One hundred years ago this week, the company that would become known as the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in London. Transmitting news and entertainment across radio and television, the BBC would go on to have a far-reaching impact on not only the United Kingdom, but also audiences worldwide. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is celebrating one of the BBC’s chief exports to the United States: British TV. From Masterpiece Theatre to Love Island, join us as we look back on some of the iconic shows that have crossed the pond in the past century.
Pity the British television detective. They are recently separated from their romantic partner. Their children despise them. They are haunted by their last case, which went terribly awry. They’ve moved from the big city to a podunk little village in search of a fresh start. They are being bigfooted by Scotland Yard. Their pints are cold! And, oh yes, no matter how charming their cottage and how lovely their local high street, they are about to find themselves besieged by the most sinister criminals ’is Majesty’s Prison Service has ever harbored.
They do at least have one thing on their side: a fantastic coat.
To star in a British detective series is to be swaddled in the pinnacle of outerwear. For these detectives cannot simply crack the case in slacks and sweaters. They must prepare themselves for a foe even fiercer than the murderers, kidnappers, and terrorists about whom the chief constable will be haranguing them for updates. They face … British weather. The rain! The wind! The 3 p.m. sunsets! The endless gray/grey skies! How the gales will blow; how they will shiver.
And so: After thorough study of this most sacred form of British entertainment, we present a definitive taxonomy of British television detective coats.
First, some notes on the contenders (and noncontenders). To qualify, the series must be set primarily in the United Kingdom, and the main character must be a detective whose main objective is to solve a case or cases. (There will be a handful of exceptions for detective series set in Ireland. This, I assure you, is a decision that is not remotely geopolitical in nature; please take up your complaints with the British television networks that produce and air these program[me]s, and/or Tana French.) This tragically eliminates many favorites, including Scandinavian noirs The Bridge and The Killing, plus The Missing and the rest of the Baptiste/Wallander universe, Death in Paradise, Maigret, and Tin Star for their far-flung locales. Farewell, too, to luminaries like Peaky Blinders’ inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill), who, while usually immaculately dressed, is decidedly not the series’ star; Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) of The Essex Serpent, who is not so much a detective as she is just rich; and Killing Eve’s Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), who is more spy than detective.
Naturally, many of our stalwart coppers appear in more than one coat over the course of their drizzly quests for justice; we have done our completely subjective best to present the definitive representation of each. These rulings are final and you may not offer a rebuttal unless in the presence of the mace.
The I Know You Want to Fuck My Coat (I Do Too) Coat
DCI John Luther (Idris Elba), Luther; DI Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan), Collateral; Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), Sherlock; The Reverend Sidney Chambers (James Norton), Grantchester
Honorable mentions: DI Joseph Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones), Whitechapel; DS Jim Bergerac (John Nettles), Bergerac; DCS Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), Foyle’s War
There are coats, and then there are coats. Who is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes without his signature coat? What chance would Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther have had against the terrors of Shoreditch without his own? Would you like to know how much your own version of the former would cost? I’m sorry.
Quoth Luther costume designer James Keast: “Putting Idris into a suit just makes him look like James Bond. I needed to find something that would show Idris’s shape, without making him look like a male model, hence the long coat.” What do you get a man who’s too beautiful for a normal coat? A coat so lovely that Luther dramatically hurling it into the Thames in the Season 3 finale was widely interpreted as a series finale move: There could be no Luther without Luther’s coat. (The reconstructed Paul Smith creation—no longer sold, alas, though that has not stopped a veritable cottage industry of dubious imitators—promptly reappeared when the series returned for a fourth season.)
Elsewhere, the coat itself proves a point: Sherlock Holmes is not a man of the people, and Cumberbatch’s version—having ditched the Inverness cape of yore—displayed little inclination to pretend otherwise. Hence the Dolce & Gabbana shirts, “very expensive” Spencer Hart suits, and the Yves Saint Laurent shoes. But it’s his coat that sealed the character: posh, a little odd, and immaculate.
Collateral may have set a record for most biographical details revealed across just four episodes: DI Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan) is a freshly promoted detective, a former Olympian pole vaulter (!) and teacher, an expectant mother, and also very committed to saying the words “pizzer shop” as she tries to find the killer of a man delivering a pizza to the home of the ex-wife of a shadow minister. In many scenes, she wears four visible layers—the outermost and most important of which is a soft, light gray overcoat. Glaspie will fuck you up; Glaspie will solve the pizzer shop murder; Glaspie will also be very warm.
Finally, the Reverend Sidney Chambers (James Norton) of Grantchester, a.k.a. the first of that series’ crime-solving holy men. You could argue that his garb is not a coat, or indeed an aesthetic choice at all. To which I say: This hot priest absolutely, one hundred million percent had his frock tailored. Was it for himself? Was it for his flock? Does it matter?
The Giant Coat
Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke), C.B. Strike; Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), Slow Horses; DC Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie), Vigil; DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn), Vera
Honorable mentions: DI Geordie Keating (Robson Green), Grantchester; DI Vince Ruiz (Shaun Parkes), The Suspect; DI Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), Ripper Street
If you’ll forgive a washed millennial a Harry Potter reference, reflect for a moment on Hagrid’s coat: its enormous size, its warmth, its seemingly endless pockets stuffed with snacks and wondrous gizmos.
