It’s the 1970s in Norfolk, England. I’m sitting on the floor of the dank television common room at boarding school, self-consciously wedged in with a fidgeting mass of fellow boarders. My chunky National Health plastic-framed specs are glinting in the dark, refracting the onscreen car and gun chases, and hiding my gleaming eyes. It’s the latest episode of British action-crime series The Professionals (1977–83); the boys like the action, we girls like Doyle and his dreamy, up-to-the-minute bubble perm and brown leather blouson bomber jacket.
Fast-forward to any weeknight in the mid 1990s in Melbourne, the witching hour, and I’m engaged in my favourite pastime. Splayed on the couch after a hard night’s theatre reviewing, joint in hand, glued to a re-run of The Professionals, giggling at the cheesy sexist banter, and pondering, in some kind of arousal-induced coma, if I had to choose between them, whether I’d prefer to fuck Bodie (Lewis Collins) or Doyle (Martin Shaw).
Fifteen years later, in Melbourne in 2011, I have my third encounter with The Professionals after coming across a DVD boxed set. It’s 10 bucks second-hand, and it feels like bumping into an old flame in a new city: I’m giddy, tingling all over, and momentarily very alive. Two days later, after an orgy of diplomatic incidents, car porn, the casual discharge of firearms and ogling Lewis Collins, I feel peculiar. And wholly mortal.
Third viewing round, and I’m ricocheting between periods of my life like the deadpan zingers Bodie and Doyle exchange after they’ve shot someone, or picked up some bird, and I’m lost in a reverie worthy of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust was famously transported into the past by dunking a biscuit into a cup of tea, which always sounded to me a particularly lame trigger for seven volumes and 1.5 million words of internationally acclaimed reminiscence – but then here I am being jolted senseless by a few episodes of a dated British crime action TV drama…
The Professionals, a high-end action series, does not scream existential introspection no matter which way you slice it. Logan’s Run it is not. It’s basically the gritty English answer to Starsky & Hutch, with barnstorming theme music and what passed for ultra-violence back in the day. Bodie (ex-marine/mercenary) and Doyle (ex-cop) formed an elite team who reported only to Cowley, head of a fictional special branch called CI5, and spent their time careening around England in a silver Ford Capri, wearing the apogee of 1970s fashion, foiling assassination attempts on Greek royalty and Arab princes, kicking down doors, and casually picking up single-episode dolly birds.
The dissonance, the mortality, kicks in for me on several levels. For one, when The Professionals came out – when I was a stooping, shy and clueless schoolgirl (men with bubble perms? What was I thinking?) – that show was as ‘now’ as 30 Rock or The Wire is today. The clothes, the music, the hip-hugging double denim, the bald spots and combovers, and the shoe-box sized intercoms and fridge-sized ‘computers’ were all as familiar as the Bay City Rollers and Donny Osmond. I had a page-boy haircut, my best friend had a feathered/fluffy/flicked Farrah Fawcett-Majors thing, and every female from eight to 80 was wearing bug-ugly A-line skirts and camel-toe jeans. This was Bodie and Doyle’s world, and I was just growing up in it.
J.P. Hartley wrote ‘The past is a foreign country’, and there’s nothing like watching it replayed in a flurry of flares to feel this truth. Past generations, as previously noted, rely on the glimpse of a halfremembered face, a waft of perfume, or afternoon tea to transport them to their youth; we just have to press play. When I re-watched the show in the 1990s, it was an exercise in irony and ‘OhMyGodery’, pointing and ridiculing the slacks and moustaches, the beige dial-up phones, and the ‘stealth’ camera (the size of a torpedo) poking out of a woman’s handbag.
But when I watch The Professionals today, part of me aches. I mourn. That world is so familiar and yet so primitive and abandoned – from today’s perspective, the sexual politics, interior decorating and technology are as primeval as having gills. I feel deep in my bones how much time has passed, how society has moved on, how – let’s face it – old I suddenly am. It’s an archaeological dig, and every scene showcasing a piece of dead tech, floral wallpaper, or a man with a middle parting is another reminder that ‘reality’ is as ephemeral as flowers from the supermarket.
The future shock I get from The Professionals is compounded by the poor script. Not only is each hour-long episode discrete, but over the seven years the show screened, the closest you got to character development was when Bodie shifted from smart suits to snug, tailored butter-soft suede jackets, Cowley lost his limp, and Doyle’s bubble perm grew two inches.
