This vintage television series is almost as old as I am, and definitely not to be confused with the more recent short-lived US show by the same name from CSI creator Anthony Zuiker which had something of the same overall approach, albeit modernised and infused with reality show trappings. The original Whodunnit? is an altogether more homespun affair, and was created by comedian Lance Percival and comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd (Dad’s Army, ‘Allo ‘Allo). Each episode features a dramatised crime – usually a murder – after which a panel of celebrities tries to guess the identity of the perpetrator and as many tell-tale clues among the red herrings as they can find.
I watched this ITV show as a kid mainly because it was hosted by Jon Pertwee in his first post-Doctor Who gig, and it’s entirely possible that this programme along with Scooby-Doo! are the main reasons why I’ve been into crime procedurals and mystery stories ever since. However, Pertwee isn’t in charge for the seven stories contained in this DVD set, which include a pilot episode presided over by Shaw Taylor (presenter of Police 5, an early Crimewatch-type show) followed by all six shows from the full first series that followed a year later where actor Edward Woodward took over as presenter. His presence is why the barebones DVD of season 1 was among those included in a recent weekend flash sale held by distributors Network, which meant it was available for well under half the price Amazon were charging for the same item – and was why it was most definitely worth my picking up if only to see whether the golden haze of nostalgia could survive a face-to-face encounter with the brutal reality 40 years down the line.
The first thing that you can’t immediately help but notice is just how cheap, tacky and amateurish everything is. In the pilot it seems that all possible expense had been spared in the bland and cramped plywood set that even the actors start complaining about as the show progresses. Bizarrely things get even worse in the full series where the set seems to have been assembled from whatever was left in the studio stockroom, – apparently a Greek or Roman-era drama from the looks of things, with Woodward sat in what feels like a cross between an oversize throne and a baby’s high chair.
Taylor is a perfectly affable and professional host, and you can see why he was their first choice given the Police 5 connection, but he’s not really a light entertainment personality. The only person who seems enthused and throwing themselves into the pilot with any gusto is Woodward, who is one of the panellists and the only one to correctly guess the perpetrators. It turns out that his prize (other than the delightfully vintage £25 premium bond to a nominated charity!) is to get to host the next season. Unfortunately in that capacity Woodward quickly suffers the same problem that befalls many actors when required to appear as ‘themselves’ and improvise without a script rather than performing in character after weeks of rehearsals, and he really does flounder rather badly when put in charge.
The proper season episodes appear to have been recorded in more or less real time with no time of budget for cuts or edits for any umms, errs or other stumbles. It also means that when panellists ask to see a replay of a scene from the show, it rather charmingly takes the production gallery a genuine three or four minutes to cue it up such is the antique VT equipment they’re working with at the time. The whole thing is capped by a toe-curlingly embarrassing moment when someone from the audience who has guessed the correct solution to the week’s puzzle is brought up for a chat with the host – after which they get to take away one of the props used by the actor as the ultimate in second-hand prizes! At least the series doesn’t repeat the pilot’s mistake of then relying on the wholly unprepared member of the pubic to try and articulate whodunnit and why. Talk about blowing the big reveal in the pilot…
But then if, like me, you love watching the evolution of television over the 50s, 60s and 70s then all of this will be utter catnip, as will the return of some familiar faces – many now sadly long-lost to us. As well as Taylor and Woodward, panellists members from the pilot and first regular episode include Softly Softly actor Frank Windsor and jockey-turned-novelist Dick Francis, while the actors involved in the re-enactment of the crime include Paul Whitson-Jones, Emmerdale’s Richard Thorp and future Howards’ Way star Jan Harvey whom I confess I completely failed to recognise until the credits rolled. If you weren’t around in the 70s and 80s (or alternatively, are not a fan of DVD fare from that period) then many of these names will be completely unfamiliar, but for the rest of us it’s really quite delightful.
The little pre-recorded play-lets establishing the crimes are somewhat more robust, well-mounted examples of the sort of quality seen in light drama output prevalent from both ITV and the BBC at the time. They aren’t exactly subtle in highlighting the things you should be noticing and practically trumpet the arrival of each Significant Clue with a fanfare – although to be fair the red herrings are equally emphasised. Even so, it’s hard to believe the mysteries were particularly baffling even at the time they were broadcast, and the sophistication of today’s modern audience steeped in convoluted crime dramas will make the crimes rather child’s play for most viewers today. Indeed even as a young child I seem to recall I had a pretty good success rate when watching this show – which is probably why I liked it so much of course, because it made me feel I was being all grown-up and clever.
