Monday 20 March 2017

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), which went to air from 1969 to 1970, has never been one of my favourite ITC series but I have to admit it has a certain odd charm.

Jeff Randall (Mike Pratt) and Marty Hopkirk (Kenneth Cope) are partners in a private detective agency in London. When Marty is killed Jeff thinks he’ll be running the business alone but while Marty is certainly dead he is far from ready to retire. He might be a ghost now but he’s still a very useful partner. Marty is very limited in his ability to interact with the world of the living. He can’t touch objects or people but being invisible to everyone apart from Jeff makes him almost the ideal private eye - he can keep people under surveillance without ever having to worry about being spotted.

The film of Randall and Hopkirk still exists in another sense as well - Marty’s widow Jeannie (Annette Andre) is Jeff’s secretary and assistant. Jeff Randall is the only one who can see the ghostly Marty. Marty is keen to help his old partner but he’s equally keen to keep an eye (at times a rather jealous eye) on his pretty young widow.

The tone of this series varies from fairly serious to quite whimsical. Some of the stories are reasonably realistic (apart from the presence of Marty) while others veer wildly in the direction of the fantastic and even the farcical. 

Randall and Hopkirk are not exactly at the glamorous end of the spectrum as far as private detectives go. In fact they’re very down-market, frequently broke and generally rather shabby and seedy. They make most of their money from divorce work and other slightly sleazy investigative jobs. And that’s the major problem with this series. Combining the supernatural and private eye genres might have worked if the private eyes in question had been glamorous and up-market, or perhaps better still amateur crime-fighters in the style of The Saint. It doesn’t always quite work. Jeff Randall is very much a private eye in the down-at-heel gritty realist style of Public Eye. The supernatural elements lend themselves to light-hearted banter and the kinds of misunderstandings and confusions that can be very amusing if handled with the required lightness of touch but that necessary lightness of touch is totally at odds with the rather hard-boiled Jeff Randall desperately trying to make ends meet by taking any job that’s offered no matter how unsavoury it might be.

It’s not that there’s anything terribly wrong with the scripts in general. Tony Williamson and Donald James wrote the majority of the scripts and both were fine television writers. The plots are often inventive and at times make very clever use of the supernatural element. The problem is that the tensions between the light and breezy supernatural comedy elements and the gritty realist tough guy private eye elements are never resolved satisfactorily because they’re inherently incompatible.

There were disagreements behind the scenes among the production team which doubtless explains why the tone of this series is somewhat inconsistent. 

Cyril Frankel acted as creative consultant (and directed many of the episodes) and aimed to give the series a certain distinctive look with lots of greens and browns, which works quite well. It also has to be said that production values are in general quite high. Frankel also very much wanted the series to have a very Raymond Chandleresque feel to it

When you’re making a series that features a gimmick (such as a ghost) the trick is to find ways to use the gimmick advantageously without the results seeming too contrived. The episode That's How Murder Snowballs (written by Ray Austin) is a good example of the right way to do this. Randall is investigating a theatrical murder - a mind-reading act that went fatally wrong. Randall needs to go undercover which means he needs to land a job in the theatre - rather difficult for someone with no theatrical talents or reputation. Luckily he does have a partner who is a ghost and it’s very easy to do a great mind-reading act if you have a ghost to help you out.

The reason this episode works so well is that Austin eliminates the tough guy angle altogether. Virtually all the action takes place in the theatre, with Randall undercover as a show-business type. Mike Pratt softens his performance here, to good effect. Since the entire story inhabits the make-believe world of the theatre the supernatural elements work delightfully. A ghost may be out of place in the world of hard-boiled private detectives but he seems right at home in the theatre. Having exactly the right mix of suspense, action and comedy also helps.

Just for the Record is nicely whimsical. Randall and Jeannie are employed to keep an eye on contestants in a beauty contest while Marty stumbles onto an incredible robbery at the Public Records Office. Not the sort of place most people would think of robbing but there are ultra secret documents stored there that could be sold for millions to foreign newspapers. In this case the thieves are after something much much bigger than mere money. 

