That was a tough clue, wasn’t it? “Alice Where Are Thou” – about President Roosevelt’s daughter. Could that be a clue? A detective named Alice? “A clue so large…” was a quote from Poirot – could it be Poirot? Sung by Ernest Pike? Any detective series named Pike? Or a detective who’s also a fisherman? Or likes Edward VII’s favourite tenor? Well, none of the above. Compare the music in these two:
On the right is the opening from “Open All Hours”, the 1970s comedy series starring Ronnie Barker and – in probably his third most famous role – Sir David Jason. His most famous role, of course, has to be Derek “Del Boy” Trotter in “Only Fools And Horses”. But the second? Without doubt, that’s Detective Inspector Jack Frost (I remember that Jack is a nickname, but I can’t remember his real one – William, I think).
“A Touch Of Frost” was based on the novels by R D Wingfield. Wingfield wasn’t really happy with the series, feeling that Frost didn’t quite match the character in the books, but that didn’t really matter to the public – the show ran for 18 years, from 1992 to 2010, running for 38 episodes. (Basically, between 1 and 5 episodes a year.) It finally finished in 2010 when David Jason, then 68, decided that he was too old to continue to play Frost.
Frost’s subject matter is essentially darker and more disturbing than that of Columbo, although the violence is usually offscreen. The first episode involves a missing child and a paedophile gang, for example. A memorable opening to a later episode involves a character being sexually harassed at the office. When she leaves, the harasser sees her get into her car, jumps into his, and follows her down the road, flashing his lights furiously. Of course, in a nice little turnaround, a man in a balaclava appears from behind her seat… (apologies for the spoiler, but there’s another 95% of that episode I haven’t spoiled…)
DI Frost bears a lot of resemblances to Columbo – he’s certainly just as disheveled, doesn’t play by the rules, avoids paperwork, and he doesn’t really have a full-time sidekick – Frost’s closest officer changes with every episode, but usually George Toolan is involved somewhere. (I actually saw the actor who plays George Toolan in “The Mousetrap” in the West End, very good he was too. But I digress.)
Unlike Columbo, however, Frosts’s wife finally dies of cancer in the first episode. His home life, always less than ideal, is wrecked in a later episode when his house burns down.
If you’re fond of CSI or NCIS, the more forensic approach isn’t quite what you’ll get from Frost. This is slightly more old-fashioned policing, red in tooth and claw. But like Columbo, Frost has tremendous empathy for a lot of the victims – and the killers.
So… the Columbo-dex…
Ahead of the game: sometimes. Frost’s an intuitive policeman, whose long experience has given him a real “nose” for the work. But he’s no more ahead of the game than Morse. Score: 5/10
Car: Ah, Dagenham’s finest. A Ford Escort, if I recall correctly. Hardly an under-appreciated classic, like Columbo’s, but it has the down-to-earth charm of… well, a cheap used car. Hmm. There are other cars in Frost though – the IMCDB has photos… Score: 5/10
Catchphrases and ambience: Frost is surprisingly replete with catchphrases, and characters frequently use plays on catchphrases from Star Trek. Nicknames are well in evidence – Frost calls his boss “horn-rim Harry”, for example. Couple with Jason’s comic timing, this serves to lighten the tone tremendously away from the crime elements. In terms of ambience, it really has the feel of a town… where exactly? Near Reading? I always thought it was near Leeds, though – give that it was filmed by Yorkshire Television. But hey… somewhere. Score: 7/10
Investigative style: disregard for the rules, working on gut instinct, chaotic approach to paperwork, yet one of the best officers on the force,. How much more Columbo can you get? Oh, and did I mention he won the George Cross – the highest civilian award for bravery – by persuading a criminal to hand over his gun? Score: 9/10
Personality: Frost is a likeable character, although he’s probably hard to live with. He has a natural empathy for people, both victims, and sometimes the criminals too. He’s frequently a supportive character to his fellow officers, as well – for example, helping DS Barnard overcome the allegations of nepotism. Score: 10/10
Sidekick: this is a difficult one. George Toolan might be called a sidekick, but generally speaking he’s not the officer Frost directly works with. Similarly, Ernie from the archives (played by David Jason’s real-life brother) might be considered a sidekick too. Or some of the street kids he tries to help. Because of the variation, I don’t feel I can rate this higher than either Randall & Hopkirk or Lovejoy. But that said, I think it has to rate higher than the Sweeney or The Racing Game. Score: 5/10
Violence: Frost has plenty of violence, but it’s usually very brief. There’s usually more tension than there is violence, and although it’s perhaps not quite suitable for a Sunday afternoon, there’s nothing in there that would give sleepless nights. If I rated Randall & Hopkirk a 7, and Morse an 8, this has to be somewhere between the two. Score: 7½/10
Well, I knew this would be a big hitter. One of the front runners. It has to be close. But that’s a heck of a score. In fact, it changes the leaderboard somewhat:
- A Touch Of Frost – 48½
- Inspector Morse – 48
- Randall & Hopkirk (deceased) – 40
- Lovejoy – 39
- Dixon Of Dock Green – 34
So am I finished? Oh not yet. Not yet, you can be assured of that. Indeed, there are still many, many more candidates for the post that I’ve yet to consider. I won’t – yet – consider anything still in production (so that rules out Jonathan Creek, or the modern reboot of Sherlock Holmes, for example) as one of my criteria is that part of the Columbo appeal is the nostalgia factor. But there are still lots of TV detectives to be accounted for. Indeed, some of them aren’t really detectives in the traditional sense, but I’ll cover them anyway. So, come on, dear reader – we’re needed.