Dick Spanner, P.I. Review

It’s Gerry Anderson’s 80th Birthday, and to commemorate the occasion James takes a look at one of the Thunderbird creator’s least-remembered shows.

It was a mystery worthy of Dick Spanner himself. In late 2007 there appeared a rash of reports in local newspapers reporting the disappearance of the world’s greatest robotic detective (Spanner, as if I need to tell you), with his former colleague Gerry Anderson apparently distraught at the great gumshoe’s vanishing. True, no one had seen Spanner for some twenty years, and certainly, given that he was made out of Plasticine and couldn’t be more than a few inches high, it’s easy to see how he could be lost, but nevertheless despite the plausibility of the story there was something decidedly fishy about the whole case. For one thing, the articles were full of inaccuracies, such as stating that Anderson has a whole museum of his old puppets in his home (he doesn’t), while for another there was the small fact that this DVD, which chronicles two of Spanner’s greatest cases, The Case of the Human Cannonball and The Case of the Maltese Parrot, was being released at around the same time as the APB went out. It doesn’t take a Dick Spanner to work out what was going on… Soon the game was up, and the perpetrator, an over-zealous PR company set the task of getting maximum publicity, was brought to justice and ‘fessed up. Anderson was not, it turned out, searching high and low for a missing puppet, and so Spanner was still out there, evidently, fighting crime and keeping the rest of us safe. The world breathed a sigh of relief.

A bit naughty, putting words into Anderson’s mouth (he, apparently, knew nothing about said stunt until asked about it by someone at his fan club Fanderson) but understandable, given the relatively unknown title. Dick Spanner, PI is very much a minor entry in the Anderson canon, an unusual one too given that a) it’s a comedy, and b) it’s made using stop-motion animation rather than Anderson’s traditional “Supermarionation.” The show came about in an accidental fashion. After several years in the creative doldrums following the end of Space: 1999 in 1977, Anderson had returned to the medium which had made his name, puppets (or, more strictly in this case, marionettes) with Terrahawks, a show far more light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek than his previous rather po-faced efforts. At the time Network 7, an early example of a “yoof” magazine show presented by Janet Street-Porter, was looking round for a comedy insert it could use to break up other items, and the producers asked Anderson if he’d be willing to come up with something suitable for their target audience (namely hung-over students watching on a Sunday lunchtime.) Allocated a budget of roughly £2.80 per episode, Anderson teamed up with Terry Adlam who had already had an idea for a spoof film noir short, and Dick Spanner was born.

Part Sam Spade part Wallace from Wallace and Gromit, our robotic hero (voiced by Scott Tracy himself Shane Rimmer) lives in “The Big Pear” a film-noir-esque city in a parallel universe occupied by a carnival of bizarre-looking creatures. If the Mos Eisley Cantina was transported to 1930s Chicago and made from Plasticine, it wouldn’t look far different from the world Spanner inhabits. Nothing makes much sense as he glides around the mean streets, hunting out the lowlifes and femme fatales who make up his clientele, and like all great detectives he himself is not without the odd eccentricity. With his silvery skin, manic eyebrows, habit of falling off tall buildings at every opportunity and exclamations of “Jumping Jehoshaphat!” he’s a memorable, quirky character, albeit one who’s as much use as a detective as the Hood was as a villain. Fortunately, he somehow manages to blunder his way through his cases, and, given its timeslot and raison d’etre, one can’t expect too much sophistication in the ‘tec’s adventures. As the likelihood of his intended audience’s ability to be able to follow the thread from one episode to the next was virtually nil, the adventures are little more than an excuse to sling together a bunch of jokes each week.

Which means that the success of the show largely rises and falls on the quality of the gags and, somewhat surprisingly, they’re pretty good. Coming across as a kind of animated Naked Gun, writer Adlam seems on a mission to squeeze as many groan-worthy puns as possible into each short episode (sample: “I felt bushed after a long day,” followed by a shot of Spanner – can you guess? – in a bush) which, by their very number and frequency, win one over. (If you’ve ever seen the comedian Tim Vine in full flow, you’ll have an idea what it’s like.) In addition the animation, which is almost preternaturally ugly, is full of sight gags which wouldn’t look out of place in the adventures of Frank Drebin. Understandably some are dreadful, but many aren’t (I particularly liked an early one, difficult to describe, which involved Spanner’s office furniture sliding from one side of the room to another – you’ll know it when you see it). The city is full of grotesques, and after years of being spoilt by Aardman the crude look of the animation and the characters takes a little getting used to, but once one does nearly every character seen is a joy in one form or another. The film noir riffs are somewhat more obvious but affectionate nonetheless, and the second case even spoofs the Golden Age of Hollywood to surprisingly good effect, even if the climax is utterly unfathomable. Indeed, despite its meagre budget and limited exposure, a great deal of thought has gone into Dick Spanner PI, and, while it’s a little hard work to watch all in one go, it’s a lot of fun as a result, and well worth rediscovering.

The DVDs
The series is presented by Pickwick Entertainment on two DVDs, with one complete story on each disc. Each story is made up of eleven six-minute episodes, and there’s the opportunity to watch them all in one go with the ever-handy Play All feature. The set is well designed, with an attractive case and sensible, simple menus.

Unfortunately the AV is not splendid. The Video, which someone on Amazon describes as looking like their old VHS copy of the show, is excusable – it’s grainy and faded, but watchable – but the end credit sequences have been replaced for this DVD release by a new set. In addition, the Audio music has apparently (and, having never seen a copy of the original version, I bow to superior knowledge here) been replaced with a new, jazzy track, much to the consternation of purists who say that the original music was one of the show’s best features. The problem is compounded by the fact the new track makes a mess of several audio jokes, and loses others entirely. All very disappointing, although if like me you never saw the original it’s impossible to tell that changes have been made. Just to compound the set’s sins in this area, there are no subtitles.


Interview with Gerry Anderson (26:06 & 32:22)
Split across the two discs, this is one of the best interviews with Anderson I’ve seen on a DVD. The first half has the great man talking about his career and the second sees him showing interviewer Alex Stanger some of the memorabilia in his Pinewood office. Although the filming is technically awful – for some reason it’s shown in a huge blue frame which takes up a good third of the screen, while the sound is somewhat tinny – this is still very enjoyable. Stanger has done her research, and while many of his reminiscences won’t be news to members of Fanderson, the second half in particular is charming. A minor nitpick: Anderson at one point gets his series muddled and claims that Supercar was the first of his shows to be shot in colour – it wasn’t, Stingray was.

Music Video (3:15)
So good it’s on both discs, albeit in slightly different versions. “Heard It All Before,” by Jester (nope, never heard of them either) is a bit of a musak track which works well enough in its role of menu music on the DVD but isn’t anything you’ll want on your iPod. The video is made up of clips from the story which are amusingly edited together, with the Disc One version interspersed with bits of Jester giving it their all. Hardly thrilling, though.

Just what is that girl saying at the end of each episode? We might never know, but Dick Spanner is an amusing piece of nonsense worth checking out if you’ve never seen it. The disc, on the other hand, isn’t up to much and if it wasn’t for the interview with Anderson I’d almost be tempted to say it was worth hunting down an old VHS copy with the original music and jokes intact.

James Gray

Updated: Apr 14, 2009

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