Ten best cop series of the 1970s

Kojak
  1. McCloud

From 1970 to 1977, this largely forgotten 1970s TV cop series followed Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud who hailed from New Mexico as he tried to learn crime fighting techniques on the mean streets of New York. On horseback. With a stetson. Played by Dennis Weaver who also starred in a creepy early Spielberg movie – Duel – about a man being chased across the American desert by a mysterious, psychopathic and faceless lorry driver.

2. Cannon

This was a CBS series that ran from 1971 to 1976 about an overweight retired cop in Los Angeles who becomes a private detective. He had a penchant for fine wines and dining. Sometimes he would be fat shamed but would evidence in no uncertain terms that his girth was no obstacle to throwing a killer punch. In the series, the fictional Frank Cannon was a Korean war veteran while the actor William Conrad in real life had been a fighter pilot in World War Two.

3. Harry O

David Janssen had been famous in the 1960s for his title role in the TV series The Fugitive – later turned into a 1993 move with Harrison Ford. Harry O was quite a dark, sombre cop series but I really enjoyed it. There was something very compelling about David Janssen on screen. The gravelly voice and heavy smoker’s etched face. But the public didn’t agree with the young me. Barely made it to two seasons before this 1970s TV cop series was cancelled in 1976. The first season was based in San Diego but in season two, the whole thing was inexplicably shifted to Los Angeles with no explanation.

4. Hawaii Five-O

No – not the 2010 remake which I’d rather forget. This was the 1968 to 1980 original, which until 2002 was the longest continuous running cop show on American TV. It was shot entirely in Hawaii and dominated by the charismatic presence of actor Jack Lord as Detective Captain Steve McGarrett. When the criminal had been caught – McGarrett would always turn to the same officer and growl: “Book ’em Danno”.

5. Streets of San Francisco

This was my first exposure to a young Michael Douglas – starring alongside Karl Malden as two murder cops on the hilly streets of San Francisco. This ran from 1972 to 1977 and totalled an eye watering 119 episodes. And yet I’ve never seen it repeated like Kojak and Colombo – which are still broadcast today. I’m going to guess this 1970s TV cop series hasn’t aged well.

6. Serpico

If you’re fans of Al Pacino then you’ll remember the 1973 detective movie by this name. What you may not realise is that three years later, Dino de Laurentis decided to produce a TV series based on the film with classical actor David Birney in the starring role. It limped to the end of a first season in 1976 before being unceremoniously canned. The consensus among critics seemed to be that Pacino had covered all bases and a TV series was entirely unnecessary.

7. COLUMBO

A whodunnit where you know whodunnit from the outset – but the fun is watching Columbo reach your level of insight. The original run on NBC was from 1971 to 1978 and I think all Columbo fans would agree these were the glory years. It was revived in 1989 by ABC and trudged on to 2003 but less enjoyable. What I love is the cheesy 70s decor of the sets and spotting some great character actors chewing the furniture around the detective.

8. Starsky and Hutch

Saturday night in the 1970s saw Starsky and Hutch rule the airwaves – before Match of the Day and Parkinson rounded off the evening. Actors David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser played a brooding mid-western blonde and a Brooklyn short-tempered army vet respectively. David Soul also had a singing career and some hits in the 70s – being something of a teenage pin-up. The opening credits featured Soul as Hutch landing on the top of his Ford Gran Torino car butt first – which always seemed hideously painful.

9. The Rockford Files

Jim Rockford is a Los Angeles private investigator played by James Garner – an actor superbly cast for the role. He’s a hapless fellow always getting into scrapes with an I-told-you-so father played by Noah Beery. Sadly, Garner and Universal studios ended up in litigation over the profits from the series. It ran for six seasons throughout the 70s ending in 1980. And I think it’s still very watchable now as 1970s cop series go.

10. Kojak

To me – Kojak was the king of the 1970s cop series. CBS aired it from 1973 to 1978 and the hard-bitten protagonist was instantly popular on British TV when it aired this side of the pond. Telly Savalas nailed the role sucking his trademark lollipop and observations delivered with maximum sarcasm. Watching it now, Kojak totally captures the danger and depravity of New York in the 70s. It’s a city where dark forces stalk the streets and any crime is possible. Politicians are corrupt and nobody can be really trusted.

Hampton Court Palace and me – from 1970 to 2018

Hampton Court Palace

There are three periods of history I guess obsess the Boomer generation – the Romans, the Tudors and the Nazis. If you don’t believe me – check out most of the history channels and you’ll see I’m right. And when it comes to the Tudors, one monarch looms very large: Henry VIII.

In the 1970s, I was given a tatty old Victorian history book and by the age of ten could recite the six unfortunate wives of Henry VIII. In 1972, the actor Keith Mitchell played the king on his deathbed looking back over his life for a hit BBC series called, rather unimaginatively, Henry VIII and His Six Wives. I’m not sure I was allowed to view it on first transmission aged nine what with the beheadings and torture.

Nevertheless, my history-obsessed parents took me around various stately homes that included secret “priest holes” where Catholic priests would hide away during the Protestant Reformation. Those discovered could face the punishment of all traitors – to be hung, drawn and quartered. So – as a young child with an unhealthy love of ancient gore and villainy – I lapped these stories up.

Tony McMahon at Hampton Court Palace
Me at Hampton Court Palace in 1970

I’ve retained my Tudor obsession into middle age so I was delighted when an ITV programme – The Big Audition – invited me to play Henry VIII. They’d tracked me down through a history blog I run. And I got to dress up in a lovely but very heavy costume and wander around Parsons Green in London terrifying passers-by while Julie Walters commented on my new look.