TV on DVD: Pie in the Sky -- Series 1 (1994)

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Although I'm the first to admit to a definite addiction to the Acorn Media sets and BBC/HBO/Warner Brothers releases that have turned me into a budding Anglophile-- honestly the idea of British cuisine or fine English dining has never sounded like an appetizing venture.

Yet move over Chef Gordon Ramsay! Long before Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and F-Word experiences began another UK culinary wizard was ruling the kitchens of the airwaves. He arrived in the form of Harry Potter and Tony award-winning History Boys star Richard Griffiths as the copper turned restaurateur Henry Crabbe on BBC1's delightful series Pie in the Sky.

Although it's pretty safe to say the title of his famously addictive steak and kidney pie isn't something that instantly causes American mouths to water, his homey and intimate restaurant Pie in the Sky and the eponymous series kept fans delighted for forty successful episodes running five seasons or “series” as they say in the UK from 1994-1997.

Now luckily for us Yanks, it's releasing stateside with the attractively packaged space saving slim design of the first series as a compact three disc set complete with all ten episodes. Preserved in the original 4:3 (or square television shaped) aspect ratio, thankfully those of us who are sometimes accent-challenged will be delighted to learn that Acorn has provided us once again with the added bonus of both Dolby Digital Surround and English subtitles for the deaf and or hard of hearing.

And, sure enough-- just like a delectable treat-- it only takes a few minutes once the first episode “The Best of Both Worlds” begins to realize just how different Pie in the Sky is from traditional UK police dramas. Quirky, offbeat, and character driven-- the show is sure to appeal to the same audience who had an appetite for fellow, recent Acorn TV on DVD releases such as the complete collection of The Last Detective and The Beiderbecke Affair.

Striking a nice balance-- it's funnier and less complicated than the beloved Midsomer Murders and one wherein we get an instant sense of the main character's personality more than we did throughout an entire season of Taggart. Yet, all the while the writers ensure we're drawn in by the pleasant charm of all of the characters involved rather than analyzing any gruesome psyches in the otherwise brilliant but dark Cracker and Ruth Rendell Mysteries.

In its premiere episode, Pie in the Sky utilizes a classic cop show cliché set-up to surprising effect. And in going with one of the oldest police cliches in the book, it makes a bold statement that the series isn't going where we think it's going when it takes the premise of a near-retirement copper and moves it into an entirely different direction as we meet our hero, Chief Inspector Detective Henry Crabbe only a little more than a month away from retirement.

Eager to put the twenty-five hard years of life on the police force behind him and move onto his second act as a restaurateur and chef-- much to the chagrin of his accountant and all-things-culinary-related disinterested wife Margaret (Maggie Steed)--he's shot in the line-of-duty by a fellow foodie and upper-class treasury bonds smuggler named Hooperman and played by Foyle's War star Michael Kitchen after he refuses to take a bribe.

While to Henry-- who's wounded in the leg-- this is exactly the right impetus to get out of the hospital and go to work on his dream career. But quickly we learn that the force has other plans for the affable food snob. This occurs after he's unexpectedly duped into innocently accepting an envelope from Hooperman and his manipulative and politically game-playing boss ACC Freddy Fisher (Casino Royale's Malcolm Sinclair) decides to blackmail the innocent Henry with the possibility of losing his pension during an image-ruining inquiry unless he willingly decides to stay on as a detective at Fisher's beck-and-call.

Still able to run the restaurant he then places in his wife's name-- while Fisher assumes that now Crabbe has "The Best of Both Worlds," as the episodes continue-- we watch him strive to solve cases and clean up bureaucratic messes all the while going about the business of starting Pie in the Sky. Thus, he continually juggles crime scenes with wine-lists as Henry wears two hats throughout-- hiring a new staff including some old ex-cons he'd locked up and adding on a hen house and naming the most troublesome chicken after Fisher.

Similar to The Last Detective and indeed Cracker-- as an outsider, Crabbe is often professionally paired with a female partner. This time it's in the form of the brainy, loyal, and supportive Cambridge (Bella Enahoro) and just like the aforementioned shows, the character of the wife takes awhile to develop into one with whom we can empathize and identify. Yet, eventually they make this up to the wonderful actress Maggie Steed as she does more than the wives of the other series to brilliant effect in one of season one's standout episodes "A Matter of Taste."

Changing roles at least temporarily as Margaret fills in for a friend victimized during a wine merchant warehouse robbery, she and her old school chum use their wits and the ridiculous value placed on the vintage wines to out-maneuver the villains with deliciously comedic results. And finally Steed is able to drop the frown that perpetually was written in as the disapproving accountant to become instead a fun-loving, risk-taking wife that only gets stronger as the season draws to a close.

Series creator Andrew Payne and his writing team deftly blend the gentle humor and eccentric characters that populate the restaurant with clever mysteries loaded with red herrings including one that does a complete 360 as Fisher and Crabbe are forced to partner together just as close as they'd been on the force in the old days to investigate a decades old crime.

Also containing bonus notes, a biography of Richard Griffiths, interview with Steed, that famous recipe and more-- it's a spirited and fun set from Acorn that is sure to gain in popularity a la Last Detective as more installments are released in the future. However, while I'm not one for betting-- I'm going to just go ahead and predict that it will Crabbe himself and not the kidney pie that keeps us enchanted on our side of the pond.