Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Reluctant Widow

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Sergeant Cork is an excellent example of just how good a mid sixties studio-bound VT series can be.  Running for a total of sixty six episodes, it was made on something of a production treadmill – the first production block of forty episodes ran from April 1963 to September 1964.  Following a break, there was a second production block of twenty six episodes which were recorded between March 1965 and March 1966.

This meant that an episode would have to have been designed, rehearsed and recorded every two weeks.  Given the relentless nature of the production process it’s remarkable that the quality of the series remained as high as it did.  There are, naturally enough, some lesser episodes over the run, but the general quality remained very high.

A major part of its success has to be down to the two main regulars, Cork (John Barrie) and Bob Marriott (William Gaunt).  Barrie is always incredibly watchable and manages to highlight many facets of Cork’s character over the duration of the series.  Cork is a crusader and an innovator, with a highly developed sense of justice.  Bob is initially a bewildered intruder into Cork’s world, but quickly develops an a wry sense of humour and becomes a perfect foil for the unpredictable sergeant.

Sergeant Cork is set in the late Victorian era, at the time when science was beginning to make a breakthrough in the detection of crime.  In some ways Cork isn’t too dissimilar from Sherlock Holmes – since he also was keen to find scientific ways to fight crime.  And they also both live for their work (there’s no Mrs Cork, for example)

Bob has decided on a career in the police force.  It’s interesting that he can just turn up for an interview with Superintendent Nelson (John Richmond) and find himself working as a detective the same day.  But Nelson does explain that recruiting people into the detective branch has been difficult.  “Some people, you see, regard the CID as an experiment, some regard it as a failure and very few regard it as important.”  He decides to assign Bob to Sergeant Cork.

Our first sight of Cork sees him using his long-suffering general factotum Chalky White (Freddie Fowler) as a guinea pig (Cork is testing various methods of taking fingerprints).  He mentions to Bob that the Americans have been using fingerprint identification for several years and the possibilities of introducing such a system in Britain clearly both intrigues and stimulates him.

With an air of absent-minded enthusiasm, Cork’s character is quickly defined – he’s somebody who is quick to embrace any scientific advance in the fight against crime. But since Superintendent Nelson has already told Bob that the CID is not highly regarded, it’s plain that Cork (due to his unorthodox methods) will face a struggle to convince others that he’s not simply a crank.

In these early scenes, Bob finds himself bewildered by Cork’s tangential enthusiasm and it takes a little while before he’s able to find his bearings and settle in.  To begin with he’s not even sure what case they’re supposed to be investigating – until Cork eventually explains.

After Mr Oxley dies in his bed, the question has to be, was it suicide or murder?  Suspicion falls on his beautiful young widow Julie Oxley (Jean Trend).  But Dr Cato (Peter Halliday) reports to the inquest that he found traces of chloroform in Oxley’s stomach and from this declares that the man took his own life.  For the local police this seems to close the case, but Cork is far from convinced and he’s quite forthright (in a manner that will be become very familiar) in making this clear to Superintendent Bradnock (Gerald Case).  Cork is no respecter of seniority and isn’t at all cowed by Bradnock’s initial hostility.

John Barrie hits the ground running.  His questioning of Mr Oxley’s mother Kate (Hilda Barry) is a classic scene.  Although Cork gives the impression of being an affable sort, his cross-examination shows that he can also be ruthless.  Whilst Mrs Oxley professes a deep love for her son (and also makes it clear that she believes he was murdered by his wife) Cork is relentless in exposing the fact that she held her son in contempt.

Suspicion falls on Clive Graham (Christopher Guinee) after he’s spotted throwing a bottle of chloroform away.  Graham runs the cafe owned by Mr and Mrs Oxley and certainly seems to be on intimate terms with Mrs Oxley.  But Mrs Oxley appears to be heavily implicated as well – despite her tearful protestations of innocence to Cork.

