The likable odd-couple crime series McDonald & Dodds (ITV) is back for a second run. For audiences watching the old-fashioned way, as it is broadcast on television, it could not stand as more of a contrast to BBC One’s Bloodlands, its main opponent in the schedules. This is British crime drama with a cartoonish glow and it is practically allergic to bleakness.
“I never go anywhere without my latex gloves,” says DS Dodds, played by Jason Watkins. If Watkins had delivered that sentence in Line of Duty, in which he played the doomed Tim Ifield, it would have been chilling. Here, it is an endearing character quirk.
This is very much not Line of Duty – in fact, this first episode is more Midsomer Murders. Five “firm, fast and famous friends” go up in a hot-air balloon. Only four of them safely reach the ground. The survivors claim it was an accident, then that it was a case of suicide as an act of chivalry. The balloon was too heavy and someone had to go over to save them all from impending death. But the body and several irregularities in the balloon suggest that there is far more to it than that, as do the variously cold or delighted reactions of those left behind.
The first thing DCI McDonald (Tala Gouveia) and Dodds ought to investigate is why the balloon ride CGI is so ropey, but when the balloon is filled with Martin Kemp, Patsy Kensit, Rupert Graves and Cathy Tyson – each playing a grotesque former celebrity still riding high on the profits of their 80s heyday – they can just about get away with it.
Kemp is Mick, once a music mogul; Kensit is Barbara, a former pop presenter; Graves is Gordon, a “cultural commentator”; and Tyson is Jackie, a former NME/the Face hack turned Telegraph columnist turned – I think – anti-feminist provocateur. They live in luxury flats in Bath, bought with the profits of the Notting Hill house they shared as youngsters.
The deceased is Frankie Marsh, a friend from the old days, a one-time drummer in a new wave band and a former roadie for Japan. He also lived in their block of flats, despite seemingly lacking the prestige or finances to do so. On his body, the police find a picture of his four friends – a photocopy of a magazine from the 80s, showing them off as “shooting stars” in their glamorous youth.
It turns into a surprisingly scathing indictment of the 80s, yuppie culture and loadsamoney greed, which sneaks nicely under the radar of the twisty and knowingly daft plot. (Do police officers really walk up to their suspects in random places, repeatedly, to confront them with every new bit of evidence?) “What made you so selfish?” asks McDonald, confronting Gordon as he reminisces about the good old days, when he was a founding member of the Groucho Club. “I blame Thatcher. What made you so wholesome?” he fires back.
The relationship between the leads anchors the madcap nature of it all nicely. She is the straight-talking boss with little patience for dilly-dallying. Dodds, meanwhile, is the bumbling details man, who has an eye for maths and precision and keeps his rough terrain shoes – much the same as his regular terrain shoes – in the boot of McDonald’s car.
For a while, it becomes McDonald & Dodds & Gilbert, as the duo expands to a trio. As the death has involved a hot-air balloon, an air-accident investigator is tasked with sending a report about it to the Home Office. Rob Brydon is Roy Gilbert, the first person to say “surfing the net” without irony since 2009. Like Dodds, he knows when health and safety procedures have been followed and when they have been thwarted. His expertise is invaluable, although his military background and sudden rage towards the suspects suggests he has more than a passing interest in the Famous Four.
The appeal of McDonald & Dodds lies in how it spreads its charms. Bath looks lovely, from the air and on the ground, and the eponymous duo are great, balancing each other’s flaws. I found the plot complicated enough not to guess who was responsible until a good way into the episode, which is becoming increasingly rare. Sometimes, a lightness of touch sits uncomfortably in a crime drama, but the fact that this doesn’t take itself too seriously really works. It is neat and clever – with an appealing, Dodds-esque eye for the finer details.