‘So tell me about Newcastle.’
Detective Spender: ‘You read the paper’s don’t you? Full of winos, pushers, junkies, dole-wallers…England’s armpit.’
With Spender (1991-1993), Jimmy Nail teams up with writer Ian La Frenais in what first appears as a thinly disguised attempt to rescue Nail from typecast obscurity following his part in the seminal Geordie favourite Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1984-2004). The notorious Oz, the xenophobic and homophobic fool of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet is here replaced with Detective Sergeant Freddy Spender, a man with the sophistication to outwit all the criminals of Tyneside. In each episode Spender uses his impressive abilities and powers of deception, ostensibly acquired from his time down South, in order to capture drug lords, human traffickers and men with Mafia ties. It seems it takes a man from London to outfox the myriad criminals that were supposedly dominating Tyneside’s post-industrial landscape in the early 1990s.
Spender opens with our central detective making his way up to the North East, a seemingly grim, bleak and cold land that he has been trying to escape for twenty years. Later on in the series, we learn that it is his utter failure in the capital that has resulted in his forced return to what he describes as the ‘Far North’. At first sight, Newcastle is the city of brutalism and unemployment, combining T. Dan Smith’s vision for the city – concrete, modernist and ugly, his ‘Brasília of the North’ – with a populace overcome by the political events of the 1980s. From these opening moments, it is easy to assume that the omnipresence of crime and lawlessness in and around the city are directly the result of Margaret Thatcher’s disastrous policies, which as we know crippled not only the economies of North East towns and cities but whole communities in Northumberland, County Durham and elsewhere. Spender, the apparently educated and refined Geordie, whose thick accent is deserted of dialect, moves around these stricken areas chasing criminals all over the North East, from Alnwick to Durham and Middlesborough.
Yet, as the series progresses, it appears that the writers have dispensed with the idea of the gritty city, grey, austere and depressing, instead moving to showcase some of Tyneside’s finest vistas. While we are denied the exuberance of Grey Street and the magnificence of Grainger Town, the writers always find a way to place Spender and his superiors on or above the Tyne Bridge, at Tynemouth Pier or at the Side on the Quayside. Of course, Newcastle Quayside is lacking what makes it extra special to the modern devotee, as the Millennium Bridge, Sage Gateshead and Baltic are either non-existent or are still in their post-industrial infancies, and therefore the emptiness of the River Tyne immediately appears as an interesting and curious sight.
If Spender’s abilities have been altered by his time in the South, his political affiliations still sit with the city. In one early episode, Spender is put in charge of the security of the elegant Bobby Montgomery, Conservative MP candidate for an area in Wearside, who becomes flirtatiously involved with our detective. While no romantic relationship develops between the two, other than a few longing looks, she at one point offers Spender a blue Conservative ribbon to wear (his superior the upper class and frankly irritating Superintendent Yellend bears his with pride) but he declines this request, responding that it would not match his red tie. Like in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, this seems to me to be a continuation of Jimmy Nail’s miraculous strength to attract women, especially those of a luxurious and classy character. But we know that Spender is essentially useless as a romantic partner, at least after the first few months of infatuation and flirtation, and father-figure, as his dalliance with ex-wife (played by Denise Welch) and relationship with his mostly ignored and forgotten children attest. Spender finds it difficult to be loving and caring to his family, instead devoting all his spare time to his work, determined in the dogged pursuit of the villains of Tyneside.
As Spender’s episodes are mostly self-contained, easy to tune in and understand with some rudimentary understanding of the set-up, Detective Spender is given at least one new crime to solve each episode. But to the modern viewer, brought up in the apparent ‘Golden Age of Quality Television’, I found the show difficult to binge-watch, quickly learning that a break is required between episodes as some of plots appear contrived, forced and lacking in realism while watched in quick-succession. Yet, when Spender is good, it is undoubtedly an enjoyable ride, with the fun and thrills arising not just out of the pleasure of seeing your hometown on screen.
Soon we see the favourite dates of the Geordie calendar woven into the various plots, the Newcastle-Sunderland derby, the arrival of the Hoppings, as Spender begins to show off regional life more and more. And indeed we are introduced to the bitter rivalries between the regions, with Stick, Spender’s unofficial sidekick, a quasi-reformed burglar, ridiculing ‘Mackemland’, Middlesborough and every North-Eastern non-Geordie. Whether this works to reinforce the parochial stereotypes of the North East, I will leave up to the viewer.
While at no point does Spender offer anything truly original to the history of detective television, and safely slips itself into the tradition of unspectacular detective programmes set in the North East, continued by shows such as Wire in the Blood (2002-2008) and Vera (2011-), the series does in fact have its appeals, not only as a drama but as a work of nostalgia. For those Geordies and non-Geordies who have affection for the superior Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (at least in its first two seasons), Spender is undoubtedly worth a watch, however, I am still unsure whether Nail succeeds in reinventing himself here as the essential Geordie character actor.
This piece inaugurates a new series on draperonfilm.com which focuses on televisual favourites set on Tyneside.