Colonel March of Scotland Yard

MarchOnce again my busy schedule has struck and I have had to reach for a piece I had penned about a mystery television series. For those whose interests lie solely in the printed page rest assured that book reviews are coming!

Colonel March of Scotland Yard was a television series from the mid-50s based on John Dickson Carr’s short stories set in the Department of Queer Events within Scotland Yard. The premise is not dissimilar from Roy Vickers’ Department of Dead Ends in that it exists to investigate offbeat, odd and otherwise inexplicable cases.

I should say up front that I haven’t read the short stories. Part of the reason that this post has been on the shelf was that I had hoped to track down an affordable copy but having spent months trying I am having to give up. As keen as I am to read it, I can’t justify spending close to $200 on a copy right now, particularly as people whose opinions I trust say it’s not Carr’s best work. Someday I will hope to rectify that.

The star of the show was Boris Karloff who was, of course, most famous for his roles in monster movies several decades earlier. This is a significantly different type of role and he plays his part with a sort of wry, good humor, often needling his colleague Inspector Ames (Ewan Roberts) who appears in most of the episodes and Inspector Goron of the French Surete (Eric Pohlmann) who is a semi-regular guest.

The stories themselves are quite uneven in quality and they do suffer from the limitations of the filming styles and constraints of the period as well as the short running time. As a result of the latter plots can sometimes feel a little flimsy or key elements stand out a little too much but even the episodes that don’t work brilliantly as mysteries will usually be quite entertaining in terms of the performances or broader concepts.

Some stories do stand out as being strong however such as the first episode, The Sorcerer, which features a simple idea but a clever and effective one. Fans of Carr’s gothic elements will likely enjoy The Talking Head which I think stands up best of the series as a whole and has a very clever explanation. Death and the Other Monkey and The Stolen Crime are also each excellent, particularly the latter which I consider one of the strongest episodes of the show.

I will say that this series does require a little patience with and tolerance for 1950s television. The viewer will often notice the limitations of the studio space (Passage at Arms struck me as somewhat ludicrous), slightly misplayed lines and, of course, somewhat static RP performances. Fortunately the latter is nowhere near as bad as you might expect given the era and fans of British films and television from the era may enjoy some of the before-they-were-famous guest appearances. Of these the Christopher Lee appearance in At Night All Cats Are Gray stands out for his attempts at an extremely questionable French accent.

Though it can be a little rough around the edges, Colonel March of Scotland Yard is frequently imaginative and fun. Episodes zip by and while I sometimes wanted an extra plot element to sink my teeth into, the content is usually good. If you have never sought it out before I would suggest that it is certainly worth a look.

The broadcast order of these episodes differs by territory so I am going by the sequence they are in on Amazon Instant Video. Summaries and comments on every single episode follow after the cut.

Episode Guide

Episode One: The Sorcerer

Script by: Paul Monash

SorcererThe premise: A man called Cusby visits the Yard to voice his anger at his wife’s analyst who he feels has an unnatural hold over her, loudly declaring that if he doesn’t leave her alone he will kill him. At her next session she talking with him, exploring her psyche by making associations. When she looks up she discovers that he has been killed. The room was completely sealed, locked from the inside with no external lock on the door and there was no one else in it. If Mrs. Cusby was not responsible then who killed her analyst?

Verdict: A solid introduction to the series though the as live shooting style may take some getting used to if you’ve not seen much fifties television. The concept of a murder taking place during a consultation is really fun and makes for an interesting howdunit. While the trick is quite simple, I think it is effective and well explained.

Episode Two: Present Tense

Script by Peter Green

Present TenseThe Premise: Colonel March’s niece accompanies her husband whom she is about to ask for a divorce to an airfield where she witnesses his plane crash. When she starts to claim she can hear his voice and him playing the piano her family and friends are concerned and March comes to stay to see what’s going on.

Verdict: This episode didn’t appeal much to me, largely because of some of the acting performances from the guest actors. Towards the end of the episode there are some fairly spectacular examples of reaction shots that are so ridiculously big that they are unintentionally comical. The explanation of what had been going on feels like something of a stretch too.

Still, Dad’s Army fans may get a kick out of the appearance of John Laurie as a Doctor.

Episode Three: At Night All Cats Are Gray

Script by Leslie Slote

At NightThe Premise: While at dinner with Inspector Ames, a woman comes up to March and asks him to pretend to be with her. She reveals she is frightened of a man with red hair. Later March is assaulted in his home and on investigating the woman’s house finds her dead, seemingly of an accident.

Verdict: Striking a lighter tone than either of the previous episodes, this story is pretty slight and not especially queer. Viewers are not likely to struggle with identifying the killer – the only real question is how it will happen. Of more interest is a performance from a young Christopher Lee sporting a rather unconvincing French accent.

Episode Four: The Abominable Snowman

Script by Leslie Slote

SnowmanThe Premise: Colonel March and other members of the Himalayan Climber’s Club discover footprints purported to be of the abominable snowman in the snow around their homes. March suspects that murder is intended – a fear realized when there is an attempted attack during a presentation of film from a recent expedition.

Verdict: An enjoyable adventure that I think has some fun moments, even if the explanation given doesn’t quite make sense. There is a part of the story that seems to be setting up an impossibility that sadly never really gets explained which is a shame.

Episode Five: The Headless Hat

Script by Leslie Slote

HeadlessThe Premise: Colonel March is staying at a Pension in France when an old friend from the Surete arrives to speak with the owner. He has come because one of her tenants has been killed in a dockyard struggle, leaving a clue to the identity of a wanted criminal in the form of a large hat with an initial sewn into its lining.

Verdict: While the change of setting is to be welcomed and Karloff’s exchanges with Eric Pohlmann’s French Inspector are delightful, the mystery is weak and convoluted. This is more adventure fare than puzzle and generates little suspense. It doesn’t help that none of the plans the characters adopt make any sense. Skippable.

Episode Six: The Second Mona Lisa

Script by Leslie Slote

MonaThe Premise: A somewhat shady art dealer invites Colonel March to see a find he is planning to have authenticated: a second painting by Leonardo da Vinci of the Mona Lisa. He has lined up two interested parties, an Emir and a Texan millionaire, to buy the piece in a private auction if it can be authenticated. After the auction however the winner comes to believe that he has been swindled. Can March work out what happened?

Verdict: No impossibility here but I do appreciate the simple conceit of this episode and its discussion of the real value of artwork. March doesn’t really have to work for the solution which will come easily, but I did appreciate its simplicity.

Episode Seven: Death in Inner Space

Script by Leslie Slote

InnerSpaceThe Premise: Colonel March is in Paris giving a speech about interplanetary communication. A scientist comes up to him afterwards to congratulate him on his speech and invite him to his home to witness an experiment. A man is placed in a locked chamber to put him in a state close to suspended animation but when the party goes to check on him they discover the oxygen failed and he has suffocated. But was it really an accident?

Verdict: Something akin to a locked room though the crime is far from impossible. The idea that all of the suspects are under observation at the time of the murder provides an interesting starting point but there’s no great idea at work here. As for the message from Mars stuff, it feels quite surreal.

Episode Eight: The Talking Head

Script by Leslie Slote

TalkingHeadThe Premise: A Doctor at March’s club tells him about a case of one of his patients whose fiancée’s twelve year old son may be trying to kill him. Moments after the Doctor leaves, March receives a phone call intended for the Doctor telling him that the man they were discussing has had an accident. After talking with the victim March learns that the boy believes his dead father told him to kill him.

Verdict: A superb story with an ingenious hook and genuinely clever solution. The macabre elements of the story are a perfect fit for Carr and there are some excellent performances.

Episode Nine: The Devil Sells His Soul

Script by Arthur Behrstock

TelfordThe Premise: At the funeral of Lord Telford members of his household gather but none are mourning his death. They agree that they should feel free but no one believes that the old man would have died naturally. Several of the group go to see Colonel March and ask if he can arrange for a mass hypnosis to be performed to see if any of them were responsible for the death.

Verdict: Be prepared for one of the least convincing mass hypnotisms you will ever see in a murder mystery. I am always rather partial to the family secret being discussed at a funeral idea as a starting point and I think the characters are established pretty well. The hypnotism itself is  ridiculous however and the resolution fell flat for me.

Episode Ten: Murder is Permanent

Script by Leslie Slote

Murder is PermanentThe Premise: The owner of a beauty salon is murdered while her hair is shampooed. Several of the employees have motive but the woman who hated her most, her daughter-in-law, has an unusual alibi.

Verdict: This is a cracking episode. While I think the killer’s identity is obvious from the start, the way it is done is wonderfully simple and effective. Margaret Halstan and Elspeth Gray are excellent as the owner and her daughter-in-law.

Episode Eleven: The Silent Vow

Script by Peter Green

SilentThe Premise: Colonel March and Inspector Goron are having a drink in a cafe when a man on a nearby table dies from drinking poisoned wine. Goron’s efforts to investigate are hindered when a witness is revealed to be a monk who has taken a vow of silence after the murder.

