For a long time now, I’ve stopped watching contemporary television and have been reaching into the past to classic television series that are increasingly available either on DVD or via YouTube. I’ve written about one of these on the blog before, and if I knew more about the Northern Ireland situation then I’d have written something about the fantastic Billy Plays (starring Kenneth Branagh) that I watched a couple of years ago during one of those cold, dark winters that descend on Aberystwyth with annual regularity. Not being old enough to have ever seen either of those on television myself, the experience is quite different from other programmes that crop up on my watching-list from time to time: London’s Burning, for instance, or Taggart. My own memory of them, seen in the twilight of a Sunday with my parents, adds a certain nostalgia to what are otherwise gripping and gritty transmissions: Taggart especially.

My own knowledge of Glasgow was framed, at least until my first visit to the city a few years ago, when I was in my early twenties, by the memories of my grandmother who grew up on the eastern edge of Paisley and held Glasgow to be her city, and by the explorations evident in Taggart. It seems a strange thing to admit, I suppose, but then Taggart itself was conscious of playing against the stereotypes, of endeavouring to show Glasgow as a city that people loved and to give voice to the reasons why. ‘Tenements, alcohol and violence’, quips Jim Taggart gruffly to his public-school-educated colleague, complete with posh-Scots accent and Edinburgh University scarf, ‘that’s the image you grew up with, it’s the image everybody carries’. He warns the young man, DS Peter Livingstone, not to insult ‘ma green city’.

Byres Road, Glasgow, c.1985 Converted to black and white from a photograph hosted on Flickr (under CC terms):
Byres Road, Glasgow, c.1985
Converted to black and white from a photograph hosted on Flickr (under CC terms):

Glasgow deserves to be read as the epitome of working-class life in twentieth century Britain, indeed its story over the period contains within it most of the stopping off points of a working-class narrative that ranges from work in heavy industry and the end of all that, from the high noon of liberalism to the rise of labour and the possible end of all that, from a melting pot city to a port of exit, the last stop on the Atlantic before reaching Halifax or Montreal. From the march to war in 1914, to the tanks that ringed the city in 1919, to the blitz of the 1940s; and from Jimmy Maxton and Willie Gallacher to Margaret Thatcher and Alex Salmond. Politics, economics, social life and culture are all worn into the face of the city, and so into the language of Taggart. Small wonder really that the local paper, the Glasgow Herald, greeted the first episode of the series in glowing terms:

There is always in a local programme the temptation to play the distracting game of “spot the street” and lose the thread of the story, but there was no fear of that with STV’s thriller. It had its lighter moments, such as the wife complaining about English murderers coming up here to dump their bodies, but on the whole the atmosphere was chilling and brooding. […] All in all, “Killer” [as Taggart was first known] seems to be another potential winner from STV.[1]

And so it continued:

Mark McManus portrays the kind of policeman which most of us love to hate, but his snarling determination to track down the miscreant merits our begrudging admiration.[2]

Before finally reaching the conclusion of the three-part pilot, notice the amusing, but so very telling, juxtaposition with Bergerac (and the more modern parallel of Midsummer Murders!):

[…] the Glasgow cops bent the rules a little to solve (several murders later) a series of killings. Mark McManus was convincingly semi-articulate as a West of Scotland policeman […] The Glasgow boys in blue screamed around in unmarked cars and in obvious white saloons with their red side strips. Couldn’t they emulate the quiet professionalism of Bergerac in his little sports job? Perhaps that would put up the rates.[3]

Of course, Bergerac himself was a difficult character, a recovering alcoholic and divorcee; but the comparison between the zippy, middle-class Jersey detective and the gruff, working-class polis from Glasgow speaks volumes as to the nature of 1980s Britain and to the nature of Britain’s class-ridden, class-driven society. Interestingly, though not unsurprisingly, the London press were less enthused by Taggart’s original dynamic and initial appearance. The Observer for example sniped that the ‘detectives themselves are a corny pair’.[4] Mind you, it was Martin Amis writing that. The Guardian were a little kinder, offering the conclusion that ‘it moves confidently, competently, sometimes funnily, down well-rutted tracks’; although their reviewer, too, found the central dynamic of Taggart and Livingstone ‘entirely predictable’.[5] The Times appreciated the ‘strong sense of place’ and were much more appreciative of the dynamic believing Taggart to be ‘a murder mystery of the old mould’.[6] But aside from featuring the series in its ‘choice’ column for the first episode, the paper paid less attention thereafter.

Jim Taggart (Mark McManus) and Peter Livingstone (Neil Duncan) as they appeared in 1983
Jim Taggart (Mark McManus) and Peter Livingstone (Neil Duncan) as they appeared in 1983

Anyone who watches ‘Killer’, Taggart’s original 1983 outing cannot fail to notice that it is dripping in class consciousness. From the oft-repeated quip from Taggart that ‘we don’t have ligatures in Maryhill’ to the more subtle deconstruction of attitudes and behaviours, we are treated to nearly three hours of strong social commentary. At the heart of it is the reminder that working-class society operates on a strict form of moral economy. ‘Listen ah’ve turned blind eyes, Taggart remarks when Livingstone admonishes him for apparent bigotry in the interview room, ‘but when somebody wastes my time to protect a wee bit of illicit nookie’. The cover up was that of a gay university professor, the discoverer of the first murder victim of the story, who lies to the police to mask his affair with a 19-year-old student. Taggart’s only response: ‘the legal age is twenty one’. He reiterates it several times. Rather than working-class bigotry, as Livingstone would have it, we have a policeman wanting the truth, accepting no nonsense in his search for it. A point reiterated later when the superintendent seeks to help his mate, one of the suspects, and Taggart sniffs disgustedly at the backhander. ‘Ah care about this city’, he says, ‘the people, what’s happening’.

There’s also the discussion with Livingstone about ambition and why they both came into ‘the force’. Livingstone, the safely middle-class history and economics graduate explains his decision to join had been regarded by his parents as a ‘step down’ whereas Taggart was intended to be a tram driver, because his father had been one. ‘Two wee people’ he says of his parents, ‘not a lot to live for’. Taggart still drank in the same pub they did. Scotch, of course. And there’s that classic working-class line, when Taggart finds himself in the plush house of one of the middle-class suspects, ‘nice things, ah always wanted a house with nice things’. I’ve lost count the number of times I heard my dad say that when I was growing up, and he wasn’t the only one either. The precarity of working-class existence, and its frequent limit to one community or other, one region or other, might be something that has been lost in parts of the country since the early 1980s, but memory of it remains pretty strong.

‘Killer’ laid the groundwork for the commissioning of Taggart as a full-fledged series which aired on ITV/STV in the summer of 1985. It gained its iconic theme tune and was increasingly like the series I remember watching in the early 1990s. According to a later storyline, Livingstone left the force in 1987 to found a private security firm, taking full advantage of the privatisation drive prevalent in the later part of the decade. ‘Lure of private enterprise, it was the eighties’, Livingstone quips in an even plumier Edinburgh voice. The division, set into the series at the beginning, reached its natural conclusion.

Crime fiction, and their televisual equivalents, is often symptomatic of a society ill-at-ease with itself. Consider the societies in which crime novels are popular: Sweden, Britain (notably Scotland), Italy, France. All countries with significant social problems and declining stability at their core: yes, even Sweden, which has long ceased to be the kind of paradise the mythology of its welfare state implies. As Slavoj Zizek has written:

[Mankell] fills in the detective investigation frame not only with the expected existential-depressive stuff, but primarily with the social topic to which ultimately even the existential aspect is subordinated – in on word, the long and painful decay of the Swedish welfare state.[7]

Taggart, and its immediate predecessor William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw novel-series, analysed the painful, post-industrial decay of Scotland, and by extension of the rest of the United Kingdom too. For what Taggart taught those of us living outside of Glasgow was that the same processes were going on where we lived too. The run-down shops, boarded up houses and buildings, and working-class way of doing things were similar to the urban landscapes and social conditions of Pontypridd or Bristol too. Perhaps that’s why Taggart has stuck with me where much of the rest of the programming I watched in the early 1990s hasn’t, well except Bucky O’Hare, Prince Valiant, and the Animals of Farthing Wood but I’m not sure academics have quite got round to the idea of entertaining analysis of a short-lived cartoon featuring a bright green rabbit battling toads!

[1] Glasgow Herald, 7 September 1983

[2] Glasgow Herald, 14 September 1983

[3] Glasgow Herald, 21 September 1983.

[4] The Observer, 18 September 1983.

[5] The Guardian, 7 September 1983.

[6] The Times, 6 September 1983.

[7] Slavoj Zizek, ‘Henning Mankell: The Artist of the Parallax View’. Available online: