Quite a few weeks ago I gave my thoughts on two interlinked Francis Durbridge’s TV series: Breakaway: The Family Affair and Breakaway: The Local Affair, picking up on some of Durbridge’s favourite TV tropes as well as those moments where he decides to do something different.
Since then I have watched three more productions: The Doll, The Passenger and Bat Out of Hell.
The Doll (1975)
‘Returning from Geneva, publisher Peter Matty encountering Phyllis du Salle and is instantly captivated by her beauty, charm and air of continental mystery. On a seaside trip, he gets more than he bargained for when Phyllis mysteriously disappears and Matty’s car, which she borrowed, is returned unoccupied by the local police. Confounded by the web of deceit she has spun, Matty becomes obsessed with tracking her down to discover the truth behind her secretive life. Is his famous pianist brother, Claude, more involved than he seems? What does the macabre doll found floating in the bath mean? What does the wealthy Sir Arnold Wyatt play in Phyllis’ disappearance?’
Apologies for the vaguest of my thoughts on this one, but this was one I watched longest ago. I did actually have to re-read the synopsis inside the DVD boxset. Yet I don’t think this foggiest is entirely due to a terrible memory, as in my defence the plot for this one is easily forgettable. If it were a colour it would be beige. The characters are that little bit less engaging and the protagonist, Peter, certainly got on my wick – I remember that much!
Cult TV Lounge has also reviewed this one, enjoying a bit more than I did. If nothing else their recall on this piece is far superior to mine!
The Passenger (1971)
‘Preoccupied by personal and business concerns, toy manufacturer David Walker breaks with his usual routine journey home and offers an extremely pretty girl a lift. However, the innocent gesture soon proves to be the biggest mistake of his life. When his passenger mysteriously disappears and is later found dead, Walker is implicated in the perfect frame-up. Abandoned by his wife, pressured by his business partner and under the watchful eye of Detective Inspector Martin Denison, David Walker struggles to free himself from a complicated web of blackmail, intrigue, high finance and murder…’
After The Doll, I found this production to be much stronger and it was within this series that I first encountered a new to me poignant trope by Durbridge. I can’t define this trope as it definitely constitutes as a spoiler, but it came as a shocking surprise for me and it certainly set the series off in a different direction to what I was expecting. This is an interesting series in the way it mixes gritty and grim moments of death, with a delightful side plot: namely DI Martin Denison’s fractious relationship with his wife, the pair of them having separated. So a significant amount of my viewing interest went into wanting to know whether murder will bring them back together.
Cult TV Lounge has also got there before me on this one and you can read their thoughts here.
Bat Out of Hell (1966)
‘Wealthy Sussex estate agent Geoffrey Stewart’s plans for a holiday abroad are curtailed when he is shot by his business partner, Mark Paxton, with whom Stewart’s wife, Diana, has been having an affair. However, their plans to cash in soon go awry: the body disappears, Diana receives a shock telephone call from her dead husband and then the police discover a badly disfigured body wearing his clothes. Could Geoffrey survived the attack? Who is the mysterious Kitty Tracy and what does she know of the murder plot? Blackmail, deception and murder strike like a bat out of hell…’
This was my favourite of the three and my memory should be pretty decent, given I only finished watching this one yesterday. This series came out in the same year as A Game of Murder, another firm favourite of mine. 1966 was definitely a good year for Durbridge. There are some crossover tropes, but Durbridge confidently takes this plot in a different direction. It starts out as an inverted mystery in some ways, but Durbridge soon has you questioning everything. One of the joys of this series is trying to come up with solutions to the case as it unfolds, the wilder and more fantastical the better. Suspecting the innocent looking shopkeeper is quite justifiable in a Durbridge production as usually the majority of the cast is involved one way or another. Yet this is a distinct strength of the series as it adds fuel to TV viewer theories and allows for a good number of red herrings. I did in fact think I had sussed out the culprit, only to have Durbridge dash my hopes in the final minutes of the show. Interestingly for Durbridge the final solution is quite a deceptively simple one.
Out of the three I watched this time round I think this series has the strongest cast, (starring a young John Thaw), as well as plot. Durbridge delivers a very intriguing problem with mis-identified bodies and telephone messages from someone who is supposed to be dead. I enjoyed how Durbridge has two protagonists, who are from the offset criminals, as normally the protagonists in a Durbridge series come under heavy suspicion due to circumstantial evidence, yet invariably are proven wholly innocent by the end. The first episode of this series stops that notion in its tracks. There is a lot to explain in the final episode, yet Durbridge does a good job of that, successfully tying off a large segment in one fell swoop. My only niggle is the final chase scene, which was somewhat lacklustre and at one point downright hysterical in its corniness.
Whilst some of the elements of these productions might seem a bit dated or a little corny, I can understand why a new Durbridge series would be an “event,” in the way the recent TV series the Bodyguard had twitter well twittering, and Durbridge’s work did in fact draw in significant viewing figures. If you are going to watch any of his work, (I would recommend A Game of Murder and Bat Out of Hell especially), I would strongly recommend watching with a friend or family member as even the most lukewarm mystery fan cannot help coming out with theories as to what is going on.
See also: Cult TV Lounge
A lot of Durbridge’s work is now comprised into two volumes aptly named: Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 1 and Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 2. The quality of the recordings are strong and it is by far the most cost effective approach to watching a lot of Durbridge’s work, though both A Game of Murder and Bat Out of Hell have been released as separate DVDs sets.