Saturday, August 05, 2017

"Have You Ever Murdered Anyone?"

Scotland Yard was a series of short films, usually running around the half hour mark, which were produced in the late fifties, originally used as programme fillers for cinemas (those were the days when you got an A feature, a B feature, a newsreel, adverts and a short film for the price of a ticket), later migrating to TV.  Indeed, I remember them still turning up in late night slots on ITV in the seventies.  Chronicling the tireless work of Scotland Yard in protecting us from murderers, arsonists and assorted other miscreants, the series purported to faithfully portray some of the Yard's greatest cases.  It makes for strange viewing today, taking us back to an era when the police were apparently incorruptible defenders of the law, trusted by all law abiding citizens.  even back then, behind the clipped dialogue, trilby hats and rain coats lay a surprising degree of corruption and rule bending.

The highlight of every episode, though, was undoubtedly Edgar Lustgarten's introduction, delivered in plummy tones from behind his desk.  The presence of 'one of the world authorities on criminals and crime' was clearly intended to lend an air of gravitas and verisimilitude to proceeding, yet his straight-faced delivery of often camp or just bizarre introductions now seems unintentionally hilarious.  To modern eyes Lustgarten seems a parody of what he was actually meant to stand for when the films were made: the embodiment of the establishment that Scotland Yard was intended to maintain and protect.  Lustgarten also provided the introductions and epilogues for a follow up0 series in the sixties, The Scales of Justice.  Deprived of his desk and office, forced to present his monologues at various LOndon locations, he looked somewhat uncomfortable and out of place in the new decade, which was to be characterised by an increased questioning of established values and ideas.

But to get back to the fifties and Scotland Yard, one of the most charming aspects of the series was its reuse of the same actors, not necessarily in the same roles, in multiple episodes.  Russell Napier, for instance, was frequently cast as a senior detective, but not always with the same name.  Whilst this probably wouldn't have been noticed by many viewers during the series cinema run, when shown on TV on a weekly basis, it becomes more obvious and more than slightly confusing.  The era the stories were set in varied from the forties to then present day of the sixties, but always looked much the same.  The series wasn't just shot in black in white, its perspective on the crimes it showed was equally straightforward: there was little ambiguity in its portrayals of the criminals and their motives.  They were simply bad people, motivated by lust and greed and deserved to be caught and punished.  As I said, it's fascinating to watch now, as the right tries to steer society back towards such notions of criminality as a character trait, or even a social class, for which there is no cure other than imprisonment and punishment.  Anyway, you can watch it all for yourselves, as Talking Pictures TV are screening the whole series starting later this month.  Oh, and to answer Edgar's question, no, I've never murdered anyone, but I did once have dealings with someone who did eventually murder someone.  But that's another story.

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