What makes Lovejoy into a contender, of course, is pretty much the content of the programme – like Columbo, there is little to no onscreen violence, and the vast majority of Lovejoy’s solutions come from his own personal province – antiques – and that’s as it should be, being as how he’s an antique dealer.
Perhaps the regular villain of the piece – of course, a rival antique dealer – is a little samey (who wants to battle the same villain week after week?), but even so, Lovejoy is beloved by its fans. A nostalgia-fest of great proportions, for me the best series is the first. The second series wasn’t commissioned for another five years, and they took the decision to soften Tinker from a cynical alcoholic to the lovable old rogue he became.
Lovejoy’s young apprentice – heavy metal aficionado Eric Catchpole – was replaced in series five by Beth, played by Diane Parish, who was not only a welcome change (the character of Eric having progressed little since episode 1), but also showed signs of becoming every bit as wily and crafty as Lovejoy… given time.
The shark was jumped with series six, unfortunately – the change from Eric to Beth was also accompanied by Lady Jane Felsham (Phyllis Logan) being replaced with Charlotte Cavendish (Caroline Langrishe), but the quality of the scripts was on a downturn and the new characters weren’t used to the best of their ability. The series quite while it was ahead with the 1992 Christmas special.
So… was Lovejoy the British Columbo? I didn’t really think so, but it’s closer in some ways than you think (even if only two of the 73 episodes involved Lovejoy catching a murderer…) – you can find out for yourself, of course, if you like.
Ahead of the game: Lovejoy is what is known in the antiques trade (apparently) as a “divvie” – that is he can “tell the right of something” just by looking at it (something similar happens at the beginning of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink“, incidentally.) It’s this that enables Lovejoy to stay ahead – at least, when it comes to antiques that is. Score: 6/10
Car: A Morris Minor convertible, called “Miriam“. Probably the most Columbo-ish car we’ve featured yet. Although, of course, being a British car, it isn’t an import, and it would have more character if it were the wooden-framed mini van version, but even so… Score: 7/10
Catchphrases and general ambience: “Visigoths!”. Well, OK, that was Tinker’s catchphrase, not Lovejoy’s, but it’s something. The series itself was packed with East Anglian countryside and antiques – every location a rival for the grand houses of Columbo’s murderers. Score: 6/10
Investigative style: Lovejoy didn’t investigate things out of choice, more as a necessity to stop bad things happening to himself, or others. Such as the taxman. Score: 4/10
Personality: Lovejoy was an ensemble piece, but the personality of the title character was described as “roguish charm”. Perhaps not a complete match for Columbo – but what about the banana in the tailpipe that caught Robert Culp, hmm? Score: 5/10
Sidekick: Really, there’s only one candidate here, Dudley Sutton’s wonderful characterisation of Tinker. Score: 6/10
Violence: Mainly offscreen, but I seem to remember the occasional altercation… Score: 5/10
Nice all round scores there, totalling a respectable 39 Columbo Points, thereby putting Lovejoy into a podium position:
- Inspector Morse – 48
- Lovejoy – 39
- Dixon of Dock Green – 34
You know, for a moment I couldn’t remember what car Lovejoy drove at all. Join me next time, where I’ll discuss a detective who’s at home on an altogether different form of transport…