UNDOUBTEDLY the folk hero of our time is the detective. Whether it is the rumpled Maigret or the suave Bond, there is an inexhaustible audience fascinated by the conflict of a lone figure against the combined forces of crime and evil.
We no longer demand of our private eye or special agent or police inspector that he be a paragon himself. Indeed, corruptibility must now be part of his equipment.
He can be a rake, bribe-able, cowardly, effete, seedy, snobbish, vicious, devious, boastful, dull and ugly, and still retain our sympathy in his struggle against amoral opponents who are sometimes not as amoral as he is.
I suspect it is basically his aloneness that makes him so appealing a figure for contemporary audiences. No matter what help he gets from assistants or scientific paraphernalia, he is always a man pitted physically or mentally against the unknown.
Mass identification with his problems and dilemmas comes naturally to societies like our own where loneliness has become a mass disease.
It follows, then, that in any TV series based upon the activities of a single detective, its success will depend more on the development of the central character rather than on the strength of the plot or the ingenuity of the detection processes.
Judging from the work of three detectives seen on TV – Sherlock Holmes, Amos Burke, of Burke’s Law, and Frank Marker, of Public Eye – the Americans are beginning to learn this lesson while out producers are still light years away from it.
Sherlock Holmes on the BBC seems to me to be the saddest example of a wasted opportunity. On a completely undemanding level, the aura of sinister Victoriana is acceptable enough.
Douglas Wilmer has the authentic jaw, the hawk-like nose, the cold, detached stare, the clipped decisiveness that one envisages for Holmes. Nigel Stock, as Watson, is a bumbling appendage that rarely adds much to the action.
But a recent episode “The Beryl Coronet” adapted by Nicholas Palmer, summed up what I feel are all the faults of this series to date.
A valuable piece of a coronet had been stolen from the home of a leading London banker. The banker suspects his son but Holmes, after measuring the imprints of a wooden leg and finding some significant boots, proves that the boy was “inn-oh-cent,” as everybody seemed to pronounce it.
Now trying to stretch this story to an hour has obviously been too much for the imagination of either the writer or the director, Max Varnel.
Lingering on long pans up and down staircases, each clue was stretched out to fill Gargantua and flashbacks were used to repeat events we already knew.
An even worse mistake was not introducing either Holmes or Watson into the story until almost 20 minutes had passed.
With all that padding needed, couldn’t we be told more about Holmes? His cocaine addiction, his Stradivarius, his chemical experiments, his skill at fencing, his university, his brother, Mycroft.
Conan Doyle’s creation, brought up to date with some imaginative scripting and some modern pace to the editing, could still be exciting stuff. But this reverential, orthodox approach merely reduces to the routine a unique treasure of detective fiction material.
Now in Burke’s Law, shown on the Commercial Channel, gimmickery is all. The improbably stories rarely interfere with Burke’s conquest of the sexiest suspects in America. The only clues that really interest him are those found in mattresses.
Who Killed Rosie Sunset? enabled Burke, played with dead-pan aplomb by Gene Barry, to investigate a flamenco dancer, a concertina player, a counterfeiter, and an abstract Russian sculptor. He was mauled by a luscious brunette tax expert, he was cornered by a Slavic beauty whose English vocabulary consisted only of the words “hello” and “yes” and he was stroked by a rich blonde wearing tights that were little more than an epidermal disguise.
In his Rolls, equipped with telephones and cocktails and driven by an Oriental chauffeur, he raced from bedroom to nightclub to artist’s studio. I cannot tell you who did it or why, but while it lasted it was racy, pacy and alive. With a much better story the Holmes episode was slow, bumbling and dead.
But, by comparison with ABC’s new series, Public Eye, both Holmes and Burke are masterpieces of TV technique. Its private eye, Frank Marker, is supposed to typify the new anti-hero figure.
He has sleazy offices, shady clients, an old sports jacket, stains on his tie, is plagued by income tax demands and when he gets into a fight, he loses.
All of this information came out of the TV Times. None of it was visible in Saturday’s first episode, “The Morning Wasn’t So Hot.”
In technique and subject matter, it brought back memories of “No orchids for Miss Blandish,” which I have always considered on the most tasteless British films ever made.
It concerned the activities of a pimp who picks up unsuspecting girls newly arrived in London and turns them into call-girls and prostitutes.
A little brunette, Jenny, is desired for their brothels by a crime syndicate and the pimp is forced to sell Jenny to them.
When Marker, who through no detection device that was visible to the naked eye, finally finds Jenny – her mother has been worried about her – Jenny decides she wants to stay a prostitute.
“Mr. Marker, last week I earned £300 [£6,500 today, allowing for inflation – Ed]. Did you?” is her decisive answer to his revelation that she has been sold to other brothel keepers. There’s a moral to keep our girls pure and unsullied.
Roger Marshall’s dialogue would best appeal to the paperback literati of Shaftesbury Avenue with sentences like “The nearest he gets to power is in your bed” and “He’s in town getting the lay of the land.”
Alfred Burke, as Marker, had little to do except look hang-dog and disgruntled while this flow of “ugh” poured over the screen.
During the advertisements I switched over to BBC and listened to Quintin Hogg and Malcolm Muggeridge in Not So Much engaging in a fascinating and adult discussion about sexual morality.
It is perhaps typical of our sense of values that Not So Much should be condemned as offensive while puerility like Public Eye will probably survive.
Which, in the end, is more corrupting?