I’ll be honest, there’s really very little to be said about BBC Daytime’s light hearted detective show Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators that wasn’t previously covered in my review of the first season a year ago. While the first run is only now getting an airing in the US, this series co-created by Father Brown alumni Jude Tindall and Paul Matthew Thompson has just returned for a second tranche of ten episodes on the BBC and picks up right where it left off, with the same cast and much the same mix of broad comedy, witty quips and the odd interesting whodunnit mixed in.
Mark Benton returns (now with added beard) as Frank Hathaway, a police officer who quit the force to become a private detective, with former hairdresser Jo Joyner back as his sleuthing partner Luella Shakespeare. They’re aided in their cases by Sebastian Brudenell (Patrick Walshe McBride), a young out-of-work actor who comes in handy when a bit of undercover surveillance work is needed; and by Sebastian’s landlady Gloria Fonteyn (Roberta Taylor) who runs a theatrical costumier store. Expressing continued exasperation at Shakespeare and Hathaway’s interference in her cases is Frank’s former police colleague, Detective Inspector Christina Marlowe (Amber Aga).
While no Father Brown, the show is acceptably entertaining nonetheless. Set in Stratford-upon-Avon, it takes great delight in packing in as many Shakespeare related puns as possible, and whether it’s a genuine crime drama or a flat-out sitcom rather depends on the individual episode and the viewer’s forbearance. Certainly several of the episodes seem to drift more into outright comedy than before, so don’t go in expecting anything too meaty; simply put your brain in neutral and enjoy the ride and all will be well.
So with the set-up taken care of, here’s your mini episode guide and review of the ten 44-minute episodes comprising series 2:
1 “Outrageous Fortune” by Jude Tindall (25 February 2019)
Frank and Lu are hired to find a dog that’s been abducted. The twist is that the mutt in question is worth £320 million, bequeathed to him by his now-deceased rich owner, which means that a lot of people have plenty of motive for the abduction and ensuing ransom demand. But the money drop goes awry and it seems there will be no happy ending for the previously pampered pooch after all… Even lighter in tone than usual, this script is stuffed full of dog jokes in addition to the usual Shakespearian ones (meeting head-on in a delightful sight gag on a blackboard in which the team is theorising whether a doggie double has been used, bearing the heading “Dog B or not Dog B?”.) Another highlight is when the hapless Frank and Lu fail to spot the arrival of an entire police SWAT and Bomb Disposal team at the ransom drop point they’re supposed to be keeping careful watch on! Overall the solution to the crime is an easy one to figure out once you realise that money isn’t the motive, and it’s the lightest, happiest of endings all round to start off the new season.
2 “The Play’s the Thing” by Dan Muirden (26 February 2019)
Frank and Lu break their rule against taking divorce work and accept a job surveilling the wife of the organiser of a fantasy live action role playing game. The errant wife in question plays the Queen of Engelworld who is supposed to be in love with a powerful Duke, and it appears the passion is spilling over into real life… You can just imagine the fun that the show has with the bizarre world of LARPing, and it gives the cast free licence to go wildly over the top with their performances since you’re never sure whether they’re being themselves or acting outrageously and amateurishly as their ill-talented fantasy counterparts. We’re treated to Frank as a (well-cast) ogre while Lu is a charm fairy, and Sebastian looks very much the part as a Legolas-type elf. Ultimately an attempt is made on the life of the Duke in the form of a non-fantasy and decidedly lethal arrow, and it transpires that the ‘real’ lives of several of the gamers are just as made-up as those of their characters in the game, in what is a thoroughly played-for-laughs instalment with a surprising grit of realism at the heart of the mystery.
3 “This Cursed Hand” by David Semple (27 February 2019)
If the previous episode teetered on the verge of falling over the edge into silliness, then this instalment charges right up to the same cliff edge and hurls itself off with wild abandon. A candidate for the silliest story of the entire series, it focuses on a missing Eastern European oligarch whose wife wants tracked down by Frank and Lu in Strafford. There’s also a couple of comedy Russian-type gangsters in town and it turns out that everyone’s real objective is to get their hands on a priceless art collection. Added to this, Sebastian coincidentally and conveniently runs across a severed hand, which naturally turns out to be intimately connected (or more accurately, formerly connected) to the oligarch. As well as the pantomime gangsters we even have Frank and Lu in a Laurel and Hardy-inspired skit with a fire extinguisher, and Sebastian at war with a down-and-out actor (played by the wonderful David Calder) who keeps stealing his paying audience for a ghostly walking tour of Stratford. It’s all very silly and not actually very funny either, culminating in an eye-rolling reveal about the contents of the sought-after Vault 9; and yet at the same time it’s the first story of the season to feature a murder along with some rather dark double post mortem mutilation of the corpse in question, making this a very odd mix of flavours.
