Shiny Shelf

Taggart: Bad Medicine

By Iain Hepburn on 08 October 2010

If you’re on the southern side of Hadrian’s Wall, you may, but more likely may not, have heard about ITV’s spat with their Caledonian counterparts at STV.

The two broadcasters fell out after STV began opting out of showing network programming such as ‘Kingdom’, ‘Al Murray’s Happy Hour’ and even ‘The Bill’, replacing them with their own content.  Initially airing old documentaries and dramas, these eventually gave way to fresh, Scots-produced content or buy-ins not available elsewhere – such as acclaimed Aussie drama ‘Underbelly’.

As the stakes raised and both sides began eight-figure compensation legal battles, the world’s longest-running detective series looked to be a high-profile casualty of their spat.  ITV decided not to commission Taggart, at that point still a fixture in the schedules 14 years after Mark McManus’ death.

For a while that looked like it for the cop show.  Then STV announced it would produce a new series – the 27th – of ‘Taggart’ regardless of whether ITV would show it.   Eventually the network relented and a co-production deal, also involving digital channel Alibi, was struck.  Viewers in Scotland would see the show first, with ITV following up in 2011.

All of which means while viewers in England were watching Dame Maggie Smith in an Edwardian frock on ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ knock-off ‘Downton Abbey’, up here STV viewers were watching a semi-naked young man tied to a chair, sliced and diced with a stanley knife, used as a human ashtray, then having a couple of B&Q’s best roofing nails rammed through the back of his napper.

This show contains graphic scenes of torture from the start, said the continuity announcer.  They weren’t kidding.

New lead writer – and former ‘Sea of Souls’ scribe – David Kane staged a subtle reboot of’ Taggart’ with ‘Bad Medicine’, the show’s 104th episode, to go along with the glossy new production and stylish direction overseen by ex-Spooks helmer Bill Anderson.

Strathclyde’s finest, Burke, Reid and Ross – no Fraser, after actor Colin McCreadie was fired at Christmas in a terse two-minute phone call – found themselves investigating the death of a junior doctor involved in making ecstasy, and battling both the intrusion onto their investigation by an old English colleague of Burke’s probing a similar death, and pressure from the new chief super at Maryhill CID, Shona Spurtle… sorry, Siobhan Redmond.

Given the show had to introduce Redmond and new pathologist Duncan Clark, set up the relationship – and antagonism – between Burke and guest stars Reece Dinsdale and Steve John Shepherd as the visiting Anglo cops, show both sides of the social tracks in Glasgow AND re-establish the gritty fundamentals of’ Taggart’, that Kane found time to tell a compelling, sad story in just an hour is frankly remarkable.  And he did so without sacrificing anything of the show’s central trio.

Blythe Duff and John Michie, as series stalwarts Jackie Reid and Robbie Ross, make for a wonderfully melancholic, middle-aged partnership as they sit lamenting their empty lives during a late night stakeout in the Barras.  Meanwhile Alex Norton, an angry potato in a rumpled mac, is gifted the kind of lines that only work growled in a southside accent.

‘D’ye think I’m as thick as your granny’s soup?’ he demands of his bemused English counterpart during one confrontation, before planting a suspect face first into a door to make sure he knows to come down to the polis to give a DNA sample.

His approach to policing – Gene Hunt with a broken bottle of ginger – brings him into conflict with his new boss in a way not seen in the show since Taggart and the Biscuit butted heads, and kicks off what looks like the start of a subtle background arc for the season.

The traditional ‘Taggart’ twist was dealt with satisfyingly as Burke faced off against the killer – nailgun pointed between his eyes – in a eerily lit, moodily shot car park.  But while the killer’s identity was no surprise, the brutal denouement certainly was, with the closing seconds lead to a shocking turn of events.

One of the oldest jokes about ‘Taggart’ was how the show could keep the name, given the death of its lead in 1995.  But in losing Mark McManus, ‘Taggart’ became as much about the soul of Glasgow as it was about telling crime stories.

The series has evolved and grown up as the city has done, from the tail end of those No Mean City days in the early 1980s, through the Garden Festival and City of Culture at the tail end of the decade and into the 90s, when urban regeneration and a newfound cultural confidence fired up the city socially, creatively and economically.

The Glasgow of Goldbergs, the Buck Rogers Burger Bar and the Gorbals as a symbol of urban poverty has given way to the Glasgow of the Italian Centre, the Grill on the Corner and the Merchant City, and Taggart has followed suit – becoming a glossy, modern policing thriller while not losing site of its local origins.

The rest of the UK gets to see Taggart in 2011.  But their loss is very much, for the moment, STV’s gain.

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By Iain Hepburn

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