Saturday, 3 August 2013

Saturday 3 August 1963

Julian Bond wrote two of the best Ghost Squad episodes, and tonight he gives us a smasher of an adventure for Sergeant CorkThe Case of the Respectable Suicide is packed with witty dialogue and fantastic Victorian grotesques.  The relative unfamiliarity of the actors in this episode just makes it seem all the more like they've sprung fully-formed from the pages of a penny dreadful.

The episode begins with housekeeper Mrs Holland (Diana King) discovering the body of her employer, Mr Bertram, who appears to have taken his own life...

Things look more than a bit suspicious, though: the seemingly irreproachable philanthropist Mr Bertram was a religious fanatic who considered suicide the gravest of sins.  Could something truly terrible have driven him to it, or could there be foul play involved? Cork and Marriott are, inevitably, called in to investigate.

In time-honoured tradition, we meet the roster of likely suspects at the reading of the old man's will.  There's the solicitor himself, James Lord (Terence Soall), who'd long despised his client.  In the will he gets a copy of Bertram's essay on Deuteronomy and a crucifix.

Then there's Bertram's domestic staff, his harsh treatment of them extending to the legacy they receive: a prayer book and five shillings each to be donated to charity.  The splendidly grim-faced cook is sadly uncredited, but mischievous maid Polly Read is played by June Watts, who gives an exhaustingly broad (but strangely lovable) performance that's more like a music hall turn than the sort of thing generally seen in TV drama.  Strangely, it's also reminiscent of the character performances Diana Dors gave in her later career.

Also at the reading of the will is Bertram's estranged wife Sarah (Joy Stewart), who left him five years before, unable to bear his bible-bashing and his insistence there be no physical element to their relationship.  She now lives in sin with an impoverished labourer.  Bertram would never give her a divorce, so could she have offed him to eliminate the need? All Sarah receives in the will are Bertram's Bible and his deeply sinister sounding "instruments of self-discipline", in the hope she'll use these to mend her wicked ways.

Seemingly the best motive for killing Bertram belongs to Mrs Holland, who receives everything else he owned.  But she's just as much of a fanatic as he was, and seems to have been deeply devoted to her master. Looking like an evil queen from a fairytale in her high-collared black housekeeper's garb, Diana King is the picture of swivel-eyed religious fervour.  There's some brilliant sparring between her and the coolly amused Sarah Bertram.  "You're as shameless as he said you were!" Mrs Holland spits.  "How very satisfying for you," the put-upon wife wryly responds.

There's an intriguing development as Cork discovers Polly trying to hide a copy of a scurrilous broadsheet featuring some shocking news about the deceased.

Cork, who makes no bones about his hatred for such scandal sheets, pays a visit to the Pillory's proprietor, the odiously hypocritical Reverend Septimus Barrow.  Actor Norman Scace makes Barrow a memorably loathsome figure, giving him a monotonous nasal voice that sounds like a buzzing insect it's impossible to get rid of.  As with his equivalents today, Barrow excuses his regular printing of damaging gossip as being all in the public interest, his mask of calm piety slipping only when the contemptuous Sergeant beats him at his own game by confronting him with some rather uncomfortable Bible verses.

What Cork learns from this disagreeable encounter is that the story has not yet gone to print: there were two advance printings, one of which Barrow has, the other in the possession of his lawyer - Mr James Lord.  To complicate things, it turns out the story was written by Sarah Bertram's brother.

A visit to Sarah Bertram reveals that, although she now lives a life of drudgery, she's resigned to her lot and far happier than in her previous existence.  She manages to convince the detective that she's no knowledge of  the story about her husband, and wouldn't have bothered to kill him so she could marry the man she's lived with for five years: "It's in the early years that a public bond sustains you," she sighs wistfully, "Now it doesn't seem important."  It's a commonplace enough view today, but in 1963 it might still have been rather shocking for some.

For the most part Joy Stewart gives a lovely, delicate performance as Sarah - but she goes for the full wailing and gnashing of teeth bit on discovering that her brother's written a damning story on her late husband.

This is nothing, however, to the quite remarkable display that Diana King gives us as the episode draws to its conclusion.  Cork confronts her with his deductions that she poisoned her employer, who she loved but who refused to have a sexual relationship with her (the word "sexual" obviously isn't used) in a fit of jealous rage on reading that he had no such compunctions when it came to prepubescent girls (it's unusually strong stuff, this episode).  She doesn't react well.  Bitter ranting develops into (very) full-on hysterics, finally crowned with a fit of hellfire-and-damnation ranting as Cork and Marriott carry her off - her wailing continuing on the soundtrack long after everyone's exited stage right and the credits have begun to roll.  It's quite a spectacle.

The Case of the Respectable Suicide is everything you could conceivably want of a gaslight crime drama.  It even introduces us to Sergeant Cork's incarnation of that stock nemesis of every maverick policeman: the unsympathetic superior.  Here it's Arnold Diamond as the penny-pinching Inspector Bird, horrified by Cork's expenses: "Almost two pounds for the hire of hansom cabs!"

This show just gets better and better.

Meanwhile, in the charts: Elvis has ascended to number 1, while a bit lower down at number 4 here are Brian Poole and the Tremeloes with their cover of the Beatles' cover of the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout".  The full chart's here.

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