British 60s cinema
British 60s cinema

THE EDGAR WALLACE MYSTERIES

The Edgar Wallace mysteries are a series of nearly 50 films, all 55-60 minute B-movies, produced at the Merton Park studios in South West London between 1960 and 1965, adapted from the huge body of work produced by Edgar Wallace in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, before his death in 1932. I hadn't seen any of them until very recently, but someone pointed out that you could buy the whole box set for only £25 (of which more below) and it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. Here are some of the posters for the various films:

Bernard Lee in The Clue of the Twisted Candle

The films are all crime films, usually a mixture of murder, blackmail, burglary, robbery etc, with a sprinkling of surburban femme fatales, raincoated detectives, stressed businessmen, and so forth, all updated to give it a contemporary feel. Given the running time the films are very tightly scripted, although there is usually time for some minor character traits for the various police officers that routinely appear throughout the series; my only quibble is that sometimes the endings are rather sudden and truncated.

Mauirce Denham knows he's been caught out by the wonderful British police

From a historical perspective, what is fascinating now is the incredible number of actors who were 'slumming it' in B-movies (Bernard Lee, who was in several as a police officer), on their way up (John Thaw, Michael Caine) or just well-known character actors where you're not sure who they are but you've seen them in endless films and TV programmes (does anyone know who Bernard Archard is? But you will when you see him).

The list is almost endless, try these for now: Harry H Corbett, Hazel Court, Paul Eddington, Maxine Audley (left), Alfred Burke, Finlay Currie, Patrick Cargill, Derek Farr, Jack Hedley, Patrick Magee, Patrick Allen, Michael Gough, John Le Mesurier, Moira Redmond, Glyn Houston, Barry Foster, Dinsdale Landen, Eddie Byrne, Kenneth Cope, Maurice Denham (above), William Sylvester, Nigel Davenport, Geoffrey Keen, Basil Henson (he's in a couple, I wondered where I'd seen him before, and then realised that he was the psychiatrist in the legendary Fawlty Towers episode, never seen him in anything else before now)...

...William Hartnell, Anthony Booth, Jacqueline Ellis, T P McKenna, Peter Barkworth, Zena Marshall, Hugh Paddick, Jeremy Kemp & Rosemary Leach (see right), Dandy Nichols, Michael Coles, Jack Smethurst, Griffith Jones, Gerald Harper, Ann Firbank, Peter Bowles...and on and on.

 

The films were quite popular abroad, so much so that apparently Bernard Lee, who was in several of the films, particulary the early ones, as a Superintendent, was known in France as 'the 'French Maigret'.

The theme tune became well-known, a kind of 'stamp of approval' branding. Composed by Michael Carr, the original (used in the first three series) was, in my view, much better than the 'beat' one in later series, it was more mournful and mysterious, befitting the mood. Both however have a rather strange motif of Edgar Wallace's bust rotating around amidst swathes of fog; here's the original version:

 

You can compare that with the later, more 'beat' version from about series 3 onwards:

That's Bernard Archard, on the right - see, you do know him don't you?

One of the great joys about watching films like this, if like me you love this era (and if you don't, why are you on this website?!) is the picture it paints of a bygone Britain. If these films are to be believed, then everyone smoked themselves to death at every opportunity, drank spirits at all hours of the day and night (when I go to someone's house, and they ask me if I would like something to drink, I always say, ''Yes, I'll have a cup of tea please'; in these films it seems to always mean neat whiskey), frequent nightclubs constantly where the only entertainment on show is rubbish singers and cabarets acts that wouldn't make it past the first stage of 'Britain's Got Talent', and an astonishingly lax and cavalier attitude to drink-driving.

I am indebted to Simon A Irvine, who's in my Facebook group, for pointing out that the whole box set of these films was on sale for the ridiculously low price of £25 (less than 50p a film); I've just checked today (18 March 2014) and it's gone back up to £72, so I got in just in time.

 

It's an extremely well-presented box set, 7 volumes, each containing 3 DVDs, with 7 EW films on each, apart from the last volume, which has 5 films. That's all 47 films (each just under an hour long), with each volume having an extra film made at the same time by Independent Artists Ltd (I've not seen these yet) and a booklet for each volume with notes by Kim Newman (Steve Chibnall missed out for once!) with a generous amount of stills and wonderful posters for each film alongside the notes.

 

The films themselves are very attractively photographed, it doesn't say they've been digitally remastered, but the picture is extremely sharp and clear (even my wife commented on this, and she has no interest in these films whatsoever!) and overall, if you're feeling a bit flush, they're still good value even at £72, although perhaps best to keep a watch on http://networkonair.com/shop/105-sale to see if the price comes down again.

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© Paul Thompson