If I worked in television in North America, I don’t think I could help but get frustrated with British television. Not only do they have an insufferable amount of high calibre acting talent and a literary tradition dating back to before quite a few countries even had invented the wheel to draw upon for their television shows, they also seem to be able to have the pick of the best of contemporary writers whenever they feel like it.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not blind to the fact that the Brits are every bit as capable of producing bad television as the next country, but they also have an annoying habit of being able to produce stuff that leaves anything we do on this side of the pond in the dust. One of the big differences is they don’t appear to make the distinction between working in television and working in film that is the norm over here. An actor, director, or scriptwriter could be working on a movie one day and a television series the next and think nothing of it.
In the past, North American audiences had limited exposure to British television through rebroadcasts of select shows on Public Television stations in Canada and the United States. All that’s changed now with the expansion of the home entertainment market and specialty television stations. The advent of digital media has allowed distributors on our side of the Atlantic an inexpensive means of making a great deal of material available that previously would never have been seen over here.
Acorn Media is one of the companies offering a wide selection of quality productions from both the BBC and independent television companies in Britain. On June 3rd, 2008, they will be releasing yet another example of British television by drawing upon the vast array of talent available to them in order to produce shows both literate and entertaining. A Time For Murder was originally produced in 1985 by Granada Television and featured six original scripts written by some of Britain’s finest mystery and scriptwriters at the time.
Charles Wood (Iris and Help), Gordon Honeycomb, Frances Galleymore, and Michael Robson might not be household names over here, but Antonia Fraser and Fay Weldon have both graced best seller lists across North America many times. Each of them, whether we’ve heard of them or not, are highly experienced and adroit writers. While it doesn’t necessarily follow that a good novelist will make a good screenwriter, none of those involved with this project suffered from making the transition.
Take for example Fay Weldon’s contribution, Bright Smiler. It doesn’t follow the usual convention of the television mystery of a murder committed followed by the hunt for a suspect. Instead she has created a suspenseful drama that relies on the characters and the situation to create the mystery and build the tension. It starts off innocently enough when an overworked scriptwriter checks into a health spa in an attempt to get some rest and relaxation. She’s immediately put upon a regime that includes a near starvation diet and plenty of massage. It turns out the masseuse is a fan of one of the earlier shows the writer was responsible for, and begins to obsess upon the fate of its lead character.
As a young woman, the masseuse was taken horrible advantage of by a man. He promised her the moon, and ended up throwing her away when he was done with her. Since then she has become the “Bright Smiler” of the title: always trying to be helpful and walking through life with a smile painted on her face, when in reality she’s a seething cauldron of rage and resentment. After years of suppressing her rage, the combination of an offhand comment by her scriptwriter client (and the appearance of the man who scorned her all those years ago at the spa with his wife) brings everything to the surface.
Will her anger and resentment build to the point that she will go on a killing spree? The more she talks to her client about the betrayal (we see what happened in a series of flashbacks as she tells the story), the less she smiles. The less she smiles, the shriller and more dangerous her voice sounds, and the more unhinged she becomes. Trapped on the massage table, covered only in a towel her and face buried in a pillow, the client must try and find a way to talk the woman out of a murderous rampage.
While Fay Weldon created a taut psychological thriller, Antonia Fraser’s contribution, Mister Clay, Mister Clay, is slightly more conventional. Set in a down at the heels school run by a penny-pinching headmaster, the story revolves around the murder of one of the school’s students. A particularly horrible child, he had delighted in making all the teachers’ lives as miserable as possible, especially young Mr. Clay. It was he who would lead the other students in reciting the taunting chant of “Mr. Clay, Mr. Clay, who are you going to kill today?”
When pair of Mr. Clay’s gloves turn up hidden behind a locker, suspicion falls on him, but there is far more going on in this school than meets the eye. The headmaster’s wife has a roving eye and appears to be more friendly than necessary with one of the other teachers, who in turn is dating a young female member of the staff. What were the contents of the letter the headmaster received that he found so unsettling, and to what lengths will he go to keep his school open?
Antonia Fraser’s script is replete with red herrings and plot twists that will keep you guessing to the very end as to the murderer’s identity. Nobody is as who they seem to be, and everybody is potentially hiding something, which makes it great fun to watch the plot unfold.
These two scripts are merely an example of the quality that permeates the whole series. Each show offers a different variation on the murder mystery theme, and has its own distinct quirks and characteristics, giving them an originality not often seen within the genre. Time For Murder is a wonderful opportunity for fans of mystery stories everywhere to see six examples of what a well-written television mystery looks like.
It’s a good thing the Brits are sharing their previously buried treasures or you could really work up a good hate for them.