GLAD TO BE ON TV and GLADYS THE SERIES
by Andrew Osmond
The following articles first appeared in "Tangled Web" issues 7 and 10, respectively. They are posted here with the author's permission.
GLAD TO BE ON TV
I couldn't let the monumental occasion of an adaptation of a Gladys Mitchell novel appearing on the BBC pass without some small comment. Speedy Death (1929) was Miss Mitchell's first novel to feature her redoubtable sleuth and psychiatrist, Mrs Adela Bradley. So fitting that it should be chosen as the first, in hopefully a long run, of her books to be adapted for the small screen, in the guise of the Mrs Bradley Mysteries. Diana Rigg was cast as the eponymous heroine, and I must admit, on first hearing this, I was doubtful. In the books Mrs Bradley is small and gnarled; 'crocodilian' is the most frequently used adjective to describe her. Diana Rigg is none of these, and the ex Emma Peel was not my mental image of my Mrs Bradley.
I needn't have been worried though. If Diana Rigg did not match the physical requisites of the role, she entirely captured the essence of the lady. Mrs Bradley was always a progressive woman for her Age; a divorcee, with a liberal attitude towards the Family; a successful career woman; educated, witty and independent. Diana Rigg conveyed all of these sides to her character with her domineering screen presence. Her large physical being also soothed any aspects of the books that I had always found rather contradictory: I had often considered the more energetic activities of the elderly psychologist difficult to equate with the description of a woman, frail, tiny and 'bird-like'.
Speedy Death was adapted for TV by Simon Booker, who retained reasonable faith to the original novel. Indeed, some changes for the better that he introduced were, the larger role for Mrs Bradley's chauffeur George in proceedings, providing a foil to the detective's humour and a confidant as the plot unfolded (every TV Holmes must have his Watson), and also dispensing with the rather predictable courtroom ending of the book. Although I found the changed TV ending dragged on for perhaps one twist too many. The 1920s were atmospherically recreated and the country house setting was suitably grand and imposing. When it comes to costume drama it is hard to argue with the BBC. I enjoyed the light tone of the piece too, at times more Jeeves and Wooster than Poirot and Marple. This was conveyed in Mrs Bradley's acid asides to camera ("Marriage is one of those things it is best to get over and done with early on in life - like chickenpox."), and by George's constant pursuit by the amorous housemaid and constant rebuffs by the formidable housekeeper.
Perhaps less well done was the unmasking of the Mountjoy character - I mean I know the person was meant to make a convincing man, but there is 'convincing man' and just plain 'man'. Eleanor Bing was played by Emma Fielding. In the book Eleanor is 'plump, placid, drab, self-possessed, and much too freezingly well bred to achieve popularity'. Emma Fielding is slim, good-looking, and charismatic. In the TV adaptation the dice are loaded against Eleanor by placing her in a wheelchair as the result of an earlier accident, but I still feel her subsequent behaviour and her descent to chilling madness as so powerfully described in the novel were unconvincing on the small screen. But minor gripes really. Considering how anxious I was that TV should not ruin the Mrs Bradley of my imagination (as has been the case with Wycliffe) I think justice has been done. If the BBC decide to continue this series chronologically, we are next in store for Diana Rigg tackling The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, a novel which makes the transvestism and bath-time murders of Speedy Death look very conventional. Can't wait.
GLADYS THE SERIES, or "Who is Inspector Christmas?"
The beginning of the new Millennium saw a further four TV outings for Diana Rigg in the eponymous role in the Mrs Bradley Mysteries, based on the books written by Gladys Mitchell. In Tangled Web issue seven, I praised the earlier feature-length adaptation that the BBC had produced of Gladys Mitchell's first book, Speedy Death: having now seen the complete series, though, I wonder if my praise wasn't perhaps a little too premature. The four one-hour-long episodes were Death at the Opera, The Rising of the Moon, Laurels are Poison, and The Worsted Viper.
On the face of it, a good selection of stories: Death at the Opera features an epidemic of drownings and one of the most unbelievable motives for murder imaginable, and so was an intriguing choice; The Rising of the Moon has widely been regarded as one of Miss Mitchell's best-loved books; Laurels are Poison is a good, jaunty yarn, with much humour and suspense; and The Worsted Viper was an unusual choice, having been out of print in any format for many years (the other books have all relatively recently been reissued in paperback, although all are once again out of print now), and having as its theme Satanic rituals, acted out in the innocent setting of the Norfolk Broads.
