Acorn Media // 1978 // 487 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // July 10th, 2009
"Can you say for certain you didn't happen to kill your wife?"
The questions faced by the protagonists in Armchair Thriller, such as the one above, aren't the sort you get asked every day -- at least, I hope you don't. The British series puts its ordinary heroes into extraordinary situations, involving murder, kidnapping, and disappearances, not to mention cliffhangers. Two of the serials here, "Dying Day" and "The Limbo Connection," ran on Mystery! in the early 1980s.
Armchair Thriller: Set 1 contains four serial dramas, each in four or six half-hour chapters on its own disc:
* "Dying Day"
A naturalist leaves a tape with Anthony Skipling (Ian McKellen, X-Men) on the train. Naturally, Skipling listens and finds that a plot to kill him was captured on tape. Equally naturally, when he plays the tape for the police, the death plot has disappeared.
* "The Limbo Connection"
Mark (James Bolam, The Biederbecke Affair), who has been nursing his writer's block with alcohol, goes to collect his wife at the clinic where she spent the night after a car accident, but she's not there. Mark suspects foul play. The police suspect Mark, but an ex-flame who might not be so ex helps him find answers. From a Derry Quinn novel.
* "Rachel in Danger"
Rachel (Della Low) is a 10-year-old who traveled on the train alone to visit the father she hasn't seen in eight years in London. He's dead, and a terrorist has taken his identity to carry out an assassination at the Royal Garden Party.
* "The Victim"
Businessman Vincent Craig (John Shrapnel, Mirrors) eludes the police to conduct his own investigation when his daughter is kidnapped. His wife is concerned, but for the kidnappers: "Vincent worships that child. I wonder if they realize what they've taken on."
The stories have surprise twists, to be sure, but they won't be all that surprising to anyone who's seen a few British mysteries. Armchair Thriller manages to get some location work in, although it's largely set-bound. The plots work toward a cliffhanger shock at the end of each half-hour, meaning they're paced at roughly double speed compared to a typical series in the States. The last chapters usually involve some sort of deadly deadline, making for nail-biting conclusions.
What makes Armchair Thriller work are the guest turns. I particularly enjoyed James Bolam's appearance as an alcoholic screenwriter, who suffers from blackouts and occasionally starts to wonder if he did indeed kill his wife in a bottle-induced bout of violence. Also compelling -- if somewhat improbable -- was John Shrapnel's turn as an amateur who seems tougher than the cops, right down to the way he keeps going with what must be a severe concussion. Ian McKellan also makes a good reluctant investigator. "Rachel in Danger," while not awful, is the weak link here as it stretches credibility to the limits with its 10-year-old MacGyver of a protagonist, although Stephen Greif makes a good slimy villain.
The picture has flaws -- lines, flecks, and scratches -- as expected from vintage videotape. The dialogue and music come across fine, although the score has occasional flourishes that evoke the image of villains twirling mustaches. Of course, that's okay for a cliffhanger, isn't it?
If you like the stars here or want to Netflix it on a slow night, fine, but these aren't overlooked Hitchcockian classics -- just run-of-the-mill British TV from the '70s that could seem hokey and slow to modern audiences.
These thriller cliffhangers aren't as slick as the big-budget 24, either in the writing or the execution. If good performances are worth ignoring a few rough edges to you, they'll be entertaining.
Not guilty, even if I can't imagine getting right up after a severe blow to
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 487 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated