❉ This tale of revenge and redemption from the dour detective is a hidden gem, writes Michael S Collins.
In 1988, Glasgow had the Garden Festival. Set in a disused quay on the banks of the Clyde, it celebrated the city’s rebirth and was held 50 years on from the International Exhibition. With rides, observation decks, performances and model trains, it brought in over four million visitors from all over the world, including my family. In fact, two-year-old me’s visit to the Festival contains some of my earliest life memories, including the awe of seeing George Wyllie’s Paper Boat on the river. As the great and good of Glasgow appeared, it is little surprise that TV’s Jim Taggart, Mark McManus, was a judge in several competitions. Nor is it a surprise that his TV show used the Festival as the backdrop to another gory tale of crime!
Root of Evil is primarily about three brothers: Willie, Mick and Ken Lomax. We get to see their close-knit family as they celebrate their mum’s birthday, before Willie goes and gets his head lopped off in a Glasgow alleyway. (A murder scene which Drama still axed off their broadcast!) As with all rules of three, the three brothers are each slightly further along the route of redemption, playing out as Scrooge’s ghosts.
Willie Lomax is clearly a nefarious sort. His introduction involves breaking the fingers of a window cleaner caught in a turf war between loan sharks. A mother’s boy, he takes after her role as a leading reclaimant, complete with heavies, and is the least sympathetic of the murder victims. Gordon Kane, who was also in Mr Jolly Lives Next Door, has little time for much character work before he loses his head.
Ken Lomax is the brother who went legit. He’s all about his nightclubs and keeping things above board (or so we assume) and if the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, then his seeming intolerance of injustice and crime mark him apart from his brothers. Although he does turn a blind eye to their actions. Ken is played by missed actor Kenny Ireland (House of Cards, Benidorm), who imbues the role with a touch of Del Boy made good. He runs nightclubs in London and Edinburgh with the help of his wife, Celia Imrie (who needs no introduction!).
The conflicted brother in the middle is Mick, the man who wants to be good, but is enticed by darkness. The twin dilemmas of Mick Lomax are set up well in advance: He’s allegedly not beyond a bit of murder but abhors violence against women. (This is a crucial early plot point… When Mrs Lomax sent Mick to remind her neighbours about their repayments, he said “I wish you wouldn’t, I refuse to beat up women.” And with a hint of darkness, his mum replies: “I know, that’s why I’ve asked you to do it and not Willie…”)
Mick’s main conflict is his wish to be a good father, combined with becoming an unwilling heavy for his family’s shady businesses. Even as he runs his own pub, the call of the underworld is too irresistible. It is a tragic irony that, having flirted with outright villainy, his downfall is his love of his son. The coda that he planted the car bomb that killed a family enemy was a revelation too far. It tipped this studied act of failing to achieve into someone unworthy of that sympathy all along. Which is a shame, not only as there were better candidates in the narrative for that crime, but also as John Kane drew on his extensive TV CV to provide a careful study of a flawed man. Right until that fatal moment, when he opened his front door expecting to see his runaway son, you can see the battle for good and evil played across his expressive face.
The character is also a Partick Thistle fan. I feel his pain.
What is the Root of Evil? Yes, I know: Money but here, seemingly, families. Every character’s main motivation arises from three separate family matters. The Lomax family are an insular bunch, the Family as a firm, bad habits handed down from the parent in two successive generations. The stepfather, Bill Shires, clearly wanted the best for David as much as his father, but he couldn’t get over his own aloof nature and distrust. Barbershop quartet singer Robert Carrera would do anything for his daughter, yet by resorting to emotions over actual support, made a bad situation much worse.
It is wryly amusing that, for all his flaws, the man who came out the best father is actually Jim Taggart! When he discovered his daughter’s partner had done time for armed robbery, he went apoplectic and caused a public scene. Yet, by the end of the serial, he had a heart to heart with Alison, revealing he will unconditionally support her, even if he doesn’t understand her choices. His family situation acts as a mirror unto the other three, but unlike Shires, Lomax and Carreras, he acknowledges his flaws and rises above them, just about.
You also see the difference in characters with one of the rare slips in Taggart’s notoriously stony demeanour. He absolutely cannot stand loan sharks (calling them predators to the victim’s mother) and struggles to distance his distaste for the world he is called on to investigate. Glenn Chandler often liked to add some socio-economic subtext to his writing, here showing how Willie Lomax types can worm their way into vulnerable folks’ lives and never leave. He uses Taggart himself as the author avatar for his hatred of the system.
He also finds time to add in speedboats and a desperate race against time down a canal, because Chandler (a fine TV writer) loves the dramatic spectacle. It can also, as any good magician would tell you, help you hide things in plain sight.
Because – spoilers warning – this is a story about the truth being hidden in plain sight. We were always focused on how lousy the Lomax brothers were, so when the truth comes out, it seems to fit. That Willie and Mick had raped a young actress (Kenny Ireland wasn’t involved in this and so lives to travel to Benidorm another day), and this was the father’s revenge. However, even as the vendetta reveals, there should be a gem of doubt in the back of the mind that Celia Imrie’s brilliantly icy Helen lacks. That birthday scene earlier between mother and son – surely Mick Lomax can’t be the man who is sickened by violence towards women, and also a rapist? And you’d be exactly right – Willie Lomax wanted someone else’s identity and pitch earlier in the story. Well, another took his and Mick’s identity for a crime, and they paid tenfold. The end result is three families ruined and bad people paying for the wrong crimes – it really does give vendettas a bad name.
The acting throughout is superb, as you’d expect when your guest cast includes the likes of Ireland and Imrie. Special mention however goes to Joe McFadden, who even aged 12 shows depth and range as tortured son David. We leave the boy with the sober realisation that the only adult who showed him any support is the dead criminal father. He lashed out against his stepfather, even tried to set him up, and we leave them without the imagination needed to reconcile. “You really know how to pick your heroes,” said Taggart, dryly summing up the theme of the entire show.
Despite being one of the best mini-serials STV produced (Taggart is like Prime Suspect or Cracker, mostly self-contained 2-3 episode crime dramas), Root of Evil has very little written about it online. So hopefully this redresses that balance to some extent for a hidden gem. A hidden gem still repeated on UK TV twice a year and available on the STV Player year round! 1988 was the year everyone realised Glasgow was changing for the better, economically, socially, health wise. Change was everywhere. It’s so like Taggart to capture it in amber, an unchanging snapshot of a period in hope.
❉ ‘Root of Evil’ was originally broadcast Wednesday 28th September 1988. Watch full length episodes of Taggart for free on STV Player, including the first ever episodes: https://player.stv.tv/summary/taggart/
❉ Michael S. Collins, who lives in Glasgow, is the editor of Other Side Books. A former Fortean Times book reviewer, Michael was editor of The 40p website, as well as two editions of The Christmas Book of Ghosts. His horror fiction can be found in magazines such as Diabolic Tales and Stupefying Stories, among many others. He has no pet dragons. Honest.