Acorn Media // 1985 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // February 5th, 2009
"Worse things happen to James Bond."
"Yes -- and better things."
Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke was a cornet virtuoso in the 1920s. Today his name is familiar to a select few jazz aficionados. In The Beiderbecke Affair, he takes on a new role, that of McGuffin, courtesy of British dramatist Alan Plater.
Woodworking teacher Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam, The Likely Lads) is surprised to find a beautiful platinum blonde at his door one night. Even more surprising, she's running a sale for the local Cubs and says she can track down some rare Bix Beiderbecke albums for him. The next day at school, Trevor finds that Mr. Carter (Dudley Sutton, Lovejoy) also received a visit from the beautiful platinum blonde. When Trevor gets the wrong records and Mr. Carter's hedge trimmer explodes, injuring his hand, Trevor decides to track down the beautiful platinum blonde.
Trevor's investigation doesn't sit well with Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn, Cracker), the English teacher with whom he's romantically involved. It also doesn't sit well with Hobson (Dominic Jephcott, O Jerusalem), a university educated police officer who suspects Trevor of being "on the fringe of normal criminal activity." To Hobson, Jill's also suspect, since she's a minor-party candidate for the local council.
Trevor unravels the mystery of the beautiful platinum blonde easily enough, but an act of vandalism and some mysterious threats suggest there's some real trouble in store.
"The trouble with sensible, mature grown-up people talk is that I almost feel out of it," Trevor complains.
"Keep trying, my love," Jill answers him.
The dialogue comes fast, with even the sensible, mature grown-up parts turning out to be kind of ridiculous. As they run into misadventures on the trail of some jazz records, James Bolam and Barbara Flynn ramble on about jazz, their relationship, football, and just about anything else with a smiling delivery that doesn't take anything too seriously. Bolam's seeming slowness as Trevor gets a lot of ribbing, but he's more of a middle-aged man who's set in his ways, enjoying quiet evenings with jazz and becoming obsessed with a trivial mystery. Flynn's Jill thinks larger, running for council on an activist ticket, gradually becoming aware of how much she cares about the relationship she's fallen into. The playful attitude toward dialogue is captured also through the odd episode titles, which all turn out to be lines from the show.
The supporting cast is excellent throughout, with Dudley Sutton as a fellow teacher and Terence Rigby (Elizabeth) as a black marketer turned investigator providing great moments. However, the high marks go to Dominic Jephcott as Hobson, a university educated copper who stumbles onto Trevor's and Jill's investigation. He does great Clouseau-style pratfalls as he follows the teachers about, but his awareness and intelligence eventually come through all the bungling.
The Beiderbecke Affair has a strikingly cold visual look to it. The school where Trevor and Jill teach is a modern nightmare of glass. The two are often seen through it as they share conversations while walking through corridors or stairwells; Mr. Carter watches them each morning through a window as they arrive at the school. Even the classes they teach are seen through windows at times. When Jill is one of three people questioned at police headquarters, the trio is seen through a door at the end of a long hallway. A housing complex which plays a role in the story has the drab gray quality of a Soviet housing block, even though it's painted in blue. These visuals hint playfully at something deeper, giving us a taste of Alan Plater's views on urban redevelopment and the encroaching hand of government.
The additional care taken with filming in the first place also helps the show look better than most, even with the usual worn print and some night scenes that are hard to read. The jazz score that permeates the series sounds good.
There's only one extra but it's an interesting one: a text biography of Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke.
I laughed a lot through The Beiderbecke Affair, so much so that I had to think about it to realize just how thin the plot is. When you get to the sixth installment and the dangling plot threads are resolved way too predictably, it's a bit of a letdown.
In The Beiderbecke Affair, the mystery itself is sort of a McGuffin. The investigation that takes up the first two episodes or so turns out not to be much of a puzzle at all, and any new complications aren't that complicated, either. However, the comic dialogue and silliness, with a touch of Alan Plater's viewpoint on modern England, will keep you entertained, if you're not absolutely set on a mystery or thriller.
"It's fine as long as you don't expect conversations to make sense," Jill says at one point after a ramble from Trevor. Perhaps she was speaking of The Beiderbecke Affair as well.
I'll let the misdemeanor charge of misdirection slide, since this turned out
to be great fun.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Not Rated