Case Number 08815

SERGEANT CRIBB: THE HORIZONTAL WITNESS

BFS Video // 1980 // 298 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // March 15th, 2006

The Charge

"This man has all the right credentials. He's level-headed, guards his tongue, and he's nobody's fool."
-- Wilmot of the Queen's Household Police, on Sergeant Cribb

"He does monologues."
-- Constable Thackeray, speaking of Cribb

Opening Statement

Sergeant Cribb was a winner from the start -- literally. Peter Lovesey told Mystery Readers International he wrote the series' first novel, Wobble to Death, when he "saw an advert offering a thousand pounds as first prize in a crime novel competition...A grand! It was more than my salary as a lecturer in further education." Cribb didn't wobble to death, but took the prize and solved seven more mysteries.

Cribb is a Victorian-era Scotland Yard investigator; a former military man who sold his helmet and army badge to a music hall "for half a crown" before turning to the war on crime. He's aided by the large, amiable Constable Thackeray, and given marching orders by the upper-crust Inspector Jowett.

The television series, it seems, killed Sergeant Cribb off in print. "Alan Dobie was such a brilliant actor and so completely sort of fulfilled the role of Sergeant Cribb, that when I came to think about writing again, I saw Alan Dobie's face and I couldn't get back to the first concept I had of Sergeant Cribb," Lovesey told Strand Magazine.

Facts of the Case

In the United States, the Granada TV series Cribb became Sergeant Cribb, one of the starting season's offerings on PBS's Mystery!. PBS's Web site notes that Cribb was overshadowed by another series a few mystery fans might have heard of -- Rumpole of the Bailey. The episodes were sprinkled over the first three seasons in Gorey Manor. While they didn't sell as a TV series, they must have moved a lot of books for Lovesey.

The six episodes featured here include two from Cribb's first season in Britain in 1980, and four from the second season in 1981:

* "The Horizontal Witness" (1980)
When Thackeray needs an operation, Cribb makes sure he gets into Charing Cross Hospital right away. It's not concern, but an ulterior motive. The Constable will be in a bed near a murder witness who has been badly beaten. Cribb reasons that when trouble arrives, Thackeray will be able to take care of it. Cribb isn't counting on a stern head nurse getting in the way, though.
Grade: C

* "Something Old, Something New" (1980)
The "something old" here refers to the 64-year-old groom, and the "something new" to his 27-year-old bride. Thackeray's going to be the best man, and Cribb has taken an interest. "You said Henry was alone in the world. He needs support," Cribb says, inviting himself along. When we hear Mama reading tea leaves and predicting "a beautiful wedding but a very short marriage," the audience gets interested as well. Everything seems obvious, but it builds to an amusing twist at the end.
Grade: A-

* "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" (1981)
It looks like the "Odessa steps" sequence from Battleship Potemkin, but it's the Windsor Castle steps here as the perambulator goes for an unauthorized spin, thanks to a little extra grease on the wheels. The nanny grabbed the baby just in time, but the perambulator nearly hit Queen Victoria -- and she's not amused. She fires the nanny, and has her own ideas on what kind of care her heir needs -- ideas that differ from those of Beatrice and Henry. The younger royals draft a reluctant Cribb to solve the dilemma of the dueling nannies, and perhaps stop an anarchist plot in the process. Watch for an amusing carriage chase, mimicking the then-popular TV car chases, at the end.
Grade: A-

* "The Last Trumpet" (1981)
Cribb's got the day off, leaving Thackeray and Jowett to guard Jumbo, an African elephant at the London Zoo. Jumbo has just been sold to the Barnum circus, and there's a petition going around to force the zoo to reconsider. When an elderly eccentric who's been fighting the deal is poisoned, the case becomes urgent, since the elephant will soon head for America, accompanied by two of the prime suspects. You didn't think Cribb would really get the day off, did you?
Grade: B+

* "The Choir That Wouldn't Sing" (1981)
If a choir is singing, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and Thackeray's got a sprig of holly in his hat, it must be Christmas. When a colonel is found dead just before signing a new will that would leave his estate to a society of bird-egg collectors, his neighbors say it's suicide. Cribb and a reluctant Thackeray (who had other plans) head to "Murdersville" (or a plot very much like it, for Avengers fans) to get the choir to sing. Cribb's methods are brilliant, although this episode's resolution isn't entirely satisfying.
Grade: B

* "Murder Old Boy?" (1981)
Visitor Russell Hagarth mistakes Cribb for "Penguin." No, he hasn't wandered in from Gotham City. He's a Petershamian (a school friend of Jowett) who is inviting the Chief Inspector to a special reunion of pals. They're up to old tricks -- pounding Jowett with pillows, feathers flying, as he arrives and chasing him through the grounds in sport. When Thackeray recognizes Hagarth as "a well-known sharp" and presents Cribb with his findings, the pair suspects that Jowett might have fallen for a Petershamian sham.
Grade: B+

The Evidence

In these Cribb episodes, the cases play second fiddle to creating vignettes of Victorian life and morality. Three episodes take a long time to get around to the murder, then find Cribb dispatching the culprit with barely a breath to resolve the case in 50 minutes. Though not compelling as a whodunit, it's a neat look at "Jumbo-mania," public school life, the suffrage movement, and other slices of Victoriana.

