Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Respectable Suicide

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By all accounts Mr Bertram was a pious, god-fearing man – so why did he commit suicide?  Cork is asked to investigate and discovers that even the most respectable-looking people can have secrets …..

The Case of the Respectable Suicide allows us to take a peek behind the veneer of Victorian respectability.  Although our first sight of Bertram is his lifeless body, the reading of his will allows the audience to grasp his character very quickly.  To his servants he leaves an engraved bible and five shillings to be donated to the charity of their choice.  To his estranged wife Sarah (Joy Stewart) he bequeaths his “bible and instruments of self discipline in the earnest hope that inspired by the one and spurred on by the other she may yet turn away from the life she has led and stand before the throne of judgement a repentant sinner.”

The main beneficiary of Bertram’s will is his housekeeper Mrs Holland (Diana King) who is left the house and the residue of his estate.  This is a powerful motive for murder, although Sarah must also be considered since Bertram refused her a divorce and she’s been “living in sin” for the past five years.  But his death means that she’s now free to remarry.

Bertram wasn’t quite the man he seemed to be though.  Just before he died he’d read the front page of a scandal magazine called The Pillory which had a headline alleging he’d assaulted a child twenty years ago.  The facts beyond this are never elaborated upon, although several characters read on and express various emotions.  The owner of The Pillory, the Reverend Septimus Barrow (Norman Scace), is an interesting chap.  He maintains that he prints such stories in order to smite the Lord’s enemies whilst the cynical Cork is of the opinion that he runs nothing more than a crude blackmail operation.  This front page never made it to press, so Cork wonders if it had been given to Bertram to encourage him pay hush money in order to suppress it.

It’s possible to view Bertram as a hypocrite – keeping a public face of piety whilst hiding this skeleton in his cupboard.  But his estranged wife Sarah shows true Christian compassion towards him.  She’s suffered more than most from his actions, but has come to see that he’d spent the last twenty years attempting to make amends for his one lapse.  Unfortunately he chose to do this in such a harsh and uncompromising way that he’d poisoned their marriage almost as soon as it had begun.

Diana King was an incredibly experienced actress with numerous television and film credits.  She’s very watchable as Mrs Holland, someone who appears to have much in common with the respectable Mr Bertram.  Although it’ll probably come as no surprise to learn that she has secrets as well ….

Stand-out performance in the episode though comes from June Watts as Betram’s maid Polly Read.  Watts only had a handful of credits between 1961 and 1966 and it’s a mystery why she never enjoyed a much longer career.  It’s clear that Polly knows more about matters than she’s letting on and from the time Cork enters the house he plays with her, rather like a cat plays with a mouse.  This is first seen after he observes her listening at the keyhole during the will reading – he proceeds to question her in the hallway and every time he asks a question he moves towards her, forcing the girl to retreat.  It’s an effective way of making what would otherwise be a fairly static scene into something more visually interesting.  Later, Bob catches her trying to burn the scandal paper and she’s marched off to the station for questioning.  Once she’s told them all she knows we see Cork’s softer side as he throws her a coin for her bus fare home.  Although Polly is a fairly conventionally written character, Watts makes something of the role and certainly lifts the story up a level.

At the start of the episode we meet Inspector Bird (Arnold Diamond).  Bird has nothing to do with the main story, but it’s the first time we’ve seen any of Cork’s superiors and it’ll come as no surprise to learn that he enjoys an uneasy relationship with the testy Sergeant.  Bird is presented as a bean-counter – always fretting that too much money is being spent – whilst Cork bemoans the fact that lack of resources are hampering his investigations.  That Bird has no confidence in Cork’s progressive attitude is made clear when the Inspector tells him that microscopes don’t catch villains, policemen do.

This was the first of Julian Bond’s eight scripts for the series.  Bond would contribute to many popular series of the era (The Saint, Ghost Squad, Redcap, Public Eye, Armchair Theatre, Out of the Unknown, Upstairs Downstairs) and this story is up to his usual high standard.  Possibly not the most taxing mystery ever, but it’s a joy to watch for several reasons – not least for the continuing relationship between Cork and his willing young disciple Marriott.

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