Whodunnit? The Complete Series 1 (1972-3) [DVD]

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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.

whodunnit-dvd-coverI 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. Read the rest of this entry »

Death and the Pregnant Virgin, by ST Haymon

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A couple of weekends ago, some Twitter posts from an arts and literature festival in Norfolk mentioning the 1980s crime novels of local author ST (Sylvia Theresa) Haymon were retweeted into my timeline and succeeded in piquing my interest. Upon further investigation I found that the first of the novels – Death and the Pregnant Virgin – was available in e-book format for just 59p, and for that sort of price it really did seem positively rude not to try it out.

In this story, a religious festival celebrating the recent discovery of the priceless Our Lady of Promise icon in the picturesque Norfolk country village of Mauthen Barbary is shockingly interrupted when one of the festival maidens is found bludgeoned to death in the shrine. She was also four months pregnant despite being a virgin, just the first of a series of revelations – and further deaths – to shake both the locals and Inspector Ben Jurnet.

The book feels distinctly old fashioned even allowing for the fact that it was written in 1980 – insert your own pun here about Norfolk being perennially 30 years behind the times at any given stage. Consequently it feels more like one of Agatha Christie’s vintage Miss Marple novels from the 1940s or 50s, with the suspects confined to an isolated rural community and the investigation very much revolving around means, motive and opportunities, which entails a lot of careful tracking of who was where and when with the more modern obsessions with forensics and DNA notably absent from consideration. Read the rest of this entry »

Death in Paradise E1 (BBC1)

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Cosy murder mystery seeks exotic new setting, and ends up with an ‘Englishman out of his comfort zone in the laid-back heat of the Caribbean’ concept. I have to say, the basic premise of this new BBC series didn’t exactly sound very appealing to me.

With the Englishman portrayed as an uptight professional who can’t cope without his IT support and internet connection, unhappy with goats wondering through the office and unwilling to take off his suit and tie even in hundred degree conditions, it’s like a throwback to 1950s clichés. At least the show has the good grace to make it clear that the character in question, DI Richard Poole, was reviled as anal and uptight even by his colleagues in London who wanted shot of him, but it still feels like a lazy caricature of both English and Caribbean stereotypes. That’s despite the casting of Ben Miller in the main role, who is probably the only actor alive who can take this sort of pompous and arrogant part and still round it out and make it human and interesting enough for us to have a little glimmering of liking for.

The series seems to have the most amazing cast signed up: I suspect that they approached the actors in question and say “fancy two weeks on an idyllic Caribbean paradise island? Just for the cost of a couple of days shooting?” and were amazed by the number of takers. In the first episode there’s Hugo Speer, Rupert Graves, Don Warrington, Sean Maquire, Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules and Being Human’s Lenora Crichlow. Next week it looks like we have Frances Barber, Robert Pugh, Survivors’ Paterson Joseph, Hustle’s Matt Di Angelo and Munroe’s Luke Allen-Gale popping in for their summer hols. The free vacation idea would also explain why Miller himself signed up to do what is in essence a reprise of his role from Primeval.

And yet the strangest thing is that underneath all this candy floss is a rather decent (and very quaintly old fashioned) locked room murder mystery that’s actually very smartly written. It’s the kind of murder-mystery show that plays spectacularly fair with the audience and shows us absolutely everything we need to solve the crime, but then also deflects our suspicion by some artful false direction – not least in the identity of the murderer …

(look away now if you don’t want too many hints about the whodunnit)

… who here is the most interesting and rounded character and the most appealing, likeable and talented of the younger members of the cast. You don’t guess their identity because it simply never occurs to you that it must be them doing it because they’re too nice, rather than because the plot is too convoluted or too many facts are withheld to make the deduction impossible.

(you can look back now if you want to!)

This rather strong and decent solid core in the middle of what I’d taken to be a bit of post-summer vicarious TV travel porn was a bit of a surprise; I’m interested to see whether this is accidental or not and whether it is maintained in the second episode, or whether the candy floss takes over from here on. At least it’s not one of those interminably grim police procedurals with Trevor Eve shouting psychotically at everyone in sight that I’m so heartily sick of these days.

I guess that means I’m in for a second episode at least, despite my reservations about the Mid-Caribbean Summer Murders premise as a whole.

Murder, She Wrote Pilot – “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes”

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I cheerfully admit a weakness for cosy whodunnit crime books, and this Angela Lansbury series was surely the cosiest and one of the longest running of the genre on television. It’s my idea of comfort viewing – the televisual equivalent of apple pie and custard, which works thanks to its familiarly formulaic structure and the warm presence of Lansbury at the centre. The series is endlessly repeated on BBC Daytime and on UK Alibi, but curiously the feature-length first/pilot episode is rarely aired these days so I was keen to go back and see “where it all began.”

In many ways this was Lansbury’s ‘retirement plan’ after a lifetime of film and stage success in much higher quality but less well paying roles. But she certainly works for it: for the vast majority of the series’ 12 years she’s the only recurring character and in virtually every scene. Compare that to the way modern stars complain about the work they have in an ensemble drama where the work load is shared by up to a dozen regulars and you’ll have some appreciation of Lansbury’s work ethic despite being almost 60 even when the series began. Her star power certainly gave the producers access to big Hollywood names they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and the pilot duly features Brian Keith, Arthur Hill, Anne Francis and Ned Beatty – and Anne Ramsey in a cameo as a bus bag lady on the eve of her late-life movie stardom in The Goonies and Throw Momma From The Train.

Created by William Link and Richard Levinson who had previously devised the Colombo series, the pilot hits the ground running with Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher suddenly finding her book published and a bestseller, throwing her into a trip to the Big City on a publicity junket, and so it’s very much the story of how she copes being out of her depth – by melting even hardened New Yorkers with her small town charm and homemade recipes for curing corns. As the series went on the character would become more assured (as her literary fame grew) but here Lansbury plays a good many scenes for laughs with a lot of scuttling around and gurning for the camera revealing her old fashioned stage roots at this point, making it interesting to see how much even an old pro has to learn in a new medium. At one point she seems to be intentionally channelling Magaret Rutherford’s version of Miss Marple (Lansbury had just ‘aged up’ to play Marple in a recent big screen version of The Mirror Crack’d before creating this original American version of Christie’s sleuth.)

As a result you catch her ‘acting’ more in this pilot than in most of the series where she became so natural and at ease many viewers felt she wasn’t even acting but just being herself (the curse of many a star of a long-running show.) The pilot actually gives her more to do than the typical series instalment, with a romantic interest touchingly played by her and Hill, and an outcome that is presented as truly heart-breaking for the character despite the preceding light comedy. The pilot doesn’t quite play fair with the whodunnit aspect, relying on a literary reference that only makes sense when some background facts are introduced right at the denouement; the series when it got underway would learn how to put all the facts in evidence during the show, rather as Agatha Christie was always scrupulously careful to do in her novels. It doesn’t hurt the pilot but it’s a little annoying and means it’s all but impossible to guess who the murderer is, with most of the running time given over to a red herring theft plot.

It’s not world-changing TV, it’s not edgy or different. But Murder, She Wrote is the ultimate in professional, well-put together and thoroughly enjoyable light drama entertainment which is easy to watch and to appreciate, and Angela Lansbury shines as one of the true stars of her generation.