David Lister: Do all fictional detectives have to have parent problems?

Week in arts

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English National Opera's new piece Two Boys about a chatroom murder is one of the most exciting evenings I have spent in any theatre for some time. It was opera as crime thriller with more than a hint of Prime Suspect in the female detective trying to solve the crime.

The world of the teenage chatroom was brilliantly conveyed, as was the loneliness and sexual promiscuity of the teenage chatroom participants.

But I was also struck by something lateral to all of this. I noted that the detective – played by Susan Bickley – had some scenes, and some tension, with her mother at home, much as the detective Vera did with her mother in The Killing, much as Helen Mirren did with her father in Prime Suspect, and much as Kurt Wallander did with his father in the books and TV series.

You're not a true detective these days unless you've got problems at home with the folks. And the fact that Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison had a difficult dad shows that parental involvement is not just a Scandinavian obsession. In most detective drama now, the day doesn't end when you leave the police station. However old the cop, there's Mum or Dad, or both, to face at home. In fact the older the cop, the bigger the problem, as, pace Wallander, the parent is probably becoming a bit forgetful, and is certainly becoming a bit resentful. The point, I imagine, is that however good you are at solving a crime, the bigger challenge is an ageing parent. Go solve that one if you can.

Post-Wallander, post-The Killing, it would be a poor writer of a detective drama who didn't give their hero some parental grief at home. The ageing parent is fast becoming a staple of the genre, even it seems in contemporary opera. In fact in Two Boys, the detective's mum manages to give her a hand in solving the crime. Ageing actors and actresses are always complaining about a lack of parts. No longer. Their agents should put them up as perfect "parent of the detective" material.

One can't generalise too much, but my impression is that detectives' parents being an integral part of the plot is a relatively recent phenomenon. Sherlock Holmes had a troublesome brother, but Ma and Pa Holmes kept their distance. And it's hard to imagine the TV detectives of decades gone by, Kojak or Starsky and Hutch say, spending too much time thus proccupied.

Indeed, I saw Two Boys as the news was coming through of the actor Peter Falk's death. And it occurred to me thinking about his incomparable creation, the 1970s TV detective Columbo, that we were never allowed into Columbo's home. He talked about his wife all the time, of course. She was a running motif in the series. But we didn't see her, and we most certainly didn't see his parents. Didn't he have any? Were Alzheimer's and the problems of care homes not around in the 1970s?

Perhaps that is the key dramatic difference between stage and screen detectives of now and then. They've all got mums and dads now. And that's stressful. Columbo had it easy.

Time to abolish all booking fee extras

I suppose I should be pleased the Office of Fair Trading has cracked down on "rip-off" booking fees and said that theatres risk legal action if they continue to levy inflated charges for paying by credit and debit cards. I've waged a campaign for some time against the iniquitous range of booking fees on tickets for theatres and other arts venues.

Well, it is a start, I agree. But as the many readers who write to me in support of my campaign know, it's not just those charges on credit and debit cards that they have to pay. There are also those mysterious "handling charges" and other administrative fees with fancy names, which can add large percentages to the price of a seat. I will only be content when all fees on buying a ticket are abolished, and theatre managements and individual promoters put on the ticket the price the ticket-buyer is actually paying. Then, at long last, we will have some transparency.

My sticking point on gig etiquette

If there's one band that's a must-see live at the moment, it has to be Arcade Fire. Their concert in Hyde Park on Thursday was a joyous affair. Perhaps this ultra-classy act attracts an ultra-classy audience, I don't know. But I was struck there by a small but significant change to the etiquette of mass outdoor gigs.

One irritating aspect of such occasions is the habit of some spectators to throw beer over the unfortunates standing a few feet in front of them. It's not something that adds to the enjoyment if you're unlucky enough to receive a soaking and are left feeling sticky all evening. But generally it's de rigueur to pretend it's the most hilarious thing you have ever experienced and an integral part of music appreciation.

On Thursday, though, when some twit threw their beer over a poor girl several feet away, the miscreant was set upon by all around and given a right telling-off. I approve. Sex, drugs, whatever, the festival season can be pretty much a free-for-all. But beer throwing? Not nice.


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