Appellate Judge James A. Stewart would rather visit small towns without exceptionally high murder rates.
"It's just my parochialism. We like to think of our crimes as homegrown."—DI Purbright
Colin Watson, a journalist in England, wrote twelve mysteries about the small town of Flaxborough, starting with 1958's Coffin, Scarcely Used. Naturally, it's a small town where a lot of murders take place. Watson's novels were also known for his humor, as far as they were known. At Web Mystery Magazine, Jeffrey Ewener writes that a television series "usually confers star status upon an author—think of Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter, Robert B. Parker. Yet Watson's profoundly low profile managed to remain unelevated."
Acorn Media has rediscovered 1977's Murder Most English (subtitled A Flaxborough Chronicle on the screen), which adapted four of Watson's novels for the BBC. Anton Rodgers (May to December) stars as DI Purbright, with Christopher Timothy (All Creatures Great and Small) seconding as Sid Love.
Facts of the Case
Murder Most English features four cases on three discs:
• "Hopjoy Was Here"
• "Lonelyheart 4122"
• "The Flaxborough Crab"
• "Coffin, Slightly Used"
Why Murder Most English? Perhaps it's the small-town setting or the way DI Purbright, puffing on his pipe, looks like Sherlock Holmes. He's a quiet chap who cautions his partner about exuberance as he deals with a variety of odd locals. His partner, Sid Love, looks like a wide-eyed innocent, and can be at times, but uses that innocence to collect a lot of scuttlebutt when solving cases. Together they trade one-liners about the characters they encounter.
The series has four stories in seven episodes of nearly an hour each. The first two mysteries were split over three episodes, giving them a very condensed feeling; it also makes the plot twists rather obvious. There's still some of that in the two longer mysteries. I haven't read the novels, but the relatively set-bound, rushed stories of the series don't quite have the rhythm of small-town life I'd expect from something like A Flaxborough Chronicle. A Watson excerpt in Jeffrey Enewer's article suggests that the series did attempt to keep the tone of the novels, though.
What made the series lively was the appearance of Brenda Bruce (David Copperfield) as Lucy Teatime, a slightly shady character who usually ends up helping Purbright and Love a lot with their inquiries. As the killer is setting her up in "Lonelyheart 4122," she's attempting to do the same to him—just for money, not for murder. In "The Flaxborough Crab," she's selling dubious herbal remedies. She can hold her own well against the coppers—so well, in fact, that Purbright says "Good God!" when she appears. Bruce portrays Teatime with a zest that makes that "Good God!" immediately understandable, even though we see too little of her to get the full picture. Disappointingly, she only appears in two of these cases, and other supporting performances rarely meet her high standard.
A note on screen at the beginning lets viewers know the picture has problems, but they're pretty much those of any videotaped production around thirty years old. There are a few flecks, and there's a generally dated look to the video. The sound's good, which is a blessing, because there's lots of dialogue.
Text extras include biographies of Rodgers and Timothy, not to mention supporting players John Comer (Last of the Summer Wine) and Moray Watson (The Quatermass Experiment). Nothing on Brenda Bruce, though. There's also some background on novelist Colin Watson.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The adaptation has some obvious flaws, but it's not dull. Anton Rodgers and Christopher Timothy work well together, and there's enough sharp dialogue to be entertaining. It's possible that Colin Watson fans could like seeing his characters and dialogue on screen enough to overlook a few weaknesses. One neat touch is an Edward Gorey-esque title sequence.
Murder Most English isn't dreadful, but one gets the feeling it could have been a much richer series, perhaps with the sort of expanded canvas that Christopher Timothy's All Creatures Great and Small gave James Herriot's works. For someone who likes British mysteries but is not familiar with Colin Watson, this is a curiosity that could pique your interest, should you ever see one of his novels at a used book sale.
Guilty of not living up to potential.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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