Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says that Cribb isn't perfect, but the fact that he remembered some of these stories at all after their 25 years or so of obscurity made it worth a look.
"This man has all the right credentials. He's level-headed, guards his
tongue, and he's nobody's fool."
"He does monologues."
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)
• "Something Old, Something New" (1980)
• "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" (1981)
• "The Last Trumpet" (1981)
• "The Choir That Wouldn't Sing" (1981)
• "Murder Old Boy?" (1981)
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?
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 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.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BFS Video
• Peter Lovesey Biography and Selected Bibliography
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