There are no relationships outside of the Cowley/Doyle/Bodie triangle. There are no consequences to their actions beyond the confines of the hour episode. There is, simply, no continuity whatsoever. If you squint really hard, you can see glimmers of The Professionals in shows like The Wire: in the brutality, and in the illumination of the corruption, self-interest and weakness of politicians and the higher-up brass, but the ancestry is so far removed that in terms of evolution, you’re comparing apes to Jimmy McNulty. On some level I am confused and embarrassed that, not so long ago, The Professionals was fresh, controversial and groundbreaking.
But it returns, as it always does with me and The Professionals, to the ludicrous sexual allure of Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw. I am not alone in this. I did a recent Facebook poll on ‘Who would you root, Bodie or Doyle?’, and the replies included ‘Both. So both’, ‘Bodie, then Doyle, then both of them’, and ‘Both, while Cowley watches’. Their utter hotness is the one thing about the show that hasn’t dated, and whatever else The Professionals lacked, it made up for it in plucking Collins and Shaw at the peak of their desirability and having them wear bondage-tight leather shoulder gun-holsters.
I’ve literally tracked my development as a woman by my responses to Bodie and Doyle. As a girl, I liked Doyle, the ‘sensitive’ one. He was pretty. He had wide, big-cat, sleepy eyes, jutting Slavic cheekbones, and a mouth that looked slightly bruised, as though he’d just crawled out of bed. Not that I knew that when I was 15. Doyle had a manly whack of chest hair, which we often saw when the narrative frequently required him to strip to the waist. Given that I was then at the handholding and squealing point of the sexual spectrum, that was more than enough. I barely noticed Bodie existed.
In the 1990s, Doyle faded away like a message on thermal fax paper, and I spent many hours drinking in Lewis Collins, and wondering how I could have got it so wrong. Bodie’s attributes, invisible when I was a girl, suddenly burst into high-definition, like a Magic Eye. Bodie was the ‘hard’ one. Dangerous, lean, well fit, cropped hair, raised rakish eyebrow, blue eyes, full lips, a cold heart, and an endless supply of Michael Caine-style skin-tight roll-neck sweaters. Working-class and showcased against the backdrop of weak-chinned, ineffectual and privileged world of international diplomacy, Bodie glowed white-hot as an archetypal piece of supernova-grade rough trade. I would have crawled naked over broken glass to get to him.
Fifteen years on and they’re both still stunning, but my lust is bittersweet rather than the classic variety. This is partly because I no longer find someone being an ex-mercenary/bounty hunter with emotional issues a turn-on, no matter how cheeky his grin. It’s also because, in the throes of warm-knickered nostalgia, I was inspired to Google. This was the point where mortality wound back and bitch-slapped me. Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins are old men: how in hell did that happen?
And when I say old, I mean old. Pensioners. They’re both 65. Grizzled, loose-necked and thick in the face. Martin Shaw is rocking the older statesman look, but still, no question, two generations down the track. The last time I had a shock of that severity I was 12 years old, got disoriented at a distant relative’s house in the middle of the night, fell down the stairs and broke my nose. A monumental ‘What the…?’ moment. Bodie and Doyle have always just been there for me – prime, smokin’ real estate – and it never occurred to me that beyond the episodic limits of CI5, Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw were offscreen somewhere getting grey and barrel-waisted, about as likely to run 100 feet in 10 seconds and vault a wall as I am to invent the next Facebook.
The ennui I feel is partly for myself – there’s no avoiding the concomitant realisation that my youth bus has left the station – but also for Collins and Shaw. Particularly Collins. Martin Shaw is a fine, prolific actor and still working; for him The Professionals was only one gig of many. But Lewis Collins, bless his armament-loving heart, has withered on the vine since he was the most shaggable tough guy in the free world. Listing shooting, Ju-Jitsu and parachuting amongst his hobbies, he was perfectly cast as Bodie, but he’s no Sir John Gielgud, if you get my drift.
Life moves on for all of us, but it’s tough to have peaked at 30. There are scant photos around of Lewis that aren’t from his Professionals days; it’s like he ceased to exist. There are days I feel like that myself. If I keep on schedule, the next time I watch The Professionals I’ll be as old as Collins and Shaw are now, and they’ll probably be dead. I wonder which one I’ll want to fuck then?