With scripts as well crafted as a Chippendale, performances as finely tuned as a Stradivarius and a production history more complex than the workings of a Thomas Earnshaw timepiece, Lovejoy arrives on DVD to once more charm viewers who have missed the series since its departure from TV screens in 1994.
Adapted for the small screen by veteran scriptwriter Ian La Frenais, who took Jonathan Gash’s rather earthy novels and made them acceptable for a mainstream audience, season one aired on BBC One in 1986.
That series introduced the character of East Anglian antiques dealer and ‘divvie’, Lovejoy, as played by Ian McShane in full-on rogue mode. Aiding and abetting are wily Tinker (Dudley Sutton), nice-but-dim Eric (Chris Jury) and the delectable Lady Jane Felsham (Phyllis Logan), while hindering Lovejoy in his plans to make a tidy profit on each deal is the panto villainesque Charlie Gimbert (Malcolm Tierney).
Slightly closer to the books in those first 10 episodes, the first year established the type of story offered up by La Frenais and his fellow writers; a mystery involving a rare antique draws in Lovejoy, with a dash of humour and the odd aside to camera helping things rattle along at a fair old lick.
Thanks to an unfortunate rights snafu, and a short trip to Dallas for McShane, season two didn’t appear until 1991, by which time Gimbert had gone but the rest of the gang were still available for more of the same. For the next few years it was as if nothing had happened, Sunday nights enlivened by preposterous plots and a cast of recognisable British thespians – including Sir John Gielgud, Brian Blessed, Bill Travers, Joanna Lumley, Richard Griffiths, Michael Kitchen and Donald Pleasance – drifting in and out of each episode to add a touch of class to proceedings.
By 1993 the series was a bone fide BBC hit, with season four running from January until April and season five from September until November, with a US-set Christmas special thrown in for good measure. Sadly, nothing lasts forever, and season five would see two of the leads leave, only for a new cast to be phased in and the dynamic change. Lovejoy may still have been loveable but the world around him was different.
Comprised of self-contained episodes for the majority of its run, the last year would see the makers build on the romance between Lovejoy and Charlotte (Caroline Langrishe), even if his heart was always with Lady Jane.
Bringing every episode together, with the original music present and correct for the first time, this set takes the viewer into a world where it’s permanently summer, every antique shop hides a lost treasure and friends conspire to help and hinder each other before making up with a pint in the pub and move on to the next dodgy deal.
Episodes such as season four’s Dainty Dish, in which the pals head to Brighton to help a friend of Lady Jane’s, are Lovejoy in a nutshell: plots that seem straightforward soon spiral out of control when money and/or Gimbert get in the way. Occasional forays abroad aren’t quite as successful, with an ill-advised trip to America in season five’s The Lost Colony proving that Lovejoy works best in cosy East Anglia.
It’s tempting to say that McShane is the glue that holds everything together, and while he is the perfect Lovejoy, if it weren’t for his partners in crime much of the magic would be missing. Sutton, Jury and Logan seem to be having the time of their lives and that feeling is transferred to the viewer each week.
Aided by scriptwriters who nailed the tone on a regular basis – instalments such as Dainty Dish aren’t simply great Lovejoy, they’re great telly, full stop – and you’re left with a programme that time hasn’t diminished.
In fact, like one of the works of art at the centre of a particularly ludicrous Lovejoy adventure, it’s only getting better with age.
Lovejoy: The Complete Collection is out on DVD now.