The cult detective drama series “Bulman” has remained on the shelves unseen since its original transmission back in 1985, but is fondly remembered by a core audience of telly aficionados thanks, largely, to a memorable central performance by the late actor Don Henderson, who managed to make the eccentric former detective turned part-time private investigator (not to mention professional clock doctor and the occasional student of the Open University) George Bulman into something of a small-scale TV phenomenon, due to the unusual if not unique circumstance of his getting to portray the development of the same character across three distinct and very different TV series, which between them ran from 1976 to 1987.
The character George Kitchener Bulman began life as a very minor player in the novels of English crime novelist Kenneth Royce. His novel, The XYY Man, was published in 1970 and featured the exploits of William ‘Spider’ Scott, whose possession of an extra ‘Y’ chromosome in his DNA resulted -- in line with a popular piece of pseudo-science of the day -- in his being genetically predisposed to criminality. In what became a series of novel length stories published from 1970 to 1974, Scott’s skills as a burglar were regularly called upon by both the British Secret Service and the criminal underworld, resulting in a series of undercover adventures.
In the first novel, Detective Sergeant George Bulman is one of a small clutch of semi-regular supporting characters: a tough, no-nonsense copper who is determined to bring the constitutionally recidivist ‘Spider’ to justice, and continues to pursue him through many (but not all) of the subsequent books in the series. Granada TV adapted the first novel for TV in 1976 with a three-part mini-drama. Thereafter, a further ten episodes were made. One of the unexpected side-products of the screening of this once relatively popular but now almost forgotten series, was the emergent popularity of the Detective Bulman character as portrayed by English actor Don Henderson.
Cast against type (physically, Henderson looked more like he should have been playing a gangland heavy than a police detective) the actor’s tough persona was offset by the character possessing a compliment of quirky habits and personal eccentricities which, when brought to life on screen through Henderson’s riveting performance, made him a particularly memorable creation. Bulman was virtually the prototype for the seventies hard man copper as we now envisage him. Many of his qualities can be seen in the character Gene Hunt, portrayed by Philip Glenister in the two series of “Life on Mars” and a further three series of “Ashes to Ashes”. Bulman though, was a one off -- the unpredictable result of Royce’s original vision and the quirky performance of Henderson, which combined the physically menacing appearance of the actor (with his harshly cut fringe, heavy sideburns and granite-like features) with a host of strange foibles: the character was never without his plastic carrier bag for instance, and seemed to suffer with a perpetual cold that required frequent snorts from a nasal decongestant; and he had a habit of wearing incongruous white string gloves whenever he was on a job. When “The XYY Man” series finally came to an end, Detective Bulman was deemed popular enough to have earned his place in the line-up for a new, tough but quirky crime drama series -- also made by Granada -- called “Strangers”.
Created by Murray Smith (one of the many writers on “The XYY Man”), “Strangers” had nothing to do with Kenneth Royce’s original novels and saw the Bulman character now incorporated into a team of undercover detectives from London who are transferred to the North, where they are expected to infiltrate the criminal fraternity more easily due to their identities not being known in the region. Both “The XYY Man” and “Strangers” are also available from Network Releasing.
Murray Smith began his writing career alongside the maverick British exploitation director Pete Walker, scripting several of his early films including “Cool it, Carol!” and “Die Screaming, Marianne” and a few of his later ones, notably “Schizo” and “The Comeback”. After Walker retired from the film industry in the mid-eighties, Smith -- who had combined feature film screenwriting with occasional writing for British crime shows such as “The Sweeny”, “Hazel” and “Minder” -- went on to become an even more prolific writer for TV. After the success of his self-created “Strangers”, which ran for five series from 1979 to 1982, and which saw Bulman promoted from Detective Sergeant to Detective Chief Inspector, Smith finally gave Henderson the title role in his own series.
