Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators (BBC One)

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If you didn’t already know that BBC Daytime’s new afternoon series Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators was from the same production team behind Father Brown, WPC 56 and The Coroner, then it really shouldn’t take you very long to make the connection. The similarity in writing and production house style are a giveaway on their own, and if you don’t get it from that then the delightful-as-ever musical cues by Debbie Wiseman stamp an indelible hallmark on the entire affair.

The new series features comedy actor Mark Benton as former detective turned private eye Frank Hathaway, whose ramshackle business is about to go under. The situation forces him to take on former hairdresser Luella Shakespeare (ex-EastEnders star Jo Joyner) as his partner when she offers to invest her life savings in the firm. Despite her previous occupation, she turns out to have some impressive skills of her own – in many ways more so than Hathaway, who is so slovenly that he makes Columbo look like a fashion model.

The pair are joined by office assistant Sebastian (Patrick Walshe McBride), an effete out-of-work actor who is accordingly quite handy when an undercover covert operative is required. Hathaway can also call on his former police colleague DI Marlowe (Amber Aga) for help – when she isn’t thundering at them to stay off a case, that is.

As the show’s title clearly sets up, Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators is based in Stratford-upon-Avon. It certainly isn’t shy about throwing in references to the Bard at every available opportunity, while also doing what it can do help boost local tourism with its choice of filming locations. Presumably the new show is a direct replacement for The Coroner, which was axed last year after just two series, but Shakespeare sadly lacks anything approaching the spectacular South Devon coastal scenery of its predecessor.

Talking of The Coroner, that series had a basic problem in that its lead actor clearly believed she was starring in a serious drama; meanwhile the rest of the regular cast were having a lark, clearly in on the secret that the show was only a couple of steps removed from your basic sitcom. This led to a quite oddly schizophrenic show at times, and it never really managed to solve that basic disconnect before the plug was pulled.

Shakespeare gets around this problem by removing any suggestion that the show is to be taken even remotely seriously. The opening scene features Benton executing a serious of prat falls as he flees a ‘hilariously’ blown surveillance operation; this alone will be too much jocularity for a significant serious-minded portion of the audience, who will be switching channels to find something else to watch even before the main credits kick in.

Thereafter, the show continues to prioritise quips, one-liners, double entendres, sight gags and physical comedy. There is no question that the audience should be taking this any more seriously than the cast. Of course, realism has rarely been a priority in the whimsical Father Brown either, but a modern day setting really doesn’t do Shakespeare any favours. While we’re used to the 1950’s Inspector Mallory being a dim-witted ineffectual pain, it’s something else again to see 21st century police officers bungle around without a clue about proper procedure and not roll one’s eyes.

Eventually storylines start showing up to string together the humorous bits, and thankfully these plots are crafted with the same care and quality that we’ve come to expect from the writing team behind Father Brown‘s outings. Some of the plots are a little far-fetched – again, the modern day setting is an impediment when it comes to showing up the failings of this sort of thing – but there’s enough detail to each case to certainly make it worthwhile watching. Eventually you start forgiving Shakespeare its comedy excesses and instead enjoy the more simple-minded pleasures of merely guessing whodunnit. In other words, it soon settles down into being perfect daytime television fare for those who aren’t obsessed with property and antiques.

If nothing else, Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators is welcome proof that BBC isn’t abandoning its commitment to daytime drama production in the wake of the cancellation of The Coroner. However it’s still a second class show compared to the mighty Father Brown, and if anything were to happen to that flagship series – such as Mark Williams deciding to hang up his cassock – then it’s hard to see Shakespeare being up to the task of taking on the mantle. But as an undemanding, fairly amusing sidekick then it knows its place and acquits itself surprisingly well; once it gets over the prat falls and arrives on a firmer footing, that is.

The ten 44-minute episodes af series 1 are as follows:

1 “O Brave New World” by Paul Matthew Thompson and Jude Tindall (26 February 2018)
An origin story of sorts for the series, in which bride-to-be Luella hires Frank to see if her fiancé is cheating on her. The wedding goes ahead, but the reception turns into a bloody affair and Luella finds herself accused of murder and relying on Frank to prove her innocence. The episode, written by the series’ co-creators, establishes the comedy template for what’s to follow – but there’s still a nicely-done visual clue for those viewers who are more interested in beating Hathaway and Shakespeare to identifying the culprit.

2 “The Chimes at Midnight” by David Semple (27 February 2018)
The team is hired to find out who is sabotaging the Shady Nooks care home, but the stakes are raised when the owner ends up falling from the roof. The trouble is that all the potential suspects were together in the dining room at the time, so this becomes a howdunnit as much as who. The solution is ingenious but also has mile-wide holes if you’re inclined to think about it for any length of time. Fortunately the episode is boosted immeasurably by the presence of Timothy West as one of the mischievous elderly residents, and Gray O’Brien as the chef whose omelettes provide a breakthrough clue.

