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Tuesday 3 January 2012

Back to the Murder Rooms

Is it Box Set or Boxed Set? One's wrong but sounds right, the other's right but... oh, never mind.

The main thing is that the series of TV-feature length Murder Rooms mysteries produced by BBC Films is finally getting a widescreen DVD release in the UK. Created by David Pirie out of a two-hour special that he'd made a couple of years before, the series features the young Arthur Conan Doyle (Charles Edwards) and his real-life mentor Dr Joseph Bell (Ian Richardson) in what amounted to a new and baggage-free take on the Watson-Holmes relationship. The set comes bundled with a 2002 Holmes documentary fronted by Patrick Macnee.

I imagine that the commercial thinking behind the release involves a gamble on the continuing Richie/Downey/Moffatt/Gatiss movie and TV euphoria... the individual shows have been around on DVD for a while but in a form I've always recommended avoiding. They were soft, muddy 'fullscreen' transfers, released when the 4:3 format was already on its last legs. The target market seemed to be technophobes and pensioners; the discs could be had for a fiver in Past Times shops and at one point were even given away with The Daily Express. The episodes were actually gorgeously lit and shot on crisp Super-16. They'd look great in Hi-Def or on Blu-Ray. I know 'cos I was there.

Let's leap lightly over the fact that my Murder Rooms story and one of my (unrelated) novels share a title - I can explain how that happened some other time. But I loved the show, thought it showed the BBC at its best and had a driving concept that would have sustained it for a number of seasons.

I almost didn't get to join the party. The BBC Films machinery was set up to deal with one-offs, not series, and funding was being released in stop-start increments. First the money for one script, then for another... then a green light to go ahead with the first couple of episodes... it was like the constant opening and shutting of a miser's purse, a few coins reluctantly handed over every time. The original aim was, I believe, to film seven stories. I think mine was fifth in line but it got bumped up in the production order because I got my first draft in quickly, and with most of what it needed already in place. The purse slammed shut on four episodes but by then I was in.

It was a class production, handsomely done. The series producer was Alison Jackson, with Jamie Laurenson as development exec/script editor. My director was Simon Langton - Simon effing Smiley's-People Pride-and-Prejudice Langton. I watched and learned. He shot with graceful, understated, old-school brilliance - terms that could equally describe Ian Richardson's approach to an old-school magisterial role. The editor came on set one day to observe, and confided to me that he wanted to see how it was being done because the footage was pretty much falling together.

And it was a success - the notices were good, and so were the viewing figures. We geared up for second season that would kick off with those three unmade stories. I was asked for another, and put in my pitch. Ian Richardson shared his Joseph Bell research with me. David Pirie got a publishing deal.

The BBC pulled the plug. All plans were cancelled.

I was told some time after the event that this was most likely the outcome of a silent turf war between BBC Drama and BBC Films. The word went around that the show had been "too successful for the wrong department". Co-producers The Television Company offered to take it over and finance it themselves, but were turned down. BBC Drama then announced a Hound of the Baskervilles with Australian actor Richard Roxburgh for screening the following year. My recall is that it was a serviceable retread of the familiar material, but nothing special. A disappointing changeling, for many.

The new set won't be out for a couple of weeks yet, so I can't comment on its quality. Ignore the information on the Amazon sleeve pictures, they're for the old versions; in an email this morning, a representative for distributors IMC told me, "I can confirm the new set with the four episodes will be in a 16:9 re-edited format." Prior to this, if you wanted to get hold of widescreen DVDs you'd have to order from Sweden, the US, or Australia.

Personally, I'd like to see them reshown on the BBC's HD channel. Not least because I might get a couple of bob out of it. But mainly for, you know, cultural reasons.

UPDATE: The 'Ultimate Collection' DVD set is unwatchable. Avoid.


Paul said...

Ah. Now you and I have talked about this before. This is excellent news. Its not before time though, is it?

Good Dog said...


I got the episodes free from a ghastly newspaper that is Daily, but not the Express. Picking up the DVDs from the local WH Smith, I would try and leave the shop without the dreadful rag but the staff always insisted that because I had paid for it I had to take it with me. Having collected all four, I waited to watch them all in one go on the weekend only to discover they were 4:3 so never bothered. So hurrah for finally getting the opportunity to see the episodes exactly as they went out all those years ago, although I notice that the box(ed) set doesn’t include David Pirie’s original drama, which is a pity.

