This week's Cork revisits the plot of an earlier episode, The Case of the Respectable Suicide (a seemingly upstanding citizen is found dead, and in the course of his investigation Cork finds the man was nowhere near as virtuous as he seemed) and features several other elements familiar from previous instalments. The effect is of a sort of greatest hits package, but lest anyone worry it's far too early for the show to start recycling itself, The Case of the Public Paragon throws in enough angles of its own to dispel any fears Cork might be going stale.
Corpse of the week is the late Gerald Manley, an MP who was on the brink of of becoming a minister. On a dark and stormy night his wife (Yvonne Coulard) returns home to find the maid, Jenny (future Father, Dear Father star Natasha Pyne) absolutely terrified. Is it the storm that's frightened her or ... something else? Entering her husband's study, Mrs Manley finds a burly fellow (Ray Austin, not for once cast in order to take part in a fight scene) standing over her prostrate husband with a candlestick.
The assailant escapes and Mrs Manley hastens to alert the household to the tragedy (once again there's a very obvious microphone in shot).
Cork soon arrives on the scene, as does Mischa De la Motte's insufferably pompous Dr Buller, making a welcome return as a foil for the Sergeant. This time he's in a strop over Bob Marriott's indecent practice of sketching the body.
After a soul-sapping encounter with the aggressively boring cabman who drove Manley's attacker from the crime scene, Cork sends Marriott on a tour of the slums of Wapping to look for the mystery man , while he pays a visit to Morley's friend and sponsor in Parliament, Sir Jervase Wallworth (James Mason-alike Jack Gwillim). Sir Jervase is convinced, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that Irish malcontents are behind Manley's death: "When England is in peril, look to Ireland!" he cries, a maniacal gleam in his eye.
Cork catches up with Marriott in Wapping just in time to prevent him being beaten to a pulp by a surly householder who doesn't like the look of him. The more experienced detective urges caution in such rough neighbourhoods:
"Don't you know in the Thames division they used to run double police patrols in this district?"
"Why did they stop?"
"Because it meant two policemen getting beaten up instead of one."
The pair call on a melancholy elderly woman, Mrs Barnes (Ann Tirard), who claims ignorance of Manley's killer. Marriott's mind is wandering: he characteristically homes in on a photo of her beautiful daughter. After the police depart we learn that the man Mrs Manley saw is, in fact, the woman's son.
Cork and Marriott return to the Manley home, and just miss Sir Jervase giving Jenny the maid a guinea to say nothing about something that passed between them the previous night...
Sir Jervase is hanging around his dead friend's home to retrieve some papers from Manley's study, which Cork has locked. "I've been seriously inconvenienced!" he huffs to the impassive Sergeant. "Well, murder's a very inconvenient crime," Cork responds wryly, with his usual inspiring lack of respect for his social betters.
Things take an intriguing turn when Bob finds among the papers a copy of the photo he'd admired just the night before. Sir Jervase rather unconvincingly denies all knowledge.
Once the MP's grumpily departed, the truth about Manley begins to come to light as Cork discovers a far more interesting stash of photographs. The normally worldly Bob is horrified: "These are pretty disgusting. I don't mind a bit of honest sex , but these - they're enough to turn your stomach. They're sickening."
"Well, pornography usually is," says Cork, spelling it out for any viewers who haven't quite got it. "And Manley was an enthusiast." "His mind must've been twisted," gasps Bob. Cork's been around long enough to know that Manley's enthusiasm's shared by many of the country's top figures: "There's lots of stuff between those Morocco bindings which isn't exactly literature". Needless to say, we don't get to see the slightest hint of any of these sickening images, or receive any more information as to what precisely they depict. Which rather gets the imagination going. Still, it's hard to imagine other shows of this period, even hard-hitting ones like Z Cars, being so frank (if unreservedly condemnatory) about porn. Once again it seems that Cork's period setting is the perfect vehicle to present the audience with things that would be too uncomfortable in modern dress (especially on ITV of a Saturday night).
Intrigued by Jenny's obvious terror of Sir Jervase, Cork manages to draw from her the story of how he and Manley forced her to pose for pornographic photos. In a moment of extreme cruelty that shakes our faith in him a bit Cork angrily accuses Jenny of lying, only to reassure her that it was just to see her reaction in order to make sure she was telling the truth.
Back in Wapping, Tom Barnes confesses to his mother that he killed Manley, but before they can discuss it in any detail he has to hide when Bob turns up, wanting to know more about the girl in the picture. Breaking down, Mrs Barnes reveals that the girl's body was fished out of the river weeks before. Ann Tirard's heart-wrenching performance as the grieving mother is reminiscent of Patsy Smart's in The Case of the Sleeping Coachman, except here the scene is stolen by a cat who's clearly fascinated by the camera.
Cork realises that the powers that be won't be keen about his investigation into the dark secrets of the country's great and good (I don't know whether this episode was written after the Profumo scandal, or whether the plot's just a felicitous coincidence), and warns the young man to disassociate from him before his career's destroyed too. Bob, of course, is having none of it. Together the pair visit the insalubrious Minnie's Parlour, where another former maid of Manley's (Patricia Denys) has ended up. On learning of Miss Barnes' death her chilling response is "Oh well, her troubles are over. She's lucky."
Confronted with Cork's knowledge of his activities, Sir Gervase tries to convince the detective of the need to keep his weaknesses and those of men like him hush-hush: "Look: Victoria's empire. The greatest since the time of Rome. And why? Because of its merchants, its statesmen, and its bankers. The very people that this will destroy. And all for the sake of a few starveling brats!"
The desperate Sir Gervase finally tries to bribe Cork with promises of promotion: "Cork, please! I'm offering you charity!" The Sergeant's no longer able to conceal his disgust: "You starve the parents, you debauch the children, and you ask me for charity?"
This truly remarkable episode wraps up with the revelation that it wasn't Tom Barnes who killed Manley after all. Mrs Manley didn't alert the household to the death of her husband as promptly as all that: she took the opportunity to suffocate the badly injured man first. She knew all about his exploitation of the stream of young girls in service with them, and finally found the strength to take action about it. Sergeant Cork is, for TV in 1963, a remarkably progressive show, but the spectre of sexism often hangs over it with its frustratingly poorly developed female characters. Mrs Manley's final confession of guilt begins to redress this. The dialogue between she and Cork as the episode closes is a scorching critique of the place of women in the 19th century (and, by extension, the present), electrifyingly brought to life by John Barrie and Yvonne Coulard. I think it's worth quoting in full.
Cork: Had he some hold over you?
Mrs Manley: Some hold? Yes. The restraints of our society, and the place a woman has in it. You ask me why I didn't leave him, didn't divorce him. How? Where would I begin?
Cork: Well, you could've collected evidence, Ma'am...
Mrs Manley: Oh no! My education fitted me for gracious tea parties and elegant conversation, not sordid investigations. And if I had obtained the evidence, what would a divorce have brought me? When I married Gerald Manley everything I owned became his property. Where would I have gone? How would I have lived? What rights has a woman under the law? And then there would have been the scandal, the cheap music hall jokes. No, I couldn't have borne it. Then, too, I thought I might have been able to curb his excesses. No... I can't say I regret having killed him. Can you?
Cork: That's one of the paradoxes of our profession, Madam. We can sometimes sympathise, but we can never approve.
...And now to the slightly more upbeat world of popular music. Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas are still at number 1 with "Bad to Me", whilst that song's writer, John Lennon, and his bandmates, have zoomed up to number three with their latest recording in only its second week in the chart.