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European Times Bonn: TV fans left in limbo by Derrick the defective detective

TO MANY people around the world, he was the face of Germany. Stodgy, decent, dependable, and, yes, tediously efficient, this elderly gentleman personified the modest virtues of a country trying so hard not to make a noise. And now he is gone. Chief Inspector Derrick is no more.

Chief Inspector who? Devotees of very late-night television in Britain may have vague recollections of the bespectacled Munich policeman who solved a few crimes on their screens and then vanished without any explanation.

He did not catch on in the United States either, but in Germany and 101 other countries Derrick has been out- rating Columbo, Miami Vice and Morse for years, with a following of a fervour that would put Trekkies to shame. Derrick has fan clubs, websites and tele-addicts watching every move of his expressive eyebrow in Australia, India, Russia, the Netherlands and countless other places.

But Derrick, or rather the actor Horst Tappert, who plays him, has had enough. At 75, after 24 years and 281 episodes, he has retired, leaving his fans nothing but endless reruns, and the riddle that has been taxing some of the most powerful minds for nearly a quarter of a century: what makes so big a proportion of Mankind watch this show, week after week?

For Derrick - the series and the man - are not exactly the stuff of fast- moving television drama. There are few tyre-screeching or bang-bang scenes, just lots of interminable pregnant pauses and meaningful glances. The scriptwriter who did every episode, now 83, used words sparingly. There is a dialogue of sorts.

Derrick's ubiquitous side-kick, Harry, a man much younger and better- looking than his boss, serves mainly as a prop against which the chief inspector's grandeur can be illustrated. "Bring the car around, Harry" is the phrase everybody seems to remember. Like Captain Kirk's command, "Beam me up, Scottie", it has never been uttered.

And instead of beating hardened criminals senseless, this cop harangues them with morality tales and wears them down by tickling their conscience. Torn by remorse, they almost always confess in the end. That is how Derrick has achieved a 98 per cent clear-up rate.

Sounds exciting? Well, according to the astute German magazine Der Spiegel, "Derrick is as boring and familiar as grandmother's living-room".

Still, there were many grandmothers and viewers a lot younger who could not wait for their weekly fix of Derrick on Friday nights and are now going cold turkey.

In the last emotion-charged episode, the chief inspector finally gets his well-deserved promotion to a desk-job at Europol, based in The Hague. Absurd as all previous plots, the critics protested.

There is a new thriller in Derrick's slot, featuring a younger Munich policeman named Siska, but Tappert is dismissive about its chances of success. "I think the series is doomed from the start," the actor declared. "And as for the name, Siska: at first I thought it was a washing powder."

"Germans like Derrick," says Cornelia Carstens, a scientist, "because it's the antithesis of American action thrillers. Here the mysteries are solved with your brain, and not with brute force."

Reane Oppl, a secretary, retorts: "I don't like him. I hate his looks, he has no sense of humour, he is charmless, he moves slowly and speaks slowly. I really wonder what people see in him."

Another scientist offers an unflattering explanation: "Derrick is boring, but then Germans are boring," says Johannes Winkler. If he is right, the viewing figures around the world do not say much for the rest of humanity who sit glued to their sets once a week watching the chief inspector's top-of-the range BMW crawl by. Can 500 million Chinese viewers all be boring?

That is an important philosophical question, and one that has warranted searching analyses from some of the greatest thinkers of our time.

The ultimate answer to the ultimate question - why do so many people watch Derrick? - is attributed to no less a scholar than Umberto Eco, whose treatise, bearing the title Electrifying Mediocrity, says: "Derrick is the quintessence of all television spectacles, even those in which there are real characters who are loved only because, in a triumphal manner, they prove to be even more mediocre than the most mediocre viewers."

At least it is reassuring to see that the Derrick phenomenon has nothing to do with boring Germans.