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Bye-gones No. 2: Flat Jack (1988-89)

This week we get our collars felt by burly Lancs detective 'Flat' Jack Simmons of the Cricket Investigations Department - one of television's greatest crime fighters and most frugal off spinners. PDCC raids the vaults for another long forgotten cricketing classic.

During the late 80s ITV were on the crest of a ratings wave. Their various primetime detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Taggart and Touch of Frost had quickly become public favourites - attracting millions of dedicated viewers every episode. It was boom-time for commercial television crime fighting. The BBC could only look on in envy as their own paltry offerings of boring Bobbies on the beat and cheap American imports appeared tame in comparison to their rival's edgy, groundbreaking productions.

picture of English bobby (policeman)
Zzzzzzzzz Cars. BBC police dramas were seen as dull and boring.

The BBC recognised that the tide had turned against them and so began frantically looking for a new King of the Cops to knock ITV of its perch.

At a series of high powered meetings during the latter part of 1987 a working party of writers, directors and producers met at BBC HQ to thrash out ideas for new programmes. After the dust settled, and numerous suggestions had been mooted and rejected, one idea remained: 'Flat Jack'; a character that would combine ingenious sleuthing, gritty realism and northern charm. Or at least that was the idea.

Lancashire had been enjoying some success in the Second XI championship but the club's popular off spinning all rounder 'Flat' Jack Simmons was nearing the end of a long and distinguished career. Always a respected figure around Old Trafford, Simmons had no shortage of post playing options when he received a surprising approach from television producer Chris Hogg.

picture of Jack Simmons as maverick copper Flat Jack
Jack Simmons as maverick copper Flat Jack

Simmons had always secretly harboured ambitions of being an actor. In a TV interview with Michael Parkinson in 1988 he said: "when Sean Connery gave up being James Bond a few of the lads fancied auditioning to be the new 007. Me and Harry Pilling went down to London to do a screen test for the producers. I think they would have offered it to me but when they said I had to meet Cubby Broccoli I thought they said I had to eat Co-op broccoli and I scarpered. I've only ever liked two vegetables - chips and mushy peas - and I wasn't going to start eating rabbit food for no-one."

Flat Jack was a cynical, hard-nosed cop who's style was to eat first and ask questions later. Assisted by his deputy - the diminutive DC Harry Pilling - Flat Jack was head of the North West Constabulary's specialist Cricket Investigation Division (CID) - based in the fictional town of Barmcake - the toughest assignment in the entire force.

Whether it was investigating a tea lady stealing marzipan from the Spar or cracking an international umpire smuggling ring Flat Jack and his trusty sidekick were always first on the scene. And when the case was finally cracked Flat Jack still found time to indulge in his other passions: bowling low trajectory off spin, the films of Arthur Pickwicket and eating fried food out of newspaper.

picture of 'Mad' Jack Russell
In the pilot episode Cod and Bowled Flat Jack hears that 'Mad' Jack Russell is the Mr. Big behind a counterfeit pickled eggs operation.

Yet despite the fanfare and a front page feature in the Radio Times Flat Jack never caught the public imagination in the way the BBC had envisaged. Viewing figures were initially encouraging but by episode three the viewers has largely deserted it. Critics were unkind too. The Sunday Times criticised the show's "repetitive format, wooden acting ... and dreary plots".

The show also acquired something of a reputation for its obvious low budget. Two episodes in the first series shared similar plots and identical actors: Silence of the Lambs and Lambs to the Slaughter both revolved around the kidnapping of Alan Lamb and his unrelated namesake the Rt. Hon. Tim Lamb. It was clear to viewers that the two episodes had been filmed on the same day with fundamentally the same storyline. Flat Jack even has the same mushy pea stains on his tie in both episodes despite the action reportedly taking place months apart.

Non cricket lovers began to desert in droves but remarkably the series was re-commissioned for a second run a year later. On his return Flat Jack had a new assistant - DS 'Tubby' Austin - and a love interest in the form of Fanny Battersby; the ex-wife of Barmcake's premier chip shop proprietor - Billy Scraps. It wasn't enough to save Flat Jack and after an ambiguous finale in the final episode, when he is pushed into a deep fat frier by a masked assailant, the credits rolled for one last time.

