“There’s Been a Murder!”: ‘Taggart’

❉ A Brief introduction to Jim Taggart, by Michael S. Collins.

“There’s been a murder!”

If ever a pop culture line fitted a TV show.

TV Tropes claimed the line is like “Beam me up, Scotty” in that it’s never actually said on screen. True enough, the phrase is usually “there’s been another murder”, but Jardine does utter the famous phrase in Evil Eye, followed by “at Firhill”.

“There’s murder at Firhill every fortnight,” replied that dry Scottish comedian, Jim Taggart, in response. Partick Thistle in-jokes are not unusual in a show based primarily around Maryhill, albeit a Maryhill which seems to take in vast chunks of Glasgow and even Highland Scotland! In Root of Evil, a fan is murdering watching Thistle lose to Celtic on the TV, and years later, Alex Norton, on hearing the latest murder victim was a Jags fan, quips: “At least his suffering is over!” I can assure you years of woeful performances are yet to turn this Jag psychotic though… yet.

Taggart was a long running Scottish crime show known for a high body count, more plot twists than an anthology of Poirot tales, and the crème da la crème of acting talent as killers or victims.  Anyone could turn out to be the murderer. The late Anne Kristen (Hamish Macbeth, Casualty) done it once, and she was bloody terrifying in the reveal. And if the audience found the long list of red herrings and double crosses difficult to follow at times, think of the poor production team.

“Why didn’t Taggart bring in (X) for questioning again?” said director Haldane Duncan editing one episode.

“Probably because (X) died in the last episode!” replied creator Glenn Chandler wryly.

The best plots of Taggart were pot boiled noir, inspired by McIlvanney’s Laidlaw and Raymond Chandler before them. In The Killing Philosophy, the hunt for a serial rapist intertwines with a wife’s plot to bump off her husband. Root of Evil mixes the 1988 Garden Festival with a family vendetta, a case of mistaken identity, corrupt policemen and Kenny Ireland. Evil Eye plays out as an episode of Columbo. We know whodunnit from the opening act (it’s a young John Hannah) and the story is how Taggart catches him. Or at least, that’s how we’re meant to think the episode is about. Where this episode falls down is perhaps in the reuse of the motif from Root of Evil, and whilst I vastly prefer that earlier story, others might find it far more chilling here. After all, there is the implication that this time, it has the go ahead from someone much higher up in the Met, who has seen the death of their officer and wants it repaid not with trial and jury and the course of law and order, but with blood sacrifice. There’s always that niggling doubt people have that the higher uppers are out to get them (see Brexit for more details), and that little implication plays with that to great effect.

However, if someone was coming new to the show (it’s readily available on the ITV Player) and wanted some recommendations, then alongside the episodes mentioned above, the following three are the best stories from the Mark McManus years:

Knife Edge (AKA the one with the butcher): Alex Norton later replaced McManus in the lead role, but here he plays a creepy butcher, the main red herring of a tale about missing body parts. “People still think I was the killer!” Norton recalls, “Even though I got bumped off!” One of the flaws of Knife Edge is that, after 2 hours of careful build, we have rather a swift and rushed climax. There is a double cross, of sorts, and the killer is apprehended, but all in a manner of quick shots, with a bigger set piece distracting the audience, and we’re left without much of the Why and How. But the acting is great, and so is the visual trip through old Springburn, with almost none of the locations shown still standing.

Hostile Witness is wall to wall murders. The philosophy of Jim Taggart is that there is no such thing as a clever murderer. His point seems proved early on with two guileless murderers who can’t survive an episode, let alone a story. But then another four murders turn up, and everyone seems to be connected to the one person you’d least suspect. A person Taggart is left fuming over, thinking they got away with it, but in the worst and yet most deserved fate in the series, they really don’t.

However, the best Taggart story is Flesh and Blood, which mixes Dungeons and Dragons with the IRA, has more replay value than a Ghost Light DVD and yet all makes sense when the reveal happens, in a sense of bamboozled understanding. We have that most cold blooded of killers, who is able to dissociate himself from his deeds because he never shot a gun or bludgeon someone with axe, and yet is all the more horrible. Also, we hear from his first scenes that he had a dark past, so that while he slinks in the background, the viewer dazzled by an IRA linked plot, and the geeks, his motives and character remain clear from the start.

The actor Mark McManus used to live round the corner from my primary school. We used to see him out and about. He was a shy and quietly spoken man, polite but unwilling to bring attention to himself. Light and day from the character of Jim Taggart. It is sometimes said, uncharitably, that McManus wasn’t that good an actor, and that the role was basically himself. Utter nonsense. His acting style is sparse, direct even at times, and entirely founded on the principle that less is more, but he is never less than 100% convincing in the role. Directors talk fondly of how they could cut pages of technobabble because Mark could convey what the audience needed to know with a single look, usually withering!

He also worked well with his co-stars, James McPherson (Jardine) and especially Blythe Duff as DCI Jackie Reid. Duff injected a direct dose of fresh air into the show, a strong independent young woman who can fend for herself in a man’s world, introduced almost by accident. There is a point where Jardine and DCI Reid are chasing a culprit by car. The tropes of TV would have Jardine chasing on foot while Reid follows in the car. However, Blythe Duff didn’t have a driver’s licence! For scenes where she drove Jim Taggart, they got around that by rushing her into a provisional licence. But she couldn’t drive a car alone, so by necessity, there’s this new female detective, chasing our suspected multiple murderer down by herself while the man follows impotently by car.

And thus, a TV legend was born. It wasn’t that long before a killer, in a later episode, tried to dispose of Jackie Reid herself, and Reid responded by breaking his arm!

Arguably, the show started to drift away in the noughties when those in charge made the cardinal error of mistaking Reid’s empathy for her holding a sort of idiot ball in emotional episodes. She’s a great character because she’s smart and fearless, when they made her simmering, judgemental and daft the show started to go downhill.

Although sadly by then tempus fugit had already stricken the show. The much-loved Mark McManus, struggling through a staggering number of personal losses, took ill and died in 1994 aged only 59. The show continued with the lead focused on James MacPherson’s Jardine, but then in 2001, he took gravely ill also. Thankfully, he recovered, but had to retire as an actor. Dependable character actor Alex Norton stepped in to lead a new investigative team (complete with the dad from Woolly and Tig!) but fans were split between accepting the new show and preferring “Jim Taggart’s Taggart”.

Then, what the Grim Reaper could not defeat, internecine disputes between STV and ITV over rights and ratings in different parts of the UK could. And so Taggart the show was bumped off for good in 2010, with some of the lead cast only finding out when the newspapers reported it.

The show survived the loss of its lead actor, and lasted nearly 30 years before it was killed off by politics. Because politics hasn’t done enough damage in the last decade.

There’s been a murder. Well, the victim had to be the show eventually, sadly.

❉ 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.

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