When I was twelve, Dick Turpin was the most exciting programme on a TV calendar that included such classics as The Muppet Show, 3-2-1, Tales of the Unexpected and Not The Nine O’Clock News, as well as unappreciated gems Sapphire and Steel (sheer brilliance), It’s A Knockout and Rentaghost ***pause for misty-eyed reminiscences***.
Robin’s Nest and Man About The House – Richard O’Sullivan’s previous shows – had never darkened our black and white screen, which was fiercely policed by my father, who would have no truck with light comedy (Are You Being Served and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum excepted).
Therefore, I had no preconceived ideas about O’Sullivan as a lightweight beta male flummoxed by female flatmates and one-armed kitchen hands. To me, he was a dashing, dandy highwayman with a strong sword arm and a warm heart.
I loved the series so much I bought the book (see previous post), and reading must have cemented the storylines in my head, because I can remember every one of them. For someone who regularly forgets where the reverse gear is on my car, this is momentous.
I also discovered that when it comes to fiction and drama, most of the things I love now are just a midnight gallop away back to Dick Turpin. Outlaws! Swords! Flintlocks! Dastardly plots! Rougeish heroes! Cunning tricks! Feisty women! Inns and ale and pies! Billowing white shirts! And I thought my finely honed writing style was the result of decades of experience and painful fine tuning.
Apart from the nostalgia hit, the programme itself has survived the last 38 years with surprising robustness. The acting is low key but solid, and while all the action seems to take place around the same field and tumbledown barn, it is still exciting and atmospheric.
A favourite episode is The Poacher, when Dick and his sidekick Swiftnick come across a perfumed fop called Wiloughby who has – apparently – just been robbed. Dick later fools Wiloughby by pretending to be a bewigged buffoon himself, but in a double twist, Wiloughby turns out to be a highwayman in disguise. The scene where they are trading quips while swordfighting back to back is sheer swashbuckling fun.
The Imposter, where Swiftnick’s uncle is shot and everyone blames Dick, is both shocking and satisfying, but the best episode is the last one of the series, The Jail-birds. The main characters – both good and nasty – end up locked in a cell together. There is very little action, just a lot of smart dialogue, some real history chucked in, a cunning twist and the re-emergence of a forgotten character as an unlikely saviour.
Dafter episodes involve Dick being mistaken for a prize-fighter and having to beat the local big bully (cue snorts of derision from my father, who hooted that Richard O’Sullivan couldn’t punch his way out of a brown paper bag. Why the colour of the bag mattered, I have no idea).
Having a rogue highwayman who turned out to be a beautiful woman (gasp! how could no-one tell?) in The Pursuit was an excuse to inject some frilly 17th Century lingerie into the show and The Hostages – where big baddy Sir John Glutton suddenly develops a never-before-mentioned niece and Swiftnick is involved in a half-arsed kidnap attempt – felt as if it had been dreamed up on the back of a beer mat.
I was gutted to discover Series 2 isn’t on YouTube, but there is a DVD – and Christmas is coming.