TV mysteries


HOLBY/BLUE “Episode One.” BBC, 08 May 2007. Cal Macaninch as DI John Keenan, Richard Harrington as DS Luke French, Elaine Glover as PC Lucy Slater, and large recurring ensemble cast. Created by Tony Jordan as a spin-off from the established TV medical drama Holby City; also screenwriter. Director: Martin Hutchings. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

   This BBC series might be categorized as police procedural/soap opera drama. It takes place in a small overworked police station in the fictional town of Holby, somewhere in England. This, the first episode of the first of two seasons opens with the well-worn concept of a new copper arriving (DS Luke French) and being introduced (and learning to adjust to) his new partner (DI John Keenan). At the same time, it is also the first day that a crop of new recruits are on the job, including a PC Lucy Slater, a young eager-to-go but klutzy blonde.

   It’s a day like all others, or is it, the new guy wonders. A known pedophile is about to be released for lack of evidence; a husband with a compulsive disorder is convinced that his wife is cheating on him; and Keenan – a maverick who hates playing my the rules — smashes the tail light of the car of the new male friend of his soon to be ex-wife. French bears up to all this with calmness and remarkable composure; and Lucy Slater is able to redeem herself in the eyes of her colleagues.

   It’s done well and at the same time completely by the book. Very slick, in other words. I probably won’t watch another, but then again, I might.  On the other hand, I never watched but one episode of Hill Street Blues either.
   

ANNIKA “Captain Ahab’s Wife.” Alibi, UK, 17 August 17 2021 (series 1, episode 1). Nicola Walker as DI Annika Strandhed, Jamie Sives as DS Michael McAndrews, Katie Leung as DC Blair Ferguson, Ukweli Roach as DS Tyrone Clarke, Kate Dickie as DCI Diane Oban, Silvie Furneaux as Morgan, Annika’s teenage daughter. Based on the BBC Radio 4 drama Annika Strandhed, created by Nick Walker, who also developed it for TV and wrote this episode. Currently streaming on PBS.

   This episode begins with Annika beginning a new position as the lead detective for a new Marine Homicide Unit in Glasgow, and as usual, she as a single mother, has her teenage daughter in tow and starting at a new school.

   If the word “truculent” didn’t exist, it would have to be created just for the daughter. Or maybe “sullen,” but who can blame her? Dragged off to a new city with no friends, just like so many shows just like this one.

   What makes this one different is the “breaking of the fourth wall” aspect, as every so often Annika turns to the camera and starts telling the audience what she’s thinking at the time. This is while action is still going on, not by having her step off to the side to do so. Many of the reviewers on IMDb hate this.

   I admit being taken by surprise the first time it happened, but I think it’s, well, almost charming and (in my opinion) certainly well done.

   On Annika’s very first day not only does she have to get used to her new leadership role, but she and her team have a murder to solve: the death of a excursion boat captain who has  been fatally stabbed by a harpoon. The case is a bit of a challenge, but she’s up to the task, in spite of the several clichés involved in the basic setup. That’s probably her bigger job, as time goes on. Thus far there has been only the one season, consisting of six episodes.

   

TROPIQUES CRIMINELS (aka Deadly Tropics) “Les Anses d’Arlet.” French TV, 11 November 2019 (Season 1, Episode 1). Sonia Rolland (Mélissa Sainte-Rose), Béatrice de la Boulaye (Gaëlle Crivelli), and a large ensemble cast. Currently streaming on MHz.

   Take a couple of mismatched male detectives in L.A. (forgive me if this sounds familiar), make them both female, move them to Martinique, and give them all sorts of quirks and other baggage, and what you get is a TV series very much along the lines of Tropiques Criminels. Sonia Rolland plays the thinner one (she looks very much like a runway model), while Béatrice de la Boulaye plays the chunkier one (short but peppery).

   Rolland’s character is by-the-books solid; de la Boulaye is wacky and often all but out of control, and every once in a while you can forget the “all but.” Rolland’s character arrives in Martinique from Paris under pressure (her ex-husband also on the force was also quite crooked), and she has two children who do not like having had to move. de la Boulaye has an ex-boy friend who has cheated on her.

