Column

Elementary, my dear Watson, especially if you pay writers for decent scripts

William Casselman January 15 1979
Column

Elementary, my dear Watson, especially if you pay writers for decent scripts

William Casselman January 15 1979

Elementary, my dear Watson, especially if you pay writers for decent scripts

Column

William Casselman

The corpse bobs face down on the oozy waters of a swamp, as though peering below where, murk-bound, ancestral fish flit. Revolving like bloated sea wrack, the body turns in a grisly slow-motion reel of death. Minnows nibble, then dart from the gaping mouth. And bright green bits of duckweed scum speckle the soggy greatcoat of the murdered stranger. ’Twould startle a tadpole, I trow. Quite unaccountable. Rural Ontario, 1890. Damned vexing, eh? If ever a case cried out for the unrelenting scrutiny of the Great Detective, why none did more than The Murder at Blenheim Swamp.

So begins one of the many enjoyable episodes of a new CBC drama series,

10 one-hour mysteries entitled The Great Detective (CBC, every Wed. 8:30 p.m.,

Jan. 17 to March 21).

Flossy hokum of the intriguing sort, the series sprang from the recently published memories of John Wilson Murray, whose introduction tells us, “Murray was appointed detective to the Dept, of Justice of Ontario in 1875 ... He spent the next 30 years of his life solving crimes in the pioneer settlements of Ontario.” One of the famous Canadians of his time, Murray was known around the world for his prowess in detection, his early insistence on autopsy, the importance of footprints, chemical analysis of clothing, hair, blood, skin—all this in an era when fingerprinting and photographic mug shots were unknown.

With a nod to the urgencies of telling a whacking good tale, the scriptwriters have transformed Murray into Inspector Alistair Cameron, acted by Douglas Campbell as a huffing walrus with soupstrainer moustache, a brusque old bachelor given to spewing bad whisky in an innkeeper’s face with the line, “Stuff would rot the belly of a cast-iron stove!” Campbell waddles engagingly through the stories, almost bursting from his grousing tweeds, bloodhounding the spoor of a felon, filleting each red herring laid in his path, until the criminal unpleasantness is resolved

to the last minute particular.

In one of the best episodes, Death Takes a Curtain Call (Jan. 31), we drop spinning into the tacky world of cheap, turn-of-the-century show biz. Backstage in a crumbling Orillia theatre, a troupe of touring vaudeville performers suffers major discombobulation when the company’s operatic tenor is expunged by means of a sandbag on the noggin. Then the manager is poisoned. Soon a Shakespeare-quoting dwarf is discovered defunct in a prop swing, which prompts the soubrette, played by

Julie Amato, to coo: “Life on the road is never easy.” Actor Ted Follows has more fun than I’ve ever seen him have as Percy, the clarinetist in the pit band who dabbles in phrenology.

But in the six epidodes I saw there is a hurried patchiness to the technical production. Dozens of fluffed lines are not edited out. Lighting is frequently tawdry, footcandles merely sprayed all over the sets, and some directors have placed too light a hand on the actors. Then a flash of individual brilliance: in Bloodhounds Can't Fly (Feb. 14), director Moira Armstrong and her lighting wizard Aylmer Wright create deliciously spooky TV pictures. Much of the hankypanky occurs in a barn, around a dovecote high in the rafters. Their color cameras capture, too, the rectangular smile of barn doors flung open from inside, the mote-filled gentle air and the almost tangible well-being that barns exude when they are stuffed high with autumn harvest. A smokehouse racked with fat hams suddenly drips menace-

all through camera angles and lighting. Too many TV drama directors disregard what lighting can do, perhaps because of the tiny screens.

Some scripts are blazingly uneven. Given a Great Detective, there must be a venue in which he can dazzle us. At times Douglas Campbell must strain to use every tic, double-take, mugging and odd reading in his actor’s bag, because the script is so thin. John C.W. Saxton (veteran CBC scriptwriter) wrote some episodes. His lines are as desolate as a dusty shop with empty shelves. Was there no time to buff to a lustre the dull spots in a weak first draft? Or was it the old CBC cheapness where writers are concerned, the contempt for “vehicle” scripts so widespread in the drama department? When you decide to use a great actor like Douglas Campbell, there must be a writerly concern with creating a character complicated and full of enough crannies that the actor can dig into the part and lap it up with gusto. If only CBC executives would allot a greater portion of a drama’s budget to writers. To hire two or three writers for a single one-hour teleplay should not be a frivolity beyond consideration. Done all the time down south. The money was there. But a great wad of it was spent on sets and location work, all needed—after you have a carefully packed script.

Still, when the scripts stick to the gore and Grand Guignol that swirled about the real Detective Murray, they’re fun and we can enjoy good Canadian actors. Sandy Webster as a turnof-the-century pathologist: “The victim had a full stomach of food. His dinner was just sitting there—staring up at me. Beefsteak and kidney pie. Poor quality beef, too, full of grrrristle!” Hugh Webster, an undertaker tapping with proprietory smugness the corpse from the swamp: “Dried out quite nicely, hasn’t he?”

The Great Detective is worth watching. If, during the broadcast, there’s a strange noise from the gazebo at the bottom of the garden, don’t move.