With responsibility for a large area around Cornwall, Detective Superintendent Charles Wycliffe (Jack Shepherd) often sleeps in hotels rather than in his own bed. He’s dedicated, principled, and loyal, attributes that often work against him. He’s supported by two skilled detectives, Doug Kersey (Jimmy Yuill) and Lucy Lane (Helen Masters). Episodes during the first three seasons focus on a specific murder investigation, while the last two seasons delve further into the personal and professional lives of the three detectives. Like their characters, the actors apparently formed close bonds. According to a report on IMDb, after the fifth season, Shepherd refused to continue in the title role when the producers, “for insurance reasons,” fired Yuill who had contracted life-threatening meningitis. He made a full recovery, but was written out of the series. “Cast and crew felt betrayed and embittered by the production company’s heavy-handed attitude,” accord to IMDb.
It’s common for a successful series to recast the central role when an actor decides to leave. After Amanda Burton left Silent Witness, Emilia Fox took over the lead as a forensic pathologist and the series continued for at least 15 more seasons. Midsomer Murders passed the baton from DCI Tom Barnaby played by John Nettles to his cousin, John Barnaby, played by Neil Dudgeon. Fans of Wycliffe, however, would find it difficult to envision anyone else in the lead. Shepard’s Wycliffe is the quintessential cerebral detective. When scrutinizing a crime scene, he says little, but the wheels are turning. And as the series goes on, we discover that Shepherd is also a talented jazz pianist. In an episode where he and his wife celebrate their anniversary, guests tease him to play and we’re treated to an oh-too-short interlude. (Murder then happens and he’s off.)
Wycliffe is a family man, one reason his nights away from home wear on him. He’s blessed with a loving and very supportive wife, Helen (Lynn Farleigh), and also with a son, David (Gregory Chisholm), and daughter, Ruth (Charlie Hayes), who are proud of their dad, but don’t hold back when they disagree with his tactics.
Wycliffe’s younger deputies, however, can’t seem to get their personal lives together. Kersey flirts with Lane and her reactions to his entreaties range from amusement to anger. Lane always seems to have a partner, but the demands of her job frequently doom the relationship. The two deputies vary in their methods, too. Kersey is something of a battering ram, unafraid to go one-on-one with a possible suspect. Lane, whose blondish-red hair is a show stopper, often must deal with come-ons from not only criminals, but from other officers and those in authority. In addition, as the one woman on Wycliffe’s team who shows potential, she never knows whether a promotion being dangled in front of her is because of her talents or because they need her to fill a quota.
The series is based on the mystery novels by W.J. Burley who, by any measure, was incredibly prolific, thus giving the writers for Wycliffe much to draw on. Some of the TV episodes take their titles from Burley’s books – “The Pea Green Boat,” “The Four Jacks,” and “The Last Rites,” to name a few. Each episode produces multiple suspects, some with obvious motives, others who have silently nursed grudges for years, only to finally retaliate. Uncovering the killer is never easy and often places Wycliffe, Kersey, or Lane in jeopardy.
Wycliffe, Kersey, and Lane all suffer career setbacks, owing to a bureaucracy whose top officials are intent on holding down costs and fearful of rocking the boat. Kersey is suspended when a suspect he interrogated is found dead in his cell. Lane is compromised when a case she’s working on turns up in the press written by someone she’s dating. And Wycliffe comes close to dying when a killer shoots him in his home. He escapes but the attack takes a physical and emotional toll. Although he’s awarded a medal for his bravery, the higher-ups can’t seem to push him out fast enough.
Shepherd, whose stage, TV, and film credits are impressive, has plenty of opportunity to display those talents, thanks to Wycliffe’s writing team. The plots are compelling, the dialogue never cliché, and within each episode, there are scenes that are riveting. In one, Wycliffe is asked whether he was afraid he was going to die when he was shot. Shepard’s facial expression fully conveys that fear as he says, “I was terrified.”
Wycliffe can be streamed on BritBox
Top photo: Jack Shepherd and Helen Masters
All photos courtesy of BritBox