Spoiler warning! Minor plot twists might be revealed.
On Saturday 1 March 1997, a new drama series began on BBC1. Crime Traveller was created and written by Anthony Horowitz, who’d been struck by the notion of using time travel in a detective-show format while writing for ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. It immediately won a place in my heart…
In March 1997, I was nearing the end of my A levels. The pressure of studying, revising, applying for universities, and working weekends at a supermarket was building up. My life, for the first time, was genuinely busy and intense. But for eight weeks I had a little treat each Saturday night. I’d get home at 9pm after an eight-hour shift on the checkouts or pushing trolleys around. I’d have some food and open a beer. And I’d watch Crime Traveller, which I’d videoed earlier that evening. It was a joy: a light-hearted, likeable detective show with a sci-fi twist. I was hooked.
I didn’t see it again for a few years, not until the DVD release. I bought the first four episodes on DVD at the Virgin Megastore in Camden on 26 March 2003. I know that because I still have the receipt in the slipcase. Sadly I didn’t keep the record of when I bought the second half of the series, but it wasn’t too long after its DVD release in May 2003. Since then I’ve gone back to Crime Traveller again and again, rewatching it about once a year or so. It’s often been a friend in dark times: an instant cheerer-upper.
I’ve also had a couple of encounters with the show in real life. On 27 August 2009, having figured out where it was from viewing the episodes, I went to have a look at the building used in Crime Traveller as Holly Turner’s flat. When I got there, the front door was wedged open to allow some workmen to come in and out. So I chanced my arm and had a look inside the lobby, which was instantly recognisable from Crime Traveller (even if Danny’s partitioned-off office had gone – maybe it was only installed for the filming). Then, on 27 September 2014, I went to a sci-fi signing event in Barking because one of the guests that day was Crime Traveller star Chloe Annett. She kindly signed my DVD cover – well, I did pay her £10 to do it – and then listened patiently as I told her what the show meant to me.
So, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, here’s a look at this TV series that means so much to me…
Crime Traveller is a cop show with a difference: the two lead characters, Jeff and Holly, have a time machine, which they use to go back in time and solve crimes as they’re happening. The episodes are therefore structured ‘answers first/questions second’. We usually see the chaotic consequences of a murder, then the fun comes when Jeff and Holly travel back in time and we find out what really happened. It’s also a series set in a world you don’t see on TV any more: similar to real life, but with theatrical embellishments. It’s a Britain where a police detective can barely read; where solicitors blab about the contents of wills before the body is cold; where both the police and the press declare people guilty months before a trial; where widows make jokes about pottery on the day their husband’s been killed. The locations and settings are often arch and dramatic too. Bank managers have cavernous, Ken Adam-like offices. People live in Art Deco houses. Hospitals look like art galleries.
Detective Inspector Jeff Slade (Michael French) is a charming but reckless maverick who doesn’t mind bending the rules if it gets results. He also used to be married but she died a long time ago. At the start of the series, he grows close to colleague Holly Turner, who has a time machine, and they use it to solve crimes. In one episode she gets the hump when she thinks he’s slept with another woman, and in a later story he’s jealous of her ex being back on the scene, but their relationship is mostly platonic.
Holly Turner (Chloe Annett) is a clever and likeable police science officer. She has a time machine that was built by her father, Frederick, who has since gone missing. The machine sends you back (never forwards) an unpredictable amount of time, usually a few hours. You can’t actually change the past – you were always there, as it were – and it would be disastrous if you ever met yourself. You also have to be back at the machine at precisely the time you left, otherwise you’d be caught in a loop of infinity (ie, you’d go round and round the same few hours forever). This presents a *whopper* of a plot hole, which the series wisely ignores: why do the two versions of the characters never see each other at the machine? Every time Holly and Jeff are about to use it, future versions of themselves should come running in, surely?
Detective Chief Inspector Kate Grisham (Sue Johnston) is the grumpy, M-like boss of the team who is often frustrated by her detectives… until Jeff and Holly miraculously solve the case. She has football knickknacks on her desk, and in one episode we learn she’s married. She also has two other subordinates: Detective Sergeant Morris (Paul Trussell), 28, seems to be one truncheon short of a constabulary (we never learn his first name), while Detective Constable Nicky Robson (Richard Dempsey), 23, is a graduate trainee who’s very clever and friendly.
Rounding out the regular cast are: Danny (Bob Goody), the good-natured caretaker at Holly’s block of flats, who appears in all but one episode, and Frank (Jack Chissick), a duty officer at the police station, who appears in episodes 2, 4, 5, 7 and 8.
