Armchair Detectives S1 (BBC One)

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Susan Calman’s star is very much in the ascendency. As well as her popular stint on Strictly Come Dancing, she’s also been hosting Armchair Detectives – a daytime quiz show in which contestants watch a mini-crime drama set in the fictional Scottish town of Mortcliff and attempt to figure out whodunnit.Calman is the perfect choice for this type of thing, her impish sense of humour allowing her to poke just enough fun at the truly cheap amateur dramatics on display without going too far to ruin it for those who want to take things more seriously. There is some spectacularly stilted dialogue writing and acting on display – presumably intentionally, in the way that bad Christmas cracker jokes are part of the shared user experience – but the plots are generally interesting and will appeal to anyone like myself who likes solving detective dramas on TV.

It’s impossible not to think of the 1970s panel show Whodunnit? hosted by Edward Woodward and Jon Pertwee when watching this. The chief difference is that no celebrities were harmed in the making of this show. No one you know shows up in the filmed drama, which sees DI Knight (Stephen Billington) and DC Slater (Roger Nsengiyumva) assisted by forensics officer Simmons (Sarah Baxendale.) Back in the studio, the quirky contestants are all members of the public who are drawn three at a time from a pool of 15 people over the course of 20 shows.

Armchair Detectives is also far more structured than its free-for-all 70s counterpart. The clues (including facsimiles of photos, forensics reports, maps and text messages) and reconstructions are drip-fed to the audience, giving it a palpable feel of being carefully structured at each stage to manipulate us toward one possible culprit or another. Generally speaking the solutions are reasonably obvious and the danger is in overthinking it: if it looks like a red herring then it probably is, and if someone resembles a prime suspect than you’ve probably got your man or woman. But of course, some stories also play on these assumptions to pull the rug out from under your feet…

If you can swallow the sub-daytime production values, it’s all good fun and a nice diversion for 45 minutes. But the star player is definitely Calman, who manages to give the whole thing just enough of a lift to ensure you don’t feel too embarrassed about squandering half your afternoon on such flimflam.

Episodes comprise (you might want to skip minor spoilers in brackets):

1.1 Watercolour Crime (November 20, 2017)
A local artist is found dead, caught up in the nets of a trawler that she happened to include in a painting just a few days earlier. And in another twist, the painting itself has been stolen from Mortcliff’s art gallery. [A fun start to the series with plenty of red herrings, but fairly guessable.]

1.2 Patently Murder (November 21, 2017)
A successful inventor is found asphyxiated in his workshop. Was it for his existing patents which are inherited by his son, or for his latest breakthrough? [Some key facts are withheld from the contestants and the audience until the very end, making this one feel a bit of a cheat. Which means that, yes, I failed to get this one right!]

1.3 The Jury’s Out (November 22, 2017)
A woman dies in a fall (or was she pushed?) from Mortcliff Bay Cliffs. The plot thickens when it emerges she had served on the jury in a high profile trial and that several other jury members have also taken a dive off the Cliffs in recent months. [A pleasing drama which makes complete sense – and hence is quite easy to get right if you’re paying attention.]

1.4 Derby Day Death (November 23, 2017)
The seething, high stakes world of lawn bowls is laid bare! In a pitched local derby between Mortcliff and Perivale, the star player of the visiting team collapses from anaphylactic shock. Who was nuts enough to try poisoning him? [The whole lawn bowls set-up is so bonkers that the motive never really made sense to me, meaning I opened completely the wrong door on this one.]

1.5 Deerly Departed (November 24, 2017)
A local park ranger is in pursuit of poachers and illegal taxidermists operating in the local woods. He dies after a tumble into a bird watching hide, but the investigators are soon convinced that it was no accident. [Plenty of suspects, but a little application of Agatha Christie logic – always blame the person with the perfect alibi – pays dividends. The final howdunnit is a gem!]

1.6 Cops and Robbers (November 27, 2017)
One of the notorious Hawaii Five-O gang is found dead in a local graveyard. Was the killer another member of the gang, or someone else entirely? The killer tries to throw the police off track with some false evidence. [The problem here is that the main suspects – the gang members – all have very similar motives and opportunities and can be hard to separate, but it’s still worth taking a swing at.]

