Dour faced and cynical, Detective Chief Inspector Jim Taggart had seen it all and done it all before. So the brutal deaths that he investigated on the grey and rainy streets of Glasgow, the most populous city in Scotland which was at one time known as the murder capital of Europe, and portrayed here with a brutal realism previously unseen on British television, came as no shock to him as he set about solving his caseload with dogged determination, the dedicated cynicism of a weathered cop, and a bluntness that was honed many years before on the streets of the gritty urban environment of his formative years. In the process, Taggart became one of the most genuinely realistic and best loved drama series on TV.
Debuting as the miniseries Killer in September 1983, the full series was commissioned from creator Glenn Chandler by Scottish Television for the ITV network after he had originally been approached by SCTV’s Controller of Drama, Robert Love, to create a whodunnit set on the Clyde. Chandler, a former Edinburgh public schoolboy who had previously written six episodes of the BBC hospital drama Angels and a single episode of Crown Court, was at this time living in London. He later admitted that he’d only been to Glasgow “about four times” but relished the opportunity to write a major show. For inspiration he went on walkabout around Glasgow, a venture that proved fruitful insofar as whilst walking through a cemetery, he glimpsed the name Taggart on a headstone.
Killer attracted an estimated 7.6 million viewers and went on to win a BAFTA and as a result, the fate of the series was sealed.
Playing the titular role was Mark McManus a Hamilton born actor who had moved with his family to London when he was three years old, before moving again (on his own) at the age of 16 to Australia where he performed in amateur theatre groups. He appeared in a single episode of the children's TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and made an appearance in the long-running Australian police drama Homicide. When work was hard to come by he earned an income by boxing, which on one occasion resulted in a broken nose. Returning to the UK, McManus picked up a number of small roles in Dr. Finlay’s Casebook, Colditz and Crown Court, before landing a meatier role in the BBC series The Bothers which was followed by taking the role of the grown up Sam Wilson in the classic drama series Sam.
Taggart was partnered with the university-educated DS Peter Livingstone (Neil Duncan), a policeman with modern day ideas who was constantly at odds with his superior since his attitude had not been coloured by previous experience. For his part, Taggart had very little patience with the new breed of young graduates entering the police force and being promoted before they had gained experience ‘on the ground.’ To add to Taggart’s disenchantment with life was the presence of his disabled wife’s senile aunt, whom he despised and begrudged staying in their house.
After four years Livingstone moved on and his replacement was devout Christian and teetotaller Mike Jardine. James Macpherson, who played the trusted sidekick, had applied to become a policeman before he took up acting and even got as far as an interview before deciding the job wasn’t for him.
As previously mentioned, the series made no pretence regarding the seedier side of life and that stark reality was also applied to the graphic crime murder scenes depicted in this hard-hitting drama. The production team took advice from police officers and consulted the forensic department at Glasgow University to make the visuals look as realistic as possible, even to the extent of looking at slides of real wounds. With its often-downbeat atmosphere, the series was arguably the precursor to the Nordic noir style of thriller which has become more popular in recent years. But it didn’t turn viewers away. On the contrary, the episode titled ‘Violet Delights’ transmitted on 1 January 1992 pulled in an astonishing audience of 18.3 million.
The series was so popular and well-known that even after Mark McManus’ untimely death from pneumonia at the age of 59 in 1994, the baton of lead actor was passed to James MacPherson, now promoted to DCI, and the producers kept the original title. This, even though neither Jim Taggart nor his wife featured in any future episodes. And yet as a testament to Taggart's popularity, the series continued and survived longer without its eponymous hero than it did with him. Taggart was also a huge success around the world. The series has been broadcast as far afield as Afghanistan, India, Japan, North America, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand Brunei and Bosnia. It has been broadcast in over 50 countries.
The leading crime fighters who worked out of Maryhill Police Station also included Tom Watson as Superintendent Robert Murray, Alan McHugh as Assistant Chief Constable Strathairn, Siobhan Redmond as Chief Supt. Karen Campbell, John Michie as DI Robbie Ross and Blythe Duff as DI Jackie Reid and also featured cameos from a range of stars, including Ian McElhinney, Celia Imrie, Jason Isaacs, Jill Gascoine, John Bluthal, Meera Syal, Michelle Gomez, Diane Keen, Francis Matthews, Phyllis Logan, Russell Hunter, Robert Carlyle, Annette Crosbie, Alan Cumming and Dougray Scott.
Over the years of its epic run the broadcast format of Taggart changed – but not always to its benefit and the programme which was Scottish Television's biggest money-earner was dealt some rough justice.
Originally the show ran to three one-hour episodes for each story. This was later changed to a regular pattern of two-hour stand-alone stories and eventually shortened to 60 minutes. After a two-hour special episode in January 2003 episodes were again lengthened, this time to 90 minutes until eventually and sadly the show became a series of one-hour stand-alone stories. Fans of the series were further infuriated by the erratic scheduling which resulted in episodes often not shown on consecutive weeks or even on one set night of the week. So it came as no surprise when the audience dwindled to just 3.8million for the last series in 2010 and ITV bought the axe down on it.
Ground-breaking, intelligent and immensely watchable, Taggart became as synonymous with Glasgow as Inspector Morse did with Oxford. In many respects this was initially due to Mark McManus’ performance which was a masterpiece of understatement, the all-important ingredient that helped establish the series in viewers minds as a classic example of British drama at its very best. Its longevity and consistency are still very much the source of great pride in Glasgow.
Published on October 6th, 2022. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.