Thursday, 12 September 2013

Thursday 12 September 1963

Before I settled down to watch this episode (one of a handful from the show's second series I've managed to get hold of), I'd never before seen Dr Finlay's Casebook, and my main knowledge of the show came from Round the Horne's episode-length musical spoof of the show (not broadcast during RTH's original run, but since given a CD release).  I was expecting a cosy medical drama set in the Scottish village of Tannochbrae in the 20s, focusing on crusty old Dr Cameron (Andrew Cruickshank), his idealistic junior partner Dr Finlay (Bill Simpson) and their housekeeper Janet (Barbara Mullen), inexhaustible fount of homespun wisdom. What I didn't expect was something as - to use a ubiquitous term in describing 21st century TV- dark as Clean Sweep.

The episode begins in the expected way, with the show's theme tune - taken from Trevor Duncan's "Little Suite", it is, like the theme to The Archers, the epitome of light music - playing over peaceful pastoral images: swans on the lake and that sort of thing.  The theme of quiet village life's continued with local minister Mr Gordon (Stephen Jack) paying a visit to elderly widow Flora Elgin (Mary Hinton).  But as he's about to follow her through to the parlour we switch to an overhead shot, sinister music plays, and a hand clutches the newel...

Alerted to the presence, Mr Gordon looks up to see a plainly terrified old woman (much-loved Carry On star Esma Cannon) caution him to be silent.

Mr Gordon recognises the woman as Mrs Elgin's sister Harriet Matlock - but when he mentions her to the widow, she claims her sister is still away visiting relatives.  Perplexed and deeply concerned by what's going on, the vicar pays a visit on the sisters' GP, Dr Cameron.  Janet shares his worry - it's well known Mrs Elgin's a bit strange: village wisdom has it that her obsession household with cleanliness drove her husband to his death.  But the grumpy, pipe-puffing old medic pooh-poohs Gordon's concerns: "Elderly sisters living alone get up to all sorts of daft capers".

But there's something deeper at the back of Cameron's unwillingness to intervene: in his youth he was prevailed upon to visit a man believed to be suicidal, against the man's wishes.  The patient killed himself immediately after Cameron left, and the doctor's been haunted for years by the suspicion that something he said to the man convinced him to do the deed.  Since then he's made a rule not to get involved unless he's actually called in by the person in question.

But Janet and Mr Gordon are right to suspect something's wrong: Mrs Elgin's obsession has developed into a full-blown mania, and she's virtually keeping her fragile sister prisoner in her room to prevent her from spreading dirt to the rest of the house and the outside world.  Tiny Esma Cannon, like a trapped bird, is perfect casting as the helpless victim of domestic tyranny, and Mary Hinton's clearly having a whale of a time with Flora's demonic rages: "You're not fit to be seen! I won't have this house disgraced!" Flora's reign of terror eventually culminates in her burning all but one set of Harriet's clothes in order to stop her leaving them lying around.

Dr Finlay eventually tricks Cameron into getting involved when he pretends to receive a phone call from Mrs Elgin summoning him over.  Embarrassing her into opening the locked door of Harriet's room he has a chat with the prisoner, and decides she needs to be removed to a rest home.  But when the home's matron (Mary Hignett) visits, Flora, wily in her madness, convinces her that Harriet burned her own clothes and would be too much trouble to have living in her home.

The story of Flora's descent into an especially tidy form of madness is mirrored by the episode's "B" plotline, which sees Dr Finlay getting involved with a cheery but filthy family of local peasants.  On visiting the squalid hovel of farmhand Ferguson (Roddy McMillan) and his clan in order to tend to an injury caused by farm machinery, the junior doctor (well I say junior, he looks well into his 40s) gets off to a bad start by banging his head on a door frame and falling prey to the tender mercies of the Ferguson women.

When he regains his faculties Finlay's outraged at the dirtiness of the surroundings in which the Fergusons raise their not inconsiderable brood.  Giving them a stern lecture on hygiene, he returns later with an enormous bottle of carbolic, which he seems to imagine as some kind of cure-all (Dr Cameron, who knows the Fergusons of old, cautions that he should leave the family to their mess, as it's done them no harm to date).  Irony strikes when one of the Ferguson children gives the bottle of carbolic to the baby, who drinks the equivalent of a bar of soap.

Irene Sunters, who plays Mrs Ferguson, is best known for her role as postmistress May Morrison in The Wicker Man - which isn't an entirely inapt comparison for an episode of Dr Finlay like Clean Sweep, which exposes some of the dark secrets of a rural Scottish community, and the unwise meddling of a righteous crusader (cleanliness is, after all, next to godliness).  But it's a different horror film that the story of Flora and Harriet brings to mind: it's like a bizarre remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (released the previous year), the gothic of faded Hollywood glamour replaced by Scots grimness - and here the victim of the pair is tormented with cleanliness rather than the squalour Bette Davis enforced on Joan Crawford.  The comparison's particularly strong in the episode's most nightmarish moments, such as Flora's wicked witch-like threat to come in the night and cut off all of Harriet's dirt-harbouring hair.

The story ends like a Tale of the Unexpected, with Flora rising from her bed on hearing Harriet out of her room, only to fall down the stairs (it's the second programme featured here in as many days with an unconvincing stuntperson taking a tumble).

Flora, realising she's covered in blood (I know medical dramas today fairly ooze with gore, but I wasn't expecting it of Dr Finlay), calls out to her sister for help.  Harriet, aware of her sister's priorities, sets about cleaning it up as Flora breathes her last.

The Fergusons' story has an only slightly happier ending: the baby survives, but Mr Ferguson turns up on Finlay's doorstep, having lost his job and shortly to lose his home.  Rather than resenting the doctor's busybody ways, he now wants them extended to pleading with his employer for him.  Dr Cameron, horrified by the sisters' tragic fate (Harriet having just been sent off to a mental home),wearily tells his friend, "What you start, you must finish."

Apart from a pointless bit of padding intended to link the episode's two storylines together (Janet gives slovenly Ferguson daughter Aggie a makeover in the hope of getting her a job as maid-cum-spy at Flora's house - predictably it fails), Clean Sweep is brilliantly written (by Jean McConnell from an outline by series creator A J Cronin) and acted, and unexpectedly emotionally affecting.  Pleasant surprises like this are exactly what makes writing TV Minus 50 so much fun.

Apologies for the especially poor quality of the images - my laptop wasn't keen on the DVD-R this episode was on, so I had to (unsteadily) take pictures of the images from my TV screen.

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