Friday, 13 January 2017

four more Thrillers (1961)

A few more episodes of NBC’s Boris Karloff-hosted anthology series Thriller that I’ve watched recently.

These episodes are excellent examples of one of the greatest strengths of the series - it’s not just visually impressive by the standards of early 1960s television, it’s visually impressive by any standards. Production values are extremely high. The series was made at Revue Studios in Hollywood and Revue was basically the television arm of Universal at that time, which of course meant that television series made there had the resources of a major film studio to call on (including some great sets built for big-budget movies and of course the studio backlot). 

Thriller is also outstanding for the very cinematic quality that was achieved. The lighting is as good as you’d see in a top-of-the-range major studio B-movie or even in many cases the equal of lower-budgeted A-features. Despite the very tight shooting schedules the directors and the cinematographers made the extra effort and it paid handsome dividends.

Mr. George was based on a short story by August Derleth and directed by Ida Lupino. A little girl has been left a large fortune. Young Priscilla is cared for by her three middle-aged cousins, all of whom feel that the money should rightly be theirs. If only an accident were to befall the little girl they would have that money. Accidents do happen. Sometimes they can even be made to happen. The difficulty is that the girl has a protector, Mr George. Mr George is dead, but he still protects her.

Ida Lupino does a wonderful job here, with clever use of camera angles and framing but without these techniques ever appearing intrusive or gimmicky.

The cast is superb. Nine-year-old Gina Gillespie manages to be sympathetic without being  irritating as Priscilla.

Mr. George is a very fine episode that skillfully avoids the obvious pitfall of excessive sentimentality.

Parasite Mansion initially gives the impression that it’s yet another story about an innocent city-dweller discovering that all country people are psychotic knuckle-dragging rednecks but mercifully it’s really not that sort of story at all.

Marcia (Pippa Scott) is a young schoolteacher driving down a deserted country road at night in the rain when someone starts shooting at her. She then finds herself in a spooky old decayed mansion inhabited by a very scary family. The Harrod family has fallen on very evil times due to a family curse. In order to keep the curse a secret they are prepared to kill any strangers unwise enough to venture onto their property. 

Marcia thinks she’s figured out the nature of the curse but she’s way off beam and she’s in an increasingly desperate situation. It appears that her only hope of survival is to somehow discover what the curse really is and then persuade the Harrods to confront it.

Jeanette Nolan is outrageously over-the-top as the terrifying Granny. James Griffith gives a very complex and subtle performance as the tortured elder son Victor. Beverly Washburn  is terrific as the troubled but possibly very dangerous younger sister Lollie.

Parasite Mansion is pleasing atmospheric and it thankfully doesn’t go in the obvious direction. An excellent story and particularly well executed.

Dark Legacy, written by John Tomerlin, is lots of fun, with a stage magician whose dabblings in the occult became very serious. All his relatives seem to be magicians as well (although second-rate ones) and they’re all hoping that when he dies he’ll leave them the secrets to his most famous illusions. He does leave his secrets to one of them but they’re not quite what was expected. They might be somewhat dangerous.

This story is not played too seriously. In fact it’s deliberately outrageous but it works and stage magic combined with the occult is usually a winning formula.

Thriller began as basically a crime mystery series but after somewhat disappointing early ratings it moved more in the direction of supernatural horror (and the ratings improved dramatically). A Good Imagination, written by Robert Bloch, is a twisted murder story very much in the style of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and represents a kind of throwback to the early style of the series but in this case executed with real panache and some delicious black comedy. Edward Andrews gives a delightful performance as Frank Logan, a jovial and imaginative murderer. He’s a somewhat fussy book dealer while his wife detests books. She has other interests, principally men.

This is a hugely entertaining story. It can be seen as an homage to Edgar Allan Poe and indeed the whole point of this story is that Frank Logan uses books as an inspiration for his murders.

So four episodes here, and all four are very good indeed.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Man of the World, season 1 (1962)

After the success of the original 1960 version of Danger Man it was obvious to ITC that action adventure series set in exotic locales in the contemporary world and with glamorous heroes were going to be reliable money-spinners. Man of the World, which aired from 1962 to 1963, was a typical example and a reasonably good one.

At this time Lew Grade had convinced himself that importing American actors was the only way to crack the US market. It was a silly idea - the British series that enjoyed the most success in the US (The Avengers and The Saint) were the ones without American actors. There was however no reasoning with Lew Grade on this point and so Man of the World has an American lead. Craig Stevens was a little unusual though, being an established star on American television as a result of the hit series Peter Gunn

Stevens plays globe-trotting photojournalist Michael Strait. It was the perfect setup for a series of this type - a hero with a glamorous occupation that paid enough to finance the jet-set lifestyle that heroes of action adventure series were expected to have plus it gave him entirely plausible reasons to be in exotic places hobnobbing with the rich, the powerful and the beautiful.

He has an equally glamorous sidekick in the person of Maggie Warren (Tracy Reed). I assume she’s supposed to be his secretary and/or assistant but what’s important is that she fulfills the role of good-looking female sidekick. 

The setup for Man of the World is clearly very similar to that of The Saint. The Saint had been so successful that ITC made repeated attempts to copy the formula, without a great deal of joy. Neither Man of the World nor The Baron were able to emulate the enormous success of The Saint. It’s not difficult to see why. Roger Moore had charm, wit, style and most of all charisma. It made him a very hard act to follow. Craig Stevens was a capable actor and he’s actually pretty good but he just doesn’t have the charisma of a Roger Moore or a Patrick McGoohan.

ITC had already realised that the future of television was colour and as early as 1956 several episodes of their adventure series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot were shot in colour. The pilot for Man of the World, Masquerade in Spain, was also shot in colour. It’s the kind of story that was a staple of the kinds of series but writer Lindsay Hardy adds enough twists to make it interesting. A beautiful heiress is kidnapped in Spain and MIchael Strait is caught in the middle and has a strong feeling he’s been set up. He’s just not sure why. 

Highland Story has a prologue in Australia (we know it’s Australia because we get some stock footage of kangaroos), The action then moves to the Scottish Highlands (we know it’s Scotland because we get some stock footage of Scotsmen in kilts tossing cabers). Something suspicious is going on at the Castle MacGillie and it has something to do with Australia. We get John Laurie as a guest star, which is always a treat, plus Ray Barrett putting on the most cringe-inducing exaggerated Australian accent I can ever recall hearing. British television has over the years given us some remarkably terrible attempts at Australian accents but this one is particularly embarrassing given that Ray Barrett was in fact an Australian.

Death of a Conference deals with the war in Algeria (a very topical issue indeed in 1962). Jet-setting international reporter/photographer Michael Strait (Craig Stevens) has been assigned to cover the peace conference. The day before the conference is due to start Algerian leader Dalguib is assassinated. A member of the French terrorist Secret Army (OAS), Thiboeuf (Patrick Troughton) is suspected. The assassination is rather convenient for Dalguib’s head of security Said (John Carson) who is now able to manoeuvre himself into leadership of the Algerian delegation. Said does not want peace. Strait suspects that this assassination is by no means as simple as it appears and he and Maggie, with some help from a cab driver who claims to be a Bulgarian prince (played by Warren Mitchell who must have played more guest roles in 60s action adventure series than any other actor), start digging for the truth.

Nature of Justice takes Michael Strait to Iraq where an archaeological expedition has just made a major find. Two members of the expedition set off for Kuwait by jeep. They never arrive and the following day a body is found. But only one body. Michael is determined to unravel this mystery and in the process he will learn a good deal about the nature of justice.

The main difference between this series and series like The Saint is that most of the stories in The Saint involve some kind of actual crime while this is not always the case with Man of the World. Some of the stories are simply the kinds of things that a photojournalist would get mixed up in - mysteries without actual criminal elements. 

The Runaways is such an episode, a lightweight but amusing story of a girl with an amazing tendency to fall in love with men who rescue her. And she seems to get rescued rather a lot. After her latest rescue she has decided to elope with a dashing but apparently penniless army officer. Since the girl is an heiress the elopement is the kind of story magazines pay good money for and thus Michael is reluctantly drawn into the affair. What he doesn’t realise is that you have to be very careful about rescuing young ladies with a penchant for falling in love with their rescuers.

