Sunday 1 June 2014

Sergeant Cork, season 1 (1963)

Sergeant Cork was a British ATV crime series devised by Ted Willis that ran from 1963 to 1968.

The idea was to do a series set in the Victorian era, but with a police detective as hero rather than a Sherlock Holmes-style private investigator. Since most actual detective stories of that era focused on the Sherlock Holmes type of detective the decision was made to create an entirely new character and to rely on entirely original stories.

The late Victorian era seemed ideal. Official police detectives had existed before then but this was the period that saw such officers beginning to adopt recognisably modern and even scientific methods of solving crime. The central character, Detective-Sergeant Cork (played by John Barrie), would be an officer who personified the new police methods.

Sergeant Cork has a side-kick in the person of Bob Marriott (played by William Gaunt who went on to star in the cult favourite series The Champions). Marriott is introduced in the first episode as a young man who has tried various professions, with a singular lack of success. Now he has used personal connections to secure for himself the opportunity to pursue a new career as a police detective. He is given a chance, initially on probation. Marriott turns out to have, surprisingly, something of a flair for the job. Sergeant Cork is in desperate need of an assistant and he sees Marriott as the sort of keen intelligent young man he can mould into the kind of forward-thinking detective officer Scotland Yard will need in the future.

John Barrie does a splendid job. Cork is a bit of an eccentric, rather gruff and very blunt, but a dedicated policeman who lives for the job. Barrie manages to make him more than just the stereotypical gruff older cop with a heart of gold. William Gaunt is equally impressive as the slightly bumptious but enthusiastic Marriott and he and Barrie play off one another perfectly.

The stories are, by the standards of police procedurals, not particularly complex. The identity of the criminal is usually fairly obvious. This may have been a deliberate choice, with the intention of showing a detective solving the everyday sorts of cases he would really be dealing with rather than with far-fetched but ingenious locked-room mysteries or “impossible crime” stories. Some of the stories are a little more adventurous. On the whole the series succeeds fairly well in giving a impression of real policemen investigating plausible cases.

The first season (which is all I’ve seen so far) has the typical very studio-bound feel of 1960s British television. There’s virtually no location shooting at all, in fact in the episodes I’ve seen so far there’s absolutely none at all. Fortunately viewers of the time would have expected a crime series set in Victorian times to feature a great deal of fog, and fog is wonderfully good for covering up the fact that everything is taking place in the studio. The feel of the period is captured reasonably realistically (or at least it conforms to the popular conception of the period created by the Sherlock Holmes stories).

The series proved to a great success, eventually running to six seasons and a total of sixty-six episodes. The producers were lucky enough to be able to keep the partnership between John Barrie and William Gaunt intact throughout the entire six seasons.

The first season gets off to an impressive start with The Case of the Reluctant Widow, a case of poisoning that provides a considerable challenge to Sergeant Cork’s deductive powers an offers him the opportunity to demonstrate the importance of professional police methods. It sets the tone for the series very effectively.

The second episode, The Case of the Girl Upstairs, is even stronger. The new “science” of psychology was becoming fashionable in the 1890s and this story is a dark twisted little domestic tragedy involving a sinister psychiatrist. 

These were the days before Special Branch had been created and on occasion Sergeant Cork has to deal with terrorism and international intrigue, as in the very fine episode The Case of the Persistent Assassin.

In keeping with the series’ intention to portray the work of the police realistically Sergeant Cork’s cases are not all sensational murders (although there are a few such cases). 

As is inevitable in any series set in the past the present does occasionally intrude, with characters expressing views that are rather too much of the 1960s to be convincingly Victorian. On occasions it falls into the easy trap of portraying the upper classes as nasty and stupid and the working class as the noble downtrodden poor. In the 1960s though television producers at least made some effort to portray the past authentically whereas today period dramas are populated entirely by 21st century characters, making the whole exercise completely pointless. Generally speaking Sergeant Cork doesn’t offend too badly in this respect.

Network DVD have released all six seasons in single-season boxed sets. Picture quality is about as good as can be expected for a 1960s shot-on-videotape series.

Sergeant Cork is fine entertainment. Recommended.


  1. Just watched the first three episodes. Great viewing.

  2. I have watched all six series. Excellent, just excellent. They don't make them like this anymore!