Murder And Smile

I watched the BBC collection of Francis Durbridge Presents...

Durbridge was a crime writer who contributed many serials that were shown from the 1950s onward. The earliest ones are all lost, either tape-wiped or perhaps never recorded, being performed live-to-air like most early TV drama. He also wrote the stories for the character Paul Temple (not Simon Templar, who was The Saint, devised by Leslie Charteris), who also got a TV adaptation. One episode of Paul Temple is included in the collection.

Durbridge’s stories are all set in small worlds of middle-class professionals and business people, amongst whom sometimes mingle a few wealthier full-time leisure-takers. Some or nearly all of these people turn out to be crooks – long-term blackmailers and extortionists, and always ready to kill in order to protect their phoney identities and scare their prey. There are plenty of opportunities for blackmail because nearly everyone else in these worlds has some dirty secrets. The levels of trickery and systematic deception the baddies get up to can sometimes push their victims to doubt their sanity or feel they are at the centre of an elaborate hoax, and there are plenty of alternative pathways these stories can take than the ones that lead to their “realistic” resolutions.

They may seem quaint or old-fashioned, but the baddies in these stories are often quite up-to-date in their methods, utilising the latest recording and listening technology to track their victims, exploiting new rackets such as drug trafficking, and recruiting hapless stooges from wherever they might be available (dance halls, club land, casual employment). They are usually operating at one remove, only stepping forward for the final act, but having been in plain sight all along.

Nearly every story features a sound that will be unknown or forgotten by most viewers in 2021: the bleeping sound of a call from a public phone box before it is accepted, and the caller pushes the coins in. Also, nearly every story involves a line of dialogue in which Durbridge misuses “infer” for “imply”, but we can’t help that. Every story does get an introductory credit of “Francis Durbridge Presents” before the main title hits the screen. On the disc version, every disc also includes this warning, even the later ones that don’t really need it:

The Desperate People (1963) [6 episodes of 25 minutes]

Philip Martin is on leave from the British Army Of The Rhine. We see him arriving back at Liverpool Street station, and a car swerves at him. He meets up with his brother, the successful photographer Larry Martin, played by Dennis Quilley.

Philip tells his brother that he has to make a journey to Dublin to return some belongings of a fellow soldier who was run over. We then see him travel out in a taxi that he redirects elsewhere, and he ends up at a guest house in Maidenhead. There he collects a strange item of mail already received for him: a collection of poetry by Hilaire Belloc.

When Philip is later found dead and Larry is called in, he finds this detail implausible, since his brother never had any previous interest in poetry. There is also the business of a mysterious photograph of a couple. When they are finally located it turns out that they say they were paid to pose for pictures by a photographer called Larry Martin. The session went on for a long time as they were required to take the same photo many times but with slight variations in positioning.

As Larry gets further in to the web of stolen identity and inscrutable schemes, he comes up against a rather nasty enforcer played very well by the young Nigel Hawthorne.

One clue that not everyone is who they seem is given out to us viewers and never available to the detectives: when Philip is sitting reading at the guest house for the first time, his hostess bids him to enjoy his “leave”. How did she know he was on Army leave when he never mentioned it?

Melissa (1964) [6 episodes of 25 minutes]

Guy Foster is a bit of a disappointment to his friends, since he gave up his career as a journalist to become an unsuccessful novelist. Neither he nor his wife Melissa are starving, though maybe it’s not so clever of him to suddenly cry off going to the fancy party they’ve been invited to.

He stays home to hammer away futilely at his latest manuscript, but then later on he gets a call to join Melissa at some other gathering they moved on to, and bring along the handbag she left behind. This takes him to an area where the police are already active, as a dead body has been found – it was Melissa.

Chief Inspector Carter (Brian Wilde) is in charge of the case, as Foster struggles to come to terms with it all.

We are soon immersed in the mystery of who Melissa really was, and how it turns out she had quite a lot of money of her own. There is also the puzzle of why Dr. Swanley insists that Guy had already been to see him for a consultation. Carter is not convinced that all the threads of evidence are what they seem.

A web of fraud and malice was spun around Melissa and her friends, and Guy was no more than a useful idiot tied up in the centre of it all. Amongst the other victims caught up in it all include a heroin addict. But in the mean time he has to deal with home intruders leaving records playing, impostors bursting in to confront him, and (unseen) enemies hiding in the background, shoes just visible under the curtains to the audience.

A Man Called Harry Brent (1965) [6 episodes of 25 minutes]

We start again at a busy London terminal, this time heading out to a small town in Surrey, the usual location for Durbridge characters larking outside the capital. We travel with Harry (played by Edward Brayshaw, best known to millions as Harold Meaker in Rentaghost). He is on his journey out to meet his fiancee Carol Vyner, he sits with another passenger, who later that day murders the boss of the company Carol works at.

Pursuing the case is Detective Inspector Alan Milton, but he may be compromised by the fact that he used to be Carol’s fiancee before she broke it off and switched to the slightly more dashing Harry.

