Frank Marker, enquiry agent.
UK Channel: ITV
Cast: Alfred Burke
For our next Throw Back Thursday we go back to the mid-1960s, where British TV drama was beginning to be swept up in the glamification of the Swinging Sixties. Where once we had the outstanding Kitchen Sink dramas and Play For Todays in the early part of the decade (which gave future superstar screenwriters, directors and actors a platform on which to build their careers), TV was being caught up with the inexorable march towards 60s Britcool.
The likes of The Avengers, The Prisoner, Doctor Who and others had introduced sci-fi, surrealism, spandex and a hint of sex into the mainstream.
On the fringes of all this were a few beacons of the old school – shows that imbued the grit and the distinctly unglamorous nature of the flipside to the Swinging Sixties. One series was Callan, which, no doubt, we’ll get to at some point down the line. Another was Public Eye.
Taking another look at Public Eye – which is currently showing in the UK on the excellent Talking Pictures TV channel – reveals a few fascinating things. The first is how it existed within the then regional system of ITV channels. It began on ABC, but then moved to Thames Television when it hit series four. Just looking at some of the idents and watching a few of the episodes supplies a hit of nostalgia for those of a certain age.
Public Eye was a curious beast but followed tropes we had seen before decades earlier in the noir hits of the 30s and 40s.
For 10 years – 10 years! – we followed the adventures of private investigator – or enquiry agent as he liked to be known – Frank Marker. With his withered, slightly threadbare look, his clear, sometimes abrasive personality and clear, well-to-do voice, Marker was a bag of contradictions: he had the rain mac and the solitary lifestyle (and indeed the kind of name) we associate with the classic PIs of yesteryear. But Marker – or the man who played him, Alfred Burke, who younger readers might recognise as Professor Dippet in Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets – was not your average, square-jawed ‘tec. He lodged in a single room, he was cynical and dour, and he didn’t mess with anyone.
And Marker did it all: from routine matters such as gathering evidence for divorces (at a time when British law required evidence of infidelity or other compelling reason for annulling a marriage) to more exotic investigations such as tracing missing people (or in one case, a prize-winning whippet) – meant that he had little idea what a person walking into his office at the start of an episode would want of him. Many of the narratives portrayed in the series conclude imperfectly, often with Marker leaving the situation as it is – for example, in the episode The Man Who Didn’t Eat Sweets he fails to tell his client that she is one of her husband’s three wives.
Why we loved it:
Precisely because it dared to be different.
Marker was, as mentioned, a person who you never quite knew where you were with. On the one hand, he was a caring and unscrupulous investigator, the next appalled and often angry at the people he investigated and dealt with.
He had both a difficult relationship with the police and those on the other side of the coin in the criminal underworld. They were both given short thrift by Marker, who stood alone, ploughing his own, lonely furrow.
This furrow saw him move to Birmingham in series two after a nasty incident with a criminal gang, and then, at the start of series four, down to Brighton. We can’t think of any other show that moved around quite so much – series are often rooted in a particular place, intertwined with it and unable to leave.
The ‘Brighton episodes’ even got their own, bespoke theme tune. This was innovative stuff, experimenting with the format and trying to keep things fresh. Indeed, Marker himself was in a state of flux in these episodes, after being arrested and imprisoned for his role in being hired by a dodgy solicitor.
Again, how many crime series do you get when its main character gets thrown in jail and then takes seven episodes to show how he enters back into society?
(There were some ‘Eton episodes’, too. The beginning of these were made in the early 1970s when several ITV companies faced strike action as unions demanded better wages for handling the more complex colour broadcasting equipment, which all meant that they were filmed and shown in black and white.)
And that’s what really gives Public Eye its edge – Frank Marker is a good man who has been forced to live on the edge, and is forever straddling the world of good and bad.
Add in a very cool theme song and the joy of spotting some guest stars who would go on to stardom (think Martin Shaw, Peter Sallis, Peter Bowles et al) and Public Eye is well worth revisiting.
What they said:
“Thirty years on, Public Eye has largely been forgotten. Despite its long run, and high ratings at the time, it has slipped into obscurity which seems a great shame. Perhaps it is not an immediately accessible series, where the first few viewings can often provoke bemusement at the odd episode titles and apparent lack of incident, but as the viewer gets involved with the characters, it grows on you. In fact, with the uniformly high quality of the scripts and characterisation, and Burke’s astonishing performance in the lead role, Public Eye is undoubtedly one of the finest drama series ever produced,” Classic Television website.
Did you know?
The central character was originally called Frank Marvin, but the name was generally disliked. It Alfred Burke himself who amended it to Frank Marker.