As with all good leads in cop shows, Detective Sergeant Jim Bergerac was an almost broken man when we first met him. Recovering from a bad marriage break-up, alcoholism and a busted up leg (due to an argument with a boat and a wall) he had just returned to his homeland of Jersey after a little recuperation time in England. Yet unlike other cop shows, Bergerac (John Nettles) wasn’t a ‘grumpy yet loveable’ character; he was mainly just grumpy, although strangely watchable despite this. His demeanour was often at odds with the curious cod-reggae/jaunty accordion theme music and the sunny beach shots of the opening titles, although there were times when the script allowed for a cheeky grin or a sarcastic quip – there was a human being under that scowl after all!
He’d been removed from his position in the Jersey police force because of his accident (he’d been drinking while on a surveillance operation) but allowed to join the new ‘Bureau des Étrangers’ after helping out some of his colleagues. In case you’re wondering what this ‘Bureau’ was, it’s no surprise that you haven’t heard of it, as it was a made-up department that dealt with non-Jersey residents (it translated literally as ‘The Foreigners’ Office – something The Daily Mail would have written most of their headlines about if it had been real…).
Like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mede, Midsomer Murder’s eponymous Midsomer (also starring Nettles as a police officer) and Morse’s Oxford, Jersey appeared to be the most violent place on the planet as Bergerac sped around in his Triumph Roadster chasing killers, con artists and crooks on a weekly basis.
The majority of the show’s filming took place on Jersey. As it is not a particularly large island (approximately 45 square miles) the directors had a challenge on their hands in later episodes, finding locations to shoot at which hadn’t already been used. In an effort for variety Jim investigated crimes which took place (amongst others) around cliffs, in stables, in a boxing ring, on a yacht, on a sunken ship, on a golf course and at the races. Not all at the same time of course.
Occasional scenes were filmed in England (particularly in Richmond, Surrey) and the action also took place in France from time to time early on in the show, although this became more heavily featured towards the end of the run as Jim’s career path changed.
Just to add to Bergerac’s already tumultuous life the writers of the programme threw in lots of girlfriends as well (plus his ex-wife and daughter from time to time) and these weren’t just an occasional glimpse into his personal life, oh no. Old Jim was so much of a ladies’ man that his – ahem – ‘romantic entanglements’ often had their own subplot, alongside the main criminal wrongdoing story.
And for a middle-aged man whose disapproving expression often looked like you’d just told him your favourite pastime was punching kittens he did pretty well on the totty front. His lady loves were played at various times by Louise Jameson (Emmerdale, EastEnders, Doctor Who), Celia Imrie (longstanding friend of Victoria Wood and whose name in Bergerac was the peculiar Marianne Bellshade) and French beauties Cécile Paoli and Thérèse Liotard. Even his ex-wife was the elegant Deborah Grant (another Victoria Wood buddy and also Jack Boswell’s older woman in Bread); clearly all women who like a challenge in their men.
Bergerac boss was Superintendent (later to become Chief Inspector) Barney Crozier, although some viewers may immediately have thought ‘That’s Mr Llewellyn, the headmaster from Grange Hill!’
Other famous faces who popped up over the ten years included Bill Nighy, Floella Benjamin, Prunella Scales, Simon Cadell (of Hi De Hi fame), Warren Clarke and Geoffrey Bayldon (the Crowman from Worzel Gummige and also Catweazle) and Bergerac spent a lot of time flirting (yes, he was capable of this, even with a face like thunder) with Philippa Vale, a jewel thief played by Liza Goddard (who has actually appeared in far more screen roles than I had imagined, although I remember her most fondly in Give Us A Clue and Woof! They are two different programmes, by the way. What a show it would be if they weren’t, though).
The most memorable character in the show, however, was, without fail, Charlie Hungerford. Formerly Jim’s father-in-law, he was in every episode of Bergerac bar one, and unfailingly provided the humour in all of those 86 episodes. I don’t want to use the phrase ‘loveable rogue’ as that’s what every single other mention of him will also describe him as but watch a few minutes of him on screen and I defy you to find a more fitting way to describe him. He was always immersed in some kind of dodgy deal (he harboured ideas of himself as a business magnate) but never so much that you could regard him as any kind of hard-bitten criminal. In fact, he was played so engagingly by Terence Alexander (The Day of the Jackal and The New Statesman to name but two performances in a hugely prolific acting career) that you could have discovered him pilfering your granny’s life savings and you’d still have offered him a cup of tea and a digestive before he legged it.
Filmed on Jersey, as well as with smaller scenes set in France and England (much more of the action moved to France in later episodes), there were nine series and six Christmas specials between 18 October 1981 and 26 December 1991. It was the brainchild of the producer Robert Banks Stewart who already had one hit detective show under his belt: Shoestring, with Trevor Eve. Hmmm, Shoestring started with a man picking up his career after a not so good time in his life…wonder where Banks Stewart came up with the idea for the opening of Bergerac then…?
Jim’s attitude (normally bad) towards authority and being told what to do began to take its toll after a while and an increasing need for his own independence led him to quit the Bureau to take up a private detective role in France. Without Bergerac’s attentions the island of Jersey was left, presumably, to fall into the hands of the many burglars, frauds, kidnappers and murderers that seemed to reside there.
That wasn’t the last of Jim and Charlie however: Nettles and Hungerford reprised their roles for an episode in the first series of Jasper Carrott and Robert Powell’s spoof police comedy, The Detectives in February 1993.