Delightful Dick Van Dyke makes Diagnosis Murder must-watch crime series

Medical dramas give me the screaming abdabs –Doctors, Call the Midwife, Holby City – I only have to hear the theme tune to Casualty and I am reaching for the smelling salts with one hand and the remote with the other.

You can also keep reality shows about 24 hours in A&E or following ambulances – the indignity, real-life pain, blood and guts turn my stomach.

One exception – Diagnosis Murder. If it was a book, the series would come under the heading of ‘cosy crime’ – that is victims are murdered in the cleanest of ways. There are no close-up autopsies or talk of decomp.

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The hero of the 178 episodes is a hospital doctor, fatherly, gentle Mark Sloane – played by the delightful Dick Van Dyke. Although he is Chief of Internal Medicine at Community General Hospital in California, he rarely takes his stethoscope from round his neck.

He is also medical consultant for the Los Angeles Police Department, where his son Steve is a detective.

His specialty is chasing and catching criminals and he spends more time in the Californian sunshine and on its beaches and promenades than he does on a ward.

The setting is one of the show’s stars – Sloane lives in a beachside home and eats at the best outdoor restaurants in town. There is always a backdrop of soft jazz and waves lapping the sand.

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Detective Lieutenant Steve Sloane is played by Van Dyck’s son Barry. Woke alert – I am about to say something sexist. Barry is a handsome hunk.

Their relationship, like the pace of the show, is easy and comfortable.

Add in Charlie Schlatter as Dr Jessie Travis and Victoria Rowell, resident pathologist Dr Amanda Bentley, and you have a charming cast with perfect dynamics.

Comedy value comes from Jessie’s inept attempts at crime solving and the characters Norman Briggs, the nervy business administration at Community General Hospital, played by Michael Tucci, and Delores Mitchell, played by Delores Hall, Sloan's lively secretary.

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The list of guest stars read like a who’s who of television – including Robert Culp, Barbara Bain, Patrick Macnee and Robert Vaughan.

The show belongs to Dick Van Dyck – written around his strengths just as Murder She Wrote revolved around Angela Lansbury. At first, Sloane roller-skated, played clarinet – the theme tune’s main instrument – and tap danced.

Those fripperies were later diminished to allow focus on plot and character. It may have a lightweight feel but Diagnosis Murder is well-plotted and its characterisations have depth and dimension.

The lead role helped the reparation of the song and dance man’s reputation – tarnished by tales of alcoholism and aloofness on the set of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I love him in that, still, and, despite the Cockney accent, he was wonderful in Mary Poppins.

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Diagnosis Murder gives him a chance to show off his acting chops – in one episode he has a twin and that allows him to play good and evil over a two-hour plot.

The show has it all – wonderful characters, great plots, action, drama, comedy – and very little medicine. As Mary Poppins would say: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Diagnosis Murder is on Great TV every day.

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