There’s been a murrrrder.
UK channel: STV/ITV
Cast: Mark McManus, Blythe Duff, James MacPherson
It was the original Nordic Noir, before that term even existed. Taggart still remains one of the longest-running crime dramas on British television, just a handful of episodes shy of that other hardy perennial Midsomer Murders. But the shows couldn’t be further apart in tone and narrative – the world of Taggart was visceral, violent and infused with a grim sense of melancholy, all of its sins laid bare by the dour figure of DCI Jim Taggart. It was also hugely popular for its time – at its height it would regularly pull in over 18 million viewers, becoming a show robust enough commercially to survive the death of its titular star to run on for almost 20 more years and licensed to more than 80 countries.
It all began life as Killer – a pilot mini-series written by Glenn Chandler after he was asked by producer Robert Love to pen a whodunit for Scottish TV. Chandler wasn’t exactly an authority on Glaswegian policing, as he recalled last year for its 35th anniversary:
“I’d been to Glasgow about four times, I was a complete fraud. I was an an Edinburgh public school boy. (The episode) can’t be 35 years old without looking slightly dated… look out for the wallpaper, it’s worse than any murder.”
Chandler’s lack of experience didn’t stop the episode being a success, however, eventually winning a Scottish BAFTA. It also firmly established actor Mark McManus in the lead role as Taggart, whose name became the more familiar title in its official debut during 1985.
McManus hadn’t followed a traditional path into acting, previously working as a docker and boxer before landing roles in the Australian TV and film industry, having emigrated there from Scotland as a child. Undoubtedly McManus’s craggy, weather-worn face was his main selling point as an actor on his return to the UK in 1971, and was a perfect fit for presiding over the bleak crime scenes around Glasgow in the show.
McManus played Taggart as a no-nonsense, “old school” copper with little to no time for the modernisation of the Strathclyde police force – often at odds with his younger colleagues accordingly, something which no doubt had resonance within the ranks of its real-life counterpart at the time. Having risen the “right way” through the ranks rather than via a university education, Taggart didn’t trade in sympathy or subtlety but was also a pragmatist at heart – methodical police practices won the day, and in this element the show was rather subversive for its time long before the era of procedural crime shows.
McManus was such an integral part of the show’s early success, it’s interesting to see how the show reacted to his untimely death in 1994 (the character was given an on-screen funeral in the final episode of Season 11 broadcast a year later, Black Orchid). Unlike other shows that transformed after the death of their lead stars (Morse morphing into Lewis being a prime example), Taggart retained its title and instead promoted his sidekick Mike Jardine (James MacPherson) to the position of DCI, where he remained until 2002. The show continued on until 2010 with Alex Norton in the lead role as DCI Matt Burke – sometimes erratically broadcast and in changing episodic structure, much to fans annoyance – until dwindling viewing numbers and contractual disputes between STV and ITV drove the show to an unfortunate end in 2010.
Why we loved it:
The first thing that set Taggart aside from its contemporaries was its environment.
Television at the time very rarely ventured that far north to document anything other than the crushing impact of de-industrialisation, so to see Glasgow portrayed as a living, breathing city that marched to its own beat felt fresh and innovative. The show also paid no mind to its non-Scottish viewers’ lack of experience with the beautiful burr and brogue of that city’s native dialect, something that was sometimes mined for parody later in it’s run.
Taggart also didn’t skimp on the claret. It was sometimes wantonly violent in comparison to other shows of the time, something that still clearly resonates to this day as Ofcom ruled it too grisly to be repeated in the afternoon cable slots reserved for crime shows of yesteryear as recently as 2008. This level of violence no doubt added to its reputation for gritty realism, but Taggart doubled down on notoriety by not shying away from social issues of the day or glossing over the industrial decline that was choking the city at the time. Shot through all this was a wicked sense of dry humour – for a show so grim there were plenty of chuckles to be had too.
The show was also way ahead of its time in how it depicted its character’s personal lives. Taggart’s tender interactions with his wheelchair-bound wife, Jean (played with style by Harriet Buchan), always formed a part of the early era of the show, with her open-hearted approach to life the opposite of her husband’s cynical nature.
Most episodes featured something of their life together away from the case he was investigating at the time, and it’s within these vignettes that the seeds of modern crime dramas ‘second stories’ have now grown. Likewise, the supporting cast had their own personal lives to navigate on-screen, not least the ongoing romantic ambiguity between Jardine and Reid – often ending in abject failure for comedic effect – but all with the intent to draw you into the drama further.
But more than anything, Taggart perfected the noir template of mood and style being as equally important as the substance of the story. Later episodes weren’t always classics, but the show always retained it’s best qualities through to its end – and remained thoroughly, proudly Scottish.
Oh, and it also had the best closing theme tune of a TV show, ever.
What they said:
“For non-Scots, Taggart offered a glimpse of life beyond the wall – a cold, grey place under a cold, grey sky where everyone had heavily lined faces that seemed to tell their own stories. Half the cast spoke in a guttural local brogue that might have benefited from the addition of subtitles. (The other half spoke something more like the “posh” Scottish of Maggie Smith.) With its themes of urban alienation and heavy air of melancholy, Taggart was prime Nordic noir, decades before the term even existed.” Graeme Virtue, The Guardian
Did you know?
Taggart provided a proven launchpad for Scottish acting talent – and its alumni reads like a who’s who of modern actors, with John Hannah, Alan Cumming, Robert Carlyle, Ewan Bremner, James Cosmo, Douglas Henshall and Ashley Jensen all having graced the show during its run. But the one Scottish actor never to appear in the show was David Tennant, who joked: “I’m the only Scottish actor alive who hasn’t been in Taggart – some people played four different murderers!”