(Review of The Paul Temple Black & White Collection, originally published on Tachyon TV, 2012)
A common game played by fans of old British TV drama is identifying rival copycat productions in the eternal competition between the BBC and ITV. So, for example, Target shall forever be known as “The BBC Sweeney”, while few conversations about Enemy at the Door take very long before someone describes it as “the ITV Secret Army”. Sometimes these comparisons can be a bit unfair, but more usually they are uncomfortably accurate. So I can’t think of a better way to easily explain the intentions behind the strange case of Paul Temple than to describe it as “the BBC Saint”
The similarities in the formats of the two shows are striking; both series derived from long-running popular sources in other media, and presented the adventures of a globetrotting gentleman amateur detective, righting wrongs and solving crimes for no reason of reward beyond the hero’s own inherent chivalry. Before reaching British television screens in 1969, Francis Durbridge’s creation had already been heard on the radio and read about in novels since the thirties, been made into films in the forties, and then been adapted into an immensely popular radio series in Germany.
This German success was crucial to the form that the inevitable television version of Paul Temple eventually took. With the stories being as popular abroad as at home, a Paul Temple series was likely to gather strong sales overseas. After a conventionally produced first series (none of which survives) a canny BBC Enterprises took advantage of German interest, and from then on Paul Temple became the BBC’s first international drama co-production, financed and filmed in association with Taurus Films GMBH of Munich. The resulting shows showed off their higher budget by incorporating extensive filming in exotic and glamorous European locations such as beaches and ski resorts, shot on cinematic 35mm film, before returning back to Television Centre to record the interiors on videotape. The series might have only run for two years, but had a very high turnover of production, churning out 64 episodes, with the BBC transferring producer Derrick Sherwin away from Doctor Who to oversee the demanding show at short notice – the effect on Who being the main reason that Paul Temple is remembered these days.
Three years ago, Acorn released the eleven surviving colour episodes of Paul Temple on DVD, and a rum and disconcertingly unfamiliar type of programme it turned out to be when watched. The sense of disconnection between film and studio that viewers too young to have grown up with the convention often feel when watching old television is felt even by TV swots such as myself when Paul Temple switches back and forth between attempted James Bond-style glamour in Istanbul bazaars and a Wood Green interiors.
Perhaps a series with a stronger sense of character and reason for existing might have been able to overcome this handicap of an oddly juxtaposed style, but Paul Temple’s major flaw lay in its insipid generic hero. Paul Temple turned out to be a man who it was very hard to care about or find interesting. He’s a successful thriller writer – as demonstrated by his complaining about his publisher and deadlines at the beginning of each episode – whose emotional involvement with the alarming situations that he faces varies between mild amusement and mild exasperation. Francis Matthews’ performance as Temple tried to convey this as a suave and admirable sang-froid, but the thinness of the material that he had to work with meant that he really came over as a detective who’s bored with his adventures. Ros Drinkwater, as his wife and partner in crime-solving, Steve, fared only slightly better, as at least the plots often required her to flirt with villains and dash about the place in a different natty designer trouser suit in each episode. The intention behind this couple was that the husband and wife shared brittle and ironic sparring dialogue with each other, a purpose generally sunk by this dialogue never quite managing to be funny.
The original Acorn box set missed out the five episodes that only survive on monochrome 16mm prints, an omission rectified by this second collection. Seeing these particular shows in black and white doesn’t make as much difference as you might expect, as they happen to be the final five episodes of Paul Temple when resources for overseas locations had run out, and the closest thing we get to international glamour is confined to some stock footage of an Irish race meeting, so you’re not left feeling deprived of any diverting colourfulness that you might be missing out on.
Seeing these episodes is an instructive lesson in the sort of things that reach the screen when a programme ends its run, limping exhaustedly towards completion. In one edition Francis Matthews is clearly indisposed and George Sewell steps in to do the necessary legwork to solve the crime, aided by three brief appearances of Paul Temple in filmed inserts. A couple of rather risky scripts reach production, the sort of stories that would have stayed in the filing cabinet if there was other material left to work with.
These two stories aren’t necessarily the best of Paul Temple, but they do attempt to do something more interesting than the usual whodunit fare. John Wiles’ ‘Long Ride to Red Gap’ concerns a Surrey approved school, where a Lord of the Flies-style tribe of delinquent boys run riot around their drunken headmaster (Kevin Stoney) and terrorise the outskirts of Guildford, stealing dynamite and causing cars to crash while dressed as Native Americans. Another attempt at social commentary can be found in the final episode, ‘Critics, Yes! But this is Ridiculous!’ in which a Scottish holiday for Paul and Steve is disrupted by murderous goings on at a hippy commune. The suspicious locals – who perhaps inevitably include Angus Lennie – are appalled by the scandalous goings-on on their doorstep (“They’re dope fiends an’ layabouts! Aye, she used to be a nice girl until she went awa’ to that university”), while Temple’s attempts to intervene are met with hostility by the hippies (“You have bad vibrations, man”). A young Maurice Roeves plays the thankless part of the charismatic cult leader, less Charles Manson than George Best in a kaftan.
Even an unexceptional drama series made by the BBC in the early seventies could call upon a raft of very talented and original directors to add mobility and intelligence to matters, seen here in the contributions of such familiar Doctor Who names as Michael Ferguson and George Spenton-Foster. This is most apparent in ‘The Guilty Must Die’, an episode directed by Douglas Camfield, whose audacious style (dramatic close ups, starting a scene by cutting into a detail, making rooms feel like unfamiliar and dangerous spaces) could always be relied upon to make the most routine scripts look as close to Hitchcock thrillers as television could achieve. He also knew how to cast a production in depth, seen here in the presence of Joe Melia and Sylvia Syms, and from the early moment that Michael Sheard appears in a minor role as a lovelorn accountant, you know that this is going to be an enjoyable fifty minutes. That said, you do also have the alarming sight of Patrick Mower as a swinging gold-digging seducer, chatting up Mrs. Temple in a swanky restaurant (“For a married woman, you’re very forward. Your place?”)
Although a general blandness of characterization and vagueness of purpose don’t make Paul Temple an especially satisfying programme to watch, period BBC strengths of production and acting do mean that these episodes give genuine surface pleasure for the viewer. But the greatest promise that this release holds is in demonstrating the willingness of non-BBC companies to release black and white BBC programmes. Since 2Entertain have a horror of releasing any black and white drama that isn’t telefantasy then it would be great if the likes of Acorn could do the same thing for the BBC that Network do for ITV. Just imagine the sets that we could be enjoying: Maigret, Z-Cars, Doctor Finlay…