Filed Under Small Screen Star

by John Boland

James Garner is the sole actor to be included in David Thomson’s magisterial New Biographical Dictionary of Film on the strength of a television role.

There are, of course, other performers who attempted a glittering movie career and only achieved stardom on the small screen – Lucille Ball, Ed Asner, Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda, Larry Hagman, Ted Danson, Henry Winkler – but Thomson singles out Garner, who became a beloved figure due to his presence in people’s living rooms. “I stress that domestic intimacy,” Thomson writes, “because it is one of Garner’s strengths”.

Garner starred in Maverick from 1959 to 1962 and in The Rockford Filesfrom 1975 to 1982 and both proved punishing schedules compared with the namby-pamby careers of most movie stars: he made 124 hour-long episodes of the former and 114 of the latter. That, Thomson points out, is the equivalent of well over 100 movies, “and if any actor could claim 100 movies made with the wit, narrative speed and good-natured ease of Maverick and The Rockford Files he would be Cary Grant?”

Well, Garner, who’ll be 76 this year, was never quite that, but he’s been one of the most amiable pleasures provided by American television in the past 40 years and I mention him here because The Rockford Files is currently being revived on RTÉ1 every weekday morning, which means that, if the channel wants to show every episode, Jim and Rocky and the assorted low-lifes they encounter when they step outside their Los Angeles beach trailer will be with us until the autumn.

I, for one, won’t mind at all. As with that other enduringly addictive series, Columbo (now occasionally on Network 2 at weekends), there’s the not inconsiderable satisfaction of watching engaging characters going about their business in situations that good scripts, expert editing and a shrewd sense of place make both believable and intriguing (you get some of the same pleasures, though to a lesser degree, in the intriguing Monk currently showing on Network 2 and BBC2).

The bottom line is that nobody ever does anything stupid in The Rockford Files, unless, of course, the makers mean them to. Which brings me, I’m afraid, to the second episode of RTÉ’s new thriller Proof, where characters are constantly doing and saying things that I don’t believe for a second, the fault lying in Tony Philpott’s script, which seems to think that gratuitous displays of aggression will establish character and create tension.

Journalist hero Terry, for instance, doesn’t get the information he requires from a coroner’s assistant and yells after him down a crowded corridor: “You failed the bedside manner in medical school, didn’t you? That’s why they only let you work with the f*****g dead!”

What’s that all about? Or there’s Terry’s fact-gathering expertise when he approaches a garda about a murder victim and barks: “Can you tell me what he died of? Boredom? Mad Cow Disease?” Yeah, that kind of approach always works wonders with the cops, especially when you’re a despised hack working freelance for a weekly local rag with a circulation of 2,473.

I also found it difficult to credit that an accountant’s brains can be spattered all over his office walls and that the police can automatically accept he committed suicide by shotgun. Where did he get the shotgun, anyway? And had he a licence for it?

As for the politician, actor Bryan Murray has spent so much of his career specialising in false bonhomie that it’s impossible to believe anyone would be taken in by the fraudulent show of sincerity oozing out of his every pore.

The series is well filmed and well paced and the underbelly of Dublin life that it evokes is disturbingly persuasive. Some of the acting is good too, all of which makes it a pity that an uncertainty of tone, both verbally and dramatically, badly flaws the enterprise. Still, I’ll stick with it to the end, if only to see how it’ll be resolved.

An uncertainty of tone also diminished Arts Lives: Pulling Strings (RTÉ1), which offered a profile of the Lambert family of puppeteers. I’ve never been a fan of puppet shows and the appeal of Wanderly Wagon always escaped me, but I recognise that Eugene Lambert is a national institution and I was hoping that this film would explain the appeal of what he does, and perhaps provide some insights too.

But the film-makers didn’t seem to have made up their minds on an approach to their subject and the result was a curiously flat account of a life and career, in which you felt that things were being left unexplored, though you weren’t sure quite what.

The first instalment of The Voice (Channel 4) was another disappointment. Purporting to examine what the narrator called “the oldest and most intimate form of music-making”, it disregarded technical and musical analysis in favour of clichéd banalities.

The subject of this first programme was the female voice, but all we were told was that Bessie Smith embodied “honesty”; that Mahalia Jackson “put gospel on the map” and gave “full rein to her personal emotions”; that “even people who don’t like jazz like Ella Fitzgerald”; that Patsy Cline “changed the course of country music” and that Aretha Franklin was “the undisputed queen of soul music.”

Oh, and Bono informed us that singing at its most intense was like “standing up with no clothes on,” while Beyonce assured us that “you can hear people’s hearts when they sing”.

In other words, the programme told us absolutely nothing, or nothing worth hearing, anyway. The BBC series, Walk on By, shown a couple of years back, was infinitely more engrossing and informative.

Over the next couple of months on BBC1, 10 luminaries will be trying to persuade us that the British sitcom each of them has chosen is the best of all time by arguing their case on Britain’s Best Sitcom. The sitcoms were chosen by a poll of viewers and narrowed down from 50 (which were shown last week) to the final 10. Among those in contention for the honour are the dim and dated Open All Hours, the unbearably twee The Good Life and the truly wretched The Vicar of Dibley.

Not in contention are The Royle Family, Father Ted or I’m Alan Partridge, which gives you some idea of the sense of humour of British viewers, who plainly don’t deserve good comedy.

Previous post:

Next post: