IN THE north of England, in the Seventies, there were a few key debates which divided friends, families, if not entire communities. Never mind Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. The really important cultural contests were between Donny and David, Slade and the Rollers, Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner, Fabs and Zooms, Hilda Ogden and Elsie Tanner. And in 1976 we began to wrestle with another problem. Who was cooler, Dave Starsky or Ken Hutchinson?
You couldn't sit on the fence and say you liked both of them equally. That was wimping out, big time. The preference of girlie girls - the kind of girls who favoured Donny Osmond over David Cassidy - was for the blond one, Hutch. And when he went on Top of the Pops singing "Don't Give Up On Us, Baby", they went potty. But we lads weren't impressed to find a cop on Top of the Pops. After all, Kojak had beaten him to it, with his unforgettable rendering of "If". No, you had to do better than that to gain our respect. You had to be able to execute a perfect handbrake turn, then vault the bonnet of your red 1974 Ford Torino, while simultaneously whipping out a .45 automatic from beneath your chunky belted cardigan and yelling "freeze!". Now that was class. Starsky, not Hutch, was top of the cops.
Starsky was an all-American dude at a time when anything American was glamorous. There was even something faintly glamorous about the junk food Americans ate, and Starsky was a junk food junkie. He pigged out on burgers, popcorn and gooey pizza. We didn't come across much gooey pizza in west Lancashire in the mid-Seventies. There was one Wimpy bar in our town, which was best avoided. But Starsky's junk food looked delicious. Hutch, meanwhile, ate yoghurt and cereal bars. He even did yoga. The wuss.
Starsky, moreover, was the funny one. He had a twinkle in his eye. He was great at bantering with Huggy Bear, and could be ever so cheeky to Captain Dobey. Hutch was straighter, more earnest, in truth a little dull. He even carried a more earnest sort of gun, a .357 Magnum. They needed each other, though, to be fair. And Kenneth Oxford, the chief constable of Merseyside Police, had both of them in mind when he complained that his patrolmen, captivated by the series, had taken to wearing sunglasses. Fair enough in Los Angeles, but a bit daft in Bootle.
For the likes of Kenneth Oxford, Starsky and Hutch were interchangeable. Not for me and my mates. There was one all-important difference between them: Starsky did the driving, and Hutch was the passenger. I'm sorry, but there was no cred in being a passenger. Boy, Starsky could handle that Ford Torino. And watching him do so compensated for the fact that, while our testicles had long since dropped, we still weren't old enough to hang out at the Snooty Fox with the 17-year-olds, getting slaughtered on three pints and throwing up on the last bus home. That came later, by which time we were into The Professionals anyway.
MOST OF my class at school had a weekly date with those "rough and tough but likable and friendly" American cops Starsky and Hutch, and most of my friends preferred Starsky. One of my best chums even obliterated the cover of her notebook with the magic words "Paul Michael Glaser", written obsessively over and over again, which led our form teacher to comment that she hoped that whoever he was, Paul Michael Glaser was going to foot the bill for a new book.
I never went for the obvious heart-throb: I preferred Merrill Osmond to his younger brother Donny on the grounds that the competition for Donny was a little too steep. On the rough/tough/ likable/friendly front I always felt Hutch was the more cerebral choice. Starsky tried a bit too hard. So he had a nice line in wisecracks and backchat. So what? Mature beyond my years, I already had the feeling that this wasn't what you really wanted in a man. (Time has proved that I was absolutely correct.) Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson was obviously the real brains behind the team: concerned, sensible, responsible, somehow much more solid than his superficial partner.
Starsky might have been twinkly-eyed - but he had the kind of lascivious gleam that told you he would leap on anything in a skirt, and that if you turned your back for a second he'd be off like a shot with whichever cute cocktail waitress they'd saved from gangsters that week. Any bubble- permed, blue-eye-shadowed, high-heeled piece of white trash could have Starsky just by fluttering her lashes. Hutch, you could tell, was more discerning. He'd have been more interested in a girl's mind - a comforting thought for any lumpenly puppy-fatted teenager.
Hutch you could probably rely on to turn up on time for his tofu and soy milk dinner - a fabulously incomprehensible transatlantic diet compared with boring meat and two veg, which was what was on the menu at home most nights. Plus Starsky was a one-trick pony. Take away his gun and car and what was he? A bit of rough of the kind you'd expect to meet outside the local garage with a spanner in his back pocket and oil on his hands. Hutch, on the other hand, could sing. He did it as his alter-ego David Soul, but it was Hutch on Top of the Pops really, pleading soulfully with whatever nasty American minxette was breaking his heart, leaving him in the lurch and generally making him miserable (the bitch).
And my choice has been sanctioned by time. David Soul is still doggedly touring places like the Aylesbury Civic Centre. What a trouper. He emerged as surprise champion of Martin Bell in the Tatton by-election, and entertained the residents of a young people's shelter to an impromptu rendition of "Don't Give Up On Us, Baby". He publicly confesses his favourite singer is Charles Aznavour. Still fighting for right and good and able to send himself up too: what a guy.
Channel 4's Starsky and Hutch Night, including two classic episodes, is on Monday 31 May.