A lesser-known property from the late Douglas Adams (creator of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was nevertheless a novel Adams thought would be easier to film than his revered sci-fi opus. Previously turned into radio plays with Harry Enfield as the gumshoe, BBC4 have decided to put Dirk Gently on-screen for the first time, adapted by in-demand screenwriter Howard Overman (Misfits, Vexed). Stephen Mangan (Green Wing) plays the eponymous sleuth, who believes in “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things”, and applies this theory of quantum mechanics to solve superficially innocuous crimes.
Overman has wisely excised much of the book’s budget-swallowing imagination into something achievable on a frugal budget; bringing the idea down-to-earth as an eccentric cousin to the BBC’s Sherlock update. Purists may grumble this isn’t the Dirk Gently they wanted to see, but it’s more accessible and practicable. And while Dirk Gently is certainly another gimmicky detective series (yawn), its details are unique and engrossing enough to shrug off the genre’s clichés. In some ways it’s a pastiche of whodunits, taking the genre’s often tenuous explanations to an outrageous extreme. In this episode, Dirk is asked to find an old lady’s missing cat, but his investigation soon broadens to involve a series of associated issues; two murders, a missing billionaire, a long-forgotten car accident, a stolen laptop, an exploding warehouse… and even time-travel.
Mangan plays Dirk Gently as another great British eccentric; brown suit with elbow patches, mop of black hair, gravestone teeth, cluttered office, and a temperamental Austin Princess as his pride and joy. The role’s hardly a stretch for Mangan (who regularly plays wacky geeks after coming to prominence as nerdy diarist Adrian Mole), but it’s nonetheless a strong marriage of actor and material. The character may effectively be a mix of Jonathan Creek, The Doctor and Sherlock Holmes, but those are inescapable comparisons.
Darren Boyd (Smack The Pony, Whites) plays Richard McDuff, an old friend of Dirk’s who is reacquainted with him in this episode, becoming embroiled in the missing cat case and playing Dirk’s baffled sidekick. Boyd is also playing to type here; his performance another example of the twitchy, genial everyman he’s often asked to play, but that shtick is still appealing and he makes a likeable straight-man for Mangan to bounce off. There’s unfortunately not too much evidence of a compelling partnership in this episode, as the focus is on Dirk as a maverick loner, but hopefully the Dirk/McDuff dynamic will flourish if BBC4 commission a full series.
Rounding out the triptych is Helen Baxendale (Cold Feet, Friends) as Susan, McDuff’s plain-speaking girlfriend and another of Dirk’s erstwhile university pals. But unlike her boyfriend, Susan’s more suspicious of Dirk’s unconventional investigative methods — believing he’s just conning the feeble-minded out of their money, by bamboozling them with pseudo-science and tall stories.
My biggest concern was actually Howard Overman’s writing, as he may be the brains behind one of the best TV shows around (superhero drama Misfits), but he also created one of the worst (cop comedy-drama Vexed). Fortunately, it seems that Overman brought his A game to Dirk Gently; so perhaps the woeful Vexed was a victim of his grueling work schedule this year, or Overman simply works best when he has a guiding light (comic-book traditions to subvert, or another writer’s ideas to filter.) Whatever the reason, it was a relief to feel quality buzzing from the writing. The plot was light-footed and deceptively knotty, with plenty of funny and clever moments — such as Dirk’s fake suicide gambit, by having McDuff pose as his twisted body on the grass, below a high window Dirk later pretends to jump out of, all to get someone out of an office to investigate.
Overall, your reaction to Dirk Gently will largely depend on if you’ve read the source material. If you have, you’ll perhaps be disappointed Overman’s adaptation has gutted Adams’s surrealism and rampant oddness. An Overman-style BBC4 adaptation of The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy would probably remain earthbound, with Arthur Dent thumbing lifts up the M6, where he’d meet various oddball drivers. But if you haven’t read Douglas Adams’s books, you’ll probably be more accepting of another TV detective series with sharp writing, quick pace, imagination, fun performances, and a unique gimmick at its heart.
At any rate, fingers crossed for a full series, so Dirk Gently gets the chance to evolve and improve, perhaps by adding in more of the book’s wackier flavours. But even as it stands, this was a decent and enjoyable start.
- How’s this for interconnectedness: Howard Overman writes episode for the BBC’s Merlin, which stars Richard Wilson, star of ’90s sitcom One Foot In The Grave. Dirk Gently guest-starred Doreen Mantle, who played Mrs Warboys in that SAME comedy. Coincidence? Tell that to Dirk! Incidentally, One Foot In The Grave was highly-regarded for its intricate, connected storytelling. Sound familiar? Oh, and there’s a special BBC2 documentary on Richard Wilson’s career this Sunday at 9pm. Okay, I’m freaking myself out now… maybe there really is something to this “interconnectedness”…
WRITER: Howard Overman (based on “Dirky Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”, by Douglas Adams)
DIRECTOR: Damon Thomas
CAST: Stephen Mangan, Darren Boyd, Helen Baxendale, Jason Watkins, Anthony Howell & Doreen Mantle
TRANSMISSION: 16 December 2010, BBC4/HD, 9PM