The title A First Class Way to Die conjures up images of an imperial phase Avengers episode featuring killer postmen, possibly papercutting people to death with specially sharpened envelopes. That's not what we get here, but what we do is more than adequate. There's been no rhyme or reason to the scheduling of Ghost Squad episodes, but this one - from midway through the recording of the show's videotaped second series - is the perfect choice to end the show's run with. For one thing it's a cracking yarn from two of the show's top creative talents - writer John Lucarotti and director Peter Sasdy - and for another it's one of only two episodes to bring together both of Ghost Squad's leading men, Michael Quinn as Nick Craig and Neil Hallett as Tony Miller.
The episode opens aboard a cruise liner, as a courting couple (Mitzi Rogers and Keith Anderson) spot a man falling overboard. Or do they? Possibly because she's playing a character outside her usual chirpy Cockney register the usually fun Rogers gives an extremely irritating performance as the girl, with her interminable, blank cries of "Hurry hurry, oh hurry hurry" to the ship's crew.
It so happens that Nick Craig is aboard the ship, keeping an eye on foremost space mathematician (what is this, Fireball XL5?) Boris Nesterenko (Laurence Hardy), as he embarks on a Mediterranean cruise. It's far from the least pleasant job Craig's had - he gets to swank about dressed as James Bond and keep his other eye on the absurdly-named French film star Ella Gante (Pamela Conway).
Nesterenko currently works for Britain, but the security services are worried the ship is full of sinister men ready to spirit him away to the other side. And they're not wrong. Among these villains is gigolo Ettore Scaccia, played by Peter Halliday - last heard murdering a Welsh accent in Sergeant Cork. Here he metes out the same treatment to an Italian one. Along with menacing ship's steward Clavik (Jerry Stovin), Scaccia's in the pay of a mysterious mastermind called the Condor, and his mission is to romance the pistol-packing Anya, Nesterenko's niece and unofficial bodyguard (played by future Hammer Horror heroine Jennifer Daniel), while Clavik abducts the scientist when the ship docks at Dubrovnik.
While Anya's getting close to Scaccia, her uncle strikes up a friendship with Larry Arnell, an old roué (and "old my-soginist" as he describes himself at one point) with a colourful past. Peter Dyneley, who plays Arnell, often played tough baddies (and he played the title character in infamous US-Japanese horror film The Manster), but here he's twinkly charm personified. Arnell's such an appealing character he could have easily carried his own TV series. His friendship with Nesterenko is genuinely touching, the sheltered scientist living vicariously through Arnell's tales of his adventures in remote parts of the world. However, when Craig finds out about the Condor, Arnell becomes his prime suspect.
Meanwhile, back in London, Tony's in trouble with Superintendent Stock for dilly-dallying on his way to his latest assignment. He and Jean Carter share a moment. Please take some time to look at the marvellous Ghost Squad HQ wallpaper for the final time.
A First Class Way to Die features more of Sasdy's trademark imaginative flourishes. When Scaccia eventually meets his death at the hands of his mysterious employer, a shot of the gun is superimposed over the victim's forehead in an extreme close-up.
Later, there's a disorienting shot as Craig, marched through a corridor by Clavik, walks off screen - only for us to be shown the pair's progress in an adjacent mirror.
As is often the way of things, Craig ends up bound and gagged. Poor Michael Quinn always gets the worst of things: while Neil Hallett usually gets an exciting fight scene, the American actor just gets abused, tied up and left on the floor. Could this be an intentionally patriotic decision on the part of the show's makers?
Eventually managing to free himself, Craig's convinced that Arnell's kidnapped Nesterenko, the two having disembarked in Dubrovnik. Marvellously, however, it turns out they just went for a good old piss-up. In a genuinely surprising reveal, the real Condor turns out to be the ship's friendly barman Nils (Anthony Sagar), who swiftly gets his when Craig finds out.
Oh yes, the man overboard. Well, he was an associate of Scaccia's but in truth I'm not sure what was going on there, it was all a bit difficult to follow. It doesn't make that much difference to the story.
Finally, Ghost Squad bows out in the most splendid way imaginable. The Condor exposed and the danger to the professor over with, Jean and Stock have come aboard. Refusing to let them cramp his style, Craig gets on with the important part of his work: romancing glamorous French starlet Ella. As he moves in for the kill, she's suddenly whisked off by Tony, who's appeared out of nowhere. As the credits roll, Tony dances with Ella, Nick with Anya and Jean with Ella's annoying American boyfriend. Stock joins Nesterenko and Arnell on the sofa for a men-of-the-world chat. It's glorious.
This is the last TV would see of Nick Craig, but Miller, Stock, Carter and Patricia Mort's Sally Lomax would return the following year in a new incarnation of Ghost Squad retitled GS5, alongside new agent Peter Clarke (Ray Barrett). Sadly, GS5 was a victim of the archive purges Ghost Squad managed to escape, and no episodes are known to exist.
Next tonight it's another ATV production, as we venture deep into Victorian London's underworld.
The setting for most of this week's episode: The Adam and Eve, a dockside pub that's an infamous haunt of crooks. Two of these, Steve Gurling (Tony Beckley) and Jack Simons (Graham Payn), whack another punter over the head and drown him before the episode's title appears.
When it's discovered, the corpse's face has been mutilated beyond recognition, but it's been dressed in Simons' clothes and given his personal effects, including a distinctive locket. Sergeant Cork and the newly sworn-in Constable Marriott examine it, Marriott cheekily reminding his superior "It's a girl" as Cork examines the picture inside: "Thank you very much for the information, I can still vaguely remember what a girl looks like."
John Barrie and William Gaunt are shaping up as a fantastic double act, and there's a particularly wonderful bit where Marriott, bored by the conversation between Cork and a uniformed colleague, nonchalantly twirls the locket about on its chain, only to be stopped in his tracks by a glare from his superior. Gaunt's sudden switch from insouciance to sheepishness is a joy to behold.
Something less of a joy is Marriott's disguise as he goes undercover at the Adam and Eve, Cork suspicious of the corpse as well as a second one which appears to be Gurling. Marriott wears seaman garb and a ridiculous false beard (though no less ridiculous than the ones in this show that are meant to be real) and accompanies it with an equally ridiculous Irish accent, rapidly finding a local doxy to slobber over, and administer perhaps one of the least appealing kisses in screen history.
Acting plaudits this episode go to the wonderful Sheila Steafel as the Adam and Eve's tough landlady Annie Blake, first seen rowing with her senile neighbour Ma Strickley (Judy Child), who later proves bothersome for Sergeant Cork as well.
Annie's helping Gurling and Simon in their attempt to fake their deaths, and is having a torrid affair with Gurling which she's desperate to keep a secret from her volatile husband Alf (James Mellor).
|Alf finds out|
Cork's career's slightly fleshed out for us with the information that the habituees of the Adam and Eve are, by and large, terrified of him. And they've reason to be: he gets to the bottom of their tawdry scheme in no time. The Case of the Two Drowned Men's a convincing portrait of Victorian London's murkiest depths, with Cork and Marriott agonising over the ultimate solution to the criminality flowing out of a place like the Adam and Eve. Cork speculates "You know what this place could do with, lad? A terrible thing to say but it could do with another fire, another Great Fire of London. Burn out all these slums. They breed vice and they breed vermin." But Marriott realises it's not that simple: "It's no good getting rid of the slums if you don't get rid of the poverty that causes them." It's classic Victorian handwringing ,but no less relevant in the 1960s than it was in the 1860s, and no less relevant now.
With its picturesque lowlife, The Case of the Two Drowned Men is hugely entertaining, with a compelling script by The Human Jungle's Bill McIlwraith, and the second episode in a row to end with some splendid fisticuffs from Bob Marriott - here obligingly taking out the odious Steve Gurling.
But for me perhaps the most intriguing thing about the episode is the prodigious eyebrows of actor G Ruthven Mitchell, who plays barman Sid. Can they possibly be real?
A search on IMDB (not, I'm aware, an infallible source of information) suggests Mitchell had only one other screen credit, in an episode of department store-set TV drama Harpers West One. In Brighton, where I live, there's a plaque commemorating a G Ruthven Mitchell. Could it be the same one?
Anyway, enough musing: time for music (never mind). Gerry and the Pacemakers cling on to the number 1 spot in this week's singles chart, while the biggest hit this week I haven't yet featured here is the latest one from beyond the grave by Buddy Holly, at number 4. It's a cover version of "Bo Diddley", a song inexplicably popular at the time with singers who were not, in fact, Bo Diddley. You can see the full chart here.