   I’m sure you get the picture. This, their first case they are given to solve together, has to do with a dead man who apparently arrived home to find it in the process of being robbed. The case is solved rather easily, but the investigation is not really the point. What the focus is this time around is getting to know the two main characters, first of all, then the other members of the ensemble cast.

   The setting is of course beautiful, but I don’t think it’s likely that this series will follow the lead of Death in Paradise, another series taking place on an island in the middle of the Caribbean – the latter’s specialty consisting of formal clues and strange, usually impossible crimes taking place.

   That’s not where I expect this one to be headed. No matter. Clichés and all, everyone seems to be in well-synced accord with the roles they are playing, and I enjoyed this more than I expected to. It will be interesting to follow along and see what sorts of criminous escapades they get into next. (So far there have been two seasons of eight episodes each.)

   

TENSPEED AND BROWN SHOE “The Robin Tucker’s Roseland Roof and Ballroom Murder.” ABC, 03 February 1980 (Season 1, Episode 3). Ben Vereen (E. L. “Tenspeed” Turner), Jeff Goldblum (Lionel Whitney). Guest Cast: Elayne Heilveil, John Pleshette, Leo Gordon. Created & written by Stephen J. Cannell. Director: Arnold Laven. Currently streaming  at the Shout Factory website

   As I recall, whenever I’ve found the series available, whether streaming online or on DVD, the first two episodes, comprising a two-part pilot, has not been included. And so, as a direct consequence, I’ve never been properly introduced to the two main characters in this quite enjoyable comedy slash mystery show – the main question being how these two quite opposite fellows got paired up in the first place. The second question I still have is how they got their nicknames, which are barely mentioned in this one, if at all.

   I could use a helping hand, in other words. And on this blog, that’s what the comments are for.

   Based only on this third episode then, Ben Vereen (Tenspeed) is a fast talking con man who ia apparently out on parole, while Jeff Goldblum (Brown Shoe) is a former accountant who has always dreamed of becoming a PI, and now here he is as one. He’s quite the opposite in personality to his new partner, being uptight and unwilling to be in any way shady in how he operates.

   This one begins with the latter receiving a thousand dollar bill by private courier, along with the halves of two others. He is promised the other two halves if the job he is offered is accomplished correctly: to find a young girl with only a photo and address to go on. As it so happens, she is a very naive dime-a-dance girl at a 1940s era dance hall, apparently with no adjustment for inflation, and the story goes on from there. Quite naturally as in stories such as this, bodies pile up more quickly than we the viewer even know who they are or were. It is equally obvious that more than one party wants to find the girl.

   It’s all done in solid tongue-in-cheek fashion, with full awareness of all the well-established tropes of the PI novel, with dialogue to match. One phrase that I remember was along the lines of “the fat man had more chins than the Hong Kong phone directory.” And the two stars appear to be having a good time with all the fun and games they are asked to play. I don’t know what reaction yours might be, but I had as much fun with this one as the two players seem to have had.

   

   

THE CLOSER. “Pilot.” TNT, 13 June 2005 (Season 1, Episode 1). Kyra Sedgwick (Brenda Leigh Johnson), J. K. Simmons (Will Pope), Corey Reynolds, Robert Gossett, and a large ensemble cast. Guest star: Allison Smith. Written by James Duff. Directed by Michael M. Robin. Currently streaming on HBOMax.

   One of the bigger hits on cable non-network TV, The Closer was on for seven summers on TNT before transforming itself into Major Crimes, a spinoff which continued on and lasted for another six years. You can’t tell me why I’m so slow, because I don’t know myself, but when I watched this, the pilot for the first season, it was the first episode I’ve ever seen of either series.

   And now I’m kicking myself, as I enjoyed this one immensely. As all good pilots do, it introduces the major players clearly and emphatically, while at the same time telling a good story, one with a bit of a twist at the end. Admittedly we do get to know the lesser members of the ensemble cast only in passing. To all intents and purposes, this is a one-woman show, Kyra Sedgwick as no-nonsense, ass-kicking Brenda Johnson, who is hired from outside to head up LAPD’s Priority Homicide Division.

