Now From Something Different: Why Doctor Who Fans Will Love Shoestring

Not many television shows get known by an unofficial title, but usually when anyone references Shoestring they invariably sub-title it, The Private Ear.

The premise of the series was very simple: Eddie Shoestring worked for Bristol’s Radio West where he introduced a show based around his investigations. He was made available to investigate on behalf of Radio West’s listeners and used those stories on-air. 

From 1979 to 1980, there were just two series of Shoestring made – a measly 21 episodes – before Trevor Eve, who played Eddie, decided to leave the show for fear of being typecast. That was a massive shame as there was so much more mileage left and, quite frankly, the viewers were robbed; this was a hugely successful drama in its day. But let’s concentrate on what made this such a good series…

Eddie was a very flawed person. He had previously worked in IT which had driven him to a nervous breakdown which caused him to spend time in a psychiatric hospital. Upon his release, he began his private investigation business but wasn’t doing very well; he didn’t have an office and he was living in a room above his landlady and sometimes romantic interest, Erica Bayliss (Doran Godwin). 

This is the point where the story starts on-screen in the first episode Private Ear; written by series co-creator and producer Robert Banks Stewart (Terror of the Zygons) and directed by Doctor Who stalwart, the great Douglas Camfield.  

“Private Ear”

Erica appears on a Radio West phone-in programme, in her capacity as a barrister. Radio West’s chief, Don Satchley (Michael Medwin), asks Erica about the law in relation to an incident potentially involving one of his senior DJs, David Carn (played by Doctor Who royalty, William Russell) – the incident being that local prostitute had been found dead on a beach next to Carn’s Rolls Royce, after taking an overdose.

It is from the outcome of this investigation that the programme idea of the Private Ear is suggested by the station’s receptionist, Sonia (Liz Crowther; daughter of 1960s entertainer, Leslie Crowther). 

Rough and Tumble 

Shoestring is by no means a run-of-the-mill investigation series; it can get quite action-packed at times and it involved a lot of stunt work: Eddie catching fire; clinging to the windscreen of a speeding car; a few bouts of fisticuffs (one hilariously on a muddy bank near the Seven Bridge); a few pastings; and several chases. It was almost as if it were trying to compete with ITV’s contemporary rival, The Professionals

The Plots Thicken 

The stories were often led by some low-level criminality or mystery that led to bigger things: the alleged disappearance of a local entrepreneur’s girlfriend (Find the Lady, featuring Christopher Biggins, Toyah Wilcox, and a walk on by Linda Bellingham); a father who has absconded with his daughter (Nine Tenths of the Law, featuring Steptoe and Son’s Harry H Corbett); and a disappearing date (Looking for Mr Wright, featuring Diana Dorrs). 

The very last episode (The Dangerous Game, featuring Four to Doomsday‘s Burt Kwouk and written by Image of the Fendahl scribe, Chris Boucher) doesn’t involve any dodgy dealings at all. Set at Christmas, Eddie must track down five boxes of a racing-car game – Lunar Race 2000 – that contain a lethal electrical fault and have been sold as Christmas presents.

The episode that really drew me in was during series two called The Mayfly Dance (I caught up with all the repeats the following year). A pop-record from 1960 is a surprise hit again and Eddie is tasked with finding the lead singer. Initially very innocent, but things get darker and darker… 

A couple of further mentions are called for… 

The Teddybear’s Nightmare – a blackmail tale – is directed by Martin Campbell who went on to direct two James Bond debuts: Pierce Brosnan’s Goldeneye and Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale. It should come as no surprise that there are a couple of decent action sequences in this episode. 

Bob (K9) Baker was the script editor of the series and also wrote the second episode, Knock for Knock. Eddie tries to track down antique scammers who also killed a restaurant owner in a hit and run. 

The hardest thing to do is name a favourite episode. Quite simply, I can’t. There are some weaker plots, but Trevor Eve’s performance just carries the whole thing because…  

Eddie Shoestring 

… for me, it is the character of Eddie that is the main draw of the series. He was usually found dressed in a shabby safari-suit, white socks, low-knotted tie, mustachioed, sporting an early-Beatles style mop of hair, and driving a battered red Ford Cortina Estate.  

Then there were his idiosyncrasies: he would draw caricatures of people while talking to them and then present the drawing to the subject. It wasn’t always well received. The example below is of Willis, played by Elizabeth Sladen’s husband Brian Miller, who tries and fails to convince Eddie to stop his investigation into David Carn, in Private Ear.

His sartorial style could extend to a pyjama-jacket because “it’s quite interesting as a shirt!” 

He was always offering people chewing-gum. When they declined, he would always ask, “do you mind if I do?” It’s not really a big deal, but it’s a line that I rather liked. 

Plus, Eddie had a run-down permanently-moored boat where he would retreat to in times of extreme stress, as used in his recovery from his nervous breakdown, and draw on the walls. 

Although he could handle himself, Eddie was by no means the fearless hero in the mould of the ITC leading men; in one particular episode, Listen to Me, Eddie arranges a meeting with a local face in organised crime, to ask a few questions. Although he gets a bit cheeky, initially Eddie is clearly very scared. In this episode, the wife of a convicted murderer perches herself on the roof of the Radio West building, threatening the jump, to highlight her husband’s innocence. Eddie takes on the case. 

He was also a little mentally fragile, due to his previous breakdown; a fragility that could surface if pushed – as seen in the episode, Mocking Bird. But he also had a temper and could be quite intimidating when required: “That’s for ruining my Chinese!” 

