Though trying to avoid every post being about the B word, the fact that most other news stories could compete with the B word in provoking despondency has pushed me back into familiar territory: the past. The odd detour through time is always a welcome break, and it’s nice to take a detour for which directions were provided by an occasional commentator on here, ‘Fred’. A 2017 post penned on the subject of the BBC’s turn-of-the-80s gumshoe drama, ‘Shoestring’ saw said Fred recommend a precursor to Trevor Eve’s private ear, ‘Public Eye’.
Produced for the ITV network for an impressive ten years between 1965 and 1975, ‘Public Eye’ is quite a unique series from my own personal perspective in that even shows I didn’t see a single episode of in the 1970s can be evoked via their theme tune or opening titles or even recollections of glimpsing trailers at the time. No such recollection exists for ‘Public Eye’; I’d never heard of the programme until I was alerted to its existence and then I discovered it had quite a cult following amongst devotees of archive TV, particularly those on the restoration and preservation side such as the Kaleidoscope organisation. Recently, I found some episodes on YouTube and it only took a couple of viewings for me to realise it was very much up my street, so much so that a DVD box-set purchase was inevitable.
‘Public Eye’ stars Alfred Burke as enigmatic public inquiry agent, Frank Marker. Burke is an interesting-looking actor, resembling a cross between Will Self and ex-Leeds Utd boss Howard Wilkinson. Upon first viewing, he seemed to lack any strong personality for me in the part, but then I quickly realised that was the genius of the casting; a private eye needs to be anonymous, to blend in with the crowd and not stand out from it. A larger-than-life actor too handsome or charismatic would utterly defeat the object of the character and simply wouldn’t convince. Marker’s (and Burke’s) strength is that he has an ordinariness about him that means nobody would notice if he was tailing them; they wouldn’t spot him across the street, loitering in a shop doorway, pretending to make a call from a phone-box or supping a pint on the other side of the bar. He is perhaps television’s most realistic and believable personification of a profession that has been a regular stand-by in TV drama for decades.
Frank Marker is a sharp operator, but not a shark; in comparison to the mercenary attitudes of fellow private detectives we meet during the course of the series, Marker is an honest man loath to fleece his clients. His honesty is rewarded with bouts of breadline living and – on one memorable occasion – a prison sentence for inadvertently being in possession of stolen goods. Prison hardens Marker even further, but Marker is a born lone wolf and a genuine man of mystery. His back-story is sometimes hinted at in dribs and drabs, but there is no big reveal; he doesn’t appear to have many (if any) friends; he has few (if any) romantic interests – just imagine that in an equivalent series today; and he doesn’t even employ a secretary. There is just him and his shabby raincoat, and a shabby succession of shabby offices.
ABC Television, one of the original ITV franchise holders, produced ‘Public Eye’ up until the company was succeeded by Thames in 1968; Thames then took over for the next seven years of the programme’s run, overseeing the transition from monochrome to colour. But another factor that makes the series distinctive is the fact that Marker moves around. He begins his business in London, then relocates to Birmingham; after his spell behind bars, he moves on to Brighton, Windsor, Walton, and finally ends up in Chertsey. The extensive location filming from the Birmingham period onwards provides viewers who even in the 60s were tired of the capital as the eternal backdrop a novel opportunity to enjoy adventures in unfamiliar surroundings.
‘Public Eye’ is not a period piece in the sense that many programmes of its era are. Surviving 60s episodes (an outrageous amount were wiped, as was the practice at the time) exhibit frequent and obvious references to homosexuality and not in a crude manner. One particularly effective episode guest-stars a young Stephanie Beacham as a troubled teen Marker saves from suicide. Her attempt at ending it all follows rejection by her presumed lover, ‘Chris’. Marker’s subsequent investigation uncovers the fact that Chris is in fact short for Christine rather than Christopher. The depressing world of vice rings is also covered with unexpected candour, and the pre-reform divorce laws provide regular cases back in the days when infidelity needed to be proven.
There are occasions when Frank Marker’s often bristly antisocial attitude in regard to his closely-guarded independence is challenged. The Brighton episodes see him develop a potentially romantic relationship with his landlady and there are other interludes when he either works for a private inquiry agency or enters into a partnership. But none of these alliances last because he’s a man made to be alone, both professionally and personally; some of us are just designed like that, and Frank Marker is a character that really gets under the skin – in the nicest possible way. There’s a truth to him that’s rare in television drama, when characters can easily slip into caricature as reality is overly-heightened. Soap operas profess to be rooted in realism, but exceeding reliance on ratings-grabbing stunts such as endless sieges, crashes, explosions, fires and murders has utterly diluted these claims in recent years.
‘Public Eye’ is not unlike the surviving 70s episodes of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ in that its prime focus is on the little people and their relatable problems. The series largely steers clear of ‘action’ or melodrama. It’s downbeat, sometimes melancholy, and there is sympathy for those who call upon Marker’s services, most of whom are familiar faces to anyone who regularly binges on vintage TV that tends to get overlooked by the nostalgia industry. Many of its themes wouldn’t be out-of-place in a contemporary drama, but the treatment these themes receive is a world away from today. An episode dealing with a deluded fantasist whose lies mask clinical depression is handled humanely and with an utter absence of sledgehammer moralising or facile ‘U OK, hun?’ faux-concern.
As a refreshing alternative to the here and now, cathode-ray windows to the past can sometimes remind one of what we’ve lost, what we’ve gained, and what we’ve retained. ‘Public Eye’ is a fine example of what British television used to do and could still do…if it wanted to.
© The Editor