1.7 The Uninvited Guest (November 28, 2017)
A strange guest staying at the local Mortcliff bed and breakfast is found dead in the bath in his room, with the door and window locked. Why was he really in town, what did he see – and what’s the significance of the broken bed? [The world’s worst B&B and a line-up of characters straight out of The League of Gentlemen combine in a very odd locked room mystery!]

1.8 Finders Keepers (November 29, 2017)
Two detectorists uncover a valuable hoard of Viking coins, but whose farm was it actually found on? When one of the land owners ends up dead in suspicious circumstances, the opening hours of the local museum become a key clue. [Perhaps the easiest mystery to date, one that everyone – even Susan Calman – manages to guess every part of!]

1.9 Six Letters Beginning with M (November 30, 2017)
A retired history professor with a predilection for crosswords is found dead in his study. Does an incorrect answer to the latest puzzle point the way to his killer? [Everyone is pretty clear about who the guilty party is here, but I confess I baulked because the culprit’s whole motive and modus operandi makes no sense whatsoever. Needless to say, I was being too finicky and should have just gone with the flow…]

1.10 Pigeon Detectives (December 1, 2017)
Last week it was the drama of lawn bowls, this time it’s heady world of competitive pigeon flying. The owner of Homer, the fastest bird in Mortcliff, is found dead – was he killed because someone found out he was cheating? The solution comes down to rat poison and bird droppings, as is so often the case. [A surprisingly low number of suspects in this story, and it comes down a a 50-50 choice at the end. Everyone gets it right except for poor Susan…]

1.11 School’s Out for Murder (December 4, 2017)
An arts teacher is found dead after an unscheduled fire drill, and it turns out she’s been poisoned with a rare chemical from the school laboratory. Did one of her colleagues kill her, or was it a rebellious pupil who knew a dark secret about the victim? [The culprit was an easy guess here, although the tell-tale clue – about who discarded a coffee cup – was apparently not one of those intended by the writer! Never mind, I’ll take a win where I can find it…] [Update: as you’ll find in the comments, that tell-tale clue really was intended all along, even though it went unnoticed by the Armchair ‘Tecs. Which rather makes my day!]

1.12 The High Class Killer (December 5, 2017)
There’s a shooting party at a local country house, and so inevitably someone is shot dead. At least we know the butler didn’t do it – he’s the victim! But who had it in for the family retainer? [This one features a large cast of characters and it’s difficult to keep track of their whereabouts, plus who has what gun when and with which ammo. To be honest it’s enough to make your head spin. And even if you do keep note, there’s a bit of sleight-of-hand that will almost certainly catch you out. Best just to wing it and decide who had the right motive and personality.]

1.13 Driving Miss Mortcliff (December 6, 2017)
The winner of a local beauty pageant is killed in a car accident just days later. It looks like someone deliberately loosened a front wheel, but was the new Miss Mortcliff the real target? [One of those with an oddly linear construction – the pageant that appears so crucial at the start is all but forgotten in the end. You’re steered through a serious of different contenders as prime suspect, until there’s a very obvious clue at the end when someone blatantly lies!]

1.14 Tell Tale Signs (December 7, 2017)
An elderly librarian is found dead amid signs that the book stacks have been ransacked. The case deepens when it’s revealed that the victim was also moonlighting as a newspaper columnist under a pseudonym exposing local scandals. [Much of the story comes down to who knew about Ravencroft’s real identity, but it never made much sense to me that someone would kill the writer to stop an already-filed column. In fact the eventual solution still doesn’t make much sense in terms of motive, but hats off to the writers for hiding a whopping clue in two separate pieces of dialogue. I actually did notice them both at the time, but then failed to connect them.]

1.15 A Can of Worms (December 8, 2017)
Strong social commentary in the form of a simmering row about ongoing gentrification in Mortcliff! Property values and local businesses aren’t helped by a commune of penniless artists. One of them ends up dead and dumped by the local bins – practically a modern art installation in its own right. [I locked and loaded on a particular suspect early on, and as a result became blinkered despite a positive plethora of genuinely clever clues as to the real culprit. The main (visual) clue went right over my head, and I’m still not sure even in hindsight that the matter of a significant thunderstorm made logical and consistent sense at the end.]

