Top six amateur TV detectives

I sense I am about to kick myself for not paying more attention to TV over the years, because  Georgina Turner at The Guardian has identified "six amateur (non-police) TV sleuths", about whom she writes: "They're not on Her Majesty's payroll, yet somehow they constantly find themselves banging up badduns. Have-a-go heroes or interfering know-it-alls, we're not sure, but we do know one thing: Britain would be overrun with cunning killers without them."

Before reading any further I was sure I was going to demur, as one has to disagree with these lists on principle, and sure enough I do. The six honoured tecs are: Miss Marple  (obvious, but fair enough, I suppose); Jonathan Creek (watched one episode once, hated it for the facile lack of actual detection); Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote (please! and what of the "Britain" in the header?); Rosemary and Thyme (never watched it, but according to the reviews it was (is?) poor); Scooby Doo (er? real? and "Britain" again?); and Dick van Dyke as Dr Mark Sloan in Diagnosis Murder (never seen it, but can it be British? Wasn't Burt the chimney sweep enough of us for him?)

So, not watching TV is a bit of a challenge, but in addition to Miss Marple and without leaving these shores, I would venture to suggest (from my era): Hazell (Nicholas Ball); Brother Cadfael (Derek Jacobi); Eddie Shoestring (Trevor Eve); Anna Lee (Imogen Stubbs); and, of course, Sherlock Holmes (various). But I could equally have chosen Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), Hetty Wainthropp (Patricia Routledge – never watched but the name has stuck), Lovejoy (Ian McShane), Cordelia Grey (via P. D. James) and even Lord Peter Wimsey (Ian Carmichael, who did a good job with a spectacular bit of mis-casting). There must be lots of others given how much TV I have missed in the past 18 years - and even so I was not reduced to Scooby Doo.

Anyone got any better ideas? Top six fictional (book) amateur detectives? Top six US TV amateur detectives?

14 thoughts on “Top six amateur TV detectives

  1. Mark Sloan is in the USA, as are as you say Scooby Doo and Jessica [everyone around her gets murdered] Fletcher but we are speaking about the Guardian a newspaper that has never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
    After my little rant might I suggest as British amateur [not employed by the police] TV sleuths:
    Mrs Bradley played by the delicious Diana Rigg, surely too beautiful for the part.
    Albert Campion played by Peter Davison
    Frank Marker of Public Eye played by Alfred Burke I think, I am dating myself remembering this one.
    Lord Peter Wimsey as played by Edward Petherbridge with Harriet Walter playing Harriet Vane getting Lord Peter and me overexcited.
    and of course the real amateurs of the 1920s Tommy and Tuppence.
    Tuppence played by the gorgeous Francesca Annis, I can’t remember who played Tommy I didn’t notice him. ;o)

  2. Well with Francesca Annis on the scene, who can blame you Norman? 😉
    I remember Francesca A in a very good series with Neal Pearson (mmmmmm), Between the Lines, but he’s a policeman in that so does not count. (He isn’t in the third of the three series but that was a very sad, weak series compared with the two good ones that had gone before.)

  3. Oh I do like Jonathan Creek. I know there’s not a lot of actual detecting but it’s witty. And it has Alan Davies.
    I did used to like Lovejoy – I only ever saw episodes when I was travelling in your neck of the woods as I don’t think he ever made it to Aussie TV.
    Hetty Wainthrop was ridiculous (but then I could never get Hyacinth Bucket – my most hated character ever from all of television history – out of my head when I watched).
    I didn’t mind the MRS BRADLEY MYSTERIES – made in 2000ish but set in the 1920’2/30’s – title role was played by Diana Rigg (who Norman has a crush on?). It was over the top but quite funny.
    How about Monk? Although he’s Amercian and did used to be a policeman so he probably doesn’t count.

  4. Campion has to be in the top n, absolutely – though the books are much better than the TV.
    Not sure about Lovejoy – on the TV he’s a loveable rogue, in the much darker (and profoundly better) books he’s a loveable murdering cowardly blunderer. But I’m not sure he’s a detective in either.

  5. As a Danish viewer, there are obviously many of them I have never heard of. I have read about Cordelia Gray and Lord Peter Wimsey, of course, but never ´seen´ them. My husband and I enjoyed Anna Lee very much, and I have toyed with the idea of reviewing the whole series one day (I bought 6 nice hardbacks on a sale some years ago, some of them with Imogen Stubbs´ bright smile on them). I also like Hetty Wainthropp so even from my disadvantaged geographical position I could have come up with better answers than Scooby Doo.

  6. I suspect that Georgina Turner hasn’t looked much further than stuff that’s currently on daytime telly. Don’t dismiss Scooby Doo, though. Nancy Banks-Smith, the Guardian’s veteran and consistently wonderful TV critic, tells how, many years ago, she was stopped in the street by a market researcher. She was first asked to name her favourite TV programmes and, apparently quite sincerely, answered ‘Scooby Doo’ and ‘Crossroads’ (ask your parents). She was then asked her occupation. When she replied, ‘Television critic for The Guardian’, the interviewer said, ‘Well, if you’re going to take the mickey…’ and stormed off in a huff.

  7. Maxine, Neil Pearson is back on TV at the moment, BBC1 Tuesdays at 9pm in All the Small Things, about a choir. You can catch up on the first (last) night’s episode on iplayer.

  8. Michael – but is Scooby Doo British? I always thought it was American (as well as being a cartoon). The header of the Guardian article specified “British”. I sometimes do think that I could write better blog posts for the Guardian than some of their bloggers. (Or perhaps I should write, I could write more accurate titles and standfirsts!)

  9. Here’s a bit of a lawyer’s quibble. A non-police detective might still not be an amateur. For instance, Poirot, Marlowe and Holmes often charged for their services. Of the true amateurs, I’m still a huge fan of Jane Marple, but among the others I do enjoy Jonathan Creek and a variety of people who stumble across murder, including Cyril Hare’s Francis Pettigrew, who sadly has never appeared on television.

  10. While Christopher Foyle (in the WWII-era series “Foyle’s War”) is a proper Detective Chief Superintendent, his driver, Samantha Stewart (MTC), is not. However, she is increasingly involved in detective work as the series progresses … would Sam count as an amateur? She gets my vote, as does Campion.
    Scooby Doo is very American, and used some indefensible social stereotypes recognized throughout the US in the 1970s, but often specifically associated with California. The not-very-bright (due to drug use) hippy (Shaggy), the unattractive and humorless lesbian (Velma), the vacuous cheerleader, the handsome jock. Note also that all human characters are white.

  11. Lovejoy did make it to Aussie tv. It aired on the ABC yonks ago.
    UK TV reran the series not that long ago. Early last year I think. So if you have pay tv keep your eye open, it’s sure to bob up again in the future.

  12. Well, yes – certainly Scooby Doo was American (though I’m intrigued by the insights into Velma’s sexuality – I must have missed that episode…). I do recall an episode in which they encountered a British archaeologist called, by writers who had clearly never ventured far beyond Beverley Hills, Professor Hyde-White. I should perhaps add that my children were big fans at various points, so I’ve sat through more Scooby Doo than I care to think about.
    Martin makes a fair point about professional PIs – I’m not quite sure which side of the fence my own favourite, Albert Campion (played pretty well by Peter Davison, I thought) is on. If we’re including non-police professsionals, I remember a TV version of Tim Heald’s Bognor books with David Horovitch, which I quite liked but no-one else did (if I remember correctly, Bognor wasn’t a policement but worked for the Board of Trade, unlikely as that now sounds). And I suppose there was always Jeff Randall and his late partner.

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