances will draw you in.

In 2007, an episode from the fourth series received viewing figures of 9.25 million, becoming the second most watched programme on BBC One that week, and the most watched New Tricks episode to that point. The fifth series continued this good run - on two occasions it was the most watched programme that week, and the seventh episode gained a new series high rating of 9.36 million - second only to the X Factor.

So what is it that makes New Tricks work so well? Aside from the performances of its lead actors and the fact that audiences will never tire of a well told and intriguing mystery, I think the key is that it's a very British show. The balance of humour here is particularity well done. We do shows like this really well. In my opinion it's something America for example is completely unable to achieve. I've always enjoyed the well natured banter between the principal characters and the sense of fun in the series. I also think the fact that the mysteries aren't too bleak or taxing is another reason New Tricks has maintained its popularity with the audience. It's a show you can watch for an hour and enjoy and doesn't ask much from the audience. I also like that the episodes manage to tell crime stories whilst weaving in with the character's personal lives.

2012 saw the first real changes though as James Bolam left his role as Jack Halford (Ex-Detective Chief Superintendent) citing that he felt the series had "gone stale." Bolam's spot at UCOS was filled by new team member Steve McAndrew (Dennis Lawson). The fact that Lawson slotted in seamlessly was another example of the strength of the writing and that the show is strong enough to withstand losing a long-standing member of the cast.  That strength was to be pushed further again in 2012 when Alun Armstrong announced he was to leave in the upcoming tenth series. This was a real blow as it seemed the show was slowly starting to fall apart. Armstrong's decision to leave came when the cast gave the Radio Times a frank and honest interview before the ninth series. Armstrong admitted he was "not enamoured" with his character's recent scripts. Waterman weighed in, saying "People aren't as stupid as writers think" and adding: "We all want to move to Copenhagen to get to do some really extraordinary television."  The real damage came when the cast alluded to helping write the scripts. Armstrong said: "If we felt that a story didn’t work, or that bits of the story could be improved, then – if the writer wasn’t around – we would set about rewriting it ourselves."
Writer-director Julian Simpson took to twitter to vent his anger at the comments.  "A New Tricks I wrote and directed airs on Monday. I can tell you EXACTLY how much of it the actors wrote: not a f***ing comma."  Armstrong will be leaving in the new series when UCOS will gain yet another new member in former Only Fools & Horses actor Nicholas Lyndhurst. Lyndhurst says:  “I am thrilled to have been asked to join New Tricks. I have always admired the clever mixture of charm, wit, and intelligence the show brings to its audience, and feel very flattered to be part of the BBC’s top drama series.”

Perhaps the real strength of New Tricks is its ability to withstand the changes and still deliver. The format works and the audience know it's reliable. Other BBC series like Hustle and Spooks have had similar cast changes and it didn't dent their popularity at all.  Viewers still value strong writing and well drawn characters and I'm sure New Tricks will continue to deliver both. This may have to be the case though as Dennis Waterman will be the only original member of the cast remaining for the tenth series following the news that anchor of the team Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman) would also be leaving UCOS behind. She told the Daily Mirror: 'I love New Tricks and I have loved playing Sandra - I've got some gritty plot lines - but I feel I have to try something new.'

Over the course of the ten years the story lines do seem to have moved away from the character's personal lives in favour of more time for the crime which is a shame and perhaps it's not as charming as it was in the early days but it's consistently entertaining.  Its popularity may baffle critics but it's an unstoppable force for BBC1 with even the repeats drawing significant ratings.

There's no question that this new series will feel very different and it is a shame that it has gone through so much change. Alun Armstrong leaves halfway through the run and Redman much later so the tenth series will have the authentic New Tricks feel for the majority of the ten episode run. The opening episode is a special two parter set in Gibraltar and sees Brian Lane confronting the daemons of  his past. The fact that the characters are leaving in the middle of the run means that each of them get proper and well rounded farewells. Whatever you think of New Tricks it's going anywhere any time soon.

Buy the DVDs from Acorn Media


Janet Moyers said...

New Tricks has been a staple in our house for years, but the newer episodes, sans Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman, leave that depressing after-taste of an American police drama. This is nothing against the new cast members, but there was little interaction between the team and the chemistry seems gone. The banter and whimsy is gone, the over-bearing melodramatic music and last, but not least, ditching the theme song sung by Dennis Waterman, have left us completely disappointed. If we'd wanted to watch an intense, over-the-top, depressing crime drama we'd stick with American TV.

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