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DVD reviews: 'George Gently' and 'The Last Detective,' British mysteries never broadcast in the U.S.

The British detective series has long been part of the fabric of American television, going back at least to "The Saint" in the 1960s and finding a regular perch in 1980 with the premiere of the PBS anthology Shawsmall "Mystery!"(lately folded into the "Masterpiece" franchise). Holmes, Marple, Poirot, Wimsey, Rumpole, Lynley, Wainthrop, Foyle: These mysteries can seem at once more exotic and more realistic than the domestic brand — more realistic, perhaps in part, because more exotic. (It must be said too that the British have long loved American cop shows, quite possibly for the same reasons.) There is a sort of American viewer for whom most television is just a place holder between the latest imported sleuthfest.

Still, not every British series is broadcast stateside, even as more and more cable networks look to the UK for programming. But a couple of splendid recent detective shows otherwise unseen here have been made available on DVD: "George Gently: Series 1" collects three feature-length cases originally broadcast in 2007 and 2008 — four more are being written — while "The Last Detective: Complete Collection" gathers all 17 episodes from the show's four seasons, from 2003 to 2007. Their heroes are in many ways polar opposites: Gently a legend of Scotland Yard transferring himself to the hinterlands, North London "last detective" "Dangerous" Davies the low man on a short totem pole. But they share a seriousness, an ethical code stricter than their colleagues', a perseverance and a nose for the truth that leads them to reject the obvious solution. They always get their man.

And though the first show is a drama and the second is three-quarters comedy, each exhibits the best qualities of their kind: well-realized, believable (if often eccentric) characters, both major and minor; place as a kind of additional player; and stories that are rooted in ordinary human failings, which tend to make these shows both sadder and funnier than their American counterparts.

Set in 1964 — the period is evoked without making too big a deal of it — "George Gently" comes from a series of novels written by Alan Hunter, a former farmer and antiquarian bookseller. Originally set in Norfolk, they have been removed to the far-flung seaside reaches of NorthumberlandModdangerous just below the Scottish border; I assume this was for practical reasons, but the change enhances the sense of isolation and the distance from London, and the scenery is quite dramatic and beautifully filmed. The upside of the English weather is that it reads well on film; mood does not have to battle sunshine.

Gently is played by Martin Shaw, who has also played P.D. James' Inspector Adam Dagliesh. (And he starred in the "The Professionals," a "Starsky and Hutch"-inspired series from the late '70s that was the sort of thing the original "Life on Mars" was created to lampoon.) Driven to retirement by the murder of his wife, he follows the case to Northumberland, where he eventually decides to stay, and to continue working — for his own sake and in part to furnish moral guidance to an overly ambitious young detective sergeant (Lee Ingleby, who was Stan Shunpike in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"). ("I'm old-fashioned," Gently tells him. "I prefer to assemble the evidence and see which way it points.") Gently, whom Shaw gives both heft and delicacy, is not a savant but works from a hard-won understanding of human nature, which gives him a world-weariness as well as a certain liberality of mind.

The delightful "The Last Detective" features the mild-mannered Dangerous Davies (Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor Who), the hero of four novels by Leslie Thomas. The ironic sobriquet "Dangerous" is used by everyone, including Davies' colleagues, his estranged wife and his best friend, the waggish, unemployable bookworm Mod (Irish comic Sean Hughes), the Linus to his Charlie Brown. 

Dangerous: "Do you know 200,000 people go missing every year in this country?"

Mod: "That's amazing. Such an even number."

The show is set in the outer London borough of Willesden — something like setting a crime show in Tarzana — where policemen are on a first-name basis with the crooks they catch, or don't catch, and where Davies, whom one might say pro-actively lacks ambition, is "the last detective" his dyspeptic superior will ever assign to an important case. His unimportant cases have a way of becoming important, however, and often the mystery to be solved is not the mystery it first seemed; they are as much mysteries of behavior — of how people are — as they are matters of crime-solving.

It's a little strange that Davies is made fun of by his peers, even as he continues to crack cases — it's as if Charlie Brown won ballgames all the time but no one noticed — but this is resolved some as the series goes on. And although Davies is a good guy, Davies does not play him as heroically faultless — he can be impatient, or priggish, or slow off the mark. But he cares, and he gets the job done.

The complete set includes a 1981 TV movie with "Carry On" stalwart Bernard Cribbins as Davies.

— Robert Lloyd

(Martin Shaw as George Gently, top, and Sean Hughes and Peter Davison as Mod and Dangerous. Photos courtesy of Acorn Media)

 
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