Acorn Media // 1987 // 154 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // August 26th, 2009
"Am I under surveillance, or is this just a silly coincidence of the kind that makes life so amusing in this veil of tears?" -- Jill Swinburne, to a British secret service agent
What information can you trust? That question crops up from time to time in The Beiderbecke Tapes, adapted by Alan Plater from the second of his novels about schoolteachers Trevor Chaplin and Jill Swinburne, who have a knack for getting in trouble. It's his interest in jazz, particularly that of Bix Beiderbecke, that starts it, and her passion for causes that gets it blazing. Beiderbecke Tapes was first aired in 1987, when the media options included the newspapers and a few underground journals. Today, when information sources abound on the Internet, the possibilities for misinformation and disinformation are endless, and it could get you thinking. Not too much, though, since the emphasis is on laughs.
Shop teacher Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam, Armchair Thriller) is taking his relationship with fellow teacher Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn, Cracker) to the "probationary cohab" level, if only because council tore down his place to build a motorway. Jill's place now looks like a used record shop, and Trevor's always tracking down new additions to his collection. Trevor makes a fast friendship with a barman who has some Bix Beiderbecke tapes that he might be interested in. One tape, though, has men talking instead. A couple of MI-something-or-others want those tapes back, or at least want to poke around at Jill's place. Even hopping a ferry to Amsterdam to chaperone a school trip won't get the agents off their backs.
Trevor: "That man at John's funeral thought I ran away to sea."
Jill: "Am I supposed to understand that?"
Trevor: "Not if you don't want to."
If you've already seen The Beiderbecke Affair, you know that James Bolam and Barbara Flynn make an engaging middle-aged couple, hiding their love for each other behind the barbed wire of quippy insults. They feel like a real couple, only with better scripting. The jokes grow from the characters and situations, making lines about "Peterson, the man with no name" and the repeated gag, "If anyone offers me chocolates, I'll hold out for the coffee creams," into smilers. Bolam and Flynn deliver witticisms at a rapid pace. Dudley Sutton (Lovejoy), returns from Affair but only makes brief appearances as fellow teacher Mr. Carter. The most memorable of the supporting players this time is Beryl Reid (Dr. Phibes Rises Again) as "the oldest suffragette in town," now wheelchair-bound in an old-age home. While she gets little screen time, the effect of the adventure on Reid's character makes her appearance memorable.
The adventure of the story takes Trevor and Jill to Amsterdam and Edinburgh, and it does involve men with guns. However, it's more of a farce than a Hitchcock thriller. It's hard to feel that Trevor and Jill are in too much danger when a bagpipe band rushes to the rescue. While the ultimate insignificance of the MacGuffin makes Alan Plater's point about the unreliability of information, it also makes the story seem slight. Not to worry, though, since gags abound. Among the best is the headmaster's disapproval about Trevor's and Jill's new living arrangement, followed by a student's countering, "We think you're a very good example to us all."
The Amsterdam and Edinburgh scenery looks good, even though the print has faded and has flecks. There's a definite travelogue feel here as you see houseboats and canals and enough of Trevor and Jill against those locales to prove that Bolam and Flynn were actually abroad. Naturally, jazz music fills the soundtrack, and it's handled decently.
The only extras are filmographies of Bolam and Flynn that let you know there'll be one more Beiderbecke offering. I'm hoping that means Acorn Media's already got plans to release it.
Aside from the fact that there's really not much of a story here, I'd recommend starting with The Beiderbecke Affair to get to know the characters. It's not essential, but it's more fun if you already know about Trevor's love of jazz and Jill's activism.
This is also a two-disc set, with each disc in a separate case. I doubt it would have hurt picture quality in any way to have both parts of the two-part mystery on one disc; it's a thought that's bound to occur to viewers as they watch Trevor and Jill argue about shelf space.
Despite satirical hints of a message somewhere in there, it's the rapport James Bolam and Barbara Flynn share that makes The Beiderbecke Tapes worth watching. Aimed more at British comedy fans than mystery buffs, it's an insubstantial piece of fluff that will grow on you.
Not guilty. James Bolam and Barbara Flynn are a very good example of a screen
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 154 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated