Francis Durbridge (1912-1998) had a very successful career as a novelist and playwright but achieved his greatest fame as a writer of mysteries for radio and television. His best-known creation was amateur sleuth Paul Temple who featured in several novels, four movies, numerous radio plays and the very successful 1969-71 BBC television series Paul Temple.
Between 1952 and 1980 Durbridge wrote no less than seventeen television serials for the BBC. These were aired under the umbrella title A Francis Durbridge Serial until 1959 and thereafter under the title Francis Durbridge Presents. The early serials from the 1950s are now lost but happily those produced between 1963 and 1980 survive. Their availability on DVD is patchy to say the least. One of the later serials, The Doll, is however available on a German DVD and the good news is that this release includes the original English soundtrack version.
Francis Durbridge was one of those English mystery writers, like Edgar Wallace, who was at least as popular in Europe as he was in his own country.
The Doll, comprising three one-hour episodes, was originally broadcast in 1975.
Publisher Peter Matty (John Fraser) has had a series of rather disturbing experiences. On a flight from Geneva to London he met a rather charming woman, Phyllis Du Salle (Anouska Hempel). Her husband had died six months earlier in slightly mysterious circumstances. Peter is pretty thoroughly smitten with Phyllis and he has reason to think she is somewhat interested in him. He is understandably upset when she disappears. Then she telephones him, and then she vanishes again.
Peter is becoming so confused he almost feels he is going mad. Obviously one or more people involved in this saga are lying and covering something up but there seems to be no way of knowing who is telling the truth and who is lying.
The plot has an abundance of twists and turns and every time Peter thinks he’s finally figured things out something else happens to make him realise he’s been on entirely the wrong track. What really happened to Phyllis’s husband? Why did the photographer switch the photos? What is his journalist friend Max (Derek Fowlds) up to and why is he so jumpy? Why did Claude fly to Rome when he was supposed to be heading for Scotland? What is the message that Sir Arnold’s housekeeper has for him? Who is the mysterious Osborne (William Russell) and where does he fit into the picture? What is the significance of the doll floating face down in Peter’s bathtub? Can Peter trust any of these people? Can he trust his own mind?
Peter Matty is a sympathetic if sometimes hapless hero. John Fraser gives a fine performance, without ever overdoing things, as a man on the edge. Anouska Hempel’s career was not terribly distinguished but she was actually quite a competent actress (as she proved in the underrated and very quirky 1974 crime series Zodiac). She does a pretty reasonable job as the glamorous but enigmatic Phyllis.
Derek Fowlds is excellent as the likeable but slippery Max. William Russell, despite a rather outrageous hairstyle, is able to make Osborne suitably mysterious.
David Askey was a reliable television director and while there’s nothing spectacularly inspired about his work here he gets the job done and maintains the tension quite effectively.
It’s Francis Durbridge’s writing that is the main attraction here and he delivers the goods. With all the plot twists the story remains plausible and intriguing.
The German DVD (under the title Die Puppe) offers a reasonably good transfer with both German and English soundtracks. Although the menus are in German selecting the English-language version presents no real difficulties.
The Doll is quality television, a thoroughly enjoyable and well-crafted mystery thriller. Highly recommended.