   Her blunt personality wins her no friends on the force. Other than Brenda’s new boss, Will Pope, who hired her, all of the others turn in their resignations about 20 minutes into this first episode. I don’t know how long into the season it will take for her to win all of them over for good, but by the time she’s cracked her first case, it appears that she’s received at  a small modicum of respect, at least, grudgingly as it may be.

   And as far as the case is concerned, when the mutilated and burned body of a woman is found in the home of a high-tech millionaire, who has disappeared. Strangely, none of his fingerprints are in the house, only the victim’s. Brenda’s trademarked final closing scene is what it takes to induce a confession from the killer, an ending that clearly and forcefully delivered, the first of many to come.

   

IRONSIDE. “The Leaf in the Forest.” NBC, 21 September 1967 (Season One, Episode Two). Raymond Burr (Robert T. Ironside), Don Galloway (Det. Sgt. Ed Brown), Barbara Anderson (Officer Eve Whitfield), Don Mitchell (Mark Sanger). Guest Cast: John Larch, Edward Andrews, Barbara Barrie, John Rubinstein, Bert Freed. Director: Leo Penn. Currently available online.

   The basic setup for the series was established, in a TV movie entitled Ironside (March 28, 1967), but I’ve not seen that since it first aired, so I can’t provide any details beyond the following: Robert Ironside was a member of San Francisco Police Department until was crippled in an accident and confined to a wheelchair. Not wanting his expertise go to waste, he was hired as a consultant and given two liaison officers (Eve Whitfield and Ed Brown) to work for him, along with a personal driver (of a custom-fitted armored car).

   The title of this episode comes from an old “Persian” saying along the lines of “The best place to hide a book is in a library, to hide a man is in a city, and to hide a leaf is in a forest.” Ironside quotes this to his crew when the death of an old woman in her apartment appears to be the sixth victim of a serial killer menacing the serial. The m.o. appears to be the same, but Ironside sees some crucial differences.

   Raymond Burr was of course fresh from a long run as TV’s Perry Mason, and his popularity easily continued on to this series, which lasted eight seasons. As Robert Ironside, he was extremely observant and made an obvious effort to push his assistants to think the way he did, and not much succeeding, at least in this episode. Perhaps they got better.

   In any case, by challenging them with the clues, he was doing the same for the benefit of the viewer, but without calling the members of his TV audience “children,” as he does on a couple of occasions, with some exasperation.

   All in all, it’s a fairly easy case to solve, but it’s fun to see the cast as they start to come to grips with their roles. Of the guest stars, Barbara Barrie stood out way ahead of the others, as a wife faced with the hard decision to give her husband [PLOT WARNING!] an alibi for the killing or not.

   

  MARKHAM. “Coffin for Cinderella.” CBS, 04 February 1960 (Season 2, Episode 34.) Ray Milland (Roy Markham). Guest Cast: Gloria Talbott, J. Pat O’Malley. Screenwriter: Jonathan Latimer. Director: John Rich. Currently available on YouTube.

   Oh, for the life of a private eye. Taking a business trip by train from New York to Florida, Markham is surprised by a young girl (Gloria Talbot) coming into his compartment with a porter and greeting him with a kiss and announcing herself as his wife. Maybe I don’t take trains often enough, but such a thing never happened to me, and if you were to tell me it’s happened to you, I wouldn’t believe you.

   It turns out that (a) she’s just inherited $33,000,000, (b) someone’s tried to kill her in her bedroom while sleeping, (c) she’s on her way to stay with her uncle for safety, and (d) two men are following her. All good reasons for Markham to take her on as a client until he finds out who’s behind all this. It doesn’t hurt that this Cinderella heiress is also very attractive and just a little  flirty.

   Markham the TV show was on CBS for two seasons. Markham the character was one of those PI’s who are independently wealthy and could take (or turn down) cases at his own choosing. In spite of a well-known mystery writer coming up with this week’s story line, at only 30 minutes long, there aren’t enough characters to choose from as being the one behind the attacks on Markham’s client, and the crucial clue is truthfully a bit of a stretch.