Jean Trend (a familiar face from the likes of Emergency Ward 10 and Doomwatch) gives a good performance as Julie Oxley.  Mrs Oxley’s histrionics are impressive, but they cut no ice with the suspicious Cork.  Another actor who’s instantly recognisable is Peter Halliday as Dr Cato.  Halliday didn’t often use a Welsh accent (despite being Welsh-born) so The Case of the Reluctant Widow is something of a rarity.

With a final surprising revelation, this is a very decent opening episode.  It’s a pity that the existing telerecording (like most of the series one episodes) is rather hacked about (the adcaps have been very clumsily edited out) but that’s only a minor niggle.

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Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Girl Upstairs

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Returning to his rooms following a long train journey, Cork is looking forward to a quiet evening and a bite of steak and kidney pudding.  So he’s less than impressed to find Marriott waiting with a Miss Beesley (Margaret Diamond) who has a matter she wishes to discuss urgently.

She’s convinced that her niece Jane (Meg Ritchie) is being poisoned by her stepmother Charity (Mary Kenton).  Following her brother’s death Miss Beesley has been barred from the house, but she recently caught a brief glimpse of Jane and was shocked by her appearance.  Jane is attended by a doctor, Ernst Lukas (Joseph Fürst), but Miss Beesley has a very low opinion of him.

After an opening scene of Jane suffering under Charity’s ministrations (she’s forced to sleep in a room with the windows open and a single blanket) we get a brief glimpse of Cork’s home-life.  Cork has comfortable rooms and an indulgent landlady who ensures that he has hot meals. It’s clearly a pleasant enough existence but it’s an early indication that there’s no significant other in his life.

Cork seems initially unimpressed by Miss Beesley’s suspicions, which she counters by asking if he is “always governed by fact in everything you do? Are you never swayed by instincts, by feelings?” He responds that he often acts on his instinct and agrees to investigate.

It’s clear from the start that Charity Beesley is waging psychological warfare on her step-daughter, but it’s not clear why.  Mary Kenton is chilling as Charity, whilst Meg Ritchie is convincingly overwrought as the unfortunate Jane.  Joseph Fürst (complete with monocle) gives an understated performance as Dr Lukas.  For me, it’s impossible not to associate Fürst with his gloriously over the top performance as Zaroff in the Doctor Who story The Underwater Menace, but that seems to have been something of an aberration.  Apart from Zaroff, he tended to play sinister characters who were much more grounded in reality (for example, his two Callan appearances).

Lukas is revealed to be brilliant, but also unorthodox and unbalanced.  For him, Jane is nothing more than an experimental subject.  He has no desire to kill her – that would invalidate the experiment – but also has no compunction in pushing her to the edge of madness.

It’s a bleak ending – Cork, Marriott and Arthur Lowman (Philip Latham sporting a rather obvious false beard – not the last time we’ll see fake face fungus in this series) rescue the girl, but Lowman is pessimistic about whether she’ll ever come to her senses.  So whilst the guilty will be punished it seems that the innocent are fated to suffer as well.

The Case of the Girl Upstairs is quite slowly paced but it’s still a satisfying story, thanks to a brief, but memorable, guest turn by Joseph Fürst.

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Two Drowned Men

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Cork and Marriott are hunting two men who killed a bank messenger and made away with a thousand sovereigns.  A tip off leads them to the docks, where Sergeant Dempsey (Victor Brooks) has some news – he says that one of their suspects, Jack Simons, has been fished out of the river.  The ever-suspicious Cork isn’t too sure, since the man’s face was so disfigured as to make a physical identification impossible.  Dempsey responds that they found several papers in the dead man’s pockets which positively identified him as Simons.  The next day, the other man they were looking for, Steve Gurling, is also found dead in the river.  But Cork’s still not happy – why weren’t both men killed at the same time?

The mystery of whether Simons and Gurling are alive or dead isn’t one that’s played out for very long.  Within the opening ten minutes or so we see a boat tie up at the docks and two men get out.  They call each other Steve and Jack which makes it obvious that these are the two men Cork and Marriott are searching for.  It’s a pity this is so explicitly (and rather clumsily) explained straightaway, as it dissipates the mystery somewhat.

