A pair of splendid recent British detective shows otherwise unseen here have been made available on DVD: “George Gently: Series 1" collects three feature-length cases originally broadcast in 2007 and ’08, while “The Last Detective: Complete Collection” gathers all 17 episodes from the show’s four seasons (2003-07).
Their heroes are in many ways polar opposites: Gently is a legend of Scotland Yard; “last detective” “Dangerous” Davies is the low man on a short totem pole. But they share a seriousness, an ethical code stricter than their colleagues’, and a nose for the truth. And though the first show is a drama and the second is three-quarters comedy, each exhibits the best qualities of its kind: well-realized characters; place as a player; and stories rooted in ordinary human failings, which makes them both sadder and funnier than their American counterparts.
Set in 1964, “George Gently” comes from a series of novels written by Alan Hunter.
Originally located in Norfolk, they have been removed to the farther flung seaside reaches of Northumberland; the change enhances the sense of isolation, and the scenery is quite dramatic and beautifully filmed.
Driven to retirement by the murder of his wife, Gently (Martin Shaw) follows the case to Northumberland, where he eventually decides to continue working -- in part to furnish moral guidance to an ambitious young detective sergeant (Lee Ingleby). Shaw gives the character both heft and delicacy; Gently is no savant but works from a hard-won understanding of human nature, which gives him a world-weariness as well as a certain liberality of mind.
The delightful “The Last Detective” features the mild-mannered “Dangerous” Davies (Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor Who), whose ironic sobriquet “Dangerous” is used by everyone from his colleagues to his estranged wife to his best friend, the waggish, unemployable bookworm Mod (Sean Hughes) -- the Linus to his Charlie Brown.
The show is set in the outer London borough of Willesden -- something like setting a crime show in Tarzana -- where the cops and the crooks are on a first-name basis and where Davies, whom one might say proactively lacks ambition, is “the last detective” his dyspeptic superior will ever assign an important case. His unimportant cases have a way of becoming important, however, and often the mystery to be solved is not the mystery it at first seems: They are as much mysteries of behavior -- how people are -- as they are matters of crime-solving.