We now get sequences acted out to fill in stories given by witnesses, but we can’t trust them to be reliable narrators, and in fact we can’t even be sure that Harry Brent was who he claimed to be, or that he was really so ignorant of the killer or at least the scheme that the killer was part of. As with other Durbridgean detectives, Milton has to play a few low tricks of his own to get the baddie to break cover eventually. On this occasion, the plot is on a bigger scale, with new inventions vital to national security at stake, and secret agencies watching over the action.

A Game Of Murder (1966) [6 episodes of 25 minutes]

Gerald Harper is back as the detective, although a completely different identity in a different constabulary (oddly, they also employ a constable who looks like Brian Cant, just like the one who worked for Milton). As Detective Inspector Jack Kerry he’s the son of the sports shop owner Bob Kerry who gets killed in episode 1, and also prime suspect himself for the killer of the man who owned up to causing the accidental death on the golf course.

It’s a pretty rotten old country on display here, with no end of respectable, well-spoken pillars of society turning out to be cheap little fakers and drug peddlers, using contemptible tricks such as pretending to be wheelchair-bound as part of a phoney persona. “Queer”, and “ponce” appear in the dialogue, and “call girl agency” is now used explicitly to name something alluded to in earlier stories. Most shocking of all, we are tempted into thinking one of the detectives may even be part of the gang.

For the next story we get a more elaborate title sequence: a zoom in on the sprawled body of the first killing, some blurry countryside speeds past along with the author’s name, then the title zooms out at us from a single staring eye.

Bat Out Of Hell (1966) [5 episodes of 25 minutes]

Diana and Geoffrey Stewart are bickering regularly as he seems to be a pretty joyless old skinflint who can’t seem to relax and just have fun with his vast fortune, to her disappointment.

Luckily help is at hand in the form of Geoffrey’s young assistant Mark Paxton (John Thaw). He takes on the job of being Diana’s lover and then doing the job of killing the husband getting in their way.

But the wheels come off the plot pretty quickly when it’s time to dispose of the body and it turns out someone else has stolen it. The plotters are being manipulated in someone else’s plot, by poisonous spies and voices that are themselves puppets of other manipulators further back. Messages from the dead man come in on phone calls, and other witnesses thought dead also return to life. The only stability in all this is Inspector Clay, who only raises his voice when discomposed by tripping over one of the corpses.

Fans of colloquial British English will be pleased to hear that the dialogue includes the expression “doesn’t know his arse from his elbow”.

For a number of years the TV version of the Paul Temple stories ran, and one of them is included here.

The titles start with a man running at a mysteriously slow pace down a glittery corridor. Then we see him vanishing in the other direction whilst the credits paste over.

Paul Temple – Games People Play (1970) [50 minute episode, written by John Gould]

Paul and his wife are on holiday in Malta, he’s researching his latest book. He gets accosted by top film actor Mark Hill and his entourage, who like setting extreme challenges to drive themselves to the limits of fear because they’re just so goddamn jaded and louche.

After tricking the Temples back to his luxury private island lair, Hill sets out his philosophy, such as it is.

MARK HILL: … Now do you see what it’s all about? The Game. The risk, the excitement, much more thrilling than anything you’ve ever written. You stand outside, you’re a writer, a kind of a commentator, an intellectual eunuch. But I’m an actor, I live what you’ve imagined but never really experienced.

So Temple has to take on the job of unnerving Hill by getting him to doubt that the shower of debris surrounding him hold him in even as much regard as they would a mild acquaintance. This exercise is achieved, although it’s all rather too talky and I find Temple pretty insufferable even after this low dosage. Quite frankly if I’m going to see crime fought by a freelance millionaire adventurer then I’d prefer some sportscar-driving womanizer with a worrisome cravat. At least he’d get the job done without sounding like he just wanted to write an essay about it.

Now we’re in the 70s, we’re in colour, and we’ve got new directors instead of Alan Bromly, who did all the previous Francis Durbridge Presentations. To show we’re in a rather different mood, we start with the view from the roadside, and then get the rest of the title sequence shot from the underside of a car driving along some provincial B road.

The Passenger (1971) [3 episodes of 45 minutes]

Now we’re getting out an about and getting to see other places of modern Britain, such as the premises of a toy manufacturer facing a takeover bid.

David Walker goes home unexpectedly and finds his wife enjoying someone else’s attention. So he moves out, and decides to go on a trip up North. But he picks up a hitchhiker on the way, then has to stop to refuel. When he gets back with the petrol, Judy Clayton has disappeared, and is soon found murdered nearby.

But this is only the first of a string of killings that Detective Inspector Martin Denson (played by Peter Barkworth) has to unravel, and he’s compromised by being involved as well: his ex-wife is employed at Cavalier and may be close to one of the people pulling the strings around here.

We also get to see some of the dear old “jam buttie” police cars.

