Five Great British TV Detective Shows

Updated on December 23, 2018
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I was a TV writer and subeditor for British newspapers and magazines for more than a decade.

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The Five Best British Detective Series

1. Inspector Morse

2. A Touch of Frost

3. Midsomer Murders

4. Vera

5. Endeavour

1. Inspector Morse

Based on the Inspector Morse novels by Colin Dexter, this fantastic character-driven TV series ran on British TV for 33 episodes between 1987 and 2000. Each episode is 100 minutes long, excluding adverts. The show is intelligent and cryptic, as befits a mystery drama set in Oxford, home-town of one of England's major university.

The main character is the eponymous Inspector, played by John Thaw - a veteran actor who was established as a major star in the UK as the two-dimensional Jack Regan in action drama The Sweeney. Morse couldn't be less like tough-guy Regan.

The inspector - a senior officer with England's Thames Valley Police - was a ponderous thinker, a fan of opera, crosswords and real ale. In his mid-forties, Morse was grumpy, unmarried, pedantic about grammar, obsessed with his job. He also drove a classic jaguar car which was one of the stars of the show.

His foil was young, naive Detective Sergeant Lewis - played by Northumbrian actor Kevin Whately - who's down-to-earth attitude challenges Morse's often over complex theories.

"One bunch of unscrupulous charlatans ripping off another bunch of credulous speculators. That's a definition of capitalism, isn't it?" — Morse

2. A Touch of Frost

Another great character driven detective series. Although this one is also set in the Thames Valley police division, the town of Denton has a very different aspect to Morse's Oxford. It's a gritty south Midlands town with few students or residents that could be described as upper class.

The main character is Detective Inspect 'Jack' Frost, played by much-loved character actor David Jason. Jason is best known for comedy roles in the UK, including Derek 'Del-boy' Trotter in the very popular comedy series Only Fools and Horses. He plays Frost as a very empathetic and sensitive character whose human failings - extreme untidiness, sloppy dressing, lack of interest in paperwork - endear him to the viewer.

His foil is Superintendent "Horn-rimmed Harry" Mullett, who would love to sack Frost, but can't manage without his underling's crime-solving ability.

Throughout the 15 series of the show, Frost interacts with other beautifully drawn characters, which make the show an absolute delight.

Jason eventually brought a halt to the programmes in 2010, telling a press conference that - at 68 - he was too old to continue to portray a police officer.

Yeah, well, I just wish Horn-rimmed Harry would be a little more choosy about his jargon. I mean anyone who spends all day with their pen stuck up their a-aah, there you are, sir!" - Jack Frost

Midsomer Murders

Midsomer Murders is a detective drama set in an idealised version of the English countryside - idealised apart from the high death count. The stories originally revolved around Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby - played by former Bergerac star John Nettles - to solve the many murders which occur in the villages of the fictional county of Midsomer.

The programme has run since 1997 with the 20th series expected in 2018. John Nettles retired at the end of the 13th series, to be replaced by Neil Dudgeon, who plays the cousin of the Nettle's character Tom Barnaby. Dudgeon's character is called Detective Inspector John Barnaby.

The series is very funny, with much of the humour arising from the incongruous violence in the picturesque rural setting. Nostalgia is important in the show, with many episodes focusing on ancient customs and pastimes in old-fashioned settings.

Every time I go into any Midsomer village it's always the same thing: blackmail, sexual deviances, suicide, and murder. How could you possibly expect me to go and live in one of them?" - Inspector Barnaby

Vera

This crime drama series - based on books by Anne Cleves - was first broadcast on 1 May 2011. Eight series have aired so far, with the ninth expected soon.

The show stars Brenda Blethyn as Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope: a middle-aged cop in the Northumberland & City Police. Vera is driven by her demons and obsessive about her work.

She is constantly dishevelled but has a sharp, deteective's mind. Although she appears to be argumentative, sarcastic and short tempered, she cares deeply about her colleagues and forms close relationships with them.

Brenda Blethyn - who spent many year as a character actor, seemingly specialising in the role of put-upon women with a small voice - is a revelation in the main role as the irascible inspector.

Endeavour

Finally I return to Inspector Morse - but this is a prequel set in Oxford in the 1960s and 1970s. Shaun Evans stars as the young Endeavour Morse at the beginning of his career as a detective with the Oxford City Police CID.

Brilliantly filmed in a way which evokes the city of the period, this drama reveals how the great character picks up his habit for drinking, his love of Jaguar cars and all the characteristics which for the older man.

We're also introduced to younger versions of characters we know from the other series, while they are in their formative years.If you enjoyed Morse I would highly recommend this series.

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