A brief history of Canadian Mounties on TV

Long before Due South, another officer harnessed his horse to spread law and order overseas

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NO matter what scandals have befallen our oft-beleaguered national police force, no one can argue the horsemen (and women) do not provide full value as a red-serge standard-bearer of Canada’s identity, for better or worse, on both the small and silver screens.

From the Dudley Do-Rights of fevered 1940s Hollywood cliche to the surreal sergeants of Monty Python, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have taken viewers on a musical (and largely mythical) ride of policing as psychological portrait of a nation.

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To us they’re just the cops – there’s no stirring romanticism in getting a speeding ticket from one, stetson or no stetson. In terms of soft power, however, it’s a ticket to recognition that no amount of tourist-board moulding can match.

When it comes to television Mounties generating Canuck goodwill, few can rival the much-loved Constable Benton Fraser. Charmingly portrayed by Calgary-born Paul Gross, the fish-out-of-water copper was paired with a streetwise Chicago detective in the crime comedy-drama Due South from 1994-1999.

Fully indulging in cross-border stereotypes, it nevertheless had a resfreshing lack of cynicism that earned it plaudits in more than 160 countries – despite being dropped by CBS after its first season. It was rescued later in part by the BBC, going on to earn great acclaim and viewership in the U.K. where it is still remembered fondly.

But long before Const. Fraser and his deaf-wolf partner Diefenbaker politely pummelled the perps of Illinois, another upright Mountie was packing his Sam Browne belt to fight crime abroad.

Put your hands up for Detective Inspector Mike Maguire. Rougher edged and gruffer than Benton, the fictional investigator appeared in all 39 episodes of Dial 999, a British-American co-production that ran for two years beginning in 1958 and is considered one of the first police procedurals on television. Sadly, it never succeeded in cracking the North American market.

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Starring Hamilton-born actor Robert Beatty, the half-hour episodes tackled everything from pickpockets to serial killers to train robbers – even foreshadowing Britain’s Great Train Robbery of 1963 by five years – over a single season.

The title refers to Britain’s version of the 911 emergency hotline. Each episode was set up with narration by Beatty: “Dial 9-9-9. When in London, that’s what you do to call the police. I know – I’m a policeman from Canada attached to Scotland Yard. My name’s Mike Maguire.”

Produced by Harry Alan Towers, the show was well-funded for its time and was noted for its heavy use of city and rural location shooting. It also had the co-operation of London’s Metropolitan Police, adding realism to the investigative techniques used by Beatty and his revolving cast of assistants. It also did much to educate the public about 999 – one of the Scotland Yard advisers on the show, ex-superintendent Tom Fallon, invented the system in 1937.

Unlike Benton, a Dudley Do-Right counterfoil to wise-cracking Det. Ray Vecchio in Due South, Inspector Maguire was a colonial hard case not afraid to get hands-on when duty called. In one episode, Mike gets frustrated with the British reluctance to fight guns with guns. But it underlined a wider point – the British police remain routinely unarmed to this day.

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In another departure, Maguire was strictly a plainclothesman; if his wardrobe included the ceremonial red serge, stetson and shiny boots, viewers never saw them. Mike was either suited for grilling suspects or slumming in disguise for undercover work.

Dial 999 was certainly no comedy, but it was not short of light moments – generally at the expense of Canadian cliches. One episode features a fatigued Maguire after a long period of surveillance. “What’s the problem?” asks his fellow detective. “I thought you fellows from Canada could sleep standing up – like your horses.”

A certain earnestness marked both Due South and Dial 999, the latter never missing the opportunity to remind viewers of their civic duty to help the police. As Maguire says at one point: “Without public goodwill, any police force is licked.”

Beatty, who died in 1992 at the age of 82, spent most of his career in Britain, famously providing vivid descriptions of the London Blitz for the BBC Overseas News Service, but feared being typecast as the by-the-book mounted policeman.

He told an interviewer in 1959: “It will take me a long time to live down Mike Maguire. The part hits me in the eye whenever I show my face. I’m just waiting for a London bobby to tip his helmet instead of booking me for a parking offence.”

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That said, the actor admitted in a 1988 interview that Dial 999 was quality television given how quickly the action-filled episodes were made. “Certainly, I saw bits of London I’d never seen before, down around the docks and all that kind of stuff,” he added. “It was fun.”

It’s been 30 years since Due South premiered on television, making history as the first Canadian series to air during American primetime – even more remarkable considering its unapologetic Canuck shtick.

Asked once about the key to its success, Gross said the program had a “very big heart.” In a separate interview with a BBC fan site, the Passchendaele star said, tongue firmly in cheek: “My hope is that most foreign nations will view this as an accurate portrayal of the Canadian character – that we are polite, honest, deferential, patient, et cetera. This should help us disguise the darker Canadian purpose: global domination.”

Being saddled with buck-toothed beavers, road-hazard moose and peace-order-and-good-goverment police officers as national symbols may be somewhat cringe-worthy for travelling Canadians, but what’s wrong with being known for doing the right thing? For that we owe pioneering television such as Due South and Dial 999 considerable gratitude.

As the venerable Const. Benson himself would say, no doubt with a disarming smile: “Thank you kindly.”

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