1.16 Appetite for Murder (December 11, 2017)
The owner of a successful Chinese restaurant is poisoned with strychnine. The suspect pool narrows down to his family and business suppliers, but who really had the motive and opportunity? [I started this one with a clear suspect but was swayed as the Armchair Detectives went unanimously for someone else. In the end I decided to return to my original choice as the only one with a proper motive for murder, and was happy to be right and that I hadn’t inadvertently talked myself out of the correct solution.]

1.17 What Became of Miranda? (December 12, 2017)
A nice little tweak to the formula, as the Armchair Detectives tackle a 15-year-old cold case. The notorious disappearance of a wealthy landowner is reopened when a body is found during renovations to Strath Manor. [One suspect practically hurls themself into contention as the murder, daring you to have the confidence to look elsewhere. But the main low-key suspect proves to be a red herring too … It’s annoying to get any whodunnit wrong, but it’s especially galling for the correct solution to never even cross your mind even once!]

1.18 White Collar Crime (December 13, 2017)
The reverend at a local church is planning a special service in collaboration with her predecessors. However there’s acrimony in the aisles and one of them ends up dead in the bell tower, in shades of a Lord Peter Wimsey story. [A blackmail plot is soon uncovered, but it’s all wrong – the dead man was the one being blackmailed. In fact this story is packed full with delightful red herrings that sound delicious but lead nowhere. As a result, absolutely no one on the show gets it right – a first. However I did for once, although I can’t pretend that I was at all certain of being right ahead of the reveal.]

1.19 Am Dram Damned (December 14, 2017)
The director of Mortcliff’s production of Hamlet is stabbed to death on stage during rehearsals. Since he wasn’t very popular, the line of suspects turns out to be a very long one. [Unfortunately one character hugely stands out as prime suspect right from the start, and even though the show attempts to bring in some complicating distractions it never manages to do enough to make us change our minds. The danger here is over thinking it and believing it’s ‘too obvious’ but everyone sticks to it and gets it right.]

1.20 Mistletoe and Crime (December 15, 2017)
The series gets its very own Christmas special edition complete with tree and tinsel in the studio (where everyone looks dressed for late summer.) A company director is found dead at her desk during the staff Christmas party – was Secret Santa responsible? [Some nonsense about influencing computer passwords aside, this one is fairly easy once you know how it was done, providing you pick up on a throwaway piece of dialogue – which, surprisingly, the contestants didn’t.]

Armchair Detective airs weekdays on BBC One at 2.15pm. Episodes are available on BBC iPlayer for a month after transmission .

4 thoughts on “Armchair Detectives S1 (BBC One)

    David Bodycombe said:
    January 13, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks for the reviews. As the devisor of that episode, I can assure you that the headmaster’s discarded coffee cup was an intentional clue. Later, we see a shot of him leaving the scene in shock, guided by someone else (Miss Greave, I think?) but he is cradling a coffee cup. So he has taken the cup from the scene to clean up the evidence.

      Andrew Lewin responded:
      January 13, 2018 at 3:53 pm

      Oh, excellent, thanks for letting me know. I noticed it but I don’t recall anyone else even remarking upon if, even in the final reveal (unless I missed it!) so I thought I must be imagining things. That’s made my day.

      Thanks for the thanks, and also for a delightfully enjoyable series as a whole. I hope there will be more in 2018?

        David Bodycombe said:
        January 13, 2018 at 8:12 pm

        There’s only so much we have time to cover at the end – we have to presume some of it will be picked up by the AD’s during their chats. Also, as in this case, Knight and Slater wouldn’t have likely known because they didn’t see it and Simmons couldn’t tell them for sure. A second series is down to the reaction that the BBC get, and AFAIK no decision has been either way.

        Andrew Lewin responded:
        January 14, 2018 at 8:41 am

        Yes, I can completely understand that the subjective view makes it hard for such things to be picked up if the Armchair ‘Tec’s don’t spot it and mention it. It seemed like such a big, lovely clue at the time that I couldn’t believe it went unremarked upon by that day’s contestants – and started to doubt myself and second-think things. But that’s the beauty of a show like this, it can mess with your brain ever so gently.

        Anyway, best of luck getting recommissioned. It certainly went down well with everyone I spoke to about it, so I hope the message gets through to the powers that be.

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