“Strangers” had gradually evolved and changed over its run of five series. It Started out much like most TV drama at the time by being shot on video and using the standard multi-camera studio techniques, with occasional exterior work shot on 16mm film. By series three the format had been revamped, and the show was now being made exclusively on film, much like other successful shows of the day such as “The Professionals” and “Minder”. Bulman continued to exhibit his defining eccentricities, but was still a tough outsider and uncompromising maverick inside the Police system. He’d also developed a fondness for reeling off long quotations from a variety of learned sources, to add to his list of unusual characteristics. Henderson’s portrayal had taken on a life that gave the character a vitality that was way beyond that of Royce’s original creation, and the series “Strangers” came to be rather an odd hybrid – part traditional gritty crime drama, part self-satirising comedy. So successful was this TV version of Bulman in fact, that his original creator, Kenneth Royce, made him the co-lead with Willie Scott when Royce returned to the characters for another series of novels in the early eighties, a rare example of an author being inspired by someone else’s re-interpretation of one of his own creations.
The series “Bulman” sees a further development and refinement of the character as portrayed by Don Henderson. Now a decade on from his first appearance in “The XYY Man”, Bulman has retired from the Metropolitan Police -- apparently having become fed up with the Force’s lack of facility for coping with those mavericks like himself who refuse to do everything by the book. The series was once again the brainchild of writer Murray Smith, who penned most of the episodes in this first thirteen part series (the show returned two years later with a further seven episodes) and sets the quirky, rather inconsistent tone of a set of stories that range freely between complex, downbeat espionage dramas and light-hearted comedy-mystery with an offbeat touch, usually of a sort that might make “Midsummer Murders” seem hard-hitting.
The format idea behind Murray Smith’s conception of this ‘spin-off’ series seems to have been to have no set format. Once one gets used to the idea, the show becomes largely an enjoyable if somewhat funeral-paced and leisurely excursion through various shades of detective genre fiction, with the self-employed George Bulman now being somewhat inconsistently portrayed week by week, variously as an affable off the wall amateur or a hard-bitten ex-professional, according to the style and dictates of the specific episode in question. Like the later series of “Strangers”, it is entirely shot on 16mm film and reveals its mid-eighties origins soon enough with a schmaltzy jazz-inflected theme tune by Dick Walter that’s smothered in syrupy saxophone above a rhythmic electric piano.
The first episode, “Wings of Change”, establishes George Bulman’s new career as a mender of clocks after he buys an old antiques shop on the Shanghai road. His first case comes as a direct result of this purchase when the previous owner of the establishment apparently turns up dead after being run over by a bus – only for it to be later revealed that her body is in fact that of a complete stranger. Quirky, esoteric mysteries like this form the spine of the type of adventures advanced throughout the series, with Bulman now being characterised as a sort of scruffy cross between Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlow; continuity with “Strangers” is established with this older version of Bulman still often shown dressed in the same scarf and check jacket, studying English literature and various other offbeat academic subjects as before, and prone to spouting lengthy quotations and aphorisms culled from the classics and from obscure philosophy in answer to the most straightforward of questions. The addictive use of nasal spray is still very much in evidence, along with the carrier bag and the now tatty and hole-strewn string gloves, which he continuous to wear despite the fact that they seem on the verge of falling apart.
Characters previously established in “Strangers” also still turn up frequently in episodes of “Bulman” -- namely Mark “Taggert” McManus who was Bulman’s superior Jack Lambie from the third series of the former show onward, and the avuncular Secret Service man Bill Dugdale, as played by Hammer veteran Thorley Walters.
Despite numerous references to George Bulman’s former life in the Met, the nature of “Bulman” as a series is made very much distinct with the now much more approachable persona embodied in Don Henderson’s latest portrayal of the character, and in Murray Smith’s writing for the series. For one thing, the character is now teamed with the granddaughter of a former police colleague, called Lucy McGinty (Siobhan Redmond), with whom he develops something of a father figure and mentor relationship. Siobhan Redmond adds immeasurably to the much lighter tone the series is often capable of achieving, bringing wry humour to the role and able to take part in some pleasing interplay that eventually emerges between the two lead characters. It is Lucy McGinty who initially manages to persuade the unwilling Bulman to go into the Private Eye business. Her character is a University drop-out -- formerly a student of medieval studies who would rather turn her research skills to helping her granddaddy’s old pal catch criminals than be stuck in the stuffy world of academia for the rest of her life. One of the running themes of the series revolves around former acquaintances from Lucy’s previous university life – infatuated student colleagues or snobbish lecturers -- expressing disdain or incomprehension at the unpredictable, and to their mind disreputable, line of business she has since chosen for herself by teaming up with the grotty, eccentric former detective.
While Lucy disdains the stuffy world of academic learning , preferring the more authentic life offered by her investigative work for George Bulman, his own taste for education remains undiminished, and aside from running a clock hospital simultaneous with a thriving Private Investigation service, he also finds time, over the course of the episodes, to study Philosophy and English Literature on an Open University course, and become a leading expert in Chivalry and Heraldic values in Medieval society! Lucy, meanwhile, manages to find the time to become a part-time nightclub singer after one episode in which George manages to get her work as a singer at the party of a client whose booking hadn’t turned up.
The quirkiness of Redmond and Henderson’s talented, eccentric but well-read sleuthing duo is an important element in all episodes of the series; often their scenes together are allowed to take precedence over the individual plotlines themselves, many of which are relatively superficial and take up very little of the actual running time relative to the character business. Episodes such as “Another Part of the Jungle” are almost all based around character interplay; the story itself being a rather tongue-in-cheek tale about a hapless hit man pursuing an equally useless thug to a Yorkshire village where Bulman has been employed by the local curate (Freddie Jones) to restore the church tower’s clock.
Other episodes, particularly those involving the world of espionage as represented by Thorley Walters’ returning character Dugdale, lean towards a slightly darker tone, where the humour is used more as a counterpoint to the absurd but dangerous games being played out by the opposing forces of MI5 and the KGB, games which Bulman often finds himself unwillingly involved in. The episode “One of Our Pigeons is Missing”, for instance, involves murder among a bunch of down-and-outs in an undeveloped part of the Thames Docklands district, mixing black humour with a bleak and dispiriting setting in which a racing pigeon which is being used as ‘a double agent’ is central to the plot . “Sins of Omission” sees Lucy’s life placed in great danger by an ambitious ‘up-and-coming’ agent under Dugdale’s command, who recruits her to help out in what he calls an exercise, but what actually turns out to be a dangerous mission that results in her being kidnapped and interrogated by ruthless KGB officers. The humour present in almost all other episodes of the series is largely absent here -- with the story demonstrating the deep bond of affection that has developed between Bulman and Lucy by this point. The tense moment when he, believing she could be dead, has to take delivery of her trussed up body, seems to belong to an entirely different kind of show to that of such light and enjoyably offbeat episodes as “A Cup for The Winner”, where Bulman pits his wits against his very own Moriarty figure in a plot involving a scam with a Jacobean antique.
The series’ unusual mix of the whimsical and the comedic where the seedy down-at-heel rackets and the petty, sordid schemes on London’s crime scene are paired with the absurdist bluff and double- bluff of the world of espionage, is quite unique -- and in lesser hands this genre-hopping mishmash could have been a real mess. It’s closest in tone probably to a series like “Minder”, but the scripts are much more diverse and unpredictable than anything that appeared in that series. With Henderson and Redmond in command of the screen, the recipe Murray Smith created for Kenneth Royce’s former gritty Detective Sergeant results in an unusual, unpredictable but character-heavy show, with a lot of complex scripts and plenty of witty dialogue to keep the viewer entertained, although the episodes are much less pacey than would probably be tolerated today. It’s still well worth taking a look at this unusual ‘80s series; if you’re a fan of “life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes” in particular, then this gives you some idea where a great deal of the inspiration for those ‘70s/’80s nostalgia shows was coming from, and Henderson still remains an entertaining and charismatic screen presence in the role all these years later.
This four-disc set from Network features all thirteen episodes of series one and is available only from the website www.Networkdvd.net as a rare web exclusive.