3 “This Promised End” by Lol Fletcher (28 February 2018)
Undertaker Peter Quintus is threatened by two men, who tell him they’ve been hired to kill him. They give him 24 hours “to make his peace and set his affairs in order”. In the meantime Hathaway and Shakespeare get to work finding out who has put the hit on Quintus, and they come up with some very surprising findings with no one involved turning out to be who they initially appear. While starting off in the usual light-hearted manner, the episode features a perhaps too-effective nightmare sequence, and the final reveal of the motive behind the affair is actually really quite dark and disturbing for a daytime show.

4 “This Rough Magic” by Kit Lambert (1 March 2018)
A stage trick goes wrong and an innocent audience volunteer is killed. Magician Lawrence Pross faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and gross negligence – but was he actually responsible? The story doesn’t entirely play fair with the viewers: key facts about one of the suspects show up very late in the day, after which it’s fairly easy to figure out who’s behind it. But a guest cast that includes Nick Moran as the dead woman’s husband and Ace Bhatti as a rival private investigator make sure you don’t begrudge the time spent on the case.

5 “Toil and Trouble” by Kit Lambert (2 March 2018)
The team find themselves harbouring a fugitive after a local mayor is killed in his home. The murder appears to be linked with a controversial new housing development, but who actually did the deed? This is a rather straightforward story with a fairly uninteresting plot but there’s a neat clue for the whodunnit that succeeds in making sense of everything. The episode has extra fun by squeezing in as many Shakespearian quotes into the dialogue as possible. Watch out for the dog walker summoning her pet from the undergrowth…

6 “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” by Jeff Povey (5 March 2018)
Given the basic premise of the series, an episode set backstage during a Shakespearian production was only a matter of time – and sure enough, here it is. The team is looking into death threats against a former soap star, who has been making enemies with her extensive reworking of Juliet and Romeo (sic) in order to build up her own part. But is that really enough to justify killing her? It’s a nice, lively tale with more than the usual quantity of red herrings, and it has extra fun with Shakespeare and Hathaway getting addicted to watching reruns of their client’s rather dreadful medical soap opera.

7 “The Fairest Show Means Most Deceit” by Dan Muirden (6 March 2018)
Frank is annoyed by the arrival of a hitherto unknown long-lost relation, while he and Luella are conducting a surveillance operation on a woman who is claiming damages for a workplace injury. But someone else is about to get much more seriously hurt, and the team have to unpick what could possibly be the perfect crime… There’s a nice Agatha Christie touch to the central plot, and the busy (and slightly messy) plot hides details that might otherwise be obvious, with a number of sleight-of-hand diversions including the spectacle of a cross-dressing Sebastian. The ending is overly saccharine, but for some reason I found I had something in my eye just at the same moment…

8 “The Chameleon’s Dish” by Nicola Wilson (7 March 2018)
The team is hired by a troubled teen who is having nightmares of committing a murder. Sure enough, the body of a strangled woman is discovered and their client is chief suspect – but did he do it? The early part of this episode is given over to Frank and Luella going undercover at a holistic weekend seminar, and has endless fun skewering the preposterous New Age pretensions of the whole endeavour. Even once the dead body shows up we’re treated to Luella getting stoned on magic mushrooms. Unfortunately the underlying characters and story are neither very interesting or particularly clever, meaning the episode never recovers the early broad comedy. However, Sebastian’s latest undercover disguise of a Sixth Form Goth is quite a treat!

9 “The Rascal Cook” by Kit Lambert (8 March 2018)
A Gordon Ramsey-style chef loses out on a prestigious culinary award after he inadvertently serves up a dead rat to the judge. Pretty soon there’s an even bigger food hygiene problem in the kitchen. Shakespeare and Hathaway have to find their way through the usual petty resentments, conflicts and long-buried family secrets to find out who has got it in the for the chef. It’s a surprisingly traditional and straightforward instalment, quite sombre compared with the holistic hijinks of the previous episode; a late waterborne chase scene seems to have been thrown purely when it was realised that the laugh count was alarmingly low. Ironically that makes it a quite intriguing case, and while it once again holds back a crucial piece of evidence about the ‘why’ it’s still perfectly possible to guess the who before the actual denouement.

10 “Ill Met by Moonlight” by Kit Lambert (9 March 2018)
The team is hired to track down a young girl who has run away from home, taking a valuable item of jewellery with her. What initially appears to be just a case of typical teenage tantrums takes a darker turn when a bloody garment and a random demand for £50,000 is discovered. Despite some comedy business (including the otherwise superfluous introduction of Frank’s young hacker acquaintance), this is a curiously slow episode. The fact that it badly under runs is made clear by the protracted epilogue sorting out sundry melodramatic family affairs after the case is wrapped up. We also get the first hint that Frank is developing a romantic interest in Luella, which has hitherto been a purely platonic working relationship. In cosy daytime TV, I guess that counts as an end-of-season cliffhanger designed to earn a second series commission…

Overall series rating: ★ ★ ★

Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators continues on BBC One at 2.15pm, and all episodes are available in the UK on BBC iPlayer for one month after transmission. The full series will be released on DVD in the UK on April 23 2018.

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