Blaze of Glory is pretty lightweight also, a motor racing melodrama that is mostly an excuse for including lots of (admittedly extremely good) motor racing sequences. 

Portrait of a Girl is very lightweight indeed with a certain amusing charm to it although one can’t help thinking it would have worked even better as an episode of The Saint.

The Mindreader is quite a charming tale. A young woman, Carla, appears to have the ability to read minds. All the usual scientific tests seem to confirm that her ability really is genuine, that she is not a fake. Carla believes her own powers are genuine although she would actually have been much happier to discover that she was a fake - she has a horror of being thought to be some kind of freak. Despite the results of the tests Michael is convinced that he can give what she wants most - the knowledge that she has no psychic powers after all. Along the way we learn some interesting things about the mind-reading game. 

Specialist for the Kill on the other hand is a full-blown spy story about an unusual assassin. Strait’s photographs are the only leads that the CIA has. It’s an offbeat spy tale with a hint of the surrealism that would feature in other 60s British spy series like The Avengers although in this case the surrealism is played for grotesquerie rather than humour.

A Family Affair is another very serious (and reasonably good) episode involving a terrorist bombing in Paris.

Shadow of the Wall is yet another rather dark spy story. An old friend of Michael’s from West Berlin is accused of being a spy. Michael is convinced of his friend’s innocence but someone is certainly selling secrets to the East. The solution is all too realistic as well as being emotionally devastating. A very effective episode even if the major plot twist is unlikely to come as a great surprise.

Man of the World was successful enough to spawn a spin-off series. The season one episode The Sentimental Agent introduced a not entirely reputable Argentinian import-export agent named Borella, played by Carlos Thompson. The character had such obvious potential that he was given his own series, called (naturally) The Sentimental Agent although the character was made less disreputable and had his name changed slightly to Carlos Varela.  He’s still basically the same character - he’s a man who likes money but he likes adventure as well and rather enjoys playing the hero and enjoys it even more if he can do someone a good turn and make a profit as well. He’s the kind of character who would obviously be ideally suited to  feature in his own action adventure series so the spin-off was a very sound idea (and in fact The Sentimental Agent is even more fun than Man of the World). In this episode Michael Strait is left very much in the background but Carlos Thompson has more than enough good-natured charisma to carry the story on his own. While a typical Man of the World story involves Michael Strait rescuing someone from a dangerous situation in this episode he’s the one who needs to be rescued after being arrested by the new Cuban revolutionary government for espionage. Luckily Borella is just the man to do the rescuing, having some very useful connections with some very corrupt Cuban officials. 

Man of the World ran for 13 episodes in 1962 followed by an abbreviated second season of a further seven episodes the following year. This is generally decent undemanding entertainment with a few more serious moments. Recommended.

Monday, 2 January 2017

my new cult TV discoveries of 2016

It’s always fun revisiting old favourites but it’s even more exciting to discover a TV series that one hadn’t even heard of and that turns out to be pretty great.

My big discovery of that type in 2016 was The Protectors, made by Britain’s ABC Television in 1964. It’s an offbeat crime series about a firm that deals in security, insurance investigations and specialised private inquiry work. Some fine writing and some very solid acting. Excellent series and I recommend it highly.

Almost as exciting was my discovery of ITC’s quirky 1963 crime/adventure (with a large dash of humour) series The Sentimental Agent. Carlos Thompson makes a wonderfully suave tongue-in-cheek hero. It’s a low-key series but it has wit and it has style. I also highly recommend this one.

There was also Thames Television’s Zodiac, a 1974 paranormal crime series with a very large helping of comedy and romance. It doesn’t quite come off but it has its moments and the two likeable leads do help. It’s worth a look if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing although you might be advised to try a rental first.

I also made the acquaintance of the BBC’s 1960s and 1970s Francis Durbridge Presents serials. I’ve watched three so far and they were all extremely good - A Game of Murder, Bat Out of Hell and The Doll. Very much worth seeing.

Dangerous Knowledge, a six-part crime/espionage series made by Britain’s Southern Television in 1976, has a similar flavour - a bit gritty but without being grim or miserable. This one is very much worth checking out.

The BBC’s Moonbase 3 is a 1973 sci-fi series that really goes all-in for gritty psychological realism but it’s interesting enough to make it worth seeing.