4 “Beware the Ides of March” by Rachel Smith (28 February 2019)
After the comedy excesses of the previous two episodes, you’d think that a story centring around someone trying to kill a TV psychic would offer plenty of scope for still more humorous hi-jinks along the same lines. And yet strangely enough this is possibly the most earnest story of the latest run to date and takes its subject largely seriously with the only humour to be found in Sebastian suffering from an embarrassing malicious post-hypnotic suggestion inflicted by one of the suspects. Otherwise it’s a nicely grounded and serious investigation into who is trying to hurt medium Julienne Fortby (Janet Dibley) during the filming of the TV programme she hosts with sister Marcia. Is there murderous friction between the two siblings, or is it one of the behind the scenes technicians – or perhaps it’s the elderly woman who previously accused the Fortbys of deception? It’s not exactly hard to figure out the culprit with such a small cast but it’s a nice twisty story with the clues properly positioned to make it fair and interesting for the audience. There’s also a nice sub-plot in which Lu starts to show psychic tendencies of her own – but while it provides some nice light moments, it also resolves with an tutorial into just how easy it is to manipulate people when it comes to the paranormal.
5 “No More Cakes and Ale” by Paul Matthew Thompson (1 March 2019)
Frank and Lu are hired to track down a vital missing witness in the trial of a young man accused of a serious assault during a robbery on a poultry farm. The evidence still looks pretty damning and Frank wants to investigate further, so he ends up clashing with a local business man with powerful political contacts who could put our heroes out of business for good. It all allows for a rare foray into Perry Mason court room territory, and while the script doesn’t exactly have the firmest grip on real world legal procedure it’s still very entertaining as the two barristers (one called Portia and the other Shylock – the show is never knowingly undersubtle when it can help it) try to catch the other out. The humour is intended to come from the missing witness who turns out to be a bag lady with hygiene and alcohol issues, and who is played to the hilt by Grantchester regular Tessa Peake-Jones, but her story actually turns into one of the more surprisingly moving plots that the show has featured as she struggles with her pride and embarrassment at her circumstances and ends up reconciling with her estranged daughter. It’s almost enough to bring a mild irritation to your corneas, if it wasn’t for Sebastian’s excruciating turn as a giant chicken promoting a local fast food outlet. And yet even here, the show manages to inject the character with a certain dignity and pride in doing a job well that makes the moment surprisingly uplifting, and a world away from the earlier comedy excesses of the week.
6 “The Offered Fallacy” by Kit Lambert (4 March 2019)
Given how often the Bard used doubles to comic effect in his plays, it’s surprising it’s taken this long for Shakespeare & Hathaway to base a story around the same concept. In this case, a couple of uncanny lookalikes of Lu and Frank are going around Stratford impersonating the private investigators in order to defraud clients, and the whole thing is done so well that before long the original articles have been arrested and thrown into prison for the crimes, their professional reputation in tatters. As Shakespeare proved centuries ago, doppelgängers provide fertile ground for comic moments, witty dialogue, general confusion and wry observations which are spot-on and not overdone, making this one of the best-balanced S2 episodes so far in terms of the split between humour and drama, with Sebastian getting some of his funniest ‘undercover’ roles yet. The script also sets up a nice mystery as to the identity of the mastermind behind the operation, with a couple of red herrings and dead ends that you’re absolutely certain are the answer. Given the minuscule cast of suspects the episode keeps its secret very well, although admittedly it does so by keeping a key piece of information pertaining to motive from the audience almost until the very end. It’s nice to see an expanded role here for DI Marlowe, and the return of her dim-witted colleague DS Keeler (Tomos Eames) along with another occasional recurring character from the first series in the form of dodgy computer hacker Spider (Darren Evans). Plus Victor McGuire is a superb double for Mark Benton!
