New Tricks: Sandra Pullman

“You shoot one bloody dog in this country!” –Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman.

I love this woman.

One day, Pullman is a fast-tracked British career detective whose team gets a Doberman sicced on them during a raid. She does the only sensible thing – shoot the dog – but that’s not good P.R. for the police department, which seems more focused on getting the public to like them again than, you know, crimes. So the next day, Sandra Pullman finds herself in charge of a cold case squad (UCOS*) and three semi-sane retired detectives. It’s supposed to sideline her, but instead she and her team clear case after case – to the point of making some people uncomfortable.

51Wd9K0lYkL._SL500_AA240_That’s the premise of New Tricks. It’s a crime procedural that could be depressing if it didn’t have so much comedy built in to keep things light. It’s a standout show by any measure, and especially by how it presents women. In this article, I’ll be talking specifically about Sandra Pullman (other articles will follow).

It’s not easy dealing with old school retired cops who think they can take shortcuts because they’re not in the chain of command (imagine Jack O’Neill wrangling three Daniel Jacksons). Sandra has nothing to hold over them, really, so she has to do what great leaders do: expect people to do what she says, and then assert herself with just the right amount of force when they don’t. She doesn’t wheedle, beg, or threaten with ultimatums; nor does she get emotional about it. She simply uses voice tones and attitudes that make it clear she’s serious and prepared to back up her words somehow – find out at your own peril.

There’s a bit from Series 3 that really encapsulates Sandra and her approach to life in general. The episode begins with Sandra dancing salsa with a man. They stop dancing, and he begins giving her instructions. “You move well, but… more attitude, more open, more… sex. And don’t fight me. In salsa, the man is always the leader. The woman is there to follow his signals, his desires. The man is always in control, just like in life. You must cut off your brain. Salsa doesn’t come from here…” He points to his temple. “It comes from here-” (he puts his hand on her chest) “-from the heart.”

Sandra, whose expression has gone from cold to colder during the lecture, replies calmly, “If you don’t take your hand off my tit, I’ll break your wrist.”

You think that’s the end of it, but the last scene of the episode finds Sandra dancing salsa at that same class, but with a new partner now: Esther, the wife of one of her retired detectives with whom Sandra has struck a friendship over the years. Sandra is leading, and the dance is absolutely gorgeous. Esther comments: “You really do make a fabulous man.” Sandra smiles and replies, “Years of practice.”

I’ve talked before about how manhood is a construct no human can actually achieve. But good leadership is something women can achieve as easily as men, when we receive the same training and conditioning. Sandra Pullman is an excellent leader, and that’s what Esther is responding to. I’ve also talked before about how most TV writers seem to view “leader” and “woman” as mutually exclusive, and in that article, I said:

I’d love to see a show where a woman is #1 in a traditionally male-dominated field, and she struggles to be a good leader while enduring criticism for not being nice enough, or supportive or cooperative enough – in other words, not being a good little woman. Instead, over and over, we see the female leaders deconstructed into mere females again, thus restoring the balance of the status quo.

Instead, I’ve gotten something even better: a woman who doesn’t particularly struggle with being a good leader because it comes naturally to her, and when she’s criticized for not assuming the female role of “supportive helpmate”, her only response is to demonstrate her abilities even more.

*Because it is hilarious, I just have to point out that “UCOS”, pronounced “you-koss”, stands for Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad. Not until Series Five does someone point out it really should be “UCOCS”, pronounced “you cocks.” Those of you who love Vicar of Dibley will be amused to note the character who points it out is played by Roger Lloyd-Pack (Owen Newitt).


  1. Pocket Nerd says

    Sounds like an interesting show. I’ll check it out.

    One thing I absolutely detest about the few series that actually showcase women in leadership roles— they almost inevitably have occasional moments of “Look What a Big Softy I Am Underneath,” where a woman is reduced to a puddle of giggly-stupid by a baby, or an attractive man, or “one of those other things chicks like.” The subtext seems to be “Sure, I might be a successful professional woman, but deep down what I really want is to live out the roles men expect of me!” It sounds like New Tricks bucks that trend.

  2. says

    It does. Sandra is never ruled by her emotions, and that’s what the difference is. There are a number of male cop/military characters I know of who, like Sandra, are extremely tough when dealing with suspects but touchingly caring when dealing with victims, and then they tread a fine line in the middle when dealing with people who may be victims or suspects for all they know at the moment. Like these male characters, Sandra CHOOSES when to extend her sympathy. What we’ve seen punch her in the gut is her discovery of something shocking about her father, but despite treading so close to the “daddy issues” trope, they really carried it off (I could imagine a male character handling it the same way).

  3. Pocket Nerd says

    This reminds me of one of my hobbies when watching or reading stories: I swap the sexes of the characters to see if their actions still seem reasonable. Very often, female characters do things that would seem feckless, neurotic, or outright stupid if it were a male character doing it. Characters in the story don’t seem to find it particularly noteworthy; the writers generally seem to think “that’s just how women are,” and assume the audience will feel the same way.

    (Meanwhile, we’re expected to like and empathize with male characters taking actions that would be callous, avaricious, or flat-out sociopathic if performed by female characters.)

