❉ Chris Orton looks back on the BBC detective drama set in Newcastle, written by Ian La Frenais and starring Jimmy Nail.
“Spender was a show in which the lead was tied to a specific location. The show was the idea of actor Jimmy Nail and Ian La Frenais. Both men hail from Tyneside, and they developed the programme as a vehicle for Nail and also as a way of showing off their home patch.”
Thanks to sketches in assorted comedy shows over the years, it’s easy to view the idea of the regional detective as something of a clichéd stereotype. Similar to series such as Bergerac and Taggart, Spender was another show in which the lead character was intrinsically tied to a particular geographic area. The show was the idea of actor Jimmy Nail and his former Auf Wiedersehen Pet colleague, Ian La Frenais. Both men hail from Tyneside, and they developed the programme both as a vehicle for Nail and also as a way of showing off their home patch. Nail had done very little TV work since Pet, concentrating instead on minor film roles, and had never been a series lead so this was something of a break for him. Spender presents us with a character who is a very deliberate contrast to Oz, with the actor himself shaping the role through writing a number of scripts.
The opening scenes of the first episode of Spender pay homage to the classic gangster film Get Carter. Both feature mavericks from London travelling north by train, before crossing the Tyne and arriving in their home city at Newcastle Central Station. Spender appears to be an enigma at first, a man of mystery whose name we don’t even learn until the seventh episode. Additionally, he’s laden with all the usual baggage of the television detective: separated from his wife and family, he is returning to the childhood town from which he fled, drives a distinctive motor and he has a new boss who he doesn’t like.
Our protagonist has been given an assignment by his bosses in the capital which he doesn’t want: an undercover job where he has to monitor the activities of a notorious Tyneside villain. He is picked for the task because he knows the area and because he needs to be quickly moved out of London due to a case that went wrong which resulted in his partner being seriously injured. Prior to his divorce, Spender and his family had all lived in London, but his wife Frances (Denise Welch, later of Coronation Street) and their two daughters headed back north, with him remaining in the Smoke having no real desire to return to his hometown.
We soon get to meet a friend of Spender’s – one Kenneth Norman Oakley – more commonly known as Stick. Stick is a great character – it’s obvious from their relationship that he and Spender have known each other all their lives: they probably went to school together, but while Spender chose to stay within, and indeed became part of, the law, Stick chose another path and resorted to crime. A habitual recidivist, Stick enables Spender to work in areas that his bosses may not want him to and has the underworld contacts that his friend needs to progress many of his cases.
Despite his assorted dodgy dealings, Stick has a true heart of gold and would do anything to help his mate. There’s something of a Callan/Lonely relationship between the pair, and they even end up living together in Series 2 and 3. In spite of this, they seem to grow apart slightly in the third series, with their stories runnIng in parallel; Stick even getting a new girlfriend who seems to want to settle down with him. Never one to have very good luck, when he attempts to finally go straight later in the series, the jewellery shop that he opens is burgled on its first day in business.
Even though Spender is Nail’s show, Sammy Johnson is by far the best thing in it. He gives a naturalistic, believable performance and shines throughout. It is a real shame that he never went on to further things and his was a real loss to the acting profession when he unexpectedly died a few years later at such an early age. A criminal associate of Stick’s is Spud Tate, who we first meet while the pair are serving time in Durham nick and he too is a fascinating character, going on to appear in five episodes in total, assisting his friend.
Spender’s first boss is Superintendent Yelland (played by one-time Captain Zep, Paul Greenwood fact fans!). The pair don’t hit it off; with the latter failing to appreciate Spender’s unorthodox methods of policing. We nearly always see the pair meeting in remote, out of the way locations as Spender isn’t supposed to be known in the area. Yelland is promoted at the end of the first series, to be replaced by Detective Chief Superintendent Gillespie. Initially Gillespie appears rather similar to his predecessor, but later comes to appreciate Spender’s talents and a mutual understanding is developed between the pair. Over the course of the series we learn that Gillespie and his wife lost a child, but very little else about his life. In one episode, he is abducted by a wrong ‘un, and Peter Guinness gives a really great performance from in it. Guinness has a rather menacing appearance, almost like he should always be cast as a villain, but he invests Gillespie with great credibility.