Flat Jack series guide

Series one (March - April 1988)

  1. Silence of the Lambs
    Flat Jack is unhappy. He's been working late on a case and now the chip shop is shut. And then he is called in to investigate the mysterious sudden disappearance of ex England batman Alan Lamb and the former Chief Executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board - The Rt. Hon. Tim Lamb. Will Jack find the missing men before tragedy strikes?
  2. Tell it to the Judge
    Flat Jack visits a man on his deathbed who wants to confess to an unsolved murder - but there is a catch - he will only confess to Robin Smith! But what is their mysterious connection and does the former Hampshire skipper really hold the key to closing the case? Flat Jack intends to find out.
  3. Rags to Riches
    Grumpy detective Flat Jack is in an even worse mood than usual. There's no cod left at the chippy; only haddock. Flat Jack meets Derek Randall in the queue and the ex Notts man seems to have a lot of money all of a sudden. Is he really behind a series of audacious bank raids? Flat Jack needs all of his detective skills to solve this one.
  4. Lambs to the Slaughter
    Alan Lamb and Tim Lamb are re-kidnapped and held hostage by a different ruthless gang of murderous crooks. As the clock ticks will Flat Jack be able to save the duo from certain death and still get to his favourite take away before they run out of saveloys?
  5. The French Connection
    A bold bank raid in Nottingham is followed by a massive robbery at the wicket keeping gloves factory. Are the two jobs the work of the same crew and what exactly is Bruce French's role? Flat Jack has to go undercover to infiltrate the gang with life threatening results. When his cover gets blown and he's held captive without access to the one thing he desperately needs - chips.
  6. To Kill a Mocking Bird
    Flat Jack overhears big-headed Harold 'Dickie' Bird mouthing off in a Harry Ramsdens about how he's the best umpire in the world and that everyone else is rubbish. He's ruffled a few feathers and now he's received a death threat written in pigeon blood. Flat Jack is on the trail of a very disgruntled potential killer.

Series two (broadcast August - Sept 1989)

  1. Flight of the Bumble Bee
    Bold cat burglar David Lloyd has pulled off his biggest job yet and is on the run with a million pounds of swag. Flat Jack knows that if Bumble leaves the country then he can evade justice forever. Flat Jack is forced to go abroad to chase his quarry. Will he clip Bumble's wings and how will he cope with the prospect of foreign chips?
  2. Kiss Me Deadly
    Man about town Derek Underwood is breaking a few hearts amongst the local womenfolk: seducing them with his charm, champagne and credit account at Jackson's chippy. But when some of them are found dead shortly after it's clear that there's a serial killer on the loose and it's up to Flat Jack to apprehend him. Is Deadly his man or is there an unknown psycho at large?
  3. Play Jesty for me
    Flat Jack is angry ... very angry. There's a potato shortage and chips are up a shilling a bag. To make his day worse he hears that an obsessive fan is stalking all rounder Trevor Jesty. After taking Jesty captive the fan makes a deadly demand; either Jesty gets picked for England or he dies! Can Flat Jack persuade the selectors or will it be curtains for the ex Hants, Surrey and Lancs man?
  4. Foxy on the Run
    Graeme 'Foxy' Fowler is a wanted man. He has enemies everywhere. Flat Jack needs him alive as he is the star witness in an upcoming murder trial and also Barmcake's premier potato supplier. But Fowler has gone to ground. Will Flat Jack find him before someone else gets their hands on him?
  5. Dial Embers for Murder
    Flat Jack's doctor has bad news: one more fish supper could kill him. And his day doesn't get any better when notorious hitman John Emburey is captured by Scotland Yard and tells them that it's Flat Jack himself who paid him to kill local fish and chip magnate Billy Scraps. Can Flat Jack clear his name or will it be porridge from now on?
  6. Arnold Long's Good Friday
    It's a Bank Holiday and the chip shops are shut all day. Flat Jack's temper isn't helped by the arrival of ex Sussex Keeper Arnold Long who is doing a deal to buy up all of Barmcake's fast food outlets. When a series of massive chip pan fires break out across the town Flat Jack knows that Long's enemies are out in force to stop him.