I first remember noticing the prolific Martin Clunes as the amiable pothead PCP in Saving Grace, but for many Anglophiles, his defining comedy part has to be as the socially stunted title lead for the series Doc Martin. Somewhere in between these two roles, though, is his turn as a not-so-talented Mr. Ripley type in Dirty Tricks, a two-part mini-series based on a novel by mystery wrier Michael Dibdin. In it, Clunes plays Edward, an English-as-a-second-language teacher who we first meet running from the coppers for a Latin American banana republic to the right (geographically and politically) of Guatemala. “I’m in a bit of bother with the law,” he tells the camera, which proves to be a bit of an understatement.
Edward is accused of multiple murders, but our unreliable narrator assures us that he is innocent. The whole sordid business begins when he’s invited to dinner at the home of a bourgie besotted accountant (Neil Dudgeon) and his sexually voracious wife, Karen (Julie Graham). Karen pulls our gold-digging anti-hero into a series of comic sexual liaisons, the most memorable of which occurs right in front of her oblivious husband. From this follows two accidental (at least as Edward tells it) deaths, more than one cuckolding, an intentional kidnapping, and our narrator’s flight across the ocean for an unfortunate meet-up with one of his former students.
Jauntily directed by Paul Seed, Dirty Tricks tells the tale of a self-absorbed underachiever who’s never half as clever as he thinks he is. He is immediately seen through by the precocious daughter of a wealthy widow, while even the soused accountant Dennis characterizes him as a “perpetual student.” Snobbishly asserting, “I was born to believe in something called culture,” he fakes his way as a wine connoisseur with accountant Dennis, but looks forever out of place as he tries to worm his way into moneyed society.
The two-part black comedy proves broadly ribald in its first half, then swerves into violently darker territory in its second. The full package is filmed with an intentional flatness, which comically undercuts the sexy aspects of the storyline, in particular. Clunes makes his caddish would-be social climber appealing through all but his most loutish moments. While some viewers may be put off by the openness of its sex scenes, others (this writer included) will find the Clunes/Graham couplings amusing — especially in contrast to their later work together in the rom-com series William and Mary.
Acorn Media’s DVD package skimps on the extras—a filmography of the primary players and a piece on author Dibdin, basically—which is oddly suited to a character who spends his days bicycling to work at his “bucket shop” of a school. If you can see the story’s finish half an episode before our scheming lead reaches it, the voyage there is still a treat. Dirty Tricks may not be as much fun as watching Dennis Price knock off multiple Alec Guinesses, but it’s still a grand addition to the British comic tradition of wittily unscrupulous misbehavior.