BBC Four’s pilot episode for Dirk Gently, originally shown in 2010, was pretty unpromising.
Not only did it hack one of Douglas Adams’s best books down to a sixty-minute snoozefest with all the supernatural, Doctor Who-cribbed and funny bits cut out in favour of a remiss runaround with a resolution involving an old lady and an iPhone, it also stepped in the same squishy heap of disappointment that left the original TV adaptation of Ian Rankin’s Rebus series with something messy on its shoes.
Instead of choosing an actor who bore some resemblance to the title character as described by the original author – ‘You are very fat and stupid and persistently wear a ridiculous hat which you should be ashamed of,’ says the Great Zaganza, an astrologer, of Dirk in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul – the casting director instead plumped for Green Wing’s Stephen Mangan: a funny, good-looking and energetic actor who usually brings something enjoyable to every role he takes on but bears as much similarity to the holistic detective as John Hannah does to a scruffy, pudgy, alcoholic Edinburgh cop. Not much, in other words.
Fourteen months on, and the BBC have commissioned three more Mangan-led Gently adventures from Misfits creator Howard Overman, keeping Darren Boyd on to play Richard MacDuff and turning the two characters into more of a double-act than Adams presumably ever intended.
Three episodes of a series that updates classic crime stories featuring an unconventional, floppy-haired private detective whose wild excesses are balanced out by his level-headed, none-more-ordinary sidekick. Sound familiar?
On the face of it, it couldn’t be more Holmesian if Daniel Pemberton’s incidental music sounded exactly like David Arnold’s score for Sherlock – which it does. So similar, in fact, that one could be forgiven for wondering at times if the whole thing isn’t a deliberately sedate pastiche of Gatiss and Moffat’s version of the Conan Doyle classic; a midweek, cardigan-vascular workout that taxes neither the brain, the heart or the funny bone yet still drifts gently – hey! – and not unpleasantly past.
That’s how the pilot was, anyway; and the opening minutes of Episode 1 (in which Stephen Mangan says ‘interconnected events’ so often it starts to grate on the brain) fit the same undemanding template.
Our heroes investigate the murder of a software developer under the watchful eye of the Pentagon amid a dismaying paucity of laughs, with Gently all teeth and curls and MacDuff so Watson-lite it’s difficult to muster the enthusiasm to continue watching. But – and this is such a big but even Sir Mix-a-Lot might find it difficult to deny how much he likes it – Dirk Gently is actually worth persevering with.
At some point (possibly the moment when the newly-widowed Mrs Edwards asks if her husband trusted Dirk, to which the detective unfortunately replies, ‘With his life’) the show finds a rhythm that the pilot never had and bounces jauntily along with verve and – crucially – some much-needed laughs.
Yes, many of them come from slapsticky moments such as Dirk’s row with a pizza delivery boy, MacDuff’s parodying of his partner’s mannerisms, unaware he’s being filmed, and the unfortunate destruction of the modern art in astrologist Terrence Brown’s office, but it’s not all physical comedy.
There’s pleasingly subtle interplay between Mangan and Boyd – notably when they communicate behind their clients’ backs in a mixture of mouthings and mime – and plenty of good lines, too. When Dirk exhorts his unreliably veteran Austin Princess to move with a cry of, ‘Come on, you beautiful bitch!’ it’s not, perhaps, in the strictest Adams tradition, but it’s certainly funny; and nothing could be more Douglas than that.
Aired at 9pm on Monday 5th March 2012 on BBC Four.
What did you think of the episode? Let us know below…