Once again we’re tempted to think that one of the detectives may be involved, and there’s a good reason to think that, as it’s not clear to me how the baddie knew where and when to turn up to do one of the killings if they weren’t tipped off by an insider. I’m not convinced by the alternative possibility, and this is one of the threads that aren’t cleared up in the extensive explanation-dump at the end. Still, the baddie gives good value and shows extraordinary commitment when they’re finally exposed: shooting their way across an airfield, to steal a light aircraft, which then crashes, and then a further shootout and retreat to a babbling brook, and a completely futile fistfight… if I were Denson, I would have got out the loudhailer and just called “Oh come on… pack it in….”

Time to see some faces melting into each other whilst spooky music plays.

The Doll (1975) [3 episodes of 45 minutes]

The first episode gives a very strong steer toward thinking “ah, this is Durbridge doing a ‘supernatural twist’ story”. This impression is helped by getting large stretches of the narrative narrated in flashback.

Peter Matty is a successful publisher and his brother Claude is an internationally famous pianist. Returning from a trip to see a performance in Geneva, Peter is sat next to Phyllis Du Salle, a mysterious attractive widow. She tells him the story of how her late husband was obsessed with a doll he bought in a shop in Corsica, and was furious when she forgot to pack it for the return journey. He ended up falling overboard and drowning, and some time later she was confronted by the sight of the doll floating face down in the bathtub back at their flat in Paris.

As you might have guessed, episode 1 ends on the cliffhanger of Peter also finding a doll floating face down in his bathtub in his flat. But before we get to that, he has to persuade Phyllis to go with him on a trip to his holiday cottage down on the coast, since she’s headed that way anyway to visit an old friend of her husband. She borrows his car but then vanishes and the local constabulary return it to him. When he goes to the old house himself there is of course a mysterious girl with a doll lurking in the garden. For extra creepiness I’ve marked her out here, appearing in a reflection before Peter notices her himself.

Peter goes through a series of doubting-his-sanity moments, brought on by photographs in shop windows changing, odd phone calls, and friends suddenly losing interest in helping him. But it all settles down in to a plain old conspiracy amongst material bodies, although this time the well-off people are scattered across an international network rather than concentrated in a small town. There’s a strange detective working in the background, who can pull strings to get Peter set free without charge even when he’s grossly in the wrong for harrassing Phyllis in public.

It’s William Russell, best known as Ian Chesterton, one of the original Doctor Who companions.

The talky explanation-dump at the end boils the mystery down to nothingness, and you’ll be wishing for a double-twist there-was-a-real-ghost-all-along finale…. sadly no, Francis didn’t play that game, it seems.

Breakaway (1980) [12 episodes of 30 minutes, divided in to 2 6-episode stories]

The Family Affair

This is the only one of these programmes that I have any memory of seeing on original broadcast. I remember the very exciting opening episode, and I think I persisted for a few more, as I also remember vaguely moments when other characters told Sam Harvey that they’d read the children’s book he’d written. But I must have given up after finding the plot simply unfathomable, and I still found it pretty hard work to follow 40 years later.

Sam Harvey is a Scotland Yard detective who has decided to quit the force to devote himself full time to working as an author. His first children’s book, published under a pseudonym, has been very successful. Meanwhile he has to see his parents on to a plane to Australia leaving from Heathrow. His dad tells him they are facing a long delay, so he goes home. Then later on he is told his parents were killed in the mysterious crash of a van on the motorway. It was fired on by a gunman in a helicopter, but no one can identify the business whose name is on the side.

Sam isn’t supposed to be working the case, but he can’t help himself and anyway he knows too many telling details, such as the fact that the woman driving his parents to the airport got their surname wrong when introducing herself. Unravelling all the leads, and the fake clues planted by the baddies, takes in another of those networks of blackmailers and racketeers that we’ve seen time and again. This time they’re serious nasty men, willing to gun down one of their own in a phone box in Chelsea in broad daylight.

Once again we have the suggestion that a senior detective might be part of the scheme, and once again there are multiple bluffs and double-crosses to get the Mr Big to show his hand. Sam doesn’t get a nice picture of who his parents were all these years, but at the end he’s sent away to help on another case, in a provincial town.

The Local Affair

Although we’re some way off in Suffolk, Sam and everyone else seems able to get back and to from central London awfully quickly when it suits them. At least this time we see a blackmailer at work, putting the squeeze on a wealthy American who can be compromised by his connections with an out-of-work actress who was strangled.

Sauna bars in Soho, phone taps, and even a carbomb raise the stakes this time around. But it’s the same old model of crooks twisting each other’s arms in a small world.

The visual style is more experimental: we get 2 extended point-of-view scenes, and there is more use of doorways as places of confrontation, a theme throughout Durbridgiana, but emphasised in this series with the “locked room” title sequence. In the end Harvey is happy to leave the crimefighting business for good and enjoy being an author with many works on display in the local bookshop window. If there was any plan to continue the character after this series it would presumably have been as an amateur investigator.

What this all goes to show is something Shakespeare tried to tell us: it’s a tough old game being born fairly well-off, and you have to be working at your devilish plots all the time if you’re going to get on. Just ask Gloucester:

Torment myself to catch the English crown:
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.

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