   On the other hand, I can always watch anything with Gloria Talbot in it (last seen by me in an episode of Conflict and reviewed here).

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

DICK BARTON: SPECIAL AGENT. Southern TV, UK, 1979. Tony Vogel (Dick Barton), Anthony Heaton (Snowey White), James Cosmo (Jock Anderson). Creator/screenwriter: Norman Collins. Other screenwriters: Julian Bond, Clive Exton.

   Back when radio was the most significant medium for home entertainment, fifteen million people would listen nightly to Dick Barton: Special Agent, an action adventure serial replete with cliff-hangers and derring-do, on the Light Programme. It followed the adventures of former commando Captain Richard Barton and his two friends ‘Snowy’ White and ‘Jock’ Anderson as they repelled the plans of various criminal masterminds and somehow escaped the perilous traps that were repeatedly set for them.

   The radio serial ran between 1946 and 1951, usually at 6.45 pm, for fifteen minutes apiece. 711 episodes were made, all written by Geoffrey Webb and Edward J. Mason, and each adhering to the thirteen rules of conduct which decreed that Dick could not use bad language, drink alcohol or use a knife to harm. Apart from the hero’s name and the adventure it evokes, the serial is best remembered for its theme tune, “The Devil’s Gallop,” a rousing and rambunctious slice of genius by composer Charles Williams which makes one want to dash about the room and press against the wall as though hiding from fiendish saboteurs.

   The nanny state killed the show off after five years in the belief that it was damaging to the dear young children. By this time, however, the show was a nationwide phenomenon, spawning a behind-the-scenes book, another volume of short stories and three films from Hammer Studios (at the time, best known for making thrillers, not horrors). The BBC then replaced it with a rustic drama named The Archers, the theme tune of which must have made every red-blooded adventurer used to Barton’s buccaneering wish for another war.

   The late 1970s saw a minor revival for Dick and his friends. A somewhat sparsely written but nonetheless enjoyable book, novelising three of the radio serials, was published in 1977. That same year, filming took place on a televised series of new adventures. Made by Southern Television, a small ITV company, each episode lasted ten minutes (excluding commercials) and shown on Saturdays and Sundays from January to April 1979.

   The 32 episodes starred Tony Vogel as Barton, Anthony Heaton as ‘Snowy’ and James Cosmo as ‘Jock’ and comprised four adventures, each lasting between six and ten parts each. Typically for its time, the serial was shot on video, a format which can make the most expensive television look cheap. Such an impression, in this instance, would be accurate as there were apparently several budgetary issues which undermined the production of the programme.

   This is mostly apparent in the sometimes dodgy direction work, though it can only be imagined that the director was doing his best with the little he had. The location work – usually one of the most costly features of scripted television – is plentiful and the acting is more or less solid throughout. As you would expect from such a short serial, the whole thing runs like the clappers, and the scripts – many by Clive Exton, who would later bring Poirot and Jeeves & Wooster to television – wisely play it straight throughout. There is, of course, the odd bit of wince-inducing dialogue, but all such things can be waved away as attempts at period authenticity.

   The first adventure sees an old bird named Sir Richard Marley call on Barton when his daughter Virginia and son Rex go missing. They have been kidnapped by the dastardly foreigner Melganik, who plans on substituting tobacco with reefer and thus turning the whole of Britain into “drug fiends”. The story lasts ten parts, co-stars future Strictly Come Dancing contestant Fiona Fullerton and memorably includes the old walls-closing-in-with-spikes routine.

   The second adventure, in eight parts, starts a little too similarly as a young girl – this time an old acquaintance of Jock’s – is in danger when her scientist father is kidnapped by the evil Muller. The third serial ties in neatly with the first two and involves a disappearing house, while the last adventure sees the team encounter a couple of menacing, Kray-like gangsters.

