AG is gold, not silver

Last week I wanted you to hold my hand through obsessing over a plot point in a sitcom from about 12 years ago. This week, I don’t. Please don’t help me with this one, please don’t answer the key question at the heart of something I’ve now been trying to find out for 25 years.

Actually, it’s 25 years tomorrow.

And what I don’t want to know, but I do, and I don’t, but I do, is about Quincy, M.E. Specifically, what happened at the end of season 2, episode 10, An Unfriendly Radiance, by Rudolph Borchert.

I can tell you, because I have back issues of Radio Times, that this aired on BBC1 at 11:05 on Wednesday 4 August, 1994, and that I was watching it while dressed in the best suit I have ever owned.

Tell me you don’t get dressed up for Quincy and then leave before the end.

Looking at that Radio Times listing, I’m struck by how The Rockford Files was on later (BBC1, 14:15-15:05, Find Me If You Can, season 1, episode 9, teleplay by Juanita Bartlett, story by Roy Huggins using his pen name of John Thomas James.)

The Rockford Files is much better than Quincy, but 14:15 on Wednesday 4 August, 1994, would be too late.

I’d be married by then.

I didn’t mention that the best suit I’ve ever owned had a flower in it. Or that I was sitting really carefully and resisting tea because I was being practical about not risking any spills, and because I was being really shaky.

No question, I’d have watched whatever was on, it just happened to be Quincy, and it just happened that Quincy was a moment of stillness on my wedding day. It was also Angela Gallagher’s wedding day, but I don’t think she got to have any stillness, and if she watched Quincy that morning, she’s never admitted it.

Also no question, even as ready as I was, even though it was impossible to leave until the car came, impossible as it was to think about anything else, I did get into that Quincy episode. And then I did get out of it again, no more than 25 minutes in.

So for all these years, there has been a bit of me that really wants to know if Quincy saved the day, and there’s more of me that likes not knowing.


I wanted to credit the writer, so I looked up the episode online –– and I’ve found the episode. It shouldn’t be there, it’s been illegally uploaded to YouTube, but it’s there.

It’s still not going to be the video I’m likely to watch this weekend.

And if I’m not kidding about how I think of this episode often, it’s really because I think of that moment and I think a lot of that day twenty five years ago. So long ago, so far away, and yet Angela Gallagher is still with me.

She might not be after she sees this image. It’s irresistible, it’s a Before and After image from the day. The alternative is that I show you how we looked then and now, but that won’t happen because while Angela would look wonderful in both, I wouldn’t in either. Even with that suit.

The Quincy title sequence on left and mine and Angela's wedding on right

Before and After

Hawaiian topping

Earlier this week, scriptwriter Phill Barron wrote online about what he called ‘the Magnum voice’ and how it was a tool he uses in writing. He explains why it’s needed but the short version of what it does is keep him conscious of what his characters are feeling when he may have written the previous scene a month ago.

He names his internal writer’s monologue after a technique I’d forgotten was used on screen in the 1980s US detective drama Magnum, pi. Nobody remembers the ‘pi’ bit of the title, incidentally, just as no one remembers the ‘medical examiner’ bit of the title Quincy, m.e.

Er, except apparently me. But even remembering title minutiae, I’d forgotten that after every ad break in Magnum, pi, the title character would give us a quick voice-over narration to remind us what was going on.

I think I’d forgotten that because I loathe narration. At least, I loathe narration that is there solely because otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on. Narration that does other jobs, most especially voice overs by unreliable narrators who are lying to us, I love those.

Thomas Magnum wasn’t lying in this show’s narration so I think I erased it from my mind.

But I’m disappointed that I’d forgotten the show because what looked like a glossy American drama from the roughly same era as Miami Vice was and is a rather remarkable piece of writing.

One reason that as much as I love novelist Jeanette Winterson’s writing but don’t really warm to her personally is that she once claimed to have invented what she called the spiral narrative. It’s when you leave one character to follow someone else for a bit and when you come back, the story of that first character has moved on. I read her saying this somewhere and before the end of the sentence I was thinking ‘but I saw that on Magnum years ago’.

In case I’m misrepresenting her, let’s call it the Magnum narrative instead. For it’s what was at the heart of this show and it’s why I think this detective series still stands up some preposterous 37 years after it first aired.

Let me say first that everything you might think Magnum, pi is, it was. Originally. Glen A Larson created a series, wrote a pilot episode and it was never filmed. Don Bellisario is brought in, keeps the name Magnum, the Hawaii setting and the two dogs, Zeus and Apollo, from that first script and starts again.

Incidentally, Hawaii was the one bit he would never have been allowed to change. The whole reason Larson got to pitch a detective show was that Hawaii 5-O had been cancelled and there were all these film crews and production facilities about to go out of business.

Maybe it was the setting that prompted Larson but his take on the show was seemingly more of a standard 1980s macho gloss kind of series. Then Bellisario turned it into a character piece. There’s still plenty of action but riddled through the entire 162 episodes are two rules.

One was that every third episode or so must be about the Vietnam background of the main characters. Lou Grant beat them to interesting explorations of that conflict, but Magnum made it part of the format.

More interesting to me and more why it’s worth still catching is the other rule. As far as possible, all of the plot of an episode must take place wherever Thomas Magnum isn’t.

So if he’s racing across Hawaii to find a suspect, he’ll get a flat tyre on the way and we’ll stay with him.

It did make for a lot of tension. I remember how it was deliciously frustrating but in retrospect, as a writer now, I get it.

When you focus on the character more than the plot of the week, that character has to be worth focusing on. He or she has to be interesting enough to keep us watching.

Character comes first. That’s why Magnum, pi, stands up, it’s why Columbo does, why The Rockford Files does. And it’s why Miami Vice doesn’t.