Verdict: As entertaining as Pohlmann’s Inspector Goron can be, this story never convinces and it certainly doesn’t make the most of its distinctive plot twist. There is a little tension in the showdown between March and the villain at the end but even that feels ineffective.

Episode Twelve: Death and the Other Monkey

Script by Leslie Slote

Death and the Other MonkeyThe Premise: A scientific researcher complains that the monkey he was experimenting on has been exchanged for another creature. Later he is found dead in a room that was locked from the inside having been poisoned by the gas taps being turned on. Inspector Ames believes it was suicide but March thinks it murder…

Verdict: A fantastic episode. The solution is clever and while the means is an adaptation of an old classic, I think it is handled well. The script and performances perhaps emphasize the killer’s motive a little too effectively but this is a very good twenty five minutes of television.

Episode Thirteen: The Stolen Crime

Script by Paul Tabori

Stolen CrimeThe Premise: A man comes to Scotland Yard to ask Inspector Ames to arrest him because he has devised the perfect crime to kill his wife. He explains the details of his plan but Ames tells him that he cannot do anything because no crime has been committed, sending him home. When the wife dies on the day he said he was planning the crime to take place he and March go to investigate.

Verdict: A joy from start to finish. The premise for this story is excellent and certainly catches the attention and the cast, though it is pretty small, each give wonderful performances. Everything is fairly clued and the whole thing hangs together very well, even if the killer’s identity is not a surprise. A highlight of the series.

Episode Fourteen: The Silver Curtain

Script by Leslie Slote

SilverCurtainThe Premise: A gambler who is down on his luck receives an offer of a job from a man who keeps winning small sums at the table. Following his employer to a courtyard, he sees the man walk around a fountain and moments later the man is found dead with a knife in his back and no one else in sight.

Verdict: We are in impossible crime territory and while the trick is understandably quite simple, it is worked well. The characters are good and there are some good secondary questions to answer. Another triumph!

Episode Fifteen: Error at Daybreak

Script by Leslie Slote

DaybreakThe Premise: March is holidaying at the seaside when a boy asks him to help retrieve his ball which he thinks one of the adults has stolen. As they walk along the shore March observes a businessman walk along a jetty preparing to dive in when he collapses clutching his chest. The man’s doctor tells March that it is a heart attack but he notices blood on the rocks. By the time the police arrive the body has apparently washed away making it impossible to confirm the cause of death.

Verdict: Solid. This story opens in a very charming way that showcases Colonel March’s playful side with a few good gags. The case is interesting enough though it builds to a somewhat hammy conclusion.

Episode Sixteen: Hot Money

Script by Leo Davis

HotMoneyThe Premise: A bank clerk follows a masked robber to a law office where he calls the Police and keeps watch. There is no other exit to the room and only person inside is a lawyer who agrees to allow the Police to search his office but they find no trace of the money.

Verdict: This episode throws us into the thick of the action and while there is little mystery about who carried out the crime, I enjoyed the process of following March as he works out how they have hidden the money. The viewer cannot really deduce where that would be without knowing what has been searched already and I do think that another possible exit for the money is left unaddressed but the episode is entertaining enough that I didn’t mind.

Fans of the Carry On films may appreciate a performance from a young Joan Sims as a secretary.

Episode Seventeen: The Missing Link

Script by Leslie Slote

The Missing LinkThe Premise: A man and a woman break into a museum to steal the skull of Damascus Man, the missing link. One of the pair is captured while the other gets away, apparently with the skull but when she is interviewed she claims that not only did she not get away with it but that it is a fraud.

Verdict: A fun concept for a story though it suffers a little from the limited cast size meaning that it is easy to guess who is responsible. There are some nice moments though, not least when March and Ames get caught in a trap.

Episode Eighteen: The Case of the Misguided Missal

Script by Leslie Slote

MisguidedThe Premise: A prayer book that once belonged to a necromancer disappears from inside an academic’s locked safe and appears inside a tower in the space of just a few minutes. When it is found in a room on the other side of the quadrangle in a room in a tower there is a body there too while the floor outside had been varnished during the time of the disappearance.

Verdict: A great premise for an impossible crime is squandered with some flat, hammy performances from the guest cast that makes the criminal all too easy to detect. There is a nice little sequence with a magician explaining how a crime was carried out but I hoped for much more.

Episode Nineteen: The Deadly Gift

Script by Paul Monash

Deadly GiftThe Premise: A barmaid receives an apparently commonplace gift of a music box from a criminal ten years after his death. Later the solicitor who was responsible for passing on the bequest is killed.