  4. says

    Love New Tricks, and Sandra. I watch it with my parents at home (we get through a lot of British tv) and it’s marvelous. Also, I can never get enough Travelling Wilberries, so I watch it for the theme song as well :)

  5. says

    @PocketNerd, I do that! And I also think about “What if this was a real person, doing these things?” It strikes me that a lot of male action heroes would actually have to be full-on sociopaths to go through everything they go through in a couple of years of a TV show or a series of action films.

    @Kathleen, when I first read your comment, I was all “huh”? I love the TW too, but the theme for New Tricks on every DVD I have is Dennis Waterman singing a song that goes, “It’s all right, it’s okay, doesn’t really matter if you’re old and gray” – which is also good, but it gets in my head and stays there for days on end and makes me insane. Looks like originally they used “End of the Line” by the TW, and that’s what you’re hearing. I do love that song so much!

  6. SunlessNick says

    I’ve recently had a chance to watch the first two series of this (and will soon a have a chance to watch the next one or two). I’ve just got to episode with the salsa scene, which I love for Amanda Redman’s expressions while the teacher is digging his hole.

    Right that after scene is one where two of the team are trying to convince her that a cold case they’ve found might have the same perpetrator as a current series of abductions. Sandra raises some arguments against it, they raise some arguments for it, and she agrees to investigate it. I not sure I can exlain why the scene strikes me so well. Sometimes, the best demonstration of the leader is the way they choose to follow a subordinate’s course: Jack and Brian have to make their case to her; she listens and their case, and there’s no doubt that she’s the one making the decision. To make a Stargate comparison to go with the one in the post, she deals with them the way General Hammond would deal with one of Daniel or Sam’s off the wall schemes.

    Earlier in the series, one thing I liked was that there was no epiphany moment where Sandra proves to the men that a woman can be the boss. Instead, she proves it in constant small ways that the men one by one learn to recognise.

    And a final thought: Comparing the first series DVD cover with the second, third, fourth, fifth ones, I get the impression of something getting through to someone.

  7. SunlessNick says

    Sandra has nothing to hold over them, really, so she has to do what great leaders do: expect people to do what she says, and then assert herself with just the right amount of force when they don’t.

    There’s a hilarious example of this in the last but one season, when one of the cases carries a reward, and Gerry suggests they claim it. Sandra says it’s against the regs, and Gerry points out that those regs only apply to her. She looks at him for a few seconds, until he concludes, “That’ll be a no then.” Technically he’s right about the regs, and logically there’s nothing she can do if he just defies her about it. But… well, she’s standing right there… and when she isn’t, she will do again at some pint, and do you really want to test that logic?

  8. TopCop999 says

    I really, really admire Sandra. I believe, on the contrary; this is a woman’s world! We men, are obviously always put “in front” of women, for some very obscure reason, which I detest. Sandra, proves she can hold her own, with both men and women. For example, in Series 1, she displays her toughness, by punching two males in the fight sequence, of the very first episode “The Chinese Job” where, Roddy Wringer and his wife Gaynor (who went to school with Gerry) are being apprehended, but little do they know, their other halfs’ secrets. A fight ensues and Sandra punches two males. Subsequently, Gerry says to Jack and Brian “I don’t know about you, but, she’s making me very excited!” , another example would be when in Series 8 in the episode “Moving Target”, UCOS are investigating Darren Gerson, the brother of a psychologist, who is doing an article on “Old Men In The Workplace” and is using Jack, Brian and Gerry as her “Guinea Pigs”, she tells Sandra about the attack on her brother, which was a “hit and run” and the team investigate it, at the latter part of the episode. DCI Temple, decides to intervene in Sandra’s case and at the end of the episode she says to Sandra “I don’t appreciate the way you went about this.” Sandra then says “Just making sure that the killer was apprehended.” Temple then says sarcastically “And I’m just supposed to accept that, am I?” Sandra then mocks her and says “You’ll do what you have to.” Temple then in considerable fury says “The only reason I’m not having this conversation with your commanding officer is because it makes us, as female officers, look bad.” Sandra then, in a state of “you can do what you like, but it won’t bother me and it won’t make me look bad” says “You can have this conversation with whomever you want.” Then DS Pullam and DCI Temple, have a stare off and Temple walks away in fury, leaving Jack, Brian and Gerry looking at Sandra as if to say “She knows you out-rank her, anyway!” I’ve always loved Sandra, she is at the heart of the show, she offers both a very stern and firm handed approach to her job, but she’s all for “bending the rules” like her more “historic” colleagues. Even though I am a man, I’ve often took a lot of my approaches of life, from how Amanda played Pullman. It broke my heart when she left in the 8th episode of Series 10 in the episode “The One That Got Away” – she really is The Queen of UCOS and in some respects, could be the most dominant female figure in The Met. Now, Tamzin Outhwaite is playing the boss of UCOS, as DCI Sasha Miller, I’m intrigued to see how she handles Gerry, Steve and Danny (But no one can ever replace Detective Chief Superintendent Sandra Pullman!) New Tricks is probably the most endearing of any police show there have been several (The Bill, Taggart, Cracker, Prime Suspect) but none have offered both the camaraderie and the sincerity that makes New Tricks the BBC’s most successful drama, now that is something we can certainly than DCS Pullman for!!

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