Such magic has found its way onto the backs of a motley crew of TV detectives, from fellow J.K. Rowling creation Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke) in C.B. Strike to Slow Horses’s cranky lead investigator Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), who generally seems furious to have to take his feet off his desk and so is certainly not about to be caught without pockets of supplies if he must suffer the indignity of going outside. Does DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) need her floppy green hat and baggy trench coat to bust bad guys? There’s not much evidence to the contrary. (The hat, for the record, was purchased by Blethyn herself at “a fishing tackle shop in Newcastle.”)
In the case of Vigil, Rose Leslie was eight months pregnant while the series filmed; her character is zero months pregnant, leading to extended textile-based subterfuge. The series’ primary plot is: Will DS Kirsten Longacre solve the case of a murder aboard a nuclear submarine? (Leslie’s character plays second fiddle to DCI Amy Silva [Suranne Jones]—the series’ star, but, alas, posted on said submarine so largely coatless.) The secondary plot is watching larger and larger coats engulf her until she seems as though she might be more coat than human, which is, frankly, the dream.
Murder Is Fashion
Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), Poirot; Agatha Raisin (Ashley Jensen), Agatha Raisin; Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett), Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency; Father Brown (Mark Williams), Father Brown
Honorable mentions: Arthur Conan Doyle (Martin Clunes), Arthur & George; DI Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger), The Capture; DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker), Unforgotten
Would I trust someone dressed in a green velvet suit or bright yellow leather to do anything, let alone find the culprits who have wronged me? Kidnap a Dalmatian puppy, maybe.
But in the land of detective series, there are a few brave souls who dare to be different. You can make the argument that Poirot’s depiction of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective is simply period appropriate, to which I say: There is no time or place in human history when David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot was not camp as hell. “Camp as hell” is more or less the guiding light of Agatha Raisin (Ashley Jensen), in which a PR executive-turned-gumshoe traipses through the Cotswolds. As for leather: Dirk Gently’s (Martin Clunes) transition on the series from yellow to green was described by costume designer Antoinette Messam as a way for the character to “blend in”; you be the judge.
Is Father Brown camp? Friends, you know the answer.
The Actually Prepared for Rain Coat
DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), Broadchurch; DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar), Unforgotten; DI Mared Rhys (Mali Harries), Hinterland; Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira), Giri/Haji
Honorable mentions: DCI Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans), Endeavour; DS Marcella Backland (Anna Friel), Marcella; Rob Reilly (Killian Scott), Dublin Murders; Frank Mackey (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Dublin Murders; DCI Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt), Bloodlands
If you wear a wool coat in the rain, you will be very sad and smell like a wet dog. And so we come to the true pragmatists: Broadchurch’s DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), Unforgotten’s DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar), Hinterland’s DI Mared Rhys (Mali Harries), and Giri/Haji’s Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira).
Broadchurch is set in a fictional town on the coast of Dorset (average days of rainfall per year: 117), while Hinterland moves to Aberystwyth in coastal Wales (average days of rainfall per year: 163). Their cagoule (a windbreaker by any other name would smell as sweet) and parka are just about the only detective weatherproofing choices that don’t make me nervous, while the choice of neon orange (Broadchurch) and red (Hinterland) counterbalances the realism. Who needs more gray when less than 17 percent of all the hours in a year offer sunshine, as is the case in Aberystwyth? (One struggles to think of what might be driving its fictional residents to their criminal depths.)
Unforgotten and Giri/Haji, meanwhile, are anchored in London (average days of rainfall per year: 119). We would be remiss not to fete DI Khan for somehow being the only contender to wear what looks to be a Barbour coat. And while I’m not wholly convinced that Mori’s mac would do the job in a downpour, he certainly knew how to pack when he flew in from Tokyo.
I Would Never Embezzle Funds for My Coat (Tragically)
DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), Midsomer Murders; DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant), Broadchurch; DS Lisa Armstrong (Morven Christie), The Bay; Cassie Maddox (Sarah Greene), Dublin Murders
Honorable mentions: DCI Cadi John (Sian Reese-Williams), Hidden; DCI John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon), Midsomer Murders; DI Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall), Shetland; The Reverend Will Davenport (Tom Brittney), Grantchester
Oh, are you a hardscrabble detective with a limited salary and not enough sleep, more likely to slosh your tea down your shirt than to willingly go shopping for a fresh wardrobe?
To this I say: Get over yourselves.
The problem with these coats is not so much that they’re bad as that they’re normal. On British detective series, normal doesn’t cut it. Would you, the victim of some strange and tragic knife crime, the last defender of the memory of your tragically departed relative, trust these people? Take some risks, DCI Barnaby! Both Broadchurch and The Bay feature extensive staring into the sea as David Tennant and Morven Christie’s detectives contemplate mortality and the like; surely they deserve some finer threads for their trouble. Sarah Greene’s Cassie Maddox looks comfortable—which is not a compliment.