Unfortunately the adaptations (I use the word very loosely) did not live up to expectation. I often wonder why TV producers even bother to tilt their cap, albeit often so halfheartedly, in the direction of original writers, when the scripts they work from are so different from the stories they have professed to be adapted from, particularly in the case of someone like Gladys Mitchell, where the majority of the public will have never even heard her name, and where there is no additional kudos (or extra viewing figures) to be gained from trying to build on an association. The four shows that I watched on the BBC, could have equally accurately have been called the Mrs Brown Mysteries, bearing no resemblance to any story ever written by anyone by another name. Rant over. Except that I thought as an adaptation of Gladys Mitchell's stories the TV shows were a travesty; although as four mystery shows, standing on their own as original screenplays, they might have just about passed for an hour's moderately amusing entertainment.
What was wrong with them? Well, I'll start with what was right. Diana Rigg was good - not my Mrs Bradley, but nevertheless convincing. George, played by Neil Dudgeon, was good - even if his role was hugely enlarged from that described in the books. The period sets were excellent - the BBC always seem to come up trumps with costumes and scenery. And many of the supporting characters were amusing - Roy Barraclough made a particularly good oily headmaster in Death at the Opera. The good points though were hugely outweighed by the bad points, most of which were due to changes made by the script-writers; changes which quite merrily altered plot, location, even motive and murderer, from those described in the original books. Death at the Opera saw a different motive for the death that takes place, plus a different murderer - the very title, Death at the Opera, was actually no longer applicable, whereas in the original story it was central to the plot. Admittedly, the original motive and means by which the murder was carried out, in the original book, was very far-fetched, but the eccentricity is half the fun of any Gladys Mitchell story. The involved sub-plot of the original book was completely overlooked too, although I suppose this is excusable when there is only one hour of viewing time available.
The joy for most on reading The Rising of the Moon is the fact that the narrative is largely told by two young boys, and it is their enthusiasm in the investigation that propels the tale along. This fact was completely ignored in the TV adaptation - the two boys turning up as mere background colour to the story. I spent the whole hour watching in the smug knowledge that I knew who the murderer was and why only, once again, to find the script-writers rewriting the end of the story, and so surprising, but also dismaying, me with their heavy-handed alterations. Why can't they just leave a good story alone? Sorry, the rant was raising its ugly head again.
Laurels Are Poison is an important story, being the first time that Laura Menzies - Mrs Bradley's constant companion in later adventures - is encountered. Not so on the BBC - Laura is never mentioned. The setting of the story shifts too: the original is set - vitally - in a school; the adaptation is set in a country house - a classic Golden Age detection set, but one which Miss Mitchell rarely favoured. The Worsted Viper shifted location too - from the Norfolk Broads to the coast. Again this shift makes the title of the book meaningless - worsted being the cloth from which the symbolic snakes in the story were made of, but also being the location of much of the action: the town of Worstead in North Norfolk, close to the Broads. If the previous three adaptations had been poor, The Worsted Viper bore so little resemblance to the original story to be laughable. Laura was once again not present, nor were her two companions, Kitty and Alice; there was no Satan-worshipping Mr Os, indeed the whole occult side of the book was downplayed; and finally there was the great expose of Inspector Christmas. Inspector Who?
Poor Peter Davison. He appeared manfully in the role of Inspector Christmas in each one of the TV stories, every time being just pipped to the vital clue by the intuition and superior intellect of Mrs Bradley, only to be exposed in the final televised story, as a master criminal all along, who harboured some long-fostered grudge against the great sleuth and psychiatrist. From whose pen did this fiction come? Because it most certainly wasn't Gladys Mitchell. All I can say is: Inspector Christmas? Who he? Even if you were not familiar with the original stories, I found that final unmasking, in The Worsted Viper, nonsensical and unbelievable.
The BBC has made available the feature length Speedy Death on one video, and combined Death at the Opera and The Rising of the Moon on another video. Thankfully they seem to have had more sense than issue Laurels are Poison and The Worsted Viper too. I don't know if any further episodes of the TV series are planned, but I do know that I shan't be watching them.