Watching the Detectives

It occurred to me recently, when I was watching David Suchet playing Hercule Poirot, in the last of the Christie books featuring the Belgian detective, that it’s not often that you get to follow a particular character on TV and watch, over a substantial period of time, as he/she ages. As you watch, the lead character changes their methods of working, lifestyle, even their opinions. These changes are often governed by the fact that they are getting older. I began to think that this change, this ageing, is one of the attractions for me of this kind of programme. I have watched a lot of Wallander programmes (with three different lead roles) and have also read a lot of Mankell’s Wallander books. In fact, I’ve followed him from a young rookie to the end of his career. This in turn, led me to wonder if this is possible in any other genre of books other than detective fiction. I came up with V.I. Warshawski, Inspectors Brunetti and Bordelli and Harry Hole. I can’t come up with something similar in a non-crime area.

The same with TV programmes. The long running series tend to be detectives: Morse, Tennyson, Frost etc. Now, of course there have been some long established characters in soap operas, but they have a large cast, with some characters coming and going over the years, but the storyline never concentrates on one character for very long. The main characters all have their own individual big storyline from time to time, usually culminating in a big finish because the actor playing the character is leaving, Christmas is coming or some other big calendar event is about to happen.

Of course, there’s Dr Who in all his many forms. I’m not a great fan to be honest, but I watched the recent anniversary edition and it focussed on an element of the character’s history. But generally it seems to me that each character/actor portrays their own sets of traits and nuances, without too much of a continuing story-line. – Apart from those pesky daleks who turn up with great regularity. – But maybe I’m wrong.

Anyway, turning this back to Nordic Noir on TV, Sarah Lund in The Killing ducked out of this ‘grow old with the character’ longer term commitment. Quitting while ahead? At the time of writing, it looks as though Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen is going to do the same thing. However the way has been left open for ‘a’ Sarah Lund to return in the future. Will the same happen with Borgen?

Some main characters in a TV series have been played by more than one actor. Does this matter? It doesn’t to me. (Apart from the televised Rebus stories. Ken Stott was Rebus, John Hannah never will be!) In fact, with Morse, they did it the other way round, introducing us to the Young Morse, after John Thaw had died and there couldn’t be any more of ‘his’ Morse. We’ve also had the Young Montalbano recently, after a considerable period of getting used to the older, more mature character.

Within the group of work colleagues that I am part of – we tend to refer to the group as Nordic Noir HQ, we regularly pick over the latest programme, the series even. But I’d say we spend more time discussing the character, her/his relationships, their choice of actions, choice of house and furnishings even, rather than the plot line. This doesn’t mean that the plot is not important. Of course it is. But the plot has been set down already by someone else, the script writer(s), and the author. We can try to guess what the outcome will be but we can’t change it. What we can change, are our perceptions of that character by getting to know them and their lives around them. And if that means watching them age gracefully or disgracefully, so much the better.


  1. Margaret Redpath · · Reply

    interesting article. i agree the characters are often more interesting than the plot (well interesting is maybe not the right word because i do want to find out what happens but i am mostly interested in the characters and how the develop, react to situations). can i throw harry potter into the mix as non-crime. although we don’t get to see harry potter at the end of his career we do get to see him age and watch his development into a young man over 7 years.

  2. Great post, and good point Miriam, I never thought about it. It’s reminds me how awkwardly child actors grow old on TV, and how their character tend to get a bit attenuated, usually not in a good way.
    I sure wish I could watch Saga and Martin grow old together, but if you saw Bridge 2 already it looks like that probably won’t happen (no spoilers)…

  3. Thanks for your comments on Sheila’s blog piece Margaret and Jeremy. Harry Potter is a good example to add in and seems to be one of the better examples of character development where a child actor was used. We haven’t had the Bridge 2 here yet Jeremy but I sure would love to see Saga in her old age, i am sure she would be spectacular!

  4. Great piece – I completely agree. I’ve always felt that film is about plot but TV is about character. I would even argue that the sense of “what happens next?” in TV comes from the fact that you want to know whether the characters you love are okay. There are plenty of series that I roll my eyes at the plot (especially in later seasons) but I’m hooked by character – Dexter comes to mind. Even Wallander – I think that the plots are good, but the character is GREAT.

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