Of Priests and Partners: Binge-worthy British Detective Dramas Part 1

Binge-worthy British Detective Dramas part 1

Nothing helps me while away the days than a good old whodunnit. Murder mysteries, especially in quaint little villages, have become the staple of British television and countless iterations of the same crime-solving dynamic have emerged in the last decades. The enjoyment comes not from figuring out who the culprit is before the onscreen detective, though that is one game viewers love to play, but from going on the journey with the investigator, meeting the human characters who are affected by a single, significant act.

Detective dramas can be as effective escapist entertainment as fantasy or sci-fi shows. After all, more often than not, the whole case is resolved within the season or even within the episode. If only real life was so straightforward.

There is a plethora of detective dramas out there but the ones I have listed below are those I have personally watched and enjoyed. I’ve left out the major series like Poirot, Miss Marple, Sherlock, and Midsomer Murders because I wanted to draw more attention to some of these relatively less well-known gems. Hopefully, the categories I’ve placed each series in will help you identify which is your cup of tea.

The first part of this series features two groups, crime-solving clergymen and dynamic detective duos. The first category is pretty self-explanatory but for the second, I’ve chosen shows featuring female-male partnerships who have great chemistry (mostly platonic) and who solve different kinds of cases.

Crime-Solving Clergymen

Father Brown (BBC 1)

Starring Mark Williams as Father Brown; 90 episodes

There’s always something going on in the small village of Kembleford. Set in the 1950s, this series follows the adventures of a Catholic priest who uses both intelligence and empathy to find the culprits of various crimes. The series is loosely based on the short stories by G.K. Chesterton.

The good father often butts heads with the local detective inspector who always arrests the wrong person first, but some of detectives reluctantly come to respect the priest’s investigative skills.

What makes Father Brown distinct from most detectives is his compassion for the culprits and his mission to save their souls. He is always willing to give criminals a second chance if they are repentant, something that frustrates the local police force.

Father Brown is supported by a wonderful team of memorable characters such as the inimitable Mrs. McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) – ask her about her award-winning strawberry scones!, the lovely Lady Felicia Montague (Nancy Carroll), her niece the resourceful Lady Penelope “Bunty” Windermere (Emer Kenny), the artful Sid Carter (Alex Price) and various other recurring characters. Then, there’s renowned jewel thief Hercule Flambeau (John Light), initially Father Brown’s nemesis but over the course of the series, they develop an unlikely friendship.

It’s a delightful series with mysteries that get solved neatly in one episode and with charming locations and likable characters. Father Brown himself is the kind of person you wish you were friends with in real life so it is pleasant to spend so much time with him.

Grantchester (ITV)

Starring James Norton as Sidney Chambers, Tom Brittney as Will Davenport; 31 episodes

Grantchester season 4Another series set in the 1950s and taking place in the village of Grantchester, this show follows the adventures of Anglican vicar, Sidney Chambers, and in later seasons, Will Davenport, as they help local Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) solve the crimes that plague their village. Geordie’s chemistry with both vicars is what drives the show as well as the family relationships with Mrs Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones), the vicarage housekeeper, and Leonard Finch (Al Weaver), a curate.

And since both Sidney and Will are Anglican, they are allowed to get married and their romantic entanglements as well as their struggles with their faith add more intriguing layers to every story.

Dynamic Detective Duos

McDonald & Dodds (ITV)

Starring Tala Gouveia as DCI Lauren McDonald and Jason Watkins as DS Dodds;

2 episodes

A recent addition to the odd couple canon of detective drama, this series is set in Bath, where grisly crimes are not all that common. But when hotshot London detective DCI Lauren McDonald is paired with the reticent DS Dodds on a major crime, they find that they make a good team. With McDonald’s quick wits and tough demeanor and Dodds’ instincts and eye for detail, they solve complex crimes effectively. It’s refreshing to see a WOC lead as the more experienced and high-ranking officer while the white male colleague is properly respectful of her rank. Only two episodes so far but hopefully, there are more to come.

Partners in Crime (BBC 1)

Starring David Walliams as Tommy Beresford and Jessica Raine as Tuppence Beresford;

6 episodes

Based on three of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels, the series follows a husband-and-wife crime-solving pair as they work for British intelligence in the 1950s, particularly during the Cold War. Another interesting dynamic because both spouses are very affectionate towards the other and because Tuppence is the more dynamic and proactive of the two while Tommy is the better spy. An enjoyable period piece that showcases Agatha Christie’s lesser known characters.

Unforgotten (ITV)

Starring Nicola Walker as DCI Cassie Stuart and Sanjeev Bhaskar as DI Sunny Khan;

18 episodes

Unforgotten British Detective DramaEach season deals with a single case, a crime committed years ago which has only recently come to light. The episodes don’t only follow the investigations, led by DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan, but also the reactions of seemingly unrelated characters who nevertheless have some involvement in the crime. As the season progresses, the connections become clear and it’s up to the detectives to find justice for the victims. Despite the gravity of the crimes, the show excels because of the performances of its ensemble cast and because of the warmth and chemistry between the two lead detectives, who feel like fully-realized humans and not just plot devices.

Broadchurch (ITV)

Starring David Tennant as DI Alec Hardy and Olivia Colman as DS Ellie Miller;

24 episodes

This list cannot be complete without mentioning Chris Chibnall’s gripping drama and the wonderful chemistry between Tennant and Colman’s two detectives. The first season was so powerful that it spawned an unfortunate American spinoff called Gracepoint (also starring Tennant but with a bad American accent.) I still think that the first season was the best of the series, the second the most frustrating, and the third an improvement but also very dark. Though there’s nothing like the suspense of waiting a week in between each cliffhanger-filled episode, viewers at home can at least experience the resolution of the mystery much sooner these days.

Dublin Murders (BBC 1)

Starring Killian Scott as Rob Reilly and Sarah Greene as Cassie Maddox;

8 episodes

Based on Tana French’s novels In the Woods and The Likeness, this series was created by Sarah Phelps, better known for her quintet of darker Agatha Christie adaptations. The series is understandably grim as it focuses on gruesome crimes that also have a personal connection the lead detectives, Rob and Cassie. The two work well together professionally and also share a profound friendship. But when the stakes get higher and higher on their cases, and the secrets of their past threaten to come to light, their relationship is strained and one wonders how each case will ever be resolved. A gripping, intriguing murder series that is not for the fainthearted.

The Tunnel (Sky Atlantic/Canal +)

Starring Stephen Dillane as DCI Karl Roebuck and Clémence Poésy as Capt. Elise Wassermann;

24 episodes

This British-French crime drama was adapted from the Danish-Swedish series, The Bridge. This version follows crimes committed in the Channel Tunnel that serves as the border between France and the UK. Given the location of the crime, there is joint jurisdiction between the French and British police force so genial veteran Karl Roebuck has to work with eccentric but brilliant Elise Wassermann. The cases test them to their limits but they are both committed to finding justice.

As with all odd-couple dynamics, they clash at first but then, in the course of the show, they develop respect and affection for each other, with Karl becoming like a father figure to the introverted Elise. It was also interesting to see the culture clash between the British and French styles of investigation. The third season is particularly relevant because the writers integrated Brexit and the refugee crisis into the story. Another crime drama that is more than meets the eye and well worth watching.