Public Broadcast, Private Eyes

Private Detectives from PBS’ Mystery!

Lord knows, the American public broadcasting network PBS’s flagship crime anthology series MYSTERY! isn’t exactly known for its tough, gritty fare.

Nope, it’s been mostly aimed at American Anglophiles of a certain class, and as such it’s been largely domestics and cozies, featuring assorted Lord Muckymucks, Inspector Flacid Chin-Jones, plucky amateur sleuths and enough feisy spinsters to fill up a convent. Plus, of course, lots of quaint villages and an ocean of tea served in fine china.

But every now and then, a private detective did slip in…

  • The Racing Game
    (1980-81, PBS)
    Featuring Sid Halley
    Based on Odds Against by Dick Francis
    Six episodes
    Aired during the first two seasons of MYSTERY!, these six episodes revolved around former champion steeplechase jockey Halley and his struggle to reinvent himself as a racetrack investigator after a career-ending injury. Alternately dark, gritty, occasionally surprisingly nasty but always compelling, it seemed like a sign of things to come.
  • Partners in Crime
    (1984-87, PBS)
    Featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford
    Based on the novel and stories by Agatha Christie
    Ten episodes
    A handsomely mounted but essentially fluffy period piece featuring a husband-and-wife team of “professional” investigators who look into crimes among the wealthy and elite of 1920s society. About as gritty as blanche mange.
  • Sherlock Holmes
    (aka “The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries”)
    (1985-93, PBS)
    Featuring Sherlock Holmes
    Based on the novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    Countless episodes
    For many, Jeremy Brett IS Sherlock Holmes. Me? I found this perennial PBS favourite too studied, too mannered, and, particularly as the series progressed, far too impressed with itself, which lead to too much scenery chewing and dubious method acting.
  • Chandler & Co.
    (1996, PBS)
    Featuring Dee Chandler Tate & Elly Chandler
    Created by Paula Milne
    Four episodes
    Two middle-aged women, one recently divorced and one happily married but bored, decide to open a detective agency specializing in personal and marital cases. There’s a certain brooding darkness to their cases, and the emphasis on the emotional damage caused by “loved” ones add a welcome edge to what could have simply been a fluffy 90s-style feminist rant.
  • Die Kinder
    (1990, PBS)
    Featuring Lomax
    Created by Paula Milne
    Six episodes
    Perhaps the noirest thing MYSTERY! ever aired, this six-parter followed the exploits of burned out ex-pat American private eye Lomax as he tries to track down the children of a London woman whose husband has taken them back to his home in Hamburg, Germany, where he once had links to a terrorist group.
  • Agatha Christie’s Poirot
    (1990–, PBS)
    Featuring Hercule Poirot
    Based on the novels and short stories by Agatha Christie
    Countless episodes
    Starring David Suchet in a career-defining star turn as Christie’s persnickety, fussy Belgian private detective. Hard-boiled? Get real. But often quite fun to watch…
  • Hetty Wainthropp Investigates
    (1997-99, PBS)
    Featuring Hercule Poirot
    Based on the novel Missing Persons by David Cook
    Twenty-eight episodes
    This old dick is a Jane. It didn’t run on all PBS sewries, but it was picked up by many of them in the late nineties. Clever mysteries, hampered at times by a little too much schtick.
  • Sherlock
    (2011-12, PBS)
    Featuring Sherlock Holmes
    Based on the novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    Six episodes
    Cheeky, whip-smart adaptations of the canon, far more true in spirit and timbre than the ADD-approved Robert Downey Jr. action flick trainwrecks. And a lot more fun than the often overly fussy productions and carpet chewing of the Jeremy Brett series.
  • Case Histories
    (2011, BBC)
    Featuring Jackson Brodie
    Based on the novels by Kate Atkinson
    Six episodes
    Smart, defiantly literate and often surprisingly touching, Everyman private eye Brodie had empathy to spare for all the walking wounded who crossed his path. Compelling.

HONORABLE MENTION (FOR WIT AND GRIT)

Of course, PBS didn’t always get it wrong. Although Rumpole was a criminal defense lawyer, Jane Tennyson was a cop and poor Philip Marlow was a delusional, bed-ridden P.I. writer whose story played out on Masterpiece Theatre, not MYSTERY!, these three shows should appeal to any fan of this site.

Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Please let me know who I’ve missed…

3 thoughts on “Public Broadcast, Private Eyes

  1. Regarding PBS Sherlock Holmes series: Impressed with itself? Studied? Mannered? Totally agree on all counts. For me, Peter Cushing in the Hammer Hound of the Baskervilles is my favorite Holmes, though I have a special fondness for Robert Stephens in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

  2. My issue with Sherlock is that it feels like the show thinks its smarter than it actually is (or more accurately the writers think their material is smarter than it actually is), which what led to the absolute garbage of a possible shark jumping travesty that is Series 4, not to mention it pushed the misconception that Sherlock Holmes is at his core an unbearable jerk, which I’m getting really sick of.

    Also not every mystery in Series 1 had to be connected to Moriarty!

    At least the Jeremy Brett series allowed the character to show some warmth in several episodes just like in the later Doyle books. So I’m going to have strongly disagree with your take here.

    1. Sorry, I must have missed Brett’s warmth episodes. But I agree with you–Holmes should be a pain at times to deal with, but the portrayal of him as a 24/7 asshole in SHERLOCK got very tiresome.

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