   The series is available on DVD and can sometimes be seen nightly on Talking Pictures TV – which is how I saw it. Tony Vogel is outstanding in the part of Barton. He takes it all seriously, remains believable in the period, and can even be tough when he wants to be. The whole thing is basically a children’s show, of course, but it was always going to be and is none the worse for it.

   The only downside is the brevity of the episodes: it may have made more of an impact had it been shown in half-hour instalments, like Doctor Who. As it was, for whatever reason, the show was not a success and was quickly forgotten. The production company itself folded within a couple of years.
Dick Barton did not return again until the late ‘90s and then only on stage in live theatre (perhaps inevitably, as he had already featured in every other medium). With only four cast members, the nine plays were comedy-musicals which parodied the brand, boasted innuendo and were mostly staged at Croydon’s now-closed Warehouse Theatre.

   The last we have so far heard from Dick and his friends is, funnily enough, due to the TV version. The series produced four novelizations and one of them, The Mystery of the Missing Formula, was released in 2010 on CD and read by a thoroughly game Toby Stephens.

   After all these years, I don’t think anyone is quite sure just why a British private detective is walking around calling himself a special agent, but I certainly hope he makes another come-back at some point. Cue music!

   

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins

   

   Happy New Year! Over the nearly two decades I’ve been writing these columns, I’ve always tried to make sure I knew what I was talking about. This time I know very little about my subject, but no one else seems to know more.

   Recently I found myself getting interested in an over sixty year old TV detective series which, when it was running, I never watched. Nor, it seems, did the overwhelming majority of Americans. THE INVESTIGATORS aired on CBS from early October till late December of 1961, a total of thirteen 60-minute episodes. James Franciscus, James Philbrook and Mary Murphy starred as three detectives specializing in insurance cases. Most episodes featured one well-known movie star — Claire Trevor, Miriam Hopkins, Jane Wyman and Mickey Rooney, just to name four.

   The Internet Movie Database provides cast lists for each episode but no plot summaries, which I dug out from my TV Guide collection. What mainly sparked my interest was that, according to the IMDb, every one of the thirteen hour-long episodes was directed by the same man, whom I happened to know well and who in fact was the subject of one of my books.

   The director in question was Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000), on whose boat the Buena Vista I taped the conversations that became the raw material for the only book about him published in his lifetime. In 1937, after a few years as a film editor, Joe had become a director and made some superb 60-minute Westerns, usually starring Bill Elliott, Charles Starrett or Johnny Mack Brown, each of them brimming with visual excitement; pictures that earned him the moniker of “Wagon Wheel Joe,” thanks to his habit of shooting scenes through the spokes of guess what.

   After World War II he became involved with what would soon become known as film noir, helming pictures like MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946) and, best known of all, the classics GUN CRAZY (1949) and THE BIG COMBO (1955).

   In the early 1950s he suffered a major heart attack and was unable to work for a year. Near the end of that decade he moved from the big screen to the small, signing a generous long-term contract with Four Star, one of the top TV series production companies, whose executives wanted him to concentrate on THE RIFLEMAN (ABC, 1958-63), the iconic Western series created by Sam Peckinpah and starring Chuck Connors.

   “They wanted me to direct every show in the series. I said ‘Hell no, I won’t do that!’” The compromise they reached was that he’d work one week a month preparing and shooting an episode of THE RIFLEMAN or some other Four Star series. The rest of the time he’d relax on his boat. Under this arrangement he helmed 51 RIFLEMAN episodes over five years, plus two segments of THE DETECTIVES (ABC, 1958-61; NBC, 1961-62), a cop show starring Robert Taylor, and one story for Four Star’s anthology series ALCOA THEATRE.

   There’s no question that, on loan-out from Four Star, he did some work on THE INVESTIGATORS. “I wanted to do a close-up shot of [James] Franciscus’s hands,” Joe told me, “and I couldn’t do it because of the awful way his fingernails looked. He was a nail-biter.” But would he have agreed to direct an hour-long episode every week when just three years earlier his heart attack had led him to refuse to do more than one 30-minute show a month? In the immortal words of Eliza Doolittle, not bloody likely.