In Murder Ain't What It Used to Be! Marty encounters a fellow ghost and it’s not a happy meeting. This particular ghost was a Chicago gangster who has been waiting thirty-five years for revenge and now thinks his chance has come, but he’ll need the help of the living. Which means he wants Jeff Randall to carry out his vengeance for him. While things get rather farcical at times Tony Williamson’s script is actually quite clever and the resolution is very neat and impressive. 

Whoever Heard of a Ghost Dying? pits Marty and Jeff against a very formidable adversary - an expert in occult phenomena who knows how to handle ghosts, and even knows how to exorcise them. A very good episode.

In The House on Haunted Hill Jeff takes a case that is oddly appropriate - he has to investigate a haunted house. He has another case going at the same time, looking into the theft of a consignment of diamonds, so he assigns Marty to the haunted house case - who better than a ghost to investigate a haunting? It’s not a bad episode - fairly lighthearted without being silly.

In When Did You Start to Stop Seeing Things? Marty is understandably worried when he realises that Jeff can no longer see him or hear him. He’s even more worried when it appears that Jeff is behaving very strangely and seems to be involved in some very shady goings-on. Marty realises that Jeff needs to consult a psychiatrist but how can he convince him of this if Jeff can no longer see or hear him? It’s an episode that illustrates the major problem of this series, the odd mixture of whimsicality with much darker themes, but this particular story resolves that conflict with reasonable success.

The Ghost Who Saved the Bank at Monte Carlo is a delight. Marty’s eccentric Aunt Clara has come up with a fool-proof system for breaking the bank at Monte Carlo and it appears that three separate gangs of crooks want to get hold of that system. This one is played purely for fun (and succeeds admirably) with a wonderful array of ruthless but not very efficient criminals spending as much time double-crossing each other as conspiring against poor Aunt Clara. The terrific supporting cast includes John Sharp, Roger Delgado, Nicholas Courtney (yes, the Brig from Doctor Who) and best of all the great Brian Blessed!

Most of these early episodes were penned by Tony Williamson and his approach to the series is spot-on - plenty of fun and clever use of Marty’s ghostly capabilities.

Who Killed Cock Robin? is rather enjoyably lighthearted and is typical of Williamson’s approach. Jeff’s latest case is a bit out of his usual line. He has to act as bodyguard for a bunch of birds, of the feathered variety. The birds were the main beneficiaries under the will of an eccentric old lady but her other heirs would be quite happy to see those birds out of the way. They’d also be quite happy to see each other out of the way.

When the Spirit Moves You is another Tony Williamson episode and it’s pure delight, with con-man Calvin P. Bream (Anton Rodgers) who can see ghosts but only when he is drunk. And it so happens that Marty needs Calvin to see him, so he has to keep getting him drunk.

The later episodes were mostly written by Donald James and generally speaking they emphasise the hardboiled private eye stuff rather than the whimsical fantasy angle. He was a fine writer but perhaps his style was not as well suited to this series as Williamson’s.

For the Girl Who Has Everything is a very good Donald James episode. A wealthy and much-married American woman is being troubled by a ghost. This is more of a classic murder mystery story with ghosts as a bonus.

In The Man from Nowhere a man shows up claiming to be none other than Marty Hopkirk, in a new body. Jeannie seems at least halfway convinced by his story. Jeff of course knows the man is a fake but he can’t very well tell Jeannie about Marty’s ghostly existence. The real puzzle is - what does the fake Marty want? This is a pretty solid story and it has the added bonus of the always wonderful Patrick Newell as a guest star.

Somebody Just Walked Over My Grave is a pretty good episode about 18th century grave-robbers, a phony aristocrat, a feckless heir with agoraphobia and a burning desire to be a painter (despite a total lack of talent) and a kidnapping that seems rather suspicious.

