Few shows have suffered the kind of ratings fall experienced by New Tricks after the departure of its lead actors: Alun Armstrong, James Bolam and Amanda Redman. The last series was down around one and a half million viewers. I thought there were two reasons for this; firstly, the chemistry between the four leads was the kind of magic that you can’t manufacture. Secondly, the scripts lost the wit and humour of the earlier episodes. It became just a generic cop show, with bland characters and dialogue. Following the ratings fall, the BBC decided that the following series, its twelfth, would be the last. Fortunately, ‘Last Man Standing’ demonstrated a remarkable return to form for its final run, with a pacy script and gripping storyline.
‘Last Man Standing’ concentrated on Gerry Standing (Waterman) and his shady involvement with 1980s police corruption. An intriguing array of flashbacks enabled the audience to see a different aspect to the character that has been on the screen for over ten years. Through the sequences, the audience can easily follow the storyline and have the benefit of realising Standing is telling the truth, whilst others around him doubt his account. It may have been more dramatically interesting to have also have the audience unsure of Standing’s credibility, but I suppose there would never be any doubt of his integrity anyway.
As it serves to write out the last remaining original cast member, Dennis Waterman, the two-parter is fortunately written by one of the programme’s strongest writers, Julian Simpson. Simpson has proven the go-to writer for the show’s key episodes. He wrote out Bolam, Armstrong and Redman’s characters, this episode proved why he was chosen. Instead of the characters entering the plot as outsiders, he locates them inside the story, with the inevitable dramatic consequences.
Samuel Oatley was well cast as the young Standing; his performance had the essence of the character, without being an impersonation of Dennis Waterman. Meanwhile, any programme that casts Bernard Cribbins as a dodgy former copper is likely to have my support. Cribbins played the against-type role of Ronald Sainsbury well, with an interesting twist towards the end. There was even time for a –suggested- cameo return for Sandra Pullman, one of the former lead characters, as a young 1980s police officer, which was a nice touch for the opening episode to the final series.
Another welcome return to New Tricks was the humour. The past few series seemed to mistake the programme for a normal bog-standard crime show, which it hadn’t been. The first six or seven series had a masterful blend of drama and comedy. One series had a very funny episode about ice cream manufacturers fighting over plots of land, which was followed by the conclusion to a long-running storyline regarding the murder of a main character’s wife. Around 2011, this all shifted away. Fortunately, it seems to be back. Danny Griffin (Nicholas Lyndhurst) had a terrific line when leaving the offices of a group of suspicious ex-policemen, asking them to “look menacingly after we leave”. A neat sub-plot about Standing having to baby-sit his grandson provided further light relief. There was even a Grindr joke.
The show’s producers were always going to struggle to replace the powerhouse team that was the original cast, but, after a series to steady themselves, the new cast do seem to be settling in well. Denis Lawson (finally) had something to do. Lyndhurst was allowed to show some personality behind his character, instead of being a clone of Brian (formerly played by Armstrong). While Tamsin Outhwaite seemed more confident in the part of Sasha Miller. Waterman, rightly, was front and centre for his final episode. Aided by the terrific script, he skilfully managed to reveal further layers of the character, despite twelve years of playing him. So it seems that with such a good story, confident cast and its sense of humour back, New Tricks has returned for a successful final hurrah.
Did the BBC axe the show too soon? Only time will tell.