   If only we could check the credits on the 13 episodes of THE INVESTIGATORS, we’d know who directed them, but we can’t. Apparently the only segment that survives is “The Oracle” (12 October 1961), guest-starring Lee Marvin as a religious cult leader, which exists only in a truncated form, minus credits.

   But from what I’ve dug up it seems to have been an interesting little series. Its main claim to historical importance is that one of the three protagonists, played by Mary Murphy, was apparently the first licensed female PI character to star in a TV series.

   For devotees of Cornell Woolrich a further attraction is that two episodes seem to be rooted in the work of that dark angel of suspense. In “I Thee Kill” (26 October 1961) the investigators set out to clear a man (Mickey Rooney) who was in the crowd outside a church when the fellow who was about to marry the suspect’s girlfriend was shot dead. Doesn’t that sound just a bit like a variant on Woolrich’s THE BRIDE WORE BLACK?

   More clearly borrowed from a Woolrich premise is “Death Leaves a Tip” (30 November 1961), in which Franciscus and Murphy recruit a shy young waitress to serve as bait to trap a serial killer who’s preying on members of her profession. Unmistakably this is Woolrich’s 1938 classic “Dime a Dance,” also known as “The Dancing Detective,” with a different female job specialty. The guest star in this one was Jane Wyman, one of whose earliest credited movie roles was as the female lead in THE SPY RING (1938), an espionage drama directed by (can you guess?) Joseph H. Lewis, but this is hardly evidence that Joe helmed her episode of THE INVESTIGATORS.

   I touched base with an old friend who has one of the world’s largest collections of TV episodes from the Fifties and Sixties on video and he told me he had never even heard of THE INVESTIGATORS. I exchanged emails with a man whose biography of Joe Lewis will probably be published this year and he knew nothing more about the series than I did. Dead end. Game over. Case closed.

***

   I had hoped that this column would take me on a voyage of discovery that I could share, but the ship seems to have gotten itself grounded. Luckily I made another discovery late last year, and this is a genuine find. While fumbling around YouTube I came across a composition by my beloved Bernard Herrmann that I’d never heard before, a very early piece written when he was around 22 and never published or performed until after his death.

   What’s most fascinating about his Sinfonietta for String Orchestra (1936) is that it sounds very much as if it were a 15-minute excerpt from his score for PSYCHO, a quarter century later, that Hitchcock never used. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: No one does ominous like Herrmann does ominous. Check out the Sinfonietta and hear for yourself:
   

THE SAINT “The Careful Terrorist.” ITC, UK, 18 October 1962 (Season 1, episode 3.) Roger Moore (Simon Templar), Percy Herbert (Hoppy), Alan Gifford (Inspector Fernack). Guest Cast: David Kossoff, Peter Dyneley, Sally Bazely. Based on a story by Leslie Charteris. Directed by John Ainsworth. Currently streaming on the Shout Factory channel.

   This third episode in the long-running The Saint series starring Roger Moore is only a little better than average, but it does have a few things to note about it. First of all, it has Simon Templar living comfortably in a New York City apartment, complete with a manservant named Hoppy, straight from the books, and a homicide detective named Furnack, a friendly adversary on the NYPD police force, also from the books. He is also up against a villain whom he deems one of the “ungodly,” and from whom he extracts a particularly wicked revenge.

   The fellow, an urbane but totally crooked union boss who blows up a newspaper friend of Templar’s, really doesn’t stand a chance. When The Saint seeks retribution, he gets it, and the boss is thereby “hoist by his own petard.”

   Although he appeared in several of the Saint’s book-length adventures, this was the first and only appearance of Hoppy (Uniatz) in the TV series, and perhaps thankfully so. In this episode he’s played as an out-and-out moron with a mind full of bricks, spending his free time watching kids’ shows on TV and ogling girlie magazines. The fellow who plays Furnack, though, looks much the same as I pictured him, and yet he showed up in only one later episode, due to the fact that he’s pretty much tied down to his home base of New York City.

   So it’s fairly obvious that the show’s producers were still feeling their way with this one, only a short way into the series, I thought it was the best so far. (Number two in the series was reviewed here by me.)

   

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