DVD Review: Murder Most English

Anglophile homicide aficionados, rejoice! A long-lost classic has resurfaced, Murder Most English, by Colin Watson, the small-town British journalist who wrote the book on crime fiction (Snobbery With Violence), and whose own detective novels won the Silver Dagger Award. He died too soon after the BBC-adapted Flaxborough mysteries in 1977, and he's never gotten his due. His murder plots are involving, he knows everything about the folkways of small English towns and the tricks of the crime writing trade, but the key to his appeal is a sense of humor drier than James Bond's martinis. This is satire at its most satisfying -- much funnier than, say, Keeping Up Appearances, though rapping a few of the same funny bones.

Anton Rodgers (Andre in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) plays Inspector Walter Purbright in a masterpiece of understatement. He's a tweedily decent chap self-effacingly puffing his pipe and gently but firmly imposing justice on Flaxborough, a town of 15,000 souls, all of them soiled, most of them silly. The townsfolk are highly entertaining grotesques sketching out class structure and self-delusion. His colleagues are a colorful parade of foibles: The half-mad yet effective forensics wizard Mr. Warlock (John Tordoff), befuddled Constable Chubb (Moray Watson), the ever-chipper, clueless youth Sergeant Love (Christopher Timothy of All Creatures Great and Small). His quarry are more than just comic foils -- they're so convincingly embedded in a social context you feel inspired to move to Flaxborough and start inspecting them yourself.

No matter what outrages present themselves, Purbright remains unrufflable. About the strongest statement you'll get out of him is something like, "You don't fell a bloke with a hammer and then cut his throat. That would be sheer ostentation!" When a hard-drinking undercover spy named Hopjoy goes missing and all the bloody signs point to a honeymooning mama's boy and his newlywed spouse ("a bed-hopping Sunday School teacher," in Purbright's opinion), the Inspector refuses to leap to conclusions. It would be undignified. When others jump to stand in judgment of, say, a farmer's wife so chronically unfaithful one local says, "She's had more ferret than I've had hot dinners," Purbright declines to censure her. He's only out to solve the case, and make people as tolerant as they can be (and in fact, just a bit more).

The class comedy is rich, and the wellborn get skewered harder than the low. When tony types from MI5 (the British FBI, with a bit of CIA thrown in) come to Flaxborough to help Purbright solve the murder of their agent Hopjoy, they ooze condescension and incompetence, convinced the entire case is tied in with grandiose international skullduggery. In fact, Hopjoy is clearly an agent whose main mission was running up pub tabs and getting doxies to doff their duds. They always use the locution " -wise," in the manner of the jerk businessman in Billy Wilder's The Apartment. After a close encounter with one mattress-back local, an MI5 guy dumbfoundedly inquires, "Are you suggesting that Mrs. Croll is in the public domain, favor-wise?"

Besides Purbright, the show's most vivid character is a con artist named Lucy Teatime (Brenda Bruce, a brilliant stage actress who originated the role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days). A fellow as damnably upright as Purbright deserves a down-and-dirty distaff antagonist, and Miss Teatime is just right.

Murder Most English is available now from Acorn Media.