All in all it was a pretty good year for me for TV discoveries!

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Lost In Space, season 1 (1965) - the beginnings

I’ve been watching some of the early first season episodes of Lost In Space. I have very fond memories of this series but revisiting the first few episodes has provided a few surprises.

Lost In Space was originally envisaged as a serious (or at least semi-serious) science fiction adventure series rather than the campfest it quickly became. The original concept can be seen pretty clearly in the first episode, The Reluctant Stowaway. The preparations for the launch of the Jupiter II are handled in a straightforward manner. Dr Zachary Smith is introduced to us as a US Air Force officer who has turned traitor and plans to sabotage the mission. His sabotage plans encounter one hitch - he had intended to be well clear of the spacecraft before its launch but he miscalculates the timing and ends up still aboard when the spaceship lifts off.

This is a Dr Smith who is certain scheming and cowardly but he’s not a mere figure of fun. He is a genuinely sinister villain. The role is not really played for laughs at all in The Reluctant Stowaway. The robot also has a sinister aspect, being the tool Dr Smith has chosen to wreck the spacecraft (and thereby cause the deaths of all its crew members). 

This opening episode actually works quite well as science fiction. In fact in some ways it’s more realistic than most television science fiction programs. The Jupiter II’s destination is the closest star system to Earth, Alpha Centauri, just over four light years away. We are told that the Robinsons will be in suspended animation for five years, which means the spacecraft will be traveling at something below light speed. So far the series scores surprisingly high for scientific plausibility. The assumption that spacecraft in 1997 would be powered by atomic motors must have seemed well within the bounds of probability in 1965. OK, towards the end it enters the world of television sci-fi pseudoscience but it’s remarkable that it maintains at least a degree of scientific plausibility for most of the first episode - that’s more than can be said for many other sci-fi series.

Most importantly, The Reluctant Stowaway is very exciting. It manages to give us the background information we need while still giving us plenty of plot and plenty of thrills.

Episode two, The Derelict, has a similar feel. Dr Smith remains sinister and menacing. The Jupiter II continues on its journey through space, narrowly dodging a comet and then encountering a very large and very strange spacecraft. Dr Smith has his own ideas about the origins of this spacecraft and is rather taken aback to discover that it really is an alien spaceship. The set design is quite imaginative and the aliens and much more interesting and more truly alien than most of the aliens we will encounter in later episodes. And they look rather cool. The Derelict, like The Reluctant Stowaway, is a pretty decent space adventure. 

In episode three, Island in the Sky, we can see the formula starting to fall into place. The Jupiter II crash lands on an unknown planet which brings the spaceflight adventure element of the series to an abrupt halt. For the first time we see the relationship between Dr Smith and the robot start to take on the comedic aspect that would come to dominate more and more. On the other hand Dr Smith (who is still referred to at times as Colonel Smith) is still pretty villainous in a fairly straightforwardly murderous way, and the robot is still more frightening than amusing. At this stage in the series it could have gone either way, either continuing as a relatively serious space adventure or making the switch to high camp comedy. We all know which way the series did in fact go.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no real complaints about the subsequent course taken by Lost in Space. It was a deliciously entertaining series and as far as high camp goes it doesn’t get much better than this. The byplay between Dr Smith and the robot was genuinely funny and Dr Smith remains quite justifiably one of the most beloved characters in television history. I’m very much a Lost in Space fan. It is however fascinating to get a glimpse of the alternative course the series could have charted. Would it have been as successful? There is of course no way of knowing.

What we can be fairly sure of is that sooner or later there would have been pressure from the network to lighten things up and play the situations for comedy rather than thrills. That seems to have been the almost inescapable pattern in 1960s American network television. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are notable examples of series that changed midway through their runs as a result of network interference and the obsession of the networks with treating science fiction and action adventure themes as lightheartedly as possibly. It was not a great strategy but no-one was able to convince the suits at the networks but maybe they were wrong.