BBC Repeats 

Mocking Bird is the episode that is usually trotted out for a representative repeat: in 1992 for a series called Cops on the Box (even though Eddie wasn’t a cop) and 2009 for a BBC Four series called The Cult of Sunday Night; one edition of which Shoestring was featured. In the episode, Eddie is stalked and this is a huge test to his mental fragility. 

There was also a repeat showing of most of the episodes in a daytime slot in 2002. Being a daytime transmission, they were heavily edited. In some cases, the plots were missing vital segments and some of the stunt work (e.g. fight scenes), dialogue, and visuals were quite badly compromised. The less said about this run, the better.

Presentation  

Thankfully, the BBC decided that this was to be a filmed series, and not videotaped. I suspect that this was because Shoestring featured a lot of location work but, on a personal note, I’ve always found film better than video as film immediately raises the standard; videotape showed up the sets for what they were. Radio West’s reception is a case in point: it was a simplistic set, but film hides that.

The starting titles are of note where Sid Sutton (another Doctor Who link) created a mix of live action interlaced with radio waves. The end titles were a bit of an oddity due to how long they ran: the credits were played over stills from the episode and the viewer got the full version of the theme tune. 

Ah yes, the theme tune. George Fenton’s theme was harmonica based and instantly recognisable. The opening theme starts with a Radio West jingle sting, but the end theme changes this to a slightly harder hitting version; both then relax into the harmonica-led tune that everyone knows. Ear-worm at its very best.

Fenton also wrote the incidental music, but this was substituted for the episode Find the Lady. This episode featured Toyah Wilcox playing a singer called Toola and much of the incidental music was harvested from Toyah’s first album Sheep Farming in Barnet. Also, the end titles are played over ‘Toola’ performing the song Danced from the same album.

All the scenes where Toyah Wilcox performs songs appear to have been specially re-recorded as they differ to the album versions, but incidental music is a direct lift from tracks on the album. 

Even though Shoestring had a very short run, the production template was used again. When it was clear Trevor Eve had hung-up his headphones, the same team made Bergerac as a direct replacement. Bergerac lasted 10 years. Couldn’t we have just had one more series, Trevor? 

Merchandise 

The amount of merchandising, not surprisingly for an adult television drama of its day, was pretty much limited to a release of the theme tune single and two tie-in novels. Anything more than that encountered a huge stumbling-block which we’ll come back to.

Singles 

George Fenton’s theme tune was released twice: firstly, during the 1979 series and again in 1980 during the second series; the 1980 release displayed a different cover. The second sleeve matched the cover of the novel,Shoestring’s Finest Hour, which was released around the same time.  

I had a copy of the second version in 1980 and played it to death. I managed to get a copy of the original release a few years ago… The completist in me just won’t leave off!

TV Tie-in Novels 

There were two novels, both written by Paul Ableman: Shoestring (1979), a novelization of two episodes from series one (Private Ear and Stamp Duty), and Shoestring’s Finest Hour (1980) an original novel. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read these, but I do recall that Ableman didn’t do his homework in that on television Eddie was a strict non-smoker, but Ableman had Eddie smoking.

VHS 

Two episodes were released on one VHS tape by BBC Video in 1984: Private Ear (the pilot episode) and Find the Lady (the ninth). Released in one of those gigantic white plastic boxes – the kind you used to get in video rental shops – these two Shoestring episodes became the singularly most watched video tape that I had. 

This was the second video tape that I bought; Revenge of the Cybermen being the first. One episode, Private Ear, had a slight edit for… well, that’s the thing we’re coming back to. 

Catastrophically, my tape got caught in the mechanism of my VCR but, to my relief, the damage to the tape was during the end credits to Private Ear. The tape lived to be viewed another day.

No more episodes were released by the BBC on VHS, but WHSmith re-packaged the original BBC release in 1991 (and getting the logo’s font wrong, despite using the correct font for the rest of the cover).

DVD 

Fans of Shoestring had been wishing for a full series box set for years – myself included – but there was that huge stumbling block I mentioned: the music. As Shoestring was based around a radio station, there was a lot of contemporary popular music being used on the soundtrack. An awful lot. To have to clear each track featured seemed to be prohibitive.

Take the original VHS, for example: the edit I mentioned was because the Beeb couldn’t get the rights to include Blondie’s Heart of Glass.  

However, fans of the series were eventually rewarded with a BBC (2 Entertain) DVD release in 2011 of Series 1 only. The clip featuring Heart of Glass was re-instated, but this time the rights to Lena Lovich’s Lucky Numbers fell foul of the clearances. Thankfully, the Lucky Numbers scene stayed and Heart of Glass was inserted into the soundtrack as a replacement. 

If Shoestring were to be made today, the music would have been one of its selling points; rather like the CD compilation of 1970’s music from Life on Mars.  

The glee over the release of Series 1 soon turned to disappointment as it soon became apparent that there were no plans by 2 Entertain to release Series 2.

Most were resigned to the fact that Series 2 would probably never see the light of day on DVD, but in 2017 Network-on-line released a full series boxset, complete with series booklet by Andrew Pixley. Utterly glorious!

Then it occurred to me that as Shoestring was made on 16mm film, it’s quite feasible that a high-definition version could be released, but let’s not push our luck. 

A Small Plea  

The three programmes that have appealed to me the most have been Doctor WhoCaptain Scarlet, and Shoestring

Big Finish has done two of those; how wonderful would it be for Big Finish to score that hat trick! Trevor Eve has said that he would, one day, like to re-visit Eddie and I understand that Eve has bought the rights to the programme.

I still live in hope that one day we might see, or hear, Eddie again.