The Guardian, 19 March 2012

Detectives Blog

On a sunny day my thoughts turn, inevitably, to Hawaii. And when I think of Hawaii, I think of only one man, and that man would be Thomas Magnum. Tom Selleck may not be the greatest actor in the world, but he doesn’t need to be, because much of the point of Magnum is that he is a major hottie. This is something Tom Selleck carries off audaciously, as he is one of only five men in history to look better with a moustache (alongside Burt Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, Jean Dujardin and Clark Gable).

Selleck was the first choice to play Indiana Jones, so it’s no wonder that Magnum is a bit of an action hero. He’s invariably seen wearing short shorts, or slightly longer shorts, if the occasion is formal. Magnum is an ex-Navy Seal, putting him on a par with Casey Ryback in Under Siege (although his cooking skills draw less comment). He still loves the sea, and is routinely to be found paddling a surf ski. He’s not much good, though: he was once beaten in a surf ski race by a twelve-year-old girl.

Magnum may look like it’s all about the ladies, but actually, it is a fiercely bromantic show, right from the get-go. Even the pilot has him tracking down the killer of a friend from Vietnam. Magnum is a profoundly loyal friend to Higgins, TC, Rick and Mac, and that loyalty isn’t confined by the law: he barely hesitates to kill Ivan, the man who shockingly murders Mac at the start of series 3 (Did You See the Sunrise?, 3.1 & 3.2). It’s a timely reminder, in a show which is often goofy, that Magnum was a military man before he became a PI.

The show is often a hymn to forgotten war veterans: it doesn’t glamorise the Vietnam war, but it repeatedly reminded an 80s audience that psychologically and physically wounded soldiers were no less important because they’d fought in an unpopular conflict. Even Higgins (the archetypal Englishman with a stick up his ass, played with unerring skill by a Texan, John Hillerman) is a veteran of Burma. Different war, but the same issues arise: loyalty to missing or damaged comrades is never far from the surface (Holmes is Where the Heart Is, 4.18). And if that comrade is played by Patrick Macnee, so much the better.

Magnum was also a trailblazer in the way it used music to sustain long periods of action. In Death and Taxes (7.6), we watch a scene with no dialogue at all, as Magnum searches the hotel room of a serial killer to the sound of the entire, uninterrupted Genesis song, Mama. Ok, it’s Genesis, but that kind of thing simply happened in the 80s. Time makes ancient good uncouth, you know.

Finally, Magnum stands head and shoulders above other, shorter detective shows because of the outstanding guest bookings. Tyne Daly, Sharon Stone, Ted Danson, Robert Forster, and even Ernest Borgnine make appearances, among many others. The stand-out episode, Laura (7.18) is also Frank Sinatra’s final acting credit. And, of course, the voice of Robin Masters, best-selling author and ever-absent owner of a conveniently telegenic house, was provided by Orson Welles.

Iconic: the red Ferrari, the deathless ‘tache? Magnum ticks the icon box, for sure.

Duffers? It is never ok to do up trousers after leaving a car, even if you are wearing swimming trunks underneath them. It has a sex-pest vibe.