Thursday 17 September 2015

Campion - Look to the Lady (1989)

The BBC’s Campion series, which went to air from 1989 to 1990, is a bit outside the usual frame of reference for this blog. It is however a wonderful series very much in the tradition of the golden age of British television, a tradition which has now sadly been lost. Campion is notable as being one of the three detective series, along with Granada’s Sherlock Holmes series and the early seasons of the BBC’s Poirot series (before it lost its way), that represented the last great flowering of British television drama. Campion was developed for television by John Hawkesworth who had also been responsible for Granada’s Sherlock Holmes as well as many other superb series including The Gold Robbers.

Campion was based on the novels of Margery Allingham. I have to say that I’m not a great fan of Allingham’s books but the TV series manages to capture everything that is good about them. It’s also visually gorgeous of course.

Much of the success of Campion is due to the casting of Peter Davison as Albert Campion and Brian Glover as his ex-burglar crime-solving colleague, manservant and general factotum Magersfontein Lugg. Davison is a very deceptive actor - his performances seem so effortless it’s easy not to notice just how good he is. He brings a great deal of charm and humour to his performance but at the same time we’re always aware that underneath the good humour and gentle frivolity Campion is a very determined and very formidable detective.

Lugg is a fabulous larger-than-life character. Brian Glover’s performance is equally larger-than-life and excessive and he pushes it almost, but not quite, to the point of parody. Lugg provides plenty of comedy but he’s a shrewd operator and in his own way quite formidable as well.

Production values were very high indeed. The costumes are stunning, there are superb vintage cars (including Campion’s superb Lagonda sports car), beautiful sets and some glorious location shooting. The BBC has always had a reputation for being penny-pinching but in its glory days when it did period dramas it certainly did them well. Production designer Ken Ledsham really excelled himself in Look to the Lady.

Look to the Lady was the first of the four two-part stories comprising the first season. The story concerns a conspiracy to steal a priceless medieval chalice from the ancestral home of the Gyrth family. The chalice is the subject of local legends. In fact there are lots of local legends - of haunted windowless rooms, witchcraft, family curses, haunted woods, mysterious initiation ceremonies. In fact there are all the trappings of classic gothic fiction. The story will also feature gypsies, a killer horse and a monster. Campion in fact describes this adventure as a fairy tale although it is obvious he believes that any monsters he uncovers will (probably) turn out to be all-too-human monsters.

The chalice has attracted a swarm of rather choice characters from the London underworld  including several who have shared accommodation with Lugg in the past in several of His Majesty’s better-known prisons. These cracksmen, thugs and other assorted criminals are sinister enough but the chalice has attracted a plague of even more unsavoury types - sandal-wearing bohemian artist types from Bloomsbury.

Notable faces in the supporting cast include Gordon Jackson as an archaeologist/historian neighbour of the Gyrth family who may well know quite a bit about the history of the chalice. And the Gyrth Chalice has quite a history - and a rather surprising one.

It’s all played fairly tongue-in-cheek, but not irritatingly so. The plot itself is rather weak and the solution probably won’t come as a major surprise. However the execution is so flawless and  it all looks so splendid that one can willingly overlook this minor failing.

Look to the Lady is hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Campion is available on DVD in Region 1 in two rather pricey season sets, or in Region 2 in a much better value complete series set.

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