It’s a great shame that only the initial feature and the four subsequent episodes got made. Whoever made the decision to axe the drama is a complete buttock! And it only goes to show that the silly infighting between the BBC departments only ends up with everyone – including the audience – losing out, especially when The Hound of the Baskervilles that followed wasn’t much cop. Ian Hart made a decent Watson as I recall, but the abiding memory of that little venture was the absolutely laughable CGI hound turning up at the end, looking like a satanic Scooby—Doo.

Stephen Gallagher said...

To my mind Baskervilles is a great title with a great setting linked to a story that doesn't adapt at all well... the hero is offstage for too long and, let's face it, however much mystery and anticipation you build in, everybody knows the big reveal is always going to be a dog.

Good Dog said...

It'll be interesting to see what Messrs Moffat & Gattis do with it this Sunday. I thought their take on A Scandal in Bohemia was an absolute blast!

Paul said...

I just don't get the new Sherlock. I'm a lifelong Holmes fan and want to love it but I just... don't. Strangely enough I think that it lacks the Victorian Gothic atmosphere.

I'm not anti-Moffat (although everyone seems to spontaneously orgasm at the mere mention of his name these days) but, much like his updated version of Jekyll, I'm left cold by it. I actually prefer Downey Jrs interpretation!

Murder Rooms was excellent and I'm really looking forward to a decent release although, as you say, Blu-Ray wold have been nice. Also, it seems to be missing the pilot episode...

SharonM said...

Stephen, I'm delighted about the news. It's about time there was a widescreen version - though the same goes for the original story, which was directed by Paul Seed, had Robin Laing as Doyle, and Charles Dance in the cast.

I remember Ian still being very angry about the second series not going ahead. Even a few years later, I heard him use the 'f' word in full for the only time (in front of women) when talking about the woman at the BBC he deemed responsible.

Stephen Gallagher said...

My guess is that inclusion of the Paul Seed/Robin Laing movie in a set might be tricky, though hardly impossible. As it was an early standalone rather than a true pilot, the DVD rights appear to be held by a different distributor.

I like SHERLOCK a lot, though it's part of its 'pure wit and momentum' nature to be kind of weightless... it's closer, I think, to the sensational fiction that inspired Conan Doyle than it is to Doyle himself.

Oddly, what sticks in my memory from Sunday's episode is Una Stubbs' moment. The stroke which turns Mrs Hudson from apparent victim into Resistance heroine.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

The Laing-starring film is already available on R1:


This Swedish R2 set has all five films:


GB said...

Disappointing and frustrating that the first film isn't included.

I have the Swedish set, but subtitles are forced on some episodes, as well as the previous UK full screen versions. Its getting annoying to have several sets of this, and none of them definitive.

Stephen Gallagher said...

In case you come across this post and don't see any of the later ones on the same subject, don't buy this boxed set. When it arrived, the technical quality was appalling -- poor 4X3 transfers distorted to fill a widescreen TV. To make matters even worse, they'd been cropped down from pristine Super-16 16X9 originals! The American and Australian releases are far superior.

Paul said...

I recommend this edition. It has everything on it in lovely quality 16:9 and no fixed subtitles. Still not blu ray bt upscales very nicely.

Paul said...

Forgot the link! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Rooms-Mysteries-Beginnings-Photographers/dp/B0036D9FF4/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1376079796&sr=1-1&keywords=murder+rooms

Stephen Gallagher said...

Thanks for the link to the Swedish release. As far as I'm aware, the BBC have never repeated the series which, given the cost and quality of the production and the sustained popularity of subject, period, and genre, is mystifying.

Scott Andrews said...

I found a 2010 Dutch release in a charity shop yesterday, branded to look like the Robert Downey Jnr film, with SHERLOCK HOLMES on the cover in the same font the movies used, and above it, in tiny tiny print 'The real mysteries of...'. It has both the series and the original pilot, and looks, to my eyes, to be a perfectly acceptable 16x9 transfer, (though only in SD, sadly). Can't switch the subtitles off on TV, but ripping it to my computer stripped them out so I can watch them 'clean' :-)