By episode four, There Were Giants in the Earth, the formula has been pretty much locked in. Jonathan Harris is playing Dr Smith more for laughs than menace. The robot is becoming a comic relief character rather than a deadly menace. It’s becoming obvious that there’s going to be a monster in just about every episode and that the monsters will be somewhat on the silly side. There would still be the occasional more ambitious episode that tried to deal with relatively serious science fictional themes but the emphasis was going to be on light-hearted fun and monsters. Fortunately it would be a great deal of fun indeed and there’s no point in regretting the slightly more serious Lost in Space that was never to be.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Thriller, two musical episodes (1960-61)

The late 50s and early 60s was the great age of American television mystery/suspense anthology series and the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller is one of my favourites. Today I want to talk about two episodes that both deal with music and musicians, in very different ways and with varying levels of success. The episodes are The Terror in Teakwood and Papa Benjamin, both from the first season.

Both are stories about the price that a musician will pay for his art, a price that turns out to be much too high.

The Terror in Teakwood was written by Alan Caillou from a story by Harold Lawlor. It opens, in classic gothic style, in a graveyard. A man has bribed the caretaker to allow him to enter the mausoleum. What did this man want in the mausoleum? We don’t know but it certainly horrified the caretaker.

This is a story of two musicians, both great pianists, and bitter rivals. Carnowitz is now dead, but for the survivor, Vladimir Vicek (Guy Rolfe), the rivalry is far from over. Before he died his hated rival had composed a sonata that he alone could play - no-one else but Carnowitz was physically capable of playing it.

Vicek’s wife Leonie (Hazel Court) has become increasingly concerned about her husband. She suspects that someone is trying to kill him. She persuades her old flame Jerry Welch to take a job as Vicek’s manager in order to keep an eye on him. After an encounter with the creepy graveyard caretaker Gafke (Reggie Nalder) Welch knows that something is certainly going on and that it might have something to do with the teakwood box that seems to be so important to Vicek.

The plot borrows from a couple of classic 1930s horror movies but I won’t tell you which ones for fear of spoilers.

This episode was directed by Paul Henreid who had been a successful actor (best-known perhaps for Casablanca and Now, Voyager) before becoming a prolific television director. He does a fine job here. 

There’s an abundance of gothic atmosphere on display. The special effects work well. Guy Rolfe is terrific as the disturbingly obsessed Vicek. Hazel Court was one of the great cinematic scream queens appearing in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein and several of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies including the superb Masque of the Red Death. Reggie Nalder is wonderfully sinister as the sly Gafke.

Papa Benjamin was written by John Kneubuhl from a Cornell Woolrich short story. An American band leader, Eddie Wilson (John Ireland), in search of the musical inspiration which he feels has deserted him, thinks he has found the answer in voodoo. He does find his inspiration, but at a terrible cost. His choice then seems to be to kill or be killed.

Ted Post directed this episode and in the audio commentary he recorded for the Image Entertainment DVD set he has some very harsh things to say about it. He felt at the time that Kneubuhl’s script was incoherent and badly needed extra work and (with each episode having to be completed in just five days) there was no time to do this. He was also deeply unhappy with the casting (which was forced upon him) of John Ireland in the lead role. He felt that Ireland’s performance was one-note and failed to get to grips with the character. Post was also scathing about producer Maxwell Shane.

It has to be admitted that Post’s criticisms are perfectly valid. While Papa Benjamin is beautifully shot and very atmospheric the story never really engages our interest or our sympathy. It is impossible to care what happens to Eddie Wilson. He’s a flat and uninteresting character.

The voodoo scenes work extremely well and there are some very nice film noir-influenced shots.

Despite the insane pace at which Thriller was made, with constant pressures to keep within the shooting schedule and the budget, production values were always high and it was always a visually impressive series. Sometimes, as in The Terror in Teakwood, the results exceeded all expectations - the best Thriller episodes such as this one are among the most outstanding television achievement of their era. Sometimes, as was the case with Papa Benjamin, it didn’t quite work.

The Image Entertainment Thriller boxed set is superb and includes a wealth of audio commentaries. The transfers are excellent. 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Search for the Nile (1971)

It’s a rather different sort of program compared to most of those that I discuss here but The Search for the Nile is in its own way an astonishing television achievement. This is not a spy series or a science fiction series but a documentary-style historical drama about exploration. A mini-series centred on African exploration might sound dull but The Search for the Nile is anything but.

