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My Contemporary British TV Detectives

Stay Frosty

Stay Frosty

And so here we are at the end. I don’t know how many episodes of contemporary British detective television I’ve watched. Hundreds. A thousand. Of those, maybe three or four of them I regret—but the other nine-hundred and whatever were great time-wasters when I needed to shut down at the end of the day. Plenty of series didn’t fit in this column because they’re cold manure—Wire in the Blood, Cadfael. And there are others that are good but just didn’t make my personal cut—Second Sight, Foyle’s War, Case Histories, Miss Marple.

From time to time I’ve had fun thrashing Midsomer Murders, because it appears to be filmed on a whites-only agenda—my wife and I have a game we play called “Spot the Colored Person”; in approximately 80 episodes we’ve only had reason to play it four times. And there are any number of shows I haven’t seen because I don’t live in London and have to rely on Netflix, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater and friends’ burned DVDs, and I sometimes do things that don’t involve TV.

But I’ll lay money down that British crime television is dramatically superior to its American counterparts; the best British crime show of the last 20 years was A Touch of Frost (based on the novels by R.D. Wingfield); and the number-one contemporary British detective was Inspector William Edward “Jack” Frost, played by David Jason from 1992-2010.


The intro, as you can hear in the above video, was awful, always. That blobular sob of soprano saxophone—has anyone ever done anything decent with a soprano saxophone onscreen aside from Branford Marseilis on the score for Sneakers? And the final episode of Frost was a huge disappointment. But for eight seasons, A Touch of Frost was a rich, true-blue procedural. It showed life inside a police department, on the streets, and in housing estates with shading, humor, tenderness, very little style (not always a bad thing), and enough verisimilitude to rival Prime Suspect. Frost was a mess, a boob and a wit. A success and a failure—a hero. Warm when it was called for, and serious when no one else seemed to care. He was a romantic curmudgeonly hard-ass with principles, so he was easy to cheer for, even when he let you down.

As for the series, the episodes have complicated plots and take a long, plodding time unraveling them. The stories grapple with contemporary issues and deal with the world—racially, sexually, existentially. The colors are dated, but the stories are not. The acting's great, casting's great. Frost’s problems with his boss, the craven, noble Superintendent Mullet (what a name!), gave one of the series’ best relationships a ton of grit. Anyway, it’s excellent detective television. There aren’t many TV shows that I’d watch all over again, but Frost is one. He's the best there is. Here’s the very first episode. It gets better and better.