Think back to a time before we had any streaming and on-demand services. Even before video recorders. A time when – in events which would seem apocryphal or unreal now – pubs would empty so that people could rush home to catch the broadcast of shows like Hancock’s Half Hour or Steptoe and Son, programmes which were regularly watched by tens of millions, but had to be seen as they went out, as there was no way either to tape them or catch up later. A vintage case of FOMO.
Nowadays, we take it for granted that we can watch things as and when we want to, and the access to archive TV material has probably never been better, thanks to a sheer panoply of digital channels and online outlets, all hungry for content. It appears inexplicable, then, that there are some series which were massively popular in their day, yet seem to have all but been forgotten, and have scarcely ventured out of the vaults. Such a curious phenomenon to have programming which has practically vanished from the public eye.
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Ironic, then, that one of these was actually called Public Eye. Created by Roger Marshall and Anthony Marriott, it followed the exploits of Frank Marker (Alfred Burke), an enquiry agent – a less glamorous form of private detective – as he handled all manner of cases which inhabited the grubbier end of the spectrum, such as infidelity, bankruptcies, missing persons, and so on. Marker was a rather dour, down-at-heel type, but always operated with a strong moral code, and never put any thought of self-enrichment over doing the right thing, even if it meant he had to carry on scraping a living.
The series would run for a decade, originally starting in black and white on ABC Television in 1965, before being subsumed into new ITV franchise holder Thames Television, after ABC was somewhat forcibly merged with Associated-Rediffusion in 1968. Public Eye would make the switch to colour in 1969, but like so many shows of its era, many of the early episodes produced by ABC were junked over the years. Thankfully, the full collection of Thames-made episodes does still exist, but its rather patchy archive status overall may help explain why Public Eye nowadays lacks some of the exposure of some of its contemporaries.
In many ways, Public Eye is the natural companion of Callan, another series which has sadly been side-lined over the years. Like Public Eye, Callan was an ABC-originated series which would survive the ‘shotgun marriage’ that created Thames, and garnered great public and critical acclaim. Similarly, so many of Callan’s early monochrome episodes have been lost to time. Both shows were also the antithesis of the lighter-hearted escapist fare put out by ATV, such as The Prisoner or Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased): instead, these were grittier, bleaker, far more cynical and downbeat in tone than some of their bedfellows in the schedules.
Both Callan and Public Eye have also been noticeably absent from ITV’s digital channels or ITVX platform, meaning it has fallen to Talking Pictures TV – a relative minnow compared to more mainstream broadcasters – to unearth these series and give them an airing. For those amongst us who still enjoy tangible product in the form of home media, thank goodness then for Network Distributing, who – for the last quarter of a century – have raided the archives to uncover all manner of treats, both in TV and film, and shown the kind of loving care and attention to Callan and Public Eye they deserve, putting out all existing episodes of both series on DVD.
Network’s Public Eye: The Collection set is a repackaged re-release of the 17-disc Public Eye: A Box Named Frank from 2012. In addition to every extant instalment of the show, we also have a selection of extras, including archive interviews with Alfred Burke and co-creator Roger Marshall, the audio soundtrack of the missing episode ‘Twenty Pounds of Heart and Muscle’, and the surviving extract from the otherwise missing ‘It Must Be the Architecture – Can’t Be the Climate’. The latter item was recovered from an ABC promotional reel by Kaleidoscope, the Midlands-based organisation devoted to finding lost television programming, and which has done a great deal to raise Public Eye’s profile.
Public Eye still feels remarkably fresh and modern in many ways, even leaving aside now-dated references, such as in Marker’s fee being six guineas a day, plus expenses. Good drama never truly ages, and the very nature of the show – a different case each week – means that we have Marker as our constant, the prism through which we get to view both his clients and the subjects of his enquiries. While some of the individual tales may be less gripping than others – such is the nature of the beast – Burke’s masterful performance as Marker is always engaging, and it helps greatly in keeping the viewer’s rapt attention throughout.
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It quickly becomes clear that Alfred Burke is indivisible from Frank Marker, and it would certainly be nigh-on impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role. He cuts a distinctive figure, with his overcoat, wiry frame and lived-in face, and Burke’s execution of the part being a display in minimalism and naturalism, very much stemming from the ‘less is more’ school. Always the underdog, Frank Marker is someone who has a heart of gold, and it would be hard to resist rooting for someone working in such an unseemly field who will never compromise on his principles. The viewer is also never quite certain from one story to the next whether Marker will come out on top.
It doesn’t take someone of Marker’s skills and acumen to be able to detect that Public Eye is a wonderful piece of classic TV drama, one which has sadly been overlooked for far too long. Definitely something which is due a reappraisal, this really is a slice of compelling vintage telly which longs to be savoured. Network’s Public Eye: The Collection DVD box set is absolutely a case worth cracking open.
Public Eye: The Collection is out now on DVD from Network Distributing.