Dr Johnson observed that 'Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier', and I suppose that there may still be a certain truth in that. But he would have been on firmer ground if he had said, 'Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having spent the mid-to-late 1970s as an L.A Private Eye operating out of a trailer parked on the beach at Malibu'. This is the only way that I can explain the peculiar watchability of long-running lightweight detective drama The Rockford Files, DVDs of which have been filling empty evenings very amiably lately here at the Bee Hive*.
The first thing that I should say about The Rockford Files is that, in many ways, it's Not Really Very Good. The concept is just Chandler with the corners smoothed off, the plots are repetitive and sometimes lazy; the writing is unspectacular, and the pace (especially in the well-padded two-parters) is often sluggish. But none of this really matters, because the programme has a curious charm which somehow makes you ignore all these things.
And despite the routine plots, Jim Rockford is about as believable as 'seventies TV detectives ever got. He's consistently short of money (it's a recurring joke that he almost never seems to get paid for his cases); he rarely gets the girl; he usually tries to talk his way out of trouble rather than resort to violence (he does own a gun, but not a license for it, and it stays at his trailer, in the biscuit tin). I first encountered him in the early 80's, an era when American TV tended towards aspirational fantasies about the super-rich, and he always seemed appealingly down-to-earth. The exotic aspects of his life (the trailer in Malibu, the answerphone, the beautiful lawyer friend, the whole private eye thing) all seemed like things I might actually have one day**.
Nowadays, of course, The Rockford Files can also be enjoyed as a historical document; an extended tour around the ugly, low-rise sprawl of LA in the seventies, with occasional excursions into the deserts and orange-groves around it. Rockford's Califonia now seems as far-off as Philip Marlowe's, although the fashions of its time are much harder to like; weird knitwear, huge hair and high-waisted loon-pants abound, and lapels like those on James Garner's sports jackets have since been banned under strategic arms limitations treaties. Over it all hangs the spectre of Organised Crime. Was this a particular concern in the US during the '70s, or just a handy plot device? At any rate, gorillas from the mob are frequent visitors to Rockford's trailer, where they force him into their enormously wide, low cars and drive him off to meet sinister kingpins in deserted industrial buildings. Happily he always escapes, and then there is a car chase, in which vehicles the size of small European countries pursue each other through the streets to the sound of squealing brakes (or at least to the sound of a record of squealing brakes, and it sounds suspiciously as if the sound-effects department owns just the one). But don't let the car-chases or the odd murder fool you; The Rockford Files is comfort telly; it's usually sunny, it's usually funny, and the worst that generally happens is that another client wriggles out of paying their $200-a-day. They don't make them like this any more***, but that doesn't matter, because it ran to about six series and assorted TV movies. That should keep me going for a good few years yet.
*I expect it's repeated endlessly on ITV2 or somewhere, too.
**And sure enough, I do now own an answerphone. But I always forget to switch it on.
*** No, they really don't: a recent attempt to do a re-make has gone no further than a pilot show. Which is probably good news because it Wouldn't Be The Same.