I have happy memories of the television series “Public Eye”, starring Alfred Burke as inquiry agent (note that, inquiry agent, not private eye) Frank Marker. Recently we bought the surviving episodes – some of the earliest have been lost – on DVD and we’ve spent many enjoyable evenings watching the programme all over again.
The series originally aired in 1965 with a London setting, being a ratings winner until 1975. In the course of the series, Marker relocates to Birmingham, Brighton, Windsor and Chertsey, and spends some time in prison after being set up.
“Public Eye” is the complete antithesis to British TV series such as “The Saint” or “The Avengers”.
It’s rooted very firmly in reality. Each episode is usually self-contained, though there are several story arcs over the years. Frank Marker deals with the kind of problems that a real-life inquiry agent might have; minor fraud, divorces, petty crime and so on. There is very little violence, and really nothing in the way of car chases etc. This is gritty reality, character driven and all the better for that.
The great joy of the piece is Alfred Burke’s portrayal of Frank Marker. Completely realistic, understated, a loner with few friends and no love life. A masterclass in acting technique which some modern students of drama would do well to observe. You get no feeling here of an actor “acting”. Alfred Burke was a fine performer and he simply seems to become Marker. It’s hard to believe the character isn’t real.
The cases too are rooted at ground-level. They are interesting not because they are high drama but because they deal with so many aspects of the human condition. The people who seek Marker’s help are in exactly the sort of messes real people get in to. It’s very easy to identify with Marker’s clients. Most of us have been there – or nearly there.
There are a few recurring characters. In the Brighton episodes, soon after Marker is released from Ford Open Prison – and they used its exterior for some scenes – Marker stays as a boarder with Mrs Mortimer (Pauline Delaney). She becomes a friend during that series and briefly reappears when Marker relocates to Windsor. The suggestion in the scripts is that they might become more than friends. Fortunately, it never happens. The lonely character of Marker would be diminished by any romantic development. Can you imagine any scriptwriter today being so restrained?
Marker has an ambivalent relationship with the police. At first they tend to be suspicious of him, but this melds into friendship and co-operation. He works well with Detective Inspector Percy Fairbank (Ray Smith) during the Windsor episodes. Marker briefly has a job in a detection agency with former copper Ron Gash (Peter Childs), though, happily, he soon departs to walk the familiar and – to the viewer welcoming – lonely road.
What is great about Marker is his sense of morality. He may occasionally make his way through the dark alleys of a grubby world, but he is never contaminated by what happens. The character has a sense of decency which is rare these days. He may walk the borderline of legality but he knows the difference between right and wrong – and all for his fee of “six pounds a day plus expenses”.
Having loved a series years ago, you do wonder how it will stand up to examination years later? In the case of “Public Eye” the answer is very well indeed. The series is as gripping as I remember. And now there is the extra layer of revisiting an England of decades ago – seeing so many reminders of my own past. “Public Eye” is not only a masterclass of good acting, but a valuable instruction in how to write television scripts.
England has changed a great deal in four decades – not much for the better. But a great many things have remained the same. A television company could air “Public Eye” at peak time now and I believe it would find a very appreciative audience. You can still relate to Marker, his associates and clients.
What is really grand is that the scenes can be presented long, allowing for real acting and character development, rather than the brief snapshots we tend to get in modern dramas. And there is a refreshing absence of annoying music when the actors are acting. Perhaps modern directors might learn from this series the dramatic tensions induced by silence. There is, however, very atmospheric jazz-inclined, theme music.
“Public Eye” is British classic television at its very best. The box set we bought online has all the surviving episodes plus an excellent paperback about the series with a very detailed episode guide by Andrew Pixley – a fascinating account of how a television series is made.
If you fancy something different to watch during the forthcoming dark evenings, give “Public Eye” a try. A wonderful reminder of just how good British television used to be.