In a dingy alley adjacent to the Green Man pub on the Old Brompton Road, an old woman (Marie Hopps) sits slumped against the wall, her clothes conspicuously swanky for an old drunk. She's approached by a rotund figure that would later become instantly familiar to viewers of The Avengers' final series, that of actor Patrick Newell. The man surreptitiously places something in the woman's handbag, and then hurriedly conceals himself on hearing a noise. A shabby Irishman (Liam Redmond) now appears on the scene, and after a preliminary enquiry into the woman's health, deftly snatches her bag (in the unlikely event you're wondering, the tatty poster on the wall is for Between Time and Eternity, a West German film from 1959 starring The Sentimental Agent's Carlos Thompson). As the other man shambles off after the thief, the old woman emits a loud snort, and expires.
We learn from Inspector Rose that the dead woman was Lady Geraldine Mosher, the very wealthy widow of an eminent historian. How this upstanding citizen happened to become so much the opposite is a mystery, which deepens when Sergeant Swift learns that, despite the conspicuous amount of alcohol in her body, she was not an old soak but a campaigner against the evils of booze. In recent months she'd been in the habit of drawing out large sums of cash, but nobody knows what she did with any of it.
Meanwhile, Alice Brand (whose relationship with her husband is fast decaying as her relationship with Swift continues to heat up) is working on an article about the job prospects of ex-convicts. To this end she's sitting in on an interview held by an employment officer (Gerald Sim) - whose client happens to be the bag snatcher we saw earlier on. Mr Swallow, for that is his name, has been regularly in and out of prison since he was demobbed after the war. He's desperate to find gainful employment, but sadly there's nothing on offer for him.
Alice thinks she might be able to put some money Swallow's way by getting him to collaborate with her on her article, but before she has a chance to approach him he's been offered another job - by the same man who followed him earlier on. This fellow, who goes by the name of Lucian Claud, is chair of the British Spiritualist Society, and when he's not performing nefarious deeds on old ladies in alleyways he's fleecing them out of money by pretending to get messages from their dead relatives. For reasons related entirely to the contents of Swallow's suitcase, he invites the overjoyed ex-con to keep house for him. As the employment officer puts it to Alice: "He's working as a house servant for a bachelor in Kensington... yes, it does seem rather a change, doesn't it?"
After showing Swallow to his new quarters, Claud waddles off to meet a new client, Mrs Lamp (Noel Hood), hoping to get in touch with her recently deceased son. Derek Bennett's direction makes the most of Claud's plethora of mediumistic tricks (spooky voices, revolving walls, etc), by superimposing a close-up of Claud's face, supposedly in a trance state, over a longer shot of he and Mrs Lamp at the table: the effect's brilliantly spooky. I'm not show if the fluid Patrick Newell's face is drenched in is meant to be sweat or ectoplasm: either way it's very disturbing. Having come to pay Swallow a visit and secure his aid, Alice learns he believes fully in what Claud's up to, and is terrified of the spirits the corpulent conman supposedly evokes.
The spooky atmosphere's unexpectedly but hilariously cut through by the unsympathetic Mrs Lamp's no-nonsense attitude toward the son she believes she's talking to. The spooky voice (is it meant to be Claud's or is there supposed to be an accomplice off-stage somewhere? It's never made clear) complains of the difficult transition to the spirit world, only to be told he just needs to get used to it and stop being a baby. Writer Marc Brandel has created a delicious character in Mrs Lamp, based on the highly original and very funny premise of someone with a firm belief in the spirits of the dead taking the lack of evidence of their activity to simply mean that death has made them all lazy, and they need to buck their ideas up. She insists her son should make use of his ethereal state to get her inside information on the stock market: "It's about time he made himself useful!" And frustratingly for Claud, the demands the "spirit" makes that Mrs Lamp helps him by donating huge sums of money to the spiritualists falls foul of her belief that people must help themselves. Claud is, to say the least, taken aback.
Alice offers Swallow £2 for his time, but turns out only to have a fiver on her. He cheerily offers to change it, producing (for the camera's benefit) an enormous wad of cash that can surely only have come from one place...
At the station, Rose good-humouredly chaffs Swift about wearing the bow tie Alice bought for his birthday. The inspector's full of indulgent chortles about his subordinate's relationship with Mrs Brand, but he must surely be aware that it's not going to end well.
Swift calls on Alice to take her out, but the flowers he brings her were bought in the course of his investigations: the florist received one of the notes stolen from Lady Geraldine Mosher, and Alice has been pinpointed as its source. When Alice proves evasive about where the note might have come from Swift cancels their evening out and heads off to arrest Swallow, having read about him during a nose at Alice's unfinished article.
Searching Swallow's suitcase, Swift finds various items including a bag of sweets and a suicide note, purportedly from Lady Mosher. Later, Rose is delighted to find the sweets - they're his favourite kind of chocolate liqueur, and he merrily polishes them off ("Finders, keepers!").
Although William Mervyn's the first-credited member of the cast (and the show's credits revolve around the emblem of the rose), Inspector Rose has been kept largely in the background so far, so it's wonderful seeing him come to the fore as the episode progresses, particularly as we find the normally terribly self-assured Rose subjected to a number of indignities. First, he has to listen to a subordinate reading out the testimony of a cab driver who received another stolen note: the gentleman who gave it to him was "About 50 years old... bald, stout, seemed very pleased with himself. I think he was a bit tiddly, he kept telling me terrible jokes in rather a pompous manner." The cab was parked outside Rose's club, and the inspector's face on realising who the fare was is a picture: "In rather a pompous manner?!"
The note Rose gave the driver was one he'd won from Anthony Brand at a game of bridge, Brand in turn having been given it by Alice. So much is clear, but whilst interviewing Swallow rose suddenly begins to feel queasy... and only then learns the origin of the chocs he wolfed down. Twigging why Lady Mosher had alcohol in her body, Rose asks Swift, as politely as circumstances allow, to get him a doctor immediately.
Alice has made some deductions of her own that have led her to the conclusion Claud killed Lady Mosher, and she foolhardily visits the charlatan in the guise of someone seeking contact with a dead relative - only to announce it's Lady Mosher she wishes to speak to.
Quite how Alice expected this all to end is unclear - in actual fact she ends up bound and gagged, only rescued by Swift when he turns up to arrest Claud just before he scarpers. The professional busybody's attitude to her knight in shining armour is not the most welcoming: "Will you please stop rescuing me?"
We end with Rose recovering in hospital, a considerate Swift bringing him grapes. Turns out Alice has given testimony which has got Swallow off the hook for any wrongdoing.
Wake the Dead is splendidly odd stuff, though the scene with Mrs Lamp suggests great potential for a one-off black comedy about spiritualism (maybe an episode of Armchair Theatre), and it seems a shame it had be squeezed (somewhat awkwardly) into a detective show format - even the format of a detective show as idiosyncratic as It's Dark Outside.