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Senior moments

New Tricks (BBC1); Mutual Friends (BBC1); Masterchef: the Professionals (BBC1)

27 August 2008

12:00 AM

27 August 2008

12:00 AM

Time to pay tribute to New Tricks, which ended its most recent run on BBC1 this Monday. The penultimate episode had 8.9 million viewers, which meant that more people watched it that night than Coronation Street. It has a good claim to be the most popular programme on television.

All of this brings much satisfaction. For one thing, New Tricks is everything a TV marketing man hates. It is about older people. It probably appeals to older people. Marketing men have a set of beliefs which are quite as irrational as any cult religion. One is that only young people are worth advertising to, since they are crazed neo-philiacs and can be persuaded to switch brands, whether of cars, cook-in sauce or toilet cleansers. By contrast, old people are set in their ways and no amount of advertising will shift their buying habits. This is piffle — the over-40s are every bit as likely to experiment as anyone else, and generally have more money too. But that is contrary to professional dogma and so is ignored.

You might wonder why BBC executives should worry so much about these matters when they carry no advertising. But the BBC is itself a brand, and we viewers are presumed to be too stupid to change channels once we have found the button marked ‘1’. The consultants’ mantras insist that the only worthwhile audience is a young audience, which can be tied to the Beeb by hoops of steel.

Then along comes New Tricks and proves them totally, joyfully wrong. It is not a great series, just a very good one. The plots are ludicrously complicated, so that by the end you are likely to be totally lost. Five minutes after it’s finished, you’ve forgotten whodunit. But you don’t watch detective series for the plot. ‘I thought it must be the vicar. Shall I put the kettle on?’ You watch for the characters, and New Tricks has them like sultanas in a fruit cake. If you don’t know, it’s about three coppers, near or past retirement, who belong to a unit that solves past crimes long abandoned by the Met. They may be crusty old curmudgeons, but they have guile, experience and some charm. Naturally they always succeed. They’re played by Alun Armstrong, an obsessive recovering alcoholic, James Bolam of The Likely Lads, whose wife was killed by a gangster, and Dennis Waterman, who plays Dennis Waterman with his usual flair. Their boss is Amanda Redman, whose father was a bent copper. You’ll have spotted that there is just a little bit too much back story here, which makes the script even harder to follow.

Still, it’s funny, it’s smart, it’s crisply scripted and it’s cheerful. It deserves to be number one, and for the first time (I believe) the BBC, having treated it with embarrassment and disdain, has announced that it will be back next year. Somewhere a marketing man is flouncing round in a huff.

The characters in Mutual Friends (BBC1, Tuesday) are probably a quarter century younger than New Tricks’ cops, but the elderly clichés are already in place. There’s The Big Chill-style funeral of an old friend at which things are said that would have been better left unsaid, the married couple in therapy cliché, and of course the scene where Dad misses the school play — cue close-up of little boy’s crumpled face. It works, I suspect, because the cast play it as a comedy rather than a drama: Andrew Alexander looks as if he is permanently about to announce that it’s Pimm’s O’Clock, and Marc Warren, who usually plays neurotic sleazeballs, shows real deftness as a neurotic almost honest lawyer. If it were an attempt to recreate Cold Feet it would be boring — as a series of set comic pieces, it works.

MasterChef: the Professionals (BBC2, Monday) is the third twist on the formula, this time featuring not amateurs, not celebs, but up-and-coming cooks who are already being paid. I found it hard to care very much. John Torode, one of the judges, has been replaced by Michel Roux Jr from Le Gavroche, who plays Mr Nasty to Gregg Wallace’s Mr Sometimes Quite Encouraging. They must be desperate for yet more new angles. Maybe MasterChef: the Ex-presenters, starring Torode and Loyd Grossman? Or Greasy Spoon: the MasterChefs in which Marco-Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal cook fried-egg sandwiches.

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