Cribb, as played by Alan Dobie (Madame Sin), has a sharp mind and wit, but is often underestimated. In "Something Old, Something New," a running gag evolves from the guests at a wedding party repeatedly calling him "Mr. Cribb," which gradually takes on sarcasm as he and Thackeray start exchanging salutations with the same honorific. In "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle," we watch Cribb trying hard not to react as Henry skeptically asks why such a well-recommended detective has remained a sergeant. Still, he's the usual sharp sleuth, using the briars found on a victim's clothes to reason that an "accident" actually was murder. London's Underworld knows Cribb as a force to reckon with; note the reactions when he turns up at a villain's funeral.

Cribb's also got a devilish sense of humor. When he heads for Jowett's school to warn him of a possible plot, he tells Thackeray, "It's our moral duty to speak to Jowett. Besides, I want to see his old school for myself." When he finds an exhausted Jowett panting through a game of hares and hounds as the quarry, it's a joy watching Cribb help his boss turn the tables on the hunters. When the wit and the wisdom intersect, it's a delight. Take, for example, the time Jowett catches Cribb and Thackeray in a wine bar on duty, sampling a fine burgundy. Cribb explains how they combined business with pleasure, testing a means for tampering with a wine bottle. When Cribb catches the culprit, you know he wasn't having Jowett on -- or do you?

William Simons (The Woman in Black) plays Constable Thackeray as a commoner who can annoy a head nurse by showing her underlings how to catch flying coins, and who often gets thankless tasks, such as impersonating a carriage driver or digging up evidence in a garden. He does his job -- with a grumble here and there. Thackeray isn't slow, though. Remember, he's the one who noticed that Jowett's friend wasn't so friendly.

David Waller (Edward and Mrs. Simpson) as Inspector Jowett is the comic relief, pompous and infatuated with royalty. Watching him try to join Cribb's royal perambulator investigation or chafing at the notion that he knows one of the thugs at the villain's funeral is a delight.

Some episodes here are overly set-bound, but the show's look improves when the production team gets some reasonably authentic Victorian locations to work with, such as the old churches in "Something Old, Something New" or the school grounds in "Murder Old Boy?." In those cases, you'll see a lot of lingering scenes of people walking grounds. Elsewhere, tricks like a montage of tight shots of animals and crowds at the London Zoo, set to a period song about Jumbo the elephant, create a mood and cover for budgetary restrictions well.

The video quality here is sometimes below par. The picture is faded in places and can be a little dark; watching faces obscured by shadow got tiresome. There are also occasional flecks in the picture. Overall, the color has an oversaturated quality that looks a little like videotape, even though it must be film. I realize that BFS didn't have a perfect original to work from, but I would have liked to have seen it spruced up a bit. The sound quality's adequate, with no lost dialogue, but nothing special.

The extras here are all text. The Peter Lovesey biography and bibliography and the cast information are decent enough. One episode, "The Last Trumpet," has a few lines of background information; I would have like to have seen more of the facts behind the fiction and seen them for all of the episodes. It also would be nice to hear from Peter Lovesey and wife Jax in commentary, since they worked together on adapting his novels for TV.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

At $49.98, this set is a bit pricey for a blind buy. The way BFS divvied up the episodes puts the ones drawn directly from Lovesey's novels on the series' other volume. Since BFS mixed up the episodes a bit, couldn't they have put the best ones on the first disc to whet appetites better?

Closing Statement

I'll concede that I'm a fan of Sergeant Cribb from his Mystery! days, so I'm not an unbiased witness. Although I can see that the production and transfer leave a lot to be desired, I enjoyed the interplay between the three leads and the various suspects and witness. The acting's top notch and, as you know if you've read any of Lovesey's novels, so is the writing here. Those aspects of Cribb are on par with Rumpole and other Mystery! favorites.

The Verdict

The original show's not guilty, but BFS could have done better with this set, toning up the image and providing more background. Maybe a flogging with feather pillows would help them get that message.

Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 71
Audio: 76
Extras: 77
Acting: 90
Story: 85
Judgment: 76

Perp Profile
Studio: BFS Video
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 298 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Peter Lovesey Biography and Selected Bibliography
* Cast and Story Trivia
* Selected Filmographies

Accomplices
* IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0080208/combined

* Mystery Readers International on Peter Lovesey
http://www.mysteryreaders.org/athomelovesey.html

* Strand Magazine on Peter Lovesey
http://www.strandmag.com/lovesey1.htm

* PBS.com on the first season of Mystery!
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/mystery/history.html