Cracker: Originally broadcast from September 27, 1993 to October 1, 2006
Robbie Coltrane was certainly a left-field choice for the part of Cracker lead Eddie 'Fitz' Fitzgerald. McGovern had originally envisioned the character as a "thin, wiry man" - it's well-documented that Robert Lindsay turned the part down.
So the casting of Coltrane - a rotund Scot then best known for his comedic appearances in Blackadder and 1990 film Nuns on the Run - was not one many would've predicted. But from the scintillating speech that opens the first episode of Cracker ("I rehearsed the death of my father for years..."), it's clear that Coltrane was born to play Fitz.
A middle-aged psychologist, Fitz is a gambling addict who drinks and smokes to excess. He's rude, sarcastic, often sexist, emotionally closed-off and has a strained relationship with his two children, while his marriage to wife Judith (Barbara Flynn) is no great shakes either, with infidelities on both sides.
He has a fiery temper and often goes out of his way to cause trouble - witness the moment he transfers a Gamblers Anonymous meeting into a betting fest in the story 'To Say I Love You'. Fitz should be utterly deplorable, but somehow Coltrane keeps us rooting for him, even as he alienates everyone else around him.
Unlike so many fictional detectives, Fitz's flaws aren't just rudimentary character traits, intended to spice up our lead's otherwise bland persona. They make Fitz feel real. When asked why he drinks, smokes and gambles so much, his answer is clear and simple, "I like it."
Despite his vices, Fitz is intensely charismatic and has a genius for unravelling the intricacies of the criminal mind, able to identify mode and motive with pinpoint accuracy. Still, he's far from a straightforward hero. "I know heroes," he snaps in one episode. "They're people who're too afraid to be cowards."
Simply bored senseless by his family life and by standard psychology, Fitz involves himself with homicide investigations and Coltrane's finest moments, appropriately enough, come when he's faced with suspected murders he must 'crack', confronting the killers with his own brand of psychological violence.
Our lead's first 'boss' is David Bilborough (Christopher Eccleston), a DCI who's aware of his need for Fitz but often reluctant to fully buy into his analysis. Bilborough frequently clashes with Fitz, most violently over the events of first series finale 'One Day A Lemming Will Fly' - in a lesser actor's hands, the character could've easily seemed dislikeable, but a youthful Eccleston brings a warmth and humanity to the softly-spoken DCI.
Unlike other shows of its ilk, the line between criminal and police officer was often dangerously blurred on Cracker. More than once, the police themselves are targeted by a killer - there's the slow, creeping build-up to the brutal killing of womanising copper DS Giggs (Ian Mercer) in 'To Say I Love You' and, most memorably, the stabbing of DCI Bilborough in series two's 'To Be A Somebody'.
Played out in chilling silence, the killing of Bilborough is deeply unsettling and Eccleston is absolutely brilliant as he plays out the character's death throes, leaving a final statement for his friends and colleagues at the station.
Bilborogh's replacement, from mid-way through series two onwards, was DCI Charlie Wise, who was far more willing than his predecessor to call on Fitz's help. Wise's portrayer Ricky Tomlinson may be best known now as the slobbish, cackling dad in The Royle Family, but his performance in Cracker is nicely underplayed.
Also at Fitz's side was DS Jane Penhaligon - affectionately dubbed "Panhandle" by Fitz. Played by Harry Potter's Geraldine Somerville, Penhaligon is accused of "penis envy" by Fitz and the dry Detective Sergeant does initially appear to be a "classic case" of a female cop underappreciated by her bolshie male colleagues, but in the event turns out to be Fitz's closest cop ally and a real force to be reckoned with.
The tempestuous flirtation between Fitz and 'Panhandle' eventually develops into a full-blown affair in series two's 'The Big Crunch' but their relationship quickly becomes strained, particularly following her rape in series two finale 'Men Should Weep' and the pair finally call it quits, apparently for good, in 1995 story 'True Romance'.
The final regular cop in Cracker was the gruff DS Jimmy Beck, played by Irish actor Lorcan Cranitch. At first, Beck seems to fit the mould of 'maverick detective' - "too Starsky and Hutch" as Fitz notes. But while Beck may be ignorant and obnoxious, there's a sense that deep down he's a loyal, decent officer...
However, Beck's behaviour is more than bluster - in a fatal error, he lets Bilborough's future killer slip through his fingers and his suffocating guilt slowly leads him down a dark path. After raping his colleague Penhaligon, Beck ultimately takes his own life in series three premiere 'Brotherly Love'.
The impressive character development on Cracker was not limited to the series regulars - even the murder suspects were exceptionally well-drawn, from Adrian Dunbar's amnesiac Thomas Kelly to Robert Carlyle's disturbed Albie Kinsella.
Kinsella's tale - the three-part 'To Be A Somebody' - features the aforementioned death of Bilborough and is quite rightly regarded as the show's pinnacle. It's a dark and troubling insight into the mind of a traumatised Hillsborough survivor driven to the edge, boosted by an utterly terrifying performance from Carlyle.
After three series, Cracker ceased regular production, returning only for two special episodes. A year after series three ended, Fitz travelled to Hong Kong for Paul Abbott's White Ghost but the one-off didn't quite match the quality of the regular series.
The final Cracker instalment to date was 2006's 'Nine Eleven' - Jimmy McGovern took the reins once more, managing to recapture a little of the show's original magic.
McGovern's work is often praised for creating compelling characters and an intense, gritty atmosphere, and indeed he does these things here. But what many fail to recognise is the Liverpudlian writer's ability to craft a solid crime drama. Calling Cracker a 'detective show' shouldn't be taken as a slight on the show's quality. It is a detective show and a bloody fantastic one at that.
It seems that Cracker is now done for good - 'Nine Eleven' was billed in some regions as the 'final episode' and Fitz has been absent from our screens for a long while now...
But let's not forget the 10-year gap between 'White Ghost' and 'Nine Eleven' - in a 2006 interview, Robbie Coltrane said of the show's potential return: "Basically we wait around until Jimmy McGovern has got really angry about something, then he writes another Cracker." So who knows? Perhaps a return for Fitz (in 2016?) is not completely out of the question...
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