A week consisting of Brexit negotiations threatening to rival ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ in the long, drawn-out tedium stakes; a red sky overturning the old farmer’s saying by transforming it into an end-of-the-world-is-nigh omen; and our boys in blue plumbing unprecedented depths, taking to the streets in fancy dress as a contrived distraction from rising crime figures (‘social workers with Tasers’ as someone aptly described them on Twitter). Jesus, it’s no wonder I’ve sought escapism when it comes to offline downtime; and I’ve taken a route which is my own reliable visual equivalent of comfort food.
The last time this country felt this grim for many was at the end of the 1970s, and though the Winter of Discontent even impinged upon my pre-pubescent existence via a lorry drivers’ strike affecting the distribution of comics to the local newsagent’s, I can honestly say I’d rather be there than here. Having never passed my Tardis driving test, I have to make do with travelling back in time via the dependable DVD box-set; current flavour-of-the-month is the BBC’s downbeat gumshoe drama from 1979/80, ‘Shoestring’. The series accurately captures the weariness at the winding-down of what had been a testing decade, yet there’s something undeniably appealing about its atmosphere of stoic refusal to succumb to the kind of histrionic panic that runs through contemporary discourse – a resignation, yes, but not a surrender.
The title character of Eddie Shoestring, played with charismatic understatement by the then-unknown Trevor Eve, is undoubtedly a victim of his times, though triumphing over his demons without pleading for sympathy epitomises a certain unfussy British characteristic we appear to have subsequently lost. Eddie is recovering from a mental breakdown that occurred during his career ‘working in computers’; his rehabilitation at a clinic saw him devour pulp fiction, which in turn opened up a new career path as a private detective. Successfully utilising what would now probably be diagnosed as latent autism, Eddie’s unique talents are spotted by a local radio station; Radio West’s debonair manager Don Satchley (played by British acting stalwart Michael Medwin) senses a novel ratings winner and hires Eddie as the station’s ‘private ear’, inviting listeners to request Eddie’s services in the hope the cases will eventually make for an intriguing broadcast.
Eddie lodges with a sexy legal eagle called Erica, with whom he has a casual on-off bedtime relationship, though the viewer gets the impression Eddie really isn’t bothered too much by any of that stuff. Work is what really brings out the best in him. His slovenly appearance and cavalier disregard for authority complements his genuine compassion for the little people whose problems he endeavours to solve; and, like the unfairly-maligned ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ before it, it is the little people that ‘Shoestring’ focuses on. Contrasting with the macho bluster of ‘The Sweeney’ (which ended the year before ‘Shoestring’ debuted) and ‘The Professionals’ (which ITV scheduled in direct competition to the Beeb’s unconventional sleuth), the series has a human and humane regard for those who are often overlooked in life, let alone TV dramas. Character is central to the plot of each episode, and the lead is a fascinating, vulnerable individual ideal for a premise that wouldn’t work with a Regan, a Carter, a Bodie or a Doyle.
The series was based and mainly shot in the West Country, providing a refreshing alternative to the usual London locations then predominant in home-grown drama; there may be a trumpeted trend to shoot series outside of the capital on television today, though Manchester and Cardiff are shot through the same Dystopian lens as London, portraying them with indistinguishable urban clichés which makes one wonder why film crews bother exiting Watford Gap. ‘Shoestring’ also gives a distinctly British twist to the quirky private eye genre which was almost exclusively American at the time, with the likes of Rockford and Columbo still on their original runs. It gave early breaks to actors who would carve out glittering careers (I spotted Daniel Day-Lewis in one episode) as well as established actors nearing the end of their careers – and their lives – such as Harry H Corbett and Diana Dors.
‘Shoestring’ occasionally dips its toes into the pop culture of the era in which it was made. Toyah Willcox features heavily in an episode, playing a ‘punk singer’, ably assisted by an impressive supporting cast including the likes of Gary Holton, Peter Dean, Christopher Biggins, Lynda Bellingham and even Mick Jagger’s brother Chris. The only other series at the turn-of-the 80s that evokes the period with the same blend of charm and cynicism is ‘Minder’, which coincidentally aired for the first time that same autumn of 1979. However, unlike Dennis Waterman and George Cole’s vehicle, which was something of a slow-burner, ‘Shoestring’ was an overnight success, undeniably aided by the ITV strike of August-October 1979, which gave the series a massive ratings head-start when ITV was its sole competitor.
Yes, the cars – Eddie drives a battered Cortina estate – and the fashions are portals to another country, as is the soundtrack; with its radio station setting, the series is peppered with hits from 1979/80, a chart era especially rich in memorable pop. But there’s something about ‘Shoestring’ that makes it particularly attractive in 2017. It’s not just the look and the sound of the series; it’s also the fact that the characters are likeable and believable. A lot of that is down to the cast, but it’s also down to the solid writing from experienced telly hacks as well as skilled newcomers, both graduates from the BBC when its role was that of a creative university, training talent to do what it said on the tin with panache and personality. There’s a welcome absence of that strain of TV writing today that bludgeons and baffles viewers with storylines trying hard to be clever and complex when they’re actually self-indulgent exercises in abysmally emulating Nordic and American styles.
Trevor Eve’s theatrical and cinematic ambitions curtailed ‘Shoestring’ after just two seasons, and even though Eve retrospectively regrets he didn’t make at least one more series, the fact the programme ended when it did preserves it in a specific moment we shall never see again – a moment in which milkmen were still on the dawn streets to witness a murder, and a moment when private eyes couldn’t be contacted when out on an investigation until they passed a phone-box and rang home. So, tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1979, in the company of Eddie Shoestring.
© The Editor