7 “Nothing Will Come of Nothing” by Lol Fletcher (5 March 2019)
A somewhat subdued episode which largely drops the humorous antics and wisecracking for something rather more sombre. There’s still plenty of Shakespearian puns on display (a literal pound of flesh makes a gory appearance early on, and there’s an ensuing rendezvous at Shylock Road) but for the most part the amusement is at the expense of the surreal staff and oddball clientele of The Globe Casino. Frank and Lu are there trying to find Lorenzo Foyle, a chronically unlucky compulsive gambler who has gone missing, leaving thousands in unpaid debts as well as a distraught pregnant wife. The stakes are soon raised when the private investigators stumble across a bludgeoned bloodstained body, and then they too end up literally gambling their lives when they’re held at gunpoint. It’s not really a mystery that you’re going to solve, but all the same it’s a solid and engrossing investigation with unusually high stakes. There are some odd scenes that echo the first series’ original character-establishing moments and in many ways it’s a shame that this wasn’t the opening story of season 2 as it would have been a nice reintroduction to the show as a whole. But that said, the episode is stolen by a top-notch performance from the always-brilliant Annette Badland as Rose King, the cross-dressing co-owner of the casino in question who it turns out has a serious gambling addiction of her own.
8 “In My Memory Lock’d” by Dominique Moloney (6 March 2019)
If anything, this episode proves to be even more sombre and straight than its predecessor, with even Bard-based puns thin on the ground; the only levity to be found is in a running gag about Lu trying to fool Frank with her new found mastery of disguises. Otherwise it’s all business, with the duo looking into an unusual missing persons case. The twist is that the missing person in question is the client himself, having lost his memory after a blow to the back of his head which means he needs their help to find out who he really is. The client in question is played by Patrick Baladi, a prolific British character actor who has guest starred in just about every UK television show going, albeit normally as a smooth but dislikable cad and scoundrel up to no good. Here he gets something a little different to sink his teeth into, with the amnesia converting him into a sympathetic little-boy-lost type. Eventually the trail leads to a local upmarket hotel where it appears that our man has been posing as a caretaker under an assumed name – but why? Things heat up with a death by poisoning, and attention turns to the too-good-to-be true hotel staff: the entire set-up has more than a whiff of Agatha Christie’s Bertram’s Hotel to it. As to the culprit, you’ll be hard pressed to precisely pin down their identity – the clues could easily break two different ways – but it’s a satisfying resolution all the same.
9 “The Envious Court” by Kit Lambert (7 March 2019)
The season continues with another solid mystery in which the humour is present but not overbearing – even the Shakespeare quips are dialled down this time in favour of a volley of tennis-related puns as Frank and Lu go undercover at an exclusive sports club to see who is sending death threats to the owner Frederick Greenwood (played by Simon Shepherd). It’s a doubly stressful time for Lu who is about to sit her PI qualification exams (are there really such things?) and who now also has to deal with her mother Genevieve (Julia Deakin, returning for the first time since the first season pilot episode) showing up as the club social secretary who happens to be intimately involved with Frederick. Cue some fun squabbling between mother and daughter, as Lu starts to suspect that the threats might be a set-up for Frederick swindling all of Genevieve’s life savings. Is she right or are her personal feelings about her mother’s romantic liaison clouding her judgement? The episode also sees further mellowing in Frank and Lu’s oft-tetchy relations with DI Marlowe, who is even invited to join the gang for post-case drinks in a cosy finale. In fact in many ways it feels like this story might have been originally intended as the season finale, but instead there’s still one more case left to crack…
10 “Too Cold For Hell” by Jude Tindall (8 March 2019)
The final episode of the second season begins in typically bright and breezy fashion with Frank and Lu looking into the theft of a gullible newly-wed couple’s worldly goods by a crooked ‘man with a van’ hired to help them move into their new dream home, leaving them holding just their pet fish in a bowl. The case is actually solved remarkably quickly, but there’s a complication when its found that hapless local petty criminal Billy the Brick (from season 1’s “Toil and Trouble”, played by Ciaran Griffiths) is involved. And then one of the fake removal men is shot dead, and Frank and DS Keeler are taken prisoner at gunpoint, leaving Lu and DI Marlowe in a race against time to locate and save their respective partners from imminent death. This results in a number of extended scenes between characters who up to now have rarely got to share much screen time – Amber Aga is particularly great given the opportunity to show a new side to her role, and Tomos Eames also benefits from more nuanced writing – and these scenes prove to be unexpectedly dramatic and even emotional in a way that this light-as-a-feather series usually avoids like a plague. There are some revelations about past back stories that are genuinely surprising and which could portend some big changes in the format if the show succeeds in winning a new commission for a third run.
Overall series rating: ★ ★ ★
The second season of 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 22 2019.