Memories of Lovejoy: East Anglia's TV classic
- Credit: Andy Abbott
Lovejoy was a series that loved its setting. It was a show that had the East Anglia as its beating heart. For 71 episodes, spread over eight wonderful years, it rambled across Suffolk, Norfolk and north Essex, revelling in the glorious countryside and allowing our rural towns and historic landmarks their moment in the national spotlight.
Based on a series of books by Jonathan Gash, it was star Ian McShane, wearing his producer’s hat that made sure that the TV series stayed true to its source material and was filmed in East Anglia. The production made its home in West Suffolk, moving between Bury St Edmunds, Lavenham and Long Melford as well as making occasional excursions to Colchester, Maldon, Cambridge and Norwich as well as the odd trip to Ipswich and Southwold.
The authentic East Anglian backdrop was just as much of a vital character in the series as any of the human participants. This is very apparent in the second series, which was filmed in Oxfordshire as a cost-saving measure, it immediately returned to Suffolk for series three and stayed until the end.
Thirty-five years ago this weekend, the distinctive Lovejoy theme tune, written by Walberswick resident Denis King, wafted across our living rooms as Ian McShane star and series producer made his first appearance as the roguish antique dealer.
Scripted by television royalty Ian La Frenais (Porridge, The Likely Lads, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) it was clear from the beginning that this was going to be a classy show. Breaking the fourth wall, Lovejoy loved talking directly to the audience, letting the audience in on his secrets. It was a drama but within the wheeler-dealer shenanigans there was a character comedy waiting to get out.
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Ian McShane played Lovejoy with a twinkle in his eye but this was never a one man show – the attraction of the series was that it was an ensemble show. Lovejoy may have been the eponymous star but he surrounded himself with an engaging array of friends and colleagues.
Lovejoy ‘rented’ his workshop from Lady Jane Felsham, played by Downtown Abbey’s Phyllis Logan. Although Lady Jane had an absentee husband in the form of Alexander, a forever out-of-the-country businessman, there was always a will-they/won’t-they aspect to their relationship. Let’s just say they were the closest of friends, something Lady Jane’s housekeeper clearly thought was very wrong.
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Tinker was Lovejoy’s antiques scout – a man who knew as much about rare and collectable items as anyone. Always wedded to a scotch or a gin and tonic, Tinker was a former monk and was gloriously brought to life by great character actor Dudley Sutton. In his hands the constantly inebriated Tinker was always a real person and never a caricature.
Eric Catchpole was the heavy-metal-loving, motorcycle-riding, apprentice that Lovejoy took on against his better judgement in order to help solve his constant cashflow problem. Over the four series Eric became a little less hapless – although he was never going to be a natural spotter of antiques, he had developed Lovejoy’s knack of selling a shady deal.
Every hero needs a villain and they didn’t come any nastier than rival antiques dealer Charlie Gimbert, played with cigar chomping relish by Malcolm Tierney. He owned the cottage that Lovejoy lived in and despised the very air he breathed – not helped by the fact that Lovejoy was bedding his Gimbert’s sister at the time.
For ten years Lovejoy was an integral part of Suffolk life. When you tuned in on a Sunday night for the latest adventure, it was like seeing your local neighbourhood being broadcast on national television.
If a scene was set in Bury St Edmunds, then, you saw recognisable Bury landmarks in the background. On one occasion that recognisable figure was me, as a young reporter, I unwittingly appeared in a scene in front of the Abbeygate as I walked across the car park on Angel Hill on my way to cover a court case.
I first encountered Ian McShane and the Lovejoy cast in the summer of 1985 as I was invited onto the set to watch filming in and around Lovejoy’s cottage as he competed with a pair of American collectors for a hoard of Roman gold.
Behind hedges and a tree-lined drive, a rural Suffolk cottage just outside Bury St Edmunds was turned into a busy film-set. In those days it was highly unusual for a drama to be shot on film on location, like a movie, rather than in a studio on video. This filmic approach is now standard for high-end dramas.
In my interview with McShane, it was clear he regarded Lovejoy as a prestige project. It helped that the location and subject matter of antiques attracted large American audiences who had fond memories of East Anglia thanks to the Second World War and the US air bases.
Speaking to the actors during their lunchbreak brought home how slow the filming process can be. Dudley Sutton, who played Tinker Dill said: “We are pleased if we get more than three minutes’ screen time done a day. If we get five minutes in the can we believe we are flying.” A scene at Lovejoy’s doorway with a reverse shot of Eric (Chris Jury) climbing onto his motorbike and sidecar took all morning.
A big change came in 1993 when Phyllis Logan, bowed out as Lady Jane Felsham and was replaced by Caroline Langrishe as foxy auctioneer Charlotte Cavendish. With the series pulling in 18 million viewers every Sunday night, Ian McShane held a series of interviews at The Bull Hotel in Long Melford to assure anxious viewers that, although the cast was changing, Lovejoy would remain the same loveable old rogue. He told me: “One of the things which has helped Lovejoy become such a long-lived series is the fact that it is continually being re-invented.”
He always said Lovejoy’s sex life and fraught relationships were just a red herring for what the show was really all about. “The greatest sexual experience that Lovejoy has is when he sees a rare antique. That’s when his heart really misses a beat – without that we wouldn’t have a show.”
Now, that Lovejoy is 35 years old will it get a re-boot like many other vintage series? Who knows. Ian McShane still owns the rights and although he has ruled himself out of returning to the role, he has suggested that Lovejoy’s rarely seen daughter may be persuaded to take over the old man’s business. Ms Lovejoy? Sounds good – particularly if Charlie Gimbert had a son. Let the rivalry entertain a new generation.