A more regular police contact for Spender is Dan Boyd. Dan is a desk-bound sergeant who longs for a bit of adventure. Assigned as Spender’s liaison when the new boy arrives in Newcastle, he plays a part in every episode bar the last. Dan’s most daring exploit comes when he chases some guitar thieves and bravely pursues them when they attempt to escape in a hot-air balloon. Almost as daring is the time when gets to chase some car thieves on the back of Spender’s motorbike in the third series. He has a quiet, sedate life with his (unseen) wife Doris – the pair have no children – and their two dogs his escapades with Spender add a touch of colour and excitement to his world.
The other regular character that we encounter is Spender’s old bandmate Keith Moreland, a frustrated man who is stricken with multiple sclerosis. His wife Astrid has left him, unable to cope with the condition and going on to have an affair with Spender. Keith tolerates the relationship as he knows that his friend can give his wife what he no longer can. A glimmer of light appears for Keith in the shape of his new girlfriend, but his happiness is quickly shattered when Spender has to break the news that she is only fifteen years old. Tony McAnaney, who played Keith, was also the composer for the series and we often witness scenes of him jamming with Spender in the music shop that he owns. Sadly, Keith is another character that didn’t return for The French Collection but McAnaney still provided the music.
Family life is a big part of the series: we are witness to many scenes in which Spender has his two daughters for the weekend, and indeed, they are integral to some of the plots. There are lots of moments where we see Spender dragging his the girls around the region on various dreary days out. He maintains good relations with his ex-wife Frances, always wanting to take care of her. In one storyline, she has a nervous breakdown at the end of series two which is convincingly played out, but the point of which seems to be somewhat wasted as it is all forgotten about by the first episode of series three. Some time has passed in the narrative, Frances becomes a teacher, and meets her new partner, Eric. Shortly after marrying Eric however, she decides to divorce him as she still wants Spender.
Tyneside is on the cusp of regeneration during this era: the series presenting us with a post-industrial landscape that has yet to be gentrified. The riverside of Newcastle and Gateshead has none of the impressive new buildings that exist today, and the city seems to be in a kind of post-Thatcher limbo. Stories regularly take the opportunity to get away from all of this however, with plenty of interesting and attractive locations in the wider region being shown off (even an oil rig in the middle of the North Sea).
The final episode of the third series sees tragedy for Spender when Frances meets a grisly end as a result of a bomb planted in Spender’s car by a vengeful businessman. It had looked like we may have been set for a happy ending as Frances was about to leave Eric, and Spender’s relationship with his new girlfriend Janet had hit the rocks, but sadly it was not to be. Meanwhile, Stick had decided to give up his life of crime and take the unusual step of becoming a Buddhist.
Although there were to be no further series, one last hurrah came with the feature-length adventure The French Collection, in which Spender is tasked by Gillespie to bring back his old nemesis Tommy Thornton from his Marseille hideout. Naturally, Stick finds his way to the continent too and Spender also has an encounter with an ex-girlfriend (revealed to be Thornton’s wife) Janet. This adventure was something of a treat to the eyes as the viewer is shown the sunny delights of southern France, in contrast to England’s more cloudy skies. The third series had shown signs of the programme beginning to run out of steam, but The French Collection is a real return to form. Written by Nail, the tale is jam-packed with action and has a fairly decent storyline too. The revelation that Janet turns out to be a jewel smuggler perhaps comes somewhat out of the blue, but other than this blip there is plenty to enjoy. Sadly, there was no place for Dan Boyd in the finale and the character is sorely missed.
Spender was a huge relaunch for Nail’s television career, and one that he instigated himself. He’d go on to be reunited with his Auf Wiedersehen Pet colleagues for more, rather unexpected, series of that in years to come, but his next show would be the very different Crocodile Shoes, which never quite reached the heights of popularity that Spender did, and had the unfortunate side-effect of Nail’s music career being extended with the dreadful theme song.
❉ Chris Orton occasionally writes odds and sods, including co-authoring books on Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who for Miwk Publishing. He can be found on Twitter at @chrisorton2011