One of Sergeant Cork creator Ted Willis's early successes was the screenplay for Ealing Studios' hugely popular The Blue Lamp (1950). In it, the whole of London seems to unite in the search for the murderer of Jack Warner's PC George Dixon (later, of course, to be resurrected as a TV mainstay). Well, almost the whole of London: therere's a memorable scene in which a conspicuously posh woman flouts the traffic laws, scolding the policemen who caution her: they should be dealing with more important things, like the killing of their colleague.
Willis's values are those of old Labour (he was a tireless activist for the party and became a Labour peer later in 1963), and the idea of a callous privileged class who consider themselves above the laws that keep the rabble in check is clearly one that Willis continued to be angry about, and he passionately expands on it in his script for The Case of the Sleeping Coachman. It's a brilliant piece of TV drama, probably the best episode of Sergeant Cork yet - but it confirms once and for all that the main function of the show is to deal with social issues of the early 60s, dressed up in Victorian drag.
The episode starts with a neat bit of misdirection as the camera focuses on what seems like a corpse, until it grunts and stirs. This is the sleeping coachman of the title, Jim Whittaker (Barry Linehan). He manages to rise from the place in the stable where he's been huddled, only to stumble across a real corpse.
|That's not a dead body|
|That's a dead body|
At the Melrose home we're introduced to the stock whodunnit characters: dogged but dim local police inspector (John Harvey), apopleptic squire (Mark Dignam), his sheltered, almost childlike wife (Beatrice Kane), and their indolent son (Philip Bond). Not pictured is independent-minded daughter of the house Rosalie Crutchley - we'll get to her later.
But there's more of a political edge than usual to how these characters are presented. Sir Henry is an autocratic monster unable to conceive of his will not being done. He knows that his own status as a Great British Amateur makes him much more qualified to find the murderer than a plodder like Inspector Armstrong, who has to make a living as a policeman. For his own part, the inspector's a spineless cretin: he bows to Sir Henry's lack of cooperation in his investigation, but slags the lord of the manor off to Cork the first opportunity he gets.
Straight away we know that the eventual confrontation between Cork and Sir Henry is going to be amazing, and Willis brilliantly ramps up our expectations. "I see I'll have to cut this Sergeant Cork down to size!" Sir Henry splutters, on learning the CID man has decided, of all things, to use the front door rather than the tradesman's entrance ("The man's entitled to a little courtesy, surely - even if he is only a policeman" his wife ventures uncertainly). When Cork arrives, he doesn't disappoint. His reaction to Sir Henry is one of polite amusement: "I didn't wish to put you in an awkward situation, Sir" he says of his entrance through the front, "Only last month I had the privilege of entering Windsor Castle through the main gates".
The dialogue in this scene's priceless: "Let us hope the murderer knows his position sufficiently not to use the front door," Cork says on learning it's the only exit without a police guard. In reaction to Sir Henry's blustering about how inconvenient the affair is: "I apologise Sir. I'm sure that if Nellie Bishop were alive she'd apologise too for causing you so much trouble." John Barrie is simply amazing here, subtly indicating the contempt bubbling just under Cork's twinkly exterior (Barrie's relative obscurity is as baffling as that of Sergeant Cork). Eventually he proves unable to conceal his revulsion as the family continue to be uncooperative in his investigations: "You show no more concern than if one of your dogs had died. My God, what sort of people are you?"
Cork's confrontation with Sir Henry's mirrored by a similar meeting between Bob and young George Melrose in the kitchen, where the young detective's getting stuck into one of his favourite pastimes: romancing the most comely female servant (here played by Patricia Clapton, seen just last night as a barmaid in The Marriage Lines). Encountering Bob being plied with food and drink, George takes him to be a travelling wastrel, and is outraged by what's round his neck: "What the devil are you doing wearing that tie? That's a Winchester tie, isn't it?" Bob is,of course, as much a master of the devastating comeback as his boss: "That's right. It's rather dull, don't you think? Like the school. I don't usually wear it, but I came away in rather a hurry."
Willis's message is clear: Bob may be from a privileged background, but he's worth far more than George and his father because he's devoting his life to the service of the public. He's not able to handle the strong country cider though, the big posh pansy.
There's a truly heart-rending moment in Cork and Marriott's visit to Nellie's parents. Her stern shepherd father (Stuart Saunders) is bitterly resigned to the idea that if a member of the Melrose family killed his daughter they'll get off scot-free, the laws that punish the poor not applying to the rich. After the police leave, Nellie's mother (the wonderful Patsy Smart), tenderly removes a corn dolly from where it hangs above the fireplace, clutches it to her chest, then chucks it on the flames. It's devastating.
The most intriguing member of the Melrose family is Rosalie Crutchley's Victoria. When we first see her she's reading John Stuart Mill's On the Subjection of Women and expounding her socialist views to her clearly baffled mother. She seems every inch the New Woman of the late Victorian era. But rhat's not quite the whole story. Victoria's primarily animated by a deep, savagely possessive love for her brother. The incestuous undertones are, well, barely undertones at all. The key scene between the pair features Victoria massaging George with barely concealed lust.
"I've been spoilt," Victoria tells George, "When I think of other men compared to you..." She freely admits to her brother that her involvement in feminism is partly down to her hatred of other men for not matching up to him in her eyes. It's troubling stuff: Willis clearly means to paint a picture of the upper classes as shallow poseurs, but it's hugely frustrating that a potentially admirable female character turns out to be morally bankrupt.
The extent of Victoria's possessiveness becomes clear when Cork, having learned that Nellie was pregnant with George's child, accuses him of the murder. It's a trap to make the real murderer, Victoria, reveal herself - and she obligingly does. Her condemnation of the woman she killed as a slut reveals the true depth of her commitment to the sisterhood.
The Case of the Sleeping Coachman is compelling stuff with a political conviction almost unthinkable in a mainstream drama of this kind today. And it's especially fascinating in the light of the scandal that had recently obsessed the country at the time of its broadcast, where the iniquities of the ruling class had been laid bare but the media focus was on a sexually transgressive working class woman. But sadly the episode's another reminder of how generally shitty things were for women on telly in 1963.
Things weren't much better for women in the male-dominated hit parade either: the Crystals, at 8, are the only female vocalists in the top 10. This week Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas have made it to number 1. At 3, here's Freddie and the Dreamers.