In “Death at the Bar” (1993), the final episode in Season 1 of the BBC’s “Inspector Alleyn Mysteries“, Patrick Malahide’s Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is called to Cornwall, not for a nice seaside holiday (nor to run into Doctor Martin Ellingham, alas), but to investigate a murder by cyanide. As usual, there’s an entire bar (not a pub – not sure if I know exactly where the difference lies) full of suspects, seemingly none of whom have a reason for wanting the victim dead – but dead he is. None of the suspects want to talk to Alleyn about it (because that would be too easy), and the murderer proves willing to kill again to get Alleyn and Fox off his track.
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…
The action begins on a dark and stormy night – no, really – in the Cornish fishing village of Portenna (being doubled by Port Isaac, which also plays “Portwenn” in “Doc Martin“). The rain pelts down and the lights flicker on and off with intermittent power outages. However, all seems relatively peaceful until the publican, Abel Pomeroy