In the pilot episode, a jeweller is murdered when he walks in on a safe-cracking at his country home. The solution esentially comes down to keeping track of the timeline along with some Sherlock Holmes deductions about shoe prints; another clue about a left handed fishing reel went completely over my head (did people really know so much about such things in the 70s? If so, it’s a lost art today) but it was still eminently guessable despite a nice dash of unreliable narrator in the presentation. Rather delightfully in terms of contemporary period detail, one of the panellists tries to prove a witness is lying because in their view it’s not possible to watch television while someone is vacuuming elsewhere in the house because of the electrical interference – something I don’t remember being a big problem even when I was small child!
The first episode of the regular series, “Missing on Voyage” centres on a wealthy wife on a pleasure cruise who commits suicide by squeezing herself out of the porthole of her locked cabin. It’s a more audacious bit of sleight-of-hand plotting but one that’s almost impossible to successfully pull off in this setting and so literally everybody is able to guess the solution very simply, and the panellists have to work hard to even pretend to look baffled through to the end. Sadly on this occasion the production team didn’t take advantage of the unreliable narrator angle, which along with a a very simple piece of camera trickery could have been used to produce a single visual that might have managed to derail everyone’s suspicions. On this occasion they play scrupulously fair and make the whole thing too easy as a result.
Update 1: The third story on the DVD is notable for being the only time all three of the show’s presenters appear in the same episode – Woodward as presiding host, Taylor and Pertwee on the panel. “Knife in the Back” features a murder after a seance on a remote Scottish island, with the other attendees rendered unconscious by a sleeping draught in their drinks. In contrast to the previous stories the clues here aren’t played up at all but in fact are remarkably subtle and interconnected: two of the vital clues could implicate two suspects equally, and it’s only the hiding place of a bottle of whiskey that rules out the red herring leaving a matter of bedroom arrangements that the killer couldn’t be privy to if they were telling the truth as the final clincher. Even so, two of the panellists manage to get it right – although one like me did so on pure intuition rather than properly deducing it through the clues. The episode is all-round noticeably sharper than the first two with tighter editing and a tweak to the Q&A format that allows the discussion to be livelier and more entertaining with a lot of repartee – one of the actor-suspects even manages a nice ad hoc Doctor Who quip in response to a question from Pertwee. Woodward is much more confident and polished in the chair this time, although he does very nearly wrap up the show without disclosing the all-important tell-tale clues – and it’s Pertwee who steps in to prompt him in time, which is surprising as until this point he’d just been larking around and not taking it at all seriously. Maybe that’s why he got the call to host series two!
Update 2: Known as the one where Woodward trips over a prop and nearly hobbles both himself and the set (there’s no time for reshoots), “Crime After a Fashion” involves a model shot dead backstage at a fashion show. This actually has a rather simple, even mundane solution with the crucial clue coming when someone lets slip that they know more about the contents of a safe than they arguably should. However in their attempts to spice things up, the writers massively overreach and end up with a huge flaw with the script. The issue arises when one suspect admits to lying halfway through the play-let and has to change his statement. What he now comes up with drives a coach and horses through testimony from other witnesses regarding the timings of the various screams, bangs and crashes surrounding the murder and discovery of the body that simply can’t be reconciled, meaning that the red herring ends up swallowing the intended solution – which itself can actually be easily overturned by reasonable doubt and alternative explanations. It’s not helped that one of the crucial actors involved is also confused by the whole thing and gets something badly wrong in the improvised Q&A section, which means that his character is effectively caught lying to the panel. It’s not intentional deception, but it’s no wonder that none of the panel correctly solve this one – it’s impossible to guess! (Oh, all right – I’ll modestly admit that I did successfully work out what the script intended…)
Four episodes down, three more in this collection to go, at which point I’ll be picking up the complete second season. That’s where Pertwee shows up as the new host in which role he remains to the end of the run of the show after the sixth season in 1978. And I’ll definitely be getting more of the DVDs, as despite the terrible production values, gaffes and paper-thin plots this is still a genuine delight to watch again after all these years, no matter to what extent it’s the nostalgia talking.
So far only the first four series are on DVD but Network is listing the fifth as being scheduled for release this Monday, April 27 2015 – although other retailers disagree and say there’s been a serious delay. What’s really happening? Ahh, that’ll be a real life mystery on which to end!