Blackjack: articles

Australia’s own detective?

We can argue forever about who has been the greatest TV detective. Jack Frost? Lieutenant Columbo? A friend who favours action heroes stands by Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files from the ‘70s, which is still going around on pay TV, and Gene Barry’s suave ‘60s millionaire sleuth in Burke’s Law. Another, believe it or not, is a fan of that interfering old biddy Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. But perhaps Australian TV has thrown up a challenger to all of them—Jack Kempson.

In case you ignored the advice of just about every TV critic in the land—and for once, I agreed with most of my counterparts in the press—and missed Channel Ten’s ratings-winning Sunday night telemovie, BlackJack, Kempson is a long-serving Sydney police detective who turns whistleblower on one of his corrupt colleagues, is ostracised by the police brotherhood and is packed off—literally—to the basement of police HQ and a menial job in the computer records section.

It’s a lousy assignment. He has to supervise the transfer of old paper files, including details of unsolved cases, to the national police computer system, and Kempson would not know a chip from a byte. But this scruffy, old-fashioned detective will not lie down and die, as his enemies want. He comes across a kidnap case from 30 years earlier in which a schoolboy was snatched from the street, never to be seen again. Neither he nor his kidnappers have ever been located.

Kempson, without authority but with the help of a rookie IT specialist working in the computer unit, goes to work on the case, using modern data-matching techniques to review the evidence. To cut a long and intricate story short, he pieces together what happened three decades ago, tracks down the three kidnappers and, finally, locates the skeleton of the missing boy in the basement of a suburban terrace house.

This was classy and enthralling drama, as credible in its portrayal of the unglamorous side of police work as Wildside and Phoenix, yet as wonderfully character-driven as Blue Heelers. Kempson and his rookie aide, Constable Julie Egan (played confidently by Kate Beahan), make a good team. The friction between Kempson and those upstairs who are hellbent on seeing his career destroyed smoulders through the whole movie.

But it is the character of Jack Kempson that holds it all together, this man haunted by the suicide of his wife many years earlier, devoted to his disabled teenage daughter, married now to his job and unrepentant for blowing the whistle on one of his oldest friends in the force. And the performance by Colin Friels—best remembered for his starring role in Water Rats before Steve Bisley moved into the water police HQ on Sydney Harbour—as Kempson is simply brilliant.

I deliberately use present tense, for BlackJack is the first of what Channel Ten hopes will become an occasional series of telemovies built around his character. The premise for Sunday’s telemovie—dogged cop utilising new technology to solve old cases—easily could be stretched into more stories. I’m sure writers Gary McCaffrie and Shaun Micallef (yes, comedian Shaun Micallef!) could do it. And if Ten has any sense, it will make sure that director Peter Andrikidis (Grass Roots, Wildside, My Husband, My Killer, among others) sets some time aside each year for two or three more Kempson whodunnits.

It’s about time Australia produced a great TV detective. Mind you, Kempson has a long way to go to match the other greats of TV sleuthing. Columbo started life in 1968, when actor Peter Falk was only 39, and is still being pumped out by US television. Two new instalments have appeared over there this year and American critics have said Columbo is back to his best. Falk is now 75.

A relative newcomer is Midsomer Murders, returning tomorrow night on Nine at 8.30pm, with John Nettles as Detective Tom Barnaby. Twenty-eight episodes have been filmed since early 1997, although Channel Nine is only up to number 18. And then there is A Touch Of Frost, also returning tomorrow night but on Seven, in direct competition with Midsomer Murders.

Why do network programmers do this to us? I have not seen this new Midsomer Murders. But I have seen A Touch of Frost, the 31st episode of the 32 produced since 1992, and it’s a corker. Frost’s team is protecting a witness in a brutal murder case. But although he’s in jail, the killer has organised a hitman to knock off the eyewitness to his crime. The hit goes awry. But what follows will have you on the edge of your sofa. It’s one of the best Frosts so far. Let’s hope that in 10 years, I will be able to say the same about the 31st episode of the crime-fighting adventures of Jack Kempson.

By Ross Warneke
March 20, 2003
The Age