Steve Gurling was played by Tony Beckley.  Beckley tended to play rather fey characters, such as Freddie in The Italian Job, Rene Joinville in the Callan episode Suddenly – At Home and most memorably of all, the monomaniacal plant lover Harrison Chase in the Doctor Who serial The Seeds of Doom.  Since Gurling is a rough, tough, East End type it’s not really a part that plays to Beckley’s strengths, but he still makes a decent fist of it (even if his performance isn’t terribly subtle).  He’s not alone in this though, as some of the other inhabitants of the waterfront offer equally broad turns (the cackling crone especially).  But although there’s more than a touch of “gor blimey guvnor” about this episode, it still offers a decent portrait of the underbelly of Victorian London.

Cork views the area with extreme disfavour.  “Do you know what this place could do with, lad? A terrible thing to say, but it could do with another fire. Another Great Fire of London, burn out all these slums. They breed vice and they breed vermin.”  Marriott replies that it’s no use getting rid of the slums if you don’t get rid of the poverty that causes them – a point which the Sergeant agrees with.

Production design is impressive.  Without ever leaving the studio, designer Anthony Waller was able to create a convincing outdoors environment.  The Adam and Eve is a nicely designed waterfront dive (complete with parrot!) and there’s enough water to create the illusion that the docks are close by.  The use of sound effects (such as the constant hooting of tugboats) and a touch of smoke (to simulate the London fog) are also simple, but effective, ways of enhancing the atmosphere.

William Gaunt shows a flair for comedy as Marriott goes undercover at the Adam and Eve.  He’s disguised as a sailor with a fake beard and an even faker Irish accent, but only gets a black eye for his trouble.  Later he’s bashed about the head after he follows a suspect, to the despair of Cork who expresses his exasperation quite forcibly!

As I’ve said, this is pretty ripe stuff, but John Barrie continues to impress.

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Knotted Scarf

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Cork and Marriott venture into the countryside to investigate the murder of Lady Langford.  Her husband, General Sir Gerald Langford (Brewster Mason), is a distinguished old solider, whilst his late wife was much younger (and had previously been an actress).  After viewing where the body had been found the pair venture to Langford’s palatial house and begin to peel away the layers of this intriguing mystery.

Cork’s check suit (presumably it’s his country wear) is a sight to behold.  But whilst his appearance is a little distracting, Cork’s analytical skills remain just as sharp in the country as they are on the streets of London.  Sir Gerald is convinced that his wife was killed by a mysterious madman, but Cork is quick to contradict him – he believes that the murderer will be found much closer to home.  A little later Cork outlines his detective’s philosophy to Marriott. “You have to cultivate a mind that traps details like a spider’s web snares flies. And always work on the assumption that things are never quite what you think they’re going to be.”  Rather delightfully he breaks off from his monologue to wonder if he’s becoming pompous in his old age, telling Marriott that if so then Bob has his permission to boot him up the backside!

The General is wheelchair bound, so that seems to eliminate him, but he has a house-guest (the mysterious Jean-Pierre Ducane) who seems a likely suspect.  British-born Robert Arnold, playing Ducane, sports a very broad French accent.  British actors playing every nationality under the sun were very common during this era of television, but if you think he’s going rather over the top there’s a clever twist later on which explains why.

Brewster Mason is rather odd casting as Langford.  The General is presumably supposed to be in his sixties, but Mason was only in his early forties when this was made.  A fake beard and wig aren’t really enough to sell the illusion that this is an elderly man, especially when the camera favours him with close-ups that show his unlined face.

Director Anthony Kearey adds a few flourishes to the production.  A particularly memorable shot is that of Ducane, as seen though the barrel of Langford’s rifle.  Apart from a few brief scenes elsewhere, the bulk of the story takes place in Langford’s house (which is attractively decorated with mementos from the General’s time in India).