This was a very ambitious (and clearly very expensive) project for the BBC featuring a good deal of location shooting. The results are certainly impressive.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the hot topic in geographical circles was the source of the River Nile. In fact it had been a hot topic in geographical circles for around two thousand years and no-one was any closer to finding the answer.

This is more than just a story of exploration. It is a race. The rivalry between Captain Sir Richard Burton and Lieutenant John Hanning Speke for the honour of making the great discovery is an epic in itself. Burton and Speke undertook joint expeditions as well as solo expeditions and the relationship between the two men was uneasy and complex. It is difficult to imagine two men less suited to work together in harness and Burton’s decision to choose Speke to accompany him on his first major attempt to find the source of the Nile in 1856 is at first sight surprising. The one thing they had in common was the obsession to unravel this greatest of all geographical mysteries.

There was also another potential runner in this race. Scottish missionary David Livingstone  was rumoured to have an interest in finding the source of the Nile as well and the depth of Livingstone’s knowledge of Africa made him a formidable rival. There would be others joining the race later, most notably Sir Henry Morton Stanley.

Burton was one of the most extraordinary men of the nineteenth century (a century that produced more than its share of remarkable men). He initially gained fame as the first European non-Muslim to visit Mecca, an incredibly foolish and dangerous undertaking  as the city was absolutely off limits to non-Muslims. Burton mastered countless languages and gained as much fame as a translator of eastern classics as he did from his journeys of exploration. His interest in eastern erotica scandalised Victorian England. He immersed himself in non-European cultures to an extent that raised eyebrows. He was wildly eccentric and unconventional and nothing pleased him more than to shock English society.

Speke was more of an enigma, a man driven by burning ambition that led him to make great discoveries and tragic errors of judgment. Speke was rather straitlaced and while Burton was fascinated by other cultures Speke hated everything about Africa and its people. Their joint expedition would prove that they were disastrously ill-suited to the task of working together. 

The TV series deals not just with this one epic journey of exploration but with a whole series of expeditions led by an assortment of extraordinary larger-than-life and often eccentric characters - Burton, Speke, Livingstone, Samuel and Florence Baker and Henry Morton Stanley. The search for the source of the Nile proved to be elusive and frustrating. Each of the various expeditions filled in some of the missing pieces but it seemed that the final solution to the puzzle was always just out of reach.

The journeys of exploration make fascinating viewing and the personal dramas of these remarkable human beings provide even greater interest. 

The excellent cast is a major asset. Kenneth Haigh is splendidly extravagant and outrageous as Burton. Michael Gough is equally good as the obsessive, saintly but amiable Dr Livingstone. John Quentin landed the most challenging and potentially most thankless role as Speke. Speke’s motivations remain mysterious and although he gave the impression of being something of a straight arrow his conduct on several crucial occasions is difficult to explain except as the actions of a man whose excessive ambition drove him to behave selfishly and dishonourably. It isn’t easy to make Speke sympathetic but Quentin does manage to make him a tragic figure.

James Mason adds a touch of further class as the narrator.

The location shooting is stunning and by the standards of 1971 British television it’s really quite spectacular. 

This being 1971 the material is handled in a pretty even-handed manner with surprisingly little preachiness. The viewer is assumed to be capable of making his own judgments. It’s actually a little surprising that the BBC has finally allowed this series to be released on DVD - this is an historical series for grown-ups who do not require everything to be filtered through a lens of political correctness.

The Victorian era produced an immense number of colourful larger-than-life heroic figures like Richard Burton and (albeit in a very different way) David Livingstone. These were men whose achievements and virtues were on the grand scale, and at times their vices were on an equally grand scale. They were complex men and this series takes them seriously and generally speaking it takes them on their own terms without trying to judge them by late 20th century standards. The courageous and indomitable Florence Baker, who accompanied her husband Samuel on his expedition down the Nile, showed that Victorian women could be just as remarkable and just as heroic.

The Search for the Nile is intelligent literate television and it’s also immensely entertaining. Very highly recommended and it looks great on DVD.

Friday, 2 December 2016

A Game of Murder (1966)

Francis Durbridge wrote some very successful mystery novels (such as Send for Paul Temple) but his fame rested to a much greater extent on his prolific output of radio and television scripts. As a writer for these media he had few peers. 

He wrote no less than seventeen mystery serials for the BBC. The eight serials broadcast between 1952 and 1959 under the umbrella title The Francis Durbridge Serial are all lost. Fortunately ten of the eleven serials that went to air between 1960 and 1980 the title Francis Durbridge Presents survive in their entirety. Happily most are now available on DVD. The surviving episodes of the BBC's excellent 1969-71 Paul Temple TV series are also available on DVD.

A Game of Murder was screened in 1966 and stars Gerald Harper (who was also being seen in the BBC’s delightful adventure series Adam Adamant Lives! at about the same time).

A Game of Murder gets off to an excellent start with the first of its six 30-minute episodes. Bob Kerry, a once famous golfer who now runs a sporting goods store, is killed in a tragic accident on the golf course. His son, Detective Inspector Jack Kerry (Gerald Harper), cannot bring himself to accept the verdict of accidental death. He has no evidence to the contrary, just a feeling that something is not quite right. 

The first indication that his suspicions may be justified comes from his father’s housekeeper’s dog. The dog had been missing for a week. Finally someone answers the advertisement that Jack Kerry had placed in the newspaper. Jack goes to collect the dog and that’s when things begin to get puzzling. 

And this is when Durbridge’s plot really starts to throw some delightfully odd twists and turns at the viewer. A freak golfing accident, a blonde in a car, a collection of photographs, a missing dog, a missing dog collar, a man in a wheelchair and a small donation to a charity - how on earth can so many odd little details possibly be connected? Nonetheless Inspector Jack Kerry is convinced they are connected. And all this is just in the first half-hour episode!

With his experience writing for radio Durbridge understood the serial format very well. Each episode has to have a cliffhanger ending and he does a fine job in providing them.

I was pretty confident I knew the identity of the chief bad guy very early on but I turned out to be totally wrong. Beware of red herrings! 

Jack Kerry is actually on leave at the time of his father’s death so the investigating officer is Detective Inspector Ed Royce (David Burke). Jack is draw into the case anyway and his relationship with Ed Royce becomes slightly uneasy as he starts to feel that Ed doesn’t believe him. Jack’s relationship with his boss, Chief Superintendent Bromford (Conrad Phillips), is even more uneasy since some of Jack’s actions could be, and are, misinterpreted.

Jack is going to need some help from the blonde in the car mentioned earlier, Kathy White (June Barry), but the difficulty is that he can’t be sure how far he can trust her and she can’t be sure how much she trusts him. The man in the wheelchair is a problem too, as is his wife, as is the pet shop owner who sold the mysterious vanishing dog collar, and then there’s the man who accidently killed Jack’s father in that golfing accident. Not to mention his housekeeper and her very smooth nephew, and even the mild-mannered manager of Jack’s father’s sporting goods store. Any one of these people could be mixed up in the conspiracy and Jack doesn’t even know the nature of the conspiracy.

It’s 1966 so naturally it’s all very studio-bound but it’s a story that relies on good writing and acting rather than spectacle so that’s not a problem.

The late 60s was a period of transition for British television crime dramas, with a move away from the dedicated and loveable bobbies of Dixon of Dock Green towards a harder-edged more self-consciously realistic style that in the 70s would eventually lead to The Sweeney. A Game of Murder marks an early stage in this transition. There are hints of the seamy underside of life but it’s still relatively genteel (very genteel indeed compared to The Sweeney) and there’s no graphic violence whatsoever. 

There’s also just about no action. Durbridge was still content to rely on the classic techniques of the mystery/suspense story and he happened to be very adept at those techniques.

Gerald Harper gives a very fine performance as Jack Kerry, certainly much more restrained than his delightfully bravura turn in Adam Adamant Lives! but he’s sympathetic and convincing. David Burke and Conrad Phillips are equally impressive.

Danann have released A Game of Murder on an all-region DVD in the UK but it’s rather pricey. Much much better value is the Australian Region 4 release from Madman - their Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 1 boxed set is substantially cheaper and includes A Game of Murder and three other serials. The transfer is also slightly better on Madman’s Region 4 release. 

A Game of Murder is a fine old-fashioned mystery tale and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

You might also be interested in my review of the 1975 Francis Durbridge Presents serial The Doll.