Could You Recognise the Man Again? is one of the episodes that is more or less a standard private eye story with Marty’s ghostly appearances almost tacked on as an afterthought. Jeff and Jeannie are key witnesses in a murder case against a gangster but will they live to testify? Vendetta for a Dead Man is another routine private eye tale that fails to take much advantage of Marty’s ghostly presence, although it’s still extremely well executed and highly entertaining. Marty is completely superfluous in It's Supposed to Be Thicker Than Water, a routine story about beneficiaries to a large estate being killed off one by one. The Trouble with Women is another episode with a hardboiled tinge to it. Randall finds that a routine job investigating a philandering husband has lead him into a very awkward situation. You Can Always Find a Fall Guy is also a hard-boiled PI story, in which Jeff is employed by a nun although perhaps he should have realised that it’s an odd sort of nun who wears eye make-up. He also should have realised that maybe he was being set up. It’s a fairly good episode of its type, with good guest appearances by Juliet Harmer (known to cult TV fans for Adam Adamant Lives!) and the always delightfully nasty Garfield Morgan.

The Ghost Talks is interesting. Mike Pratt had managed to break both his legs which presented rather a problem. The solution was to have him play his scenes from a hospital bed, with Marty recounting his adventures on an early case when he was still alive. This offered the opportunity for the audience to see a live Marty which provided a change of pace. The story itself is a decent spy thriller tale with Marty conned into stealing state secrets.

Phony psychics are naturally going to pop up frequently in a series dealing with a ghost. Ralph Smart’s But What a Sweet Little Room is a fairly routine but well-executed example of such stories.

As the series progresses it becomes noticeably more hardboiled and realistic in flavour while also taking less and less advantage of the ghostly angle. Personally I prefer the more light-hearted episodes and they’re also the ones that tend to make the most of the supernatural element.

All three regular cast members - Mike Pratt as Randall, Kenneth Cope as Marty and Annette Andre as Jean Hopkirk - are excellent. Mike Pratt really does make a terrific seedy private eye.

Despite its flaws Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) is actually pretty entertaining, more so than I’d remembered. The earlier episodes (mostly written by Tony Williamson) are better than the later ones but they’re all enjoyable. Recommended.


  1. Interesting views there.

    I think any show is allowed one unlikely element to it. With The Saint, it's that trouble always finds him; with The Avengers, it's that everyone is a bit mad; for The Champions, that the main trio have supernatural powers.

    With that in mind, the unlikely element here was used up with the ghost concept. That means that Jeff couldn't be the penthouse-living, playboy-detective with spy-fi gadgets that he might otherwise have been if it was a show without a ghost in it.

  2. I've been going through the box set the last week - I'd seen this show several times over the years since the 80s, but only recently got the dvds. It's one of Network's better box sets, with a whole disc of extras and two detailed booklets - I hadn't realised that it was a flop with viewers and critics on its original broadcast - but it also has Network's infuriating habit of putting the episodes completely out of order!

    The comical and fantastical episodes are definitely the best ones - I've been laughing out loud all week; there really are some brilliant episodes. The Monte Carlo one was awesome - and the sequence with Clifford Evans in "When did you start to stop seeing things?" is one of my favourite in all of TV. Alfred Burke clearly has fun as a campy fake spiritualist in one episode, a million miles from the performances I've normally seen him give. But the rest are only really worth watching for the cast and guest stars - and stunt doubles who look nothing like the actors.

    Apparently, the show was conceived as a serious detective show - how on Earth they thought they were going to make that fly as a straight action/private eye show with a ghostly sidekick is beyond me. It just shows that even the best show runners can still get it wrong.

    Reading the booklet, it's another show where the actors and behind the scenes stuff is often more interesting than what's on screen. Mike Pratt - who co-wrote A Disturbing Case, one of the better episodes IMO - had been an award-winning songwriter, and did this show between seasons at the Royal Shakespeare Company!