So this is effectively a country house murder mystery – and in time honoured fashion it concludes with Cork gathering all the members of the household together before revealing the murderer’s identity.  This was Jon Manchip White’s sole writing credit for Cork, which is a pity as The Case of the Knotted Scarf is a very decent murder-mystery with an unexpected ending.  Since there aren’t that many suspects it’s possible to have a stab at working out who the murderer is (although I have to confess that I didn’t get it right!).

 

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Stage Door Johnnie

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Kate Seymour (Eira Heath) is a music-hall performer who’s caught the attention of the Hon. James Stratton (Michael Meacham).  Stratton is infatuated with the girl and plans to marry her, much to the dismay of his well-heeled friends (one of whom warns him that “you can’t make a napkin out of a dishcloth”).  And those closest to Kate, such as her mother Bessy (played by Cicely Courtneidge), are just as keen to put a spike in their union.  Bessy has a low opinion of the male of the species anyway, bluntly telling her daughter that “if you look hard enough you’ll find something rotten in all of them.”  The delivery of anonymous letters to Kate, alleging a string of infidelities on Stratton’s part, is clearly designed to break up their intended marriage and the infuriated Stratton sets off to request the cooperation of the police.

The Good Old Days (BBC, 1953- 1983) painted an unforgettable (if rather idealised) picture of the Victorian/Edwardian musical hall and The Case of the Stage-Door Johnnie taps into a similar nostalgic atmosphere.  Presumably it was lack of budget that prevented Cork from filming in a real theatre (and even if they had, no doubt they would have struggled to hire enough extras to make it look full) so they had to recreate it in the studio.  It’s a decent effort, although a little suspension of disbelief is required.

Part one is set in and around the theatre and is notable for the absence of Cork and Marriott.  But it does enable Stratton and Kate to be brought into sharp focus as well as giving Cicely Courtneidge some pithily delivered lines.  We also see a young David Burke, who plays Arthur Stephens – one of Kate’s old flames.  Some twenty years later Burke would return to the Victorian era to play Dr Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes.

When we eventually get to see Cork, he begins by ranting at the hapless Chalky.  “Do you know the crime figures are rising? Do you realise we’re hampered, harassed and neglected? Do you realise we fight on so that you and your family can sleep safe in your bed at night? And you tell me that you’re too busy to make the tea?”  But there’s a sense that his treatment of the unfortunate Chalky is done with his tongue in his cheek (although whether Chalky sees it the same way is another matter!)

If his bad mood was genuine then it seems to have dissipated by the time he meets Kate.  He apologies that he’s got a piece of stickjaw toffee stuck in his teeth and offers her some for later.  They both rhapsodise about favourite sweets, with Cork telling her that “a lady in Chapel Street I know makes them, all home made. Humbugs, winter warmers, acid drops …”  Their chit-chat is only brought to an end when Stratton gently reminds Cork that they’ve come to the theatre on business.  It’s yet another nice character moment for Barrie.

Cork’s continuing disdain for the niceties of the social hierarchy is demonstrated during his interview with Stratton’s friend Lord George Creighton (Jeremy Longhurst).  Creighton, not happy with the tone of the interview, asks Cork to remember who he’s talking to.  “Personally I don’t care a damn who you are” responds the Sergeant.  Remarkably Creighton isn’t too upset at this sharp retort and goes on to say that Stratton shouldn’t marry outside of his own social strata – he believes that to do so would help to weaken the aristocracy’s bloodline.  Creighton is something of a hypocrite, he’s happy to sample the joys of working class girls but wouldn’t ever consider marrying one of them.