Verdict: A lighthearted romp of a story that doesn’t offer much in the way of detection but is presented with a light touch. Sandra Dorne is charming as Rosie and Ewan Roberts gets to demonstrate his singing voice.

Episode Twenty: The Case of the Lively Ghost

Script by Leslie Slote

Lively GhostThe Premise: A medium becomes concerned when she believes that her efforts may have summoned a real spirit.

Verdict: Once again I think this is an episode with a fun central premise that perhaps does not fully realize its potential although there are certainly some strong moments. I enjoyed the sequence in which the mystic and March explain a lot of the medium’s tricks and the seance itself is neat, even if the explanation is not particularly taxing.

Episode Twenty-One: Death in the Dressing Room

Script by Leo Davis

WattisThe Premise: Colonel March is invited to see a Javanese dance at a friend’s club. He is concerned however when during the dance she makes a hand gesture signifying a need for help. Shortly after the performance she is found dead in her dressing room.

Verdict: Richard Wattis is an actor who I invariably enjoy so I was pleased to see that he not only appears but gets a good deal of screen time in this story. Unfortunately the case is dull and I do not particularly care for the way it is worked.

Episode Twenty-Two: The New Invisible Man

Script by Leo Davis

newinvisibleThe Premise: A peeping tom calls the Police to report that he has seen a pair of gloves rise from a table and shoot a gun. When they investigate the flat they find the table but no traces of the body.

Verdict: Can we say that this premise has not aged well? A somewhat pervy older man watching women undress with his binoculars is treated primarily as a source of comedy which doesn’t sit very comfortably with me.

The solution to the mystery is mechanically clever enough if somewhat impractical. Inspector Ames’ final line though is quite charming though and it does at least end the episode on a high note.

Episode Twenty-Three: Passage at Arms

Script by Leslie Slote

Passage at ArmsThe Premise: Colonel March intercepts a woman with a gun in her handbag waiting outside a club where a fencing match between French and English teams will take place. She tells him about an unhappy love affair with one of the competitors and agrees with March to come meet him later but instead she is found dead.

Verdict: Uneven but with some entertaining moments. The rivalry between March and Goron is kicked up a notch by the inclusion of the fencing match and the stirrings of their sense of national pride and I enjoyed the focus on Goron’s methods which make a nice contrast with March’s. I think the restrictions of the studio space feel quite apparent towards the end as there is nowhere near enough room for the fencing match and the results look a little awkward.

I would add that March doesn’t so much solve the case as the murderer presents their own guilt which I do not find a particularly satisfying way to catch a murderer.

Episode Twenty-Four: The Invisible Knife

Script by Leslie Slote

Invisible KnifeThe Premise: A man suspected of having murdered five of his business partners comes to the Department to report that he himself has been the victim of multiple murder attempts since returning to Britain. 

Verdict: There is never any doubt who the villain will turn out to be in this story but that doesn’t stop the fun. In some ways it actually heightens it.

The solution to the mystery of how Pennacott killed each of his business partners is clever enough but not exactly fairly clued as we don’t see the crime scene clearly. Regardless I enjoyed getting to that point and while a few developments are fairly obvious, Karloff plays those moments well.

Episode Twenty-Five: The Case of the Kidnapped Poodle

Script by Arthur Behrstock

Fairways DiamondThe Premise: A young boy visits Scotland Yard to report the theft of his pet poodle who had been left to him by an elderly woman who had been a refugee. Meanwhile Ames investigates the theft of a valuable diamond…

Verdict: This is not the most complex or surprising mystery but I think it is done pretty well. For one thing the performances are fairly enjoyable, particularly Michael Shepley as Sir Nigel.

Episode Twenty-Six: The Strange Events at Roman Falls

Script by Paul Monash

Mrs RThe Premise: A woman arranges to let a clifftop house to live in with her reclusive mystery writer husband. When she reports that he has fallen she stands accused of the murder.

Verdict: This episode is designed to build up to a moment that should pay off as an exciting reveal for the viewer but unfortunately it is too well clued, blunting its effectiveness. This is a shame because I like the atmosphere, the performances and I think the idea is a strong one.

15 thoughts on “Colonel March of Scotland Yard

  1. One of these days I’ll figure out whether to go for one of these streaming services and might get round to watching htese — they certainly sound intriguing, especially as they mostly sound like original concepts rather than straight adaptations of the original stories (which, sure, budgetary and practicality reasons might’ve precluded — but, man, I’d’ve loved to see ‘The Footprint in the Sky’). Sounds like a good time.

