Lavender Castle

The “bizarre” world of Dick Spanner

Dick falls into another cunning plot of Signor Allova.

Dick Spanner P.I., was first unleashed on the unsuspecting British public in May 1987. Set in a parallel universe not far from here, the show followed the cases of Dick Spanner, a robotic private detective living in a dangerous futuristic city known as the Big Pear. Across 22 six minute episodes Dick would take a trip to Mexico in search of Harry the Human Cannon Ball, who had disappeared after he was fired, and then to the glittering lights of Ivywood, where he became embroiled in a battle between the talls and the smalls while searching for the Maltese Parrot. Dick’s investigations would often be aided by the glamourous Mae East, frustrated by the suspicious Lieutenant O’Grady, and almost thwarted by such dastardly (and curiously similar) villains as Sidney Sidestreet, mob boss Mendoza, circus owner Signor Allova, and movie director Eric von Strongbow.

Following completion of Terrahawks in 1984, Gerry Anderson had been producing television commercials, but was always open to new ideas from people who had worked with him previously. Terry Adlam, a former Terrahawks visual effects assistant, was looking to work on these commercials as a storyboard artist and came to a meeting with Anderson armed with a portfolio of sketches and doodles. Anderson was particularly taken with an image of a robotic private detective, and Adlam pitched the character to him on the spot as a combination of Phillip Marlowe and Inspector Clouseau who lived in a futuristic Blade Runner-style universe. Anderson instantly saw the possibilities of the character, and teamed Adlam with writer Tony Barwick to begin working on scripts.

Barwick, who had most recently written 35 of the 39 episodes of Terrahawks and been primarily responsible for the show’s drastic shift towards comedy, was a perfect fit for the pun-loving Adlam, and his assignment to the new series ensured that it would be the strangest and silliest Anderson series of all time. The scripts would now be packed with bad jokes and painful puns, supported by whatever visual gags the team had dreamt up in the bar the previous lunchtime. The result was a series in which the narrative often took second place to the jokes, which ran the gauntlet from amusing wordplay to Looney Tunes style slapstick and which was slightly more risqué than any previous Anderson production.

Dick Spanner faces the accusing eye of the glamorous Mae East.

With the comedic tone of the series now set the first six-minute episode was shot in April 1985 at Bray studios, which had previously served as the base of production for both Terrahawks and the Space:1999 model department, and appropriately enough Terrahawks effects director Steve Begg joined the team to help bring Dick to life. In another noticeable departure from what had gone before, the series would also be produced using stop motion animation. Although stop-motion had occasionally been used in previous Anderson series, most notably in Terrahawks, this would be the first of his series to be entirely animated in this way.

TV listing for the second compilation episode of The Case of the Maltese Parrot.

This pilot was then pitched to broadcasters with an aim of getting a commission for a full series, which finally came in the form of a request from the fledging Channel 4 for 22 six-minute episodes. The 22 episodes would actually form two 11-part stories, The Case of the Human Cannonball and The Case of the Maltese Parrot. Each instalment would end with a cliffhanger that often saw Dick plunging to his doom, or else frantically searching his pockets for exactly the wrong tool to get him out of this latest jam.

Dick Spanner wasn’t a big budget production, which prohibited the hiring of a full voice cast. As a result, Dick’s narration would have to tell pretty much the whole story, and his voice would be provided by none other than Scott Tracy himself, Shane Rimmer. Rimmer would prove to be a perfect fit for the character, playing Spanner absolutely dead straight in order to heighten the madness going on around him while also giving the character a bizarre dignity that only made his constant failures even more amusing. Other character voices were provided as needed by members of the production team, with Adlam himself taking on the feminine tones of Mae East.

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The series would air in the UK as part of Network 7, Channel 4’s new Sunday lunchtime magazine programme for young adults, with each episode usually appearing at about 1.20pm. The show was well-received by both the channel and viewers alike, with its outrageous puns and deeply surreal visuals proving particularly popular with those still recovering from the night before. Although Dick Spanner would not return for Network 7’s second series, the show was so popular that Channel 4 would schedule separate late night and evening repeats of both adventures that recut each 11-part story into 2 25 minute compilations. These would be the last chance to catch Dick on British television, although both stories would be released in compilation form on VHS and a brief clip from the series would later appear in The Twilight Tower, an episode of Anderson’s late 90s stop-motion fantasy series Lavender Castle.

In 2007 Dick Spanner was finally released on DVD, but much to the dismay of many fans the episodes were cropped into widescreen, and given an entirely new musical score and new end credits. It would be another ten years before the complete uncut Dick returned on DVD, this time featuring all 22 original episodes in their original format plus the Channel 4 compilation versions. Even more exciting was the inclusion of several new adventures for Spanner, one of which was a recently rediscovered first instalment of an abandoned third Dick Spanner story from 1987 – this time with Terrahawks actor Jeremy Hitchen providing the title character’s voice. However, Shane Rimmer would also be back to voice Dick for a new two part animatic story, The Case of the Screaming Dame. This was to be Shane’s final association with the character before he passed away in March 2019, leaving behind a legacy of television and film work that included many memorable contributions to the Gerry Anderson universe.

Despite being one of the most unusual and outlandish Gerry Anderson shows, Dick Spanner is also one of the funniest and most creative he ever produced. Although a parody of the classic detective genre and the golden age of Hollywood the series operated on the principle that no joke was too broad, too irrelevant or too painful, and as a result appeals to both adults and children alike – providing you cover their eyes during the naughty bits. Each story builds to a conclusion that has to be seen to be believed, and at the centre of all this madness is Shane Rimmer’s reliably deadpan Spanner struggling to keep his cool in a world where almost nothing makes sense.

Even if some of the jokes really should come with health warnings, Dick Spanner is a series that’s very difficult to dislike, and can only really be summed up in one word; “bizarre!” If you have yet to give it a look, you can pick it up on DVD now!

Written by
Chris Dale

Writer, editor & voice actor on Big Finish's Doctor Who, Terrahawks, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet audio ranges. Host of the Randomiser on the Gerry Anderson Podcast.

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