The Case of the Stage-Door Johnnie is a fairly low-key story, but Sergeant Cork wasn’t a series that always had to have a serious crime at its heart.  Cork deduces who wrote the letters and after he confronts them is happy to consider the matter closed.  Richard Harris (later to co-create Shoestring amongst many other notable credits) provided his one and only script for Cork and it’s a well-observed character piece.  Courtneidge tends to steal the show as the indomitable Bessy, keen to live her own dreams through the success of her daughter, but Eira Heath also impresses as Kate.  We’re later told that Kate is never going to be the next Marie Lloyd (despite what her mother thinks) and Heath has to tread a fine line to show that Kate is a competent, but not outstanding, performer.  Michael Mecham has less of a sharply-defined role, but does the best that he can whilst David Burke is far from subtle, but entertaining, as Arthur Stephens.  Another good episode.

 

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.

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Slithy Tove

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The death of an ex-villain called Trumble provides Cork with a puzzling mystery to unravel.

Trumble was well known to Cork and the news of his murder is greeted with sadness by the Sergeant.  His attitude is in sharp contrast to Inspector Bird, who views Trumble’s modest house with distaste and asks Dr Stuart (Robert James) “what is a case like this to do with people like us?”  Trumble’s death has caused unrest in the East End and the police are struggling to maintain order.  This also irks Bird.

The arrival of Cork changes things.  Unlike Bird, he’s happy to talk to the unruly crowd and he tells them that Trumble was just as much his friend as he was theirs.  His bluff way does the trick and the crowd disperse – although it’s noticeable that Bird doesn’t acknowledge this.

Cork brings the police photographer Perryman (John Junkin) to the crime scene.  This is something else that irritates Bird – why waste resources on such a squalid case?  Cork reminds him that photography is now becoming standard (a sign that the police are slowly beginning to embrace modern technology).  Fingerprints, one of Cork’s hobby-horses, are also mentioned, although Bob reminds him that they can’t be used in evidence.

Rex Firkin spent most of his career working as either a producer (Emergency Ward 10, The Planemakers, The Power Game) or an executive producer (Budgie, Upstairs Downstairs) but he did direct from time to time.  His sole Cork credit is unusual, as he didn’t have a production role on the series (unlike most of the other programmes he directed).  Based on the evidence of this episode it’s a pity he didn’t direct more.  The opening scene is especially interesting – the camera moves from the street (studio-bound, naturally) into Trumble’s house and then back out again.  Following Trumble’s death the camera follows a young urchin (John Barnham) as he ducks out of sight (Firkin is able to make full use of Anthony Waller’s well designed street set).   Sound effects (horses’ hooves, barrel organs) also help to create the illusion of a busy thoroughfare.

The Case of the Slithy Tove has a very strong guest cast.  Ann Lynn is vulnerable as Trumble’s daughter Nora and the always dependable Robert James has a decent role as Dr Stuart.  It’s a pity that James never returned as the doctor as he would have been a good semi-regular,  but James does have two further Cork credits (playing different characters).  Peter Fraser (probably best known for playing David Campbell in the Doctor Who story The Dalek Invasion of Earth) is slightly wooden as Nora’s fiance, Sam Manners and whilst it’s always nice to see  John Junkin, he has little to do as Perryman.  Bruce Beeby, who amongst various roles played Mitch in the radio serial Journey into Space, is the enigmatic Lake.

The identity of Trumble’s murderer is a mystery until the end.  Cork, who’s fond of quoting poetry during the episode, declares that he’s a slithy tove. Earlier, for the benefit of the audience, he’d explained that “a slithy tove is a slippery customer, it’s only when you turn your back you’re sure he’s behind you. Face him and he’s faceless.”

Cork does eventually run him to ground, but the story he has to tell is unexpected.  This leaves something of an open ending – Bob asks Cork what he plans to tell Inspector Bird, but Cork doesn’t answer.  It was common for Sherlock Holmes to decide at the end of a case that no further action would be taken, but he was a private individual and not bound by the law.  Would Cork feel it was his duty to report everything he knew to Bird or would he decide that things were best left as they are?

The first of eight Cork scripts by Bruce Stewart (who would later pen three of the four Timeslip serials) The Case of the Slithy Tove is another very enjoyable series one episode.