    Also, there’s an error above: you cite someone whose opinions you trust, but the link goes to my blog — might want to fix that 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They do seem to be mostly inspired by rather than adapted from though there is no recognition of that in the credits. I will say that it tends to do odd better than it does locked room – the big problem is the running time means that ideas have to be either very visual or easily explained. Still, spotting an idea being used can be fun in itself.

      As for that last bit: heh but also of course you are! 😁

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      1. From what I can see from your descriptions, it seems five of Carr’s original March stories were adapted here: “Silver Curtain”, “Error at Daybreak”, “Hot Money”, “Death in the Dressing Room” and “The New Invisible Man”.

        The first three of those are fine short stories, while the fourth is so-so and the fifth is pretty bad. From your descriptions I take it that you had more or less the same feelings about those episodes as well, so maybe they were adapted quite faithfully? 🙂

        I do wonder who wrote the other episodes here. …….. Goes to check Greene’s biography ……. Ah, no info on that, unfortunately. I do note that because of the upsurge in interest in the March stories, Carr was actually commissioned to write a couple of new stories about that worthy, but things never came to fruition. Probably due to Carr’s ill health at that time.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the information – I would agree with your summary of my views. Without knowing how faithfully it was adapted, I would not be surprised if the New Invisible Man worked better on screen in the sense that a visual element could be shown (assuming that the solution remains the same). It is sadly disappointing in other respects though.

        I am curious where the writers extracted their ideas from. It would be great to know whether Carr had any involvement at all in the planning or if it was just a check in the mail for him.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Greene says that Carr’s involvement was minimal. In fact, less than that – it turns out that Carr didn’t even know that the series had been commissioned, and when his mother called him to say that she’d watched one of his stories on the TV, he said that she must be mistaken! 😀

        So, if I understand it correctly, he only cashed in a couple of checks after the fact, he didn’t have anything at all to do with the development and/or production of the show.

        From your descriptions, it seems that at least a couple of the non-Carr episodes are pretty clever. It’s unfortunate that TV shows (and films) back then had so little information on the crew behind the production, it would be interesting to know if the scriptwriters listed were also the people with the ideas, or if there were (an)other mystery writer(s) involved in the plotting.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. You’re right – many do feel pretty solidly plotted, even if they are relatively simple. I wondered if someone had sketched out ideas. I should probably look up info on the scriptwriters.

        Oh, and that Carr didn’t even know about the show is too funny! 😁

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great and fun overview of this series!

    I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, but remember being impressed by how cleverly they worked around the original solution to “The Silver Curtain,” based on an short story by Carr, because the constraints of time and budget would have made the original solution very hard to translate to the small screen. More importantly, the TV-variation of Carr’s solution worked really well and was fairly dangled in front of the viewer without being too obvious. It makes you wish more of Carr’s work had been (faithfully) adapted for TV.

    Anyway, thanks for this wonderful post and will hunt down some of the episodes you recommended.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. I am glad it had value and hope that you enjoy the episodes I steered you toward.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on how close the adaptation of The Silver Curtain was to the source material – I had been curious!

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      1. The solutions to the original short story and TV episode are identical in principle, but with one key difference in their execution. You have to read the story for yourself to understand what I mean. And it will make you appreciate the episode all over again.

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  3. Aidan! I set out to do exactly what you have accomplished here, so I will (gladly) forego the project. I started to watch these on Amazon Prime, and I totally agree with your assessment. Largely due to Karloff’s delightful personality, these are fun to watch, even if they have severe technical and writing limitations. However, I slowed down when I realized that most of them also forego the depth of complexity of Carr’s plotting. Yes, the first one had a fun idea, although the murder itself somehow seemed a cheat. The one where everyone is hypnotized was fun, but somehow each episode goes to seed by the end – that is, if you’re expecting something along Carr’s level of expertise. Other than that, they are great fun. I’m about halfway through and I will finish them at some pointy. Still, I am lucky enough to have the Colonel March stories, which I plan to read as part of my Carter Dickson Celebration, and I think I want to read them before I watch any episodes that might spoil the (probably better) tales for me.

    Do you find the wavering accent of the Scottish police detective distracting at all?????

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you are right in suggesting that the episodes sort of collapse as they go on. There are some good ideas and story starts here but with so little time the puzzles are simple and there is rarely any question about who the culprit is. That said, you are absolutely right to describe Karloff’s persona as delightful – he is always watchable!

      With regards the accent, I didn’t find it distracting. It does have a sort of wavering, inconsistent quality but I suspect that was the actor stressing words to aid clarity (throwing RP inflections on top of his Edinburgh accent).

      I am thoroughly envious of your having tracked down a copy of the March stories. I can’t wait to read your thoughts on them!

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