30 January 2004 | Yrmy
Perfect British escapism.
When I sat first sat down for a rerun of Lovejoy after nearly eight years of last seeing its final episode, I was prepared for some nostalgia. However, the nostalgia turned out to be not just mine, but an integral part of the show. This is not necessary something you would associate with Jonathan Gash's novels about the shady exploits of the no-less shady antique dealer Lovejoy. The first series was a bit closer to the spirit of the novels, as some of the scripts were adaptations, but the results were still somewhat uneven, jumpy pieces of television drama. It was only after the show was revived five years later that it broke loose from the original guidelines, and by the third series it had developed a more polished and delightful identity that is as much its own as Gash's creation. And this identity is all about fantasy and nostalgia.
Just look at the characters: There's Dudley Sutton's Tinker Dill, the tipsy but lovable olde-world gentleman with his perennial beret, tweed suit, campy army reminiscences, and a ready selection of antique trivia, poetry quotes and the admonishment "Visigoths!" for every occasion (this character particularly was softened from the cynical lush portrayed in the first series). And Chris Jury's Eric Catchpole, the leather-jacketed, heavy-metal-gobbling working-class youth and butt of jokes, ever aspirant but almost never bright or classy enough to strike out on his own. His somewhat neglected replacement from the fifth series on, Diane Parish's lively Beth Taylor, seemed to pose problems for the writers, perhaps because it's okay to take the mickey out of a young white man but less okay to take it out of a younger black woman.
Then there's Phyllis Logan's Lady Jane Felsham, the white, far-from-brittle English rose, who doubled as the unreachable object of Lovejoy's romantic longing and as a "nice aristo" with cash and class to support his operations - much to the chagrin of her too-stuffy-by-half husband. Caroline Langrishe's Charlotte Cavendish, who replaced her in the fifth series, may have been airbrushed as a more independent career woman, but ultimately she too was designed as a beauty with a posh accent and suspectibility to roguish charm.
And finally Ian McShane's Lovejoy himself, scampering along as if his jeans were too tight, spinning endless yarns to get him out of a tight spot (and often in them, as well), or taking a double-take glance at something precious - either antique or female - among the junk. As one guest character points out, he is an eternal boy, never "Mister Lovejoy", always unattached, always living basically from hand to mouth. So quite different from the Lovejoy of Gash's novels: the cynical, sexist, womanising, manipulative little schemer whom we should still like, because he supposedly does it all with oh such charm and is occasionally even capable of such great displays of basic human decency as putting people above things. And despite the occasional corpse and threat of bodily harm, the adventures of Lovejoy and his entourage in the series are really boyish romps in search of hidden treasures and a bit of budding romance, providing ample opportunity for excitement, witty banter, humorous escapades and lectures in art history - both real and invented. As if to confirm the juvenility of it all, three of the six series featured Malcolm Tierney's delightfully slimy rival dealer Charlie Gimbert as a bullyboy to be dodged and sent up.
But there's more to it, namely Lovejoy's love for antique for its beauty and preciousness - which doesn't stop him from making profit with it. The highly romanticised view of all that's old and hand-crafted with skill and love is a good excuse to hide from the anxiety about the new. This is why the series has dated little over the years: apart from a stray blast of instantly dateable pop music or fashion, almost all of it takes place in the affected timelessness of dusty antique shops, stately country homes or picturesque small towns where the newest thing in sight is Lady Jane's Range Rover. Of course Range Rover, because this is also about saving British heritage - whether it be medals, paintings or the right people - and pulling a fast one on those who see it as nothing more than a business opportunity or an obstacle to progress. Those who are helped are the little people, loveable eccentrics or down-on-their-luck gentry who still harbour the old skills and crafts or are bit useless but decent folks who deserve a helping hand. And those who get shafted are scheming dealers, greedy real-estate developers, yuppie upstarts or brash Yanks and ockerish Aussies with more money than manners - all those Thatcher's disciples clamouring for ruthless efficiency and frightful modernity.
In short, this combination of British archetypes, ironically tinged nostalgia about the old world and jolly adventuring makes for a perfect British fantasy world, the kind that, to outsiders like myself, is probably more real than the real Britain. Like Lovejoy's loaned Volkswagen, Miriam, in series three, it may be a bit rundown, and quite a bit inefficient, but it's got history and character - and it's all we can afford. It's a world where quick wit, a dash of style and knowledge of the past and the crafts of old can still win over ruthless economic realities, tasteless pomp and all the newfangled technology. It's an enticing vision. It's almost complete and utter tosh.
And it works brilliantly. Apart from a slight drop of quality during the final series, the show maintained a high standard of stories, dialogue and acting that kept me watching long after a mere nostalgia trip would have lost its potency. In fact, it's disturbing to see how different this series is from much of today's programming. Few subsequent shows have tried such an almost naïvely waggish approach and fewer still have made it work without coming across as cynical or calculating. Or perhaps I'm just getting old...