Created and written by Anthony Horowitz. Produced by Brian Eastman. Directed by Brian Farnham (episodes 1, 3, 6 & 7) and Rick Stroud (episodes 2, 4, 5 & 8).
Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 1 March 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Detective Jeff Slade is at risk of losing his job until a colleague, Holly Turner, tells him about her secret time machine.”
Notable guest cast: This week’s murder victim, an arrogant aviation magnate called Guy Lombard, is played by Terrence Hardiman (aka the Demon Headmaster).
Time travels: #1 – Holly first uses her time machine at 12.05pm and goes back three hours. Earlier in the episode, through Jeff’s eyes, we saw her at a train station. Now we see the same events from Holly’s point of view. #2 – Holly and Jeff travel at 6.25pm and go back 10 hours. It’s Jeff’s first ever trip in time.
* The first shot of the episode is a close-up of a clock (it’s 10am); the final scene is in a restaurant that has a clock face projected onto a wall (it’s 8.10pm). A visual motif of time and clocks recurs throughout the series, obviously.
* On a wall of Holly’s living room is a poster for On a marché sur la Lune (aka Explorers on the Moon, 1952-1953), the 17th book in the Tintin series. Crime Traveller creator Anthony Horowitz is a huge Tintin fan and has visited every location used in one of the stories (except the moon, obviously). In 2011 he was hired to write the sequel to Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. By 2016, however, his script had been scrapped and the film is still unmade.
* Holly’s flat is said to be in a block of flats called Sundown Court. In real life, it’s on St Mary’s Terrace in west London. The same block – though a different entrance – was used as Maddy Magellan’s home in the first series of Jonathan Creek, which was broadcast on BBC1 later in 1997.
* Other filming locations in this episode include: Reading train station, used for the opening sequence; Café Laville at 453 Edgware Road, London, a café with a view of Regent’s Canal (for plot reasons, it’s renamed Giovanni’s); Randolph Avenue, London, where Jeff and Holly find the catering van; and a bookies just off Randolph Avenue.
Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 8 March 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Slade and Holly travel back in time to investigate the murder of Holly’s aunt, who was apparently poisoned in a restaurant.”
Notable guest cast: Holly’s aunt Mary Chandler is played by Mary Tamm. Pip Torrens is one of the suspects.
Time travel: At 8.05pm, Holly and Jeff attempt to travel through time, but the machine blows a fuse and the building’s electricity goes off. Some people are trapped in a lift – eagle-eared viewers will recognise the cries for help as Grisham. Once the power’s back on, Holly and Jeff try again and travel back to 11.45 that morning.
* This episode is the first to have time-travelling Holly and Jeff interact with other regulars. Therefore, the story has to be structured in such a way that the original timeline’s Jeff and Holly are out of the way. Having been removed from the case – because Holly knew the victim – they go to see Mary’s solicitor, but we never learn how they spend the afternoon before time-travelling.
* The episode is set in early August (even though a scene at 8pm is after dark).
* We meet a new recurring character for the first time: a friendly duty officer at the police station called Frank.
* We see a screen showing Holly’s bank details. Her account number is AGH-345-0054, her sort code is 90-43-68, and she’s £1,669.90 overdrawn thanks to buying lots of electrical equipment.
* The building used as the location for the solicitors’ offices was Marco Polo House, 346 Queenstown Road, near Battersby Park in London. Built in the late 1980s, it was a glass-and-marble office building, sadly now demolished. The 1993 Red Dwarf episode Legion also filmed there.
* There are lots of clocks throughout the episode, in almost every scene in fact. Some are highlighted by characters or camerawork, others are just background details, but you could – if you wish – track the timings of each scene.
Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 15 March 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Slade and Holly go undercover in the world of fashion after a high profile designer receives a series of death threats.”
Notable guest cast: IMDB and other websites list American actor Alexis Denisof (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Avengers Assemble) as being in this episode. However, he’s not mentioned in the end credits and – as far as I can see – doesn’t appear on screen.
Time travel: Holly and Jeff travel back 20 hours, arriving at 8pm the previous evening.
* Holly is forced by her boss to go undercover as a seamstress, despite not being a detective and not being able to sew. (Everyday sexism!)
* In one of the show’s sillier moments, Grisham gathers all her police officers together to give them a detailed briefing. She tells regular characters Slade, Turner, Morris and Robson what they should do, but everyone else gets a vague wafting of a pointy stick at a map as Grisham says, “And the rest of you, as agreed.”
