I like to think of myself as a fan of cult TV and indeed of vintage television as a whole, so I was rather startled to stumble across Colonel March of Scotland Yard completely by accident while browsing through Amazon Prime a few weeks ago. It’s very much the sort of niche thing I enjoy and yet for some reason its very existence had totally passed me by.
Made in the mid-1950s, it’s a classic example of television of that era – which is to say, it’s almost entirely shot on a soundstage in long unedited single takes in which people talk to each other and any action such as there is will be limited to a single punch thrown in an attempt to make the showdown more dramatic. It’s certainly not going to appeal to a modern day audience raised on the kinetic antics of 24 or The Blacklist, and most viewers will find it cripplingly dull. But for a small number of people – myself included – its copious charms more than make up for its manifest limitations.
The series is based on John Dickson Carr’s book The Department of Queer Complaints, which is something of a geriatric X-Files dealing with cases of the unexplained. The 26 half-hour stand-alone episodes feature paranormal instances such as a rigged seance which summons an apparently real ghost, a little boy haunted by the ghost of his dead father, a poltergeist that keeps stealing a cursed book, and the Abominable Snowman stalking the rooftops of London. There’s an invisible man, the skull of a missing link and a fake Mona Lisa, an impossible bank robbery and numerous locked room mysteries including one set inside a decompression chamber. Admittedly none of the stories are particularly taxing, but they’re intriguing enough to keep the audience’s attention, usually have a satisfying reveal of the responsible party, and never overstay their welcome.
The big selling point of the series is the presence of Boris Karloff, then in his late sixties, as the titular character, the boss of the Department of Queer Complains – the Fox Mulder of his day, so to speak. For some reason that’s never explained in the series, Karloff sports an eyepatch as Colonel March, but otherwise he’s a most amiable figure and friend to all – even to many of the criminals that he encounters during his investigations. Karloff plays the role with an impish sense of fun that’s quite infectious, finding little bits of actorly business with which to liven things up on screen. He looks as though he’s enjoying himself tremendously, and that feeling spreads to the rest of the recurring cast that includes Ewan Roberts as intermittently Scottish Inspector Ames and Eric Pohlmann as corpulent French inspector Goron.
One of the joys of watching something like this is playing ‘spot the famous person before they were famous’. There’s a young Christopher Lee as a suave fashion designer two years before Hammer came calling, as well as a pre-Carry On Joan Simms and a very young Anthony Newley, together with long-standing thespians such as Elspet Grey, Glyn Houston, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, George Coulouris, Adrienne Corri, and Alfred Burke as well as two appearances from Anton Diffring. Future Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger shows up as a Dutch cook in one episode, and I was especially pleased to recognise Peter Dyneley despite never having seen his face before – his voice as Thunderbirds’ Jeff Tracy is unmistakable. Alas I completely missed an on-screen appearance from Peter Coke, best known as the voice of radio’s long-running Paul Temple.
I dipped into the first episode of Colonel March of Scotland Yard purely to satisfy the itch of curiosity. Against my expectations, I ended up watching the whole run because they were such a light, entertaining example of the earliest era of television as mass entertainment. It’s true that the quality of the material is somewhat variable, with only 12 episodes existing in their original 35mm format and the rest as poorer 16mm copies. The soundtrack is particularly hissy, but there’s no major damage that will distract viewers. Overall it’s remarkable that all the episodes still exist given what happened to early series of 1960s shows such as The Avengers and Doctor Who.
The series has never been released on home media, but all episodes are available to stream on Amazon Prime. Since they’re free for subscribers to view, I’d heartily recommend that anyone with even the slightest interest in such fare gives it a go – just one or two episodes, no more. If you do happen to get slightly addicted and end up watching through to the final episode, then don’t blame me!
Rating: ★ ★ ★
All 26 episodes of Colonel March of Scotland Yard are available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime in the UK