We watch almost nothing on so-called network television these days. Oh, the local news is watched, but that’s it. Now partly that’s because the premium networks such as HBO are where the really good stuff is, such as Carnivàle and The Wire, but it’s more a reflection of just how much cool programming is now available on DVD! DVD is actually superior to the programming broadcast over the cable Why so? Because the quality is superior, period. This was brought home to us last week when we recorded on our DVR a Trollope miniseries off the local PBS network. The quality of the video was so poor that we ended up ordering the DVD edition from Amazon. (Our local cable operator, Time Warner, was not to blame as we DVRed another program off HBO, Carnivàle, and that program recorded perfectly. If you haven’t yet seen Carnivàle — which is magic realism at its very best — be advised that the first season is now out on DVD.) However, a DVD, general speaking, is as good as the source material that it’s transferred from. And the Inspector Alleyn Mysteries on DVD from Acorn is certainly one of the best entertainment pleasures I’ve had as of late!
What Acorn has released is the four episodes that followed the pilot. The pilot is not included as Patrick Malahide was not Alleyn therein. That one-off, ‘Artists in Crime’, filmed in 1990, had Simon Williams in the lead role. I have not seen that episode, so I have no idea what Simon Williams was like as Alleyn. Hopefully the BBC will allow Acorn to release this pilot. I do know that Patrick Malahide was absolutely splendid in the four episodes that comprise the first of the two sets Acorn will be releasing (the second set of the final four episodes will out in 2006). He is oh-so-properly upper-class English, with a very dry sense of humor and a keen wit that makes him both a true gentleman and a very good detective. I find it an interesting irony that an Irishman is playing this role, and that the novels were written by a woman who was from New Zealand.
Nothing is amiss here — and keep that in mind, as it becomes important in a minute — with the acting perfect, the scripts well-written, and the setting (which appears to be London just after the Second World War) wonderfully realized. All in all, it’s one of the better BBC mystery series I’m seen done, an equal of the Brother Cadfael series which starred Derek Jacobi. The picture quality is far better in all ways than the Lord Peter Wimsey series of the early ’70s, as the BBC did part of that series on film, resulting in much lower quality: they were very grainy, the black level tended toward dark gray, and colors were more muted. Now, it is worth noting that the twenty years between the two series is a long, long time in film technology evolution and I’ve no doubt that if Lord Peter Wimsey had been filmed in the ’90s, it too would have looked splendid.
Both Belinda Lang as Agatha Troy and William Simons as Inspector Fox portray fully realized characters. Agatha Troy is indeed a strong, intelligent character in the two episodes she appears in. My favorite episode, ‘Final Curtain,’ is one that involves her. In the episode, she has a commission to paint the portrait of Sir Henry Ancred — a famous actor who makes King Lear look compassionate in the matter of his family — at his residence in the country, Ancreton Manor. Sir Henry is far from well, and before long she sends for Alleyn to investigate a sudden death: that of Sir Henry. Alleyn naturally finds a complicated tale of anonymous letters, vandalism, and arguments over the dead man’s will, and decides to have the body exhumed. Like all English mysteries set in these ancient manors, the scenery lends itself to making what might be a trite and too often told tale interesting to watch.
The chemistry berween Troy and Alleyn doesn’t really become meaningful until an arc of scenes over three of the final four episodes. I found their relationship in the early episodes to be curiously flat, less than believable. But their relationshop deepens and, as anyone familar with the novels themselves knows, they do get married. Indeed there is a scene in one of these episodes that is both sweet and quite funny in a sort of English ‘stiff upper lip’ manner!
All eight tales here proved diverting watching on a cold winter’s night. No complaints from me will be forthcoming as I am eagerly awaiting the final four episodes to be released by Acorn!
Now, given this recommendation from me it might surprise you that hardcore fans of the novels detested the BBC series with a passion. The chief complaint, like those leveled at Peter Jackson’s version of Lord of the Rings, is that it was not true to what Marsh wrote, as can be seen from the comment I found online:
Gifted actor Patrick Malahide was cast as Alleyn, and the series was given a much lighter tone (which is reminiscent of the Nero Wolfe television series, though nowhere near as broad). Malahide plays Alleyn as a thoroughly toffed aristocrat: he has all of the knowledge and manner, but none of the slightly rumpled edginess of Marsh’s creation, with the grislyness of the murders downplayed, and comedy coming to the forefront. But what is worse, having started out with Artists in Crime, the series creators apparently felt it necessary to keep the character of Troy in the series, whether she was in the books or not (though she doesn’t appear in all episodes). The result of these changes was a moderately satisfying (though curiously flat) short-lived series, enjoyable … as long as you weren’t exactly a fan of Ngaio Marsh’s books.
Hmmm. Harsh words indeed. Could the BBC have strayed that far from the source material? Not having read the novels, I was curious as to how accurate they were. So after watching ‘A Man Lay Dead’, I asked Jack Merry, our resident lover of British mysteries, if he had a copy of the novel in his collection. He did not, but he remembered that a bookshop named Tree and Leaf around the corner from our offices had copies of her works in great numbers, so off I went to see if there was a copy there. Indeed there was and I purchased a copy. It’s a very quick read, not even two hundred pages long, so with a pot of coffee at hand and settled in a comfortable chair, I read it in but a few hours. And now I can say that BBC did a great job of capturing both the language she used and the feel of the novels. No, they are not the same as the novels, as film is a very different medium than text, just as text is a very different medium than oral storytelling. What the BBC did, as did Peter Jackson with LOTR, is use source material that predated even the idea of television in any meaningful sense. The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries is a credit to the folks at the BBC, and any lover of a good British mystery will want to see these.
(BBC, 1990-1994: Acorn DVD release, 2004 and 2005)