* Fashion designer Sonja’s house is, in reality, the Art Deco masterpiece St Ann’s Court in Chertsey, Surrey. It was designed by Sir Raymond McGrath in 1936 and is currently valued at around £9 million. The house contains a recording studio used by Roxy Music and Paul Weller, while several other film and TV crews have used it, such as Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
* Holly and Jeff discuss their previous time-travels. Holly moans that she’s been imprisoned (referring to episode two), chased by lunatics, been involved in two cars smashes, and been attacked with a knife. Jeff replies that she’s also solved two murders, a blackmail racket and an art fraud. The mention of the art fraud suggests that this episode was originally planned to come after episode four.
* The Tintin poster has gone missing from Holly’s flat.
* We see Jeff’s flat for the first time: he bought it from a murderer he sent to prison, but then couldn’t afford much furniture. He serves Holly her meal on a ping-pong table.
* Jeff mentions his father, who used to be a copper but is now retired. This reference means that if this episode has been moved in the running order, it can’t have originally gone after episode five.
* Danny the caretaker misses an episode for the only time.
Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 22 March 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Holly travels back in time in an attempt to save Slade’s life.”
Notable guest cast: Two hostage-victim extras are played by Anthony Horowitz’s sons Nicholas and Cassian.
Time travel: When Holly sees a news report about Jeff being shot, she uses her machine to find out what happened. She goes back 11 hours and 14 minutes to 8am. For the next chunk of the episode, time-travelling Holly interacts with the past version of Jeff.
* This is the only episode where Jeff doesn’t travel in time.
* The Tintin poster has returned to Holly’s living-room wall.
* The murder victim’s next-door neighbour is a man called Kelly, who’s clearly a fan of British comedy. He lives with cats called Kenneth and Hattie (ie, Williams and Jacques) and has posters on his wall for The Ladykillers (1955) and Carry On Doctor (1967).
* Holly and Jeff have a coffee in the same canal-side café we saw in episode one. They even sit at the same table. However, this time there’s no fictional rebranding: a waitress’s apron has the establishment’s real name on it.
* The location used for the art gallery and the jewellers next door is Woburn Place in Bloomsbury.
* Jewel thief Crowley’s flat, meanwhile, was filmed at the Alexandra Road Estate in north London. The area’s Brutalist architecture has also been seen in The Sweeney, Spooks, Prime Suspect, New Tricks, 28 Weeks Later (2007) and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Incidentally, the production design of the flat’s interior is slightly odd. Hardened criminal Crowley has rows of pretty postcards on every wall and sofa cushions in the shapes of the mid-90s BBC1 and BBC2 logos.
Broadcast: 20.05-21.00, Saturday 29 March 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Slade is determined to find out if his convicted father (played by The Bill’s Chris Ellison) is innocent, when he too is accused of a robbery he did not commit.”
Notable guest cast: There are three notable guest actors: Christopher Ellison (The Bill) as Jeff’s jailbird father, Jack; Ray Lonnen (The Sandbaggers, Harry’s Game, Rich Tea and Sympathy) as police divisional head Gareth Oldroyd; and Stephen Grief (Blake’s 7) as Lenny Gebler, a fence who’s made a name for himself north of Watford.
Time travel: When it becomes clear that Jeff is being framed for the theft of some diamonds, he and Holly use the time machine. They need to go back more than a day, to before the case began, but Holly says they can’t predict how much time the machine will give them. She suggests they cross their fingers, which works: they go back 24 hours to 1.30pm the previous day.
* After her moonlighting as an undercover agent in episode three, this time lab-rat Holly is seconded as a diamonds expert. “Gemology isn’t really my field,” she says.
* No one dies in this episode. The only other time that happens is episode seven.
* We’re initially told that Gebler’s meeting with some diamond sellers will be at 9pm. Grisham even asks her squad to assemble at 8pm so they can prepare to swoop in. However, the swoop itself takes place in broad daylight, as do various scenes set later the same day. Then, after Jeff and Holly have time-travelled, we’re told the arrest happened at 2.10pm.
* The combination to the safe in Grisham’s office is 36-17-25.
* Five years ago, Jeff’s policeman father was sent to prison for nine years. Jack Slade was in charge of a bank-raid case with Oldroyd, but half of the £200,000 loot went missing. Slade was framed for the theft by Oldroyd. Now, he breaks out of prison to help his son. His conviction quashed – and presumably his escape ignored – he then comes round to Holly’s flat for dinner, where he tells her and Jeff that in prison he found Holly’s father’s book about time-travel. He might read it one day.
* While time-travelling, Jeff sees his earlier self at the police station. There’s thankfully no temporal schism, as Holly warned about in episode one.
* The prison governor’s office has ‘Tempus fugit’ printed on the floor. Taking the mick, that, isn’t it?
Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 5 April 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Holly questions Slade’s increasing dependency on the time machine, while Grisham becomes suspicious of his crime-solving success rate.”
Notable guest cast: The murder victim, former government minister Sir Iain Hawkins, is played by David Neal. He was the president in classic Doctor Who serial The Caves of Androzani.
Time travels: #1 – Holly and Jeff are time-travelling as the episode begins. They’ve popped back to spy on a gang of bank robbers planning a heist. #2 – Later, when Jeff wants to use the machine to solve this week’s murder case, Holly says no. They’ve been using it too much, causing damage to its expensive workings. However, Jeff learns that Holly won’t be at home that evening – so he goes round at 6pm and uses the machine solo. He travels back 10 hours and seven minutes. Therefore, we get a reversal of episode four: now it’s Jeff who’s travelled back without Holly’s knowledge. As in that earlier story, there are then scenes where one of them doesn’t know the other is from the future.
* Grisham wonders why Slade’s been solving cases like never before for the “last few months”, so we’re some way on from the first episode.
* This is the third episode in which we’re told (or shown) that a man was fleeing the crime scene…. only for us to later learn it was a time-travelling Slade.
* One of the murder suspects is Lawrence Kirby, a man who runs a business that converts old telephones boxes into shower cubicles, flowerboxes or general garden ornaments. The firm is called The Big Box Company and its building is surrounded by classic British red phone boxes. There’s also a blue police box… When Slade sees it, it gives him the idea to time-travel. The incidental music even quotes the Doctor Who theme tune.
* While trying to work out how Slade is so successful these days, Morris actually sees both Jeffs at the same time – the original timeline’s and the time-travelling one.
* At the end of the episode, Holly is angry with Jeff and says he can’t use the machine any more.
Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 12 April 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Slade develops a complex plan in order to win the lottery, but reckons without Holly’s elusiveness.”
Notable guest cast: Space 1999’s Zienia Merton has a small role as a receptionist.
Time travel: This is the only episode were Holly never travels in time. Jeff convinces her to let him go alone – his plan is to go into the past and win the Lottery. He journeys at 8.20pm and ends up at 7.26 that morning. Uniquely, time-travel is not being used to solve this episode’s crime. It’s a comedy subplot.
* At the beginning of the episode, Jeff gives Holly some flowers as an apology for using the machine without permission in episode six.
* Holly’s flat is number 67.
* Jeff tells Holly that he’s “solved five cases thanks to you” – another hint that the episodes’ running order was shuffled before transmission.
* Jeff travels in time specifically to play the Lottery, having already leant the result. The winning numbers are 8, 12, 11, 22, 6 and 1. However, after Jeff writes them down and asks Robson to buy him a ticket, Robson reads them upside down. Jeff, therefore, only gets four right (8, 11, 22 and 1); Robson inadvertently replaces 12 and 6 with 21 and 9. Jeff wins just £186.
* Holly has a second Tintin poster on her living room wall. Above the desk is a print of L’Oreille cassee (aka The Broken Ear, 1935-37), the sixth book in the series.
* Filming took place at Brixton Market.
* The scene of Jeff, Morris and Robson tailing a suspect was filmed in and around Sherief’s Snack Bar, a café on the corner of Sandwich Street and Hastings Street in central London. The café is now called Sandwich Street Kitchen.
* Darkness falls well before 7.30pm, so presumably this episode is set in winter.
* Morris tells us that his regular Lottery numbers are 7 (his birthday), 28 (his age), 10 (the number of his flat), 31 (his Scout number), 33 (his girlfriend’s age) and 40 (his lucky number).
Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 19 April 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Slade and Holly are confronted with the possibility that theirs may not be the only time machine in the world.”
Notable guest cast: Angela Pleasence has a small role as a landlady. The main guest star is Christopher Villiers, later a regular in Emmerdale.
Time travels: #1 – Having seen a man run over and killed outside Holly’s flat, Holly and Jeff attempt to travel back to see who was in the car. However, the unpredictable machine only gives them three minutes, which isn’t enough time. #2 – Later in the episode, Jeff uses a time machine built by guest character Stephen Marlowe to travel back two hours (a span he can specify) so he can spy on Marlowe.
* Holly takes Jeff to the cinema to see Les Enfants du Paradis. Released in 1945, and directed by Marcel Carné, it was once voted the best film of all time by French critics. Holly enthusiastically says it’s timeless; Jeff replies that it felt endless (the film is 190 minutes long). The scene was shot outside the Renoir Cinema (now the Curzon Bloomsbury), The Brunswick, Bloomsbury, London.
* The murder victim, Professor Hayward, has a bedroom littered with dozens of clocks.
* The episode has a distinct film-noir feel about it – lots of night shoots, lots of smoke and shadows.