Looking Back At RANDALL AND HOPKIRK (DECEASED) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s being ghosted.
Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) is a premise which in hindsight looks like genius, but at the time it was first proposed, took a while to get made.

Writer Dennis Spooner is a man whose DNA is scattered throughout some of the best cult TV from the 1960s. After writing for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson on projects like Fireball XL5, spending some time as script editor for Doctor Who during the Time Lord’s superb first incarnation, and moving to ITC, he created Man In A Suitcase, The Champions, Department S and Jason King.

You’d think that was enough of a resume, but when Spooner (along with producer Monty Berman) proposed a series with a pair of detectives, one of whom was a ghost, ITC supremo Lew Grade wasn’t initially keen because it didn’t have an American lead attached – which he assumed meant it wouldn’t sell in the States.

But when fellow writer-producer Ralph Smart (himself no slouch, having been involved in the likes of The Adventures Of Robin Hood, The Invisible Man, and Danger Man) volunteered to write the pilot, Grade relented, and one of the oddest (and arguably one of the best) ITC projects ever devised took shape.
Jeff Randall (Mike Pratt) and Marty Hopkirk (Kenneth Cope) are private detectives in what looks like a distinctly swinging Sixties London. When Hopkirk tangles with a murderous tycoon (played by Frank Windsor, no less), he is the victim of a professional hit. When he subsequently turns up as a ghost to haunt Randall, demanding his murder be avenged, it’s the start of a single series of 26 episodes that combine elements of Blithe Spirit, The Odd Couple and ITC’s more usual investigative fare.

The series starts in a fairly gritty style, but that goes more or less out of the window within the pilot episode, once Hopkirk is killed. It’s a sensible move that allows the natural comic chemistry between the laconic Randall and the chatterbox Hopkirk to come storming to the fore. While there’s an added complication in the form of Jeannie Hopkirk (Annette Andre), who inherits Marty’s half of the business, the series evolves fairly quickly from the potentially hardcore investigative one it initially announces itself to be – after all, it’s difficult to be murdered by anything less than a serious villain – into a more and more exotic and off the wall comedy drama, with the ghosts of Chicago mobsters, psychics with attitude, and joyously absurd hypnosis plots intermingling with more standard ITC storylines about valuable stolen postage stamps, trips to Monte Carlo, and vast quantities of missing bonds.
The series could have been a po-faced disaster, but the writing of the central pairing is sublime, and Pratt and Cope are absolute screen gold. In particular, Pratt is the most delicious of straight men (a genuinely wonderful find – the role was originally mooted as a vehicle for Irish comedian Dave Allen – yes, really, THAT Dave Allen), while Cope prattled endlessly, just as Hopkirk would have done if he were alive. The scenarios that make up the episodic plots are engaging and drag you along with them, in a style much more on par with The Avengers than the likes of The Persuaders! (made and shown the same year, and not for nothing, featuring the same red classic Mini that belongs to Jeannie Hopkirk throughout the spookfest show). But neither Pratt nor Cope is shy of engaging with and ramping up the comedy about as far as it will go. For a perfect example of that, the second episode is hard to beat, with Hopkirk controlling a hypnotised Randall by voice command – using the voice of a crooked German psychiatrist. That might not sound like much as an idea, but the orchestrated fight scenes are hilarious, and Hopkirk’s normally-voiced exhaustion, registered with the line “This’ll be the death of me” is an absurdist joy.

There are distinctive elements of Neil Simon’s Odd Couple laced throughout the relationship between Randall and Hopkirk – Randall has an almost seedy, sleazy, hangdog look, while Hopkirk is neat, particular, fussy and a perpetual worrier. It’s in that dynamic (that sometimes makes you wonder how they worked together when they were both alive!) that a lot of your investment is rewarded.

Despite being very distinctly a Sixties show, broadcast at the dawn of the Seventies, and despite some of the dialogue from secondary characters being on the clunky, Shakespeare-declamatory side, it remains hugely watchable here in the 21st century, because Spooner and the other writers put the effort in to coming up with plots that had reasonable hooks, and then let the character dynamics fly.
Marty Hopkirk fairly quickly discovers a range of talents he didn’t have when he was alive – popping about the place in a pre-Rentaghost fashion by scrunching up his eyes and concentrating, messing about with light bulbs, moving objects with a telekinetic breath and so on, all of which are crucial at one time or another during the course of the show.

The series also pushes a degree of refreshing skepticism, given the nature of the show, with mediums coming under distinct scrutiny from the other side of the crystal ball, and imposters claiming to be returned loved ones being royally shafted by the combination of Jeff Randall on this side of the veil and Marty Hopkirk on the other.

That’s the genuine magic of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) – the central characters are chalk and cheese and bicker like an old married couple, but when the chips are down and a case is at stake, they work in seamless harmony, despite their different states of being.

The result is a show that lives much longer in the memory that it ever did on screen. One of the most infuriating things about the 1969-70 version of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) (there was an early 21st century re-imagining starring Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer that was equally impressive, but moved on several decades), is that it was just one series. In the memory, it feels like three or four, and while it’s true that the variety of the challenges to our two detectives was beginning to wear a little thin by the end of 26 episodes, it feels like a show that could still have gone on longer. What’s more, it feels like a format that has become relatively immortal and unbreakable – again, it’s essentially Blithe Spirit does ITC cult TV. One person interacting with ghosts that other people either can or more usually can’t see has been a hallmark of sitcoms for generations in its wake, with the simply-titled Ghosts the latest inheritor of Randall And Hopkirk’s bottled lightning.

What Dennis Spooner, Monty Berman, Mike Pratt and Kenneth Cope established was a series that could, with a darker tinge, have been the ultimate nightmare – imagine your most annoying friend is always there, always awake, and always dead, so you can’t even shut them up or lock them out! But in their hands, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) was not only terrifically funny a lot of the time, it advanced the formula of ghosts hanging around to take care of their own unfinished business. What if, the series posited, once they were done with their own business, some ghosts could hang around and deal with OTHER PEOPLE’s business too. If you want to get philosophical for just a second, it’s the ultimate guardian angel concept, without ever taking itself as seriously as that suggests. If instead of keeping Hopkirk’s ghostly nature a secret, Randall actually hung up a sign advertising the show’s title, it could easily have been the work of Douglas Adams.

Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) is a long binge – again, it’s 26 episodes, and you’ll know your mythos inside out by the end of it. But unlike some of the more po-faced Sixties cult dramas (including most everything that made Patrick McGoohan a name for the ages), Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) combines hardcore, albeit almost formulaic cult drama plots with an absolutely diamond comic pairing front and centre, and an idea more potentially outrageous than any other.

Give it a try, and if you’re not hooked in by the first five episodes, by all means go on with your life. But the quality of that central pairing of Pratt and Cope, backed by a believable cast of Sixties wrong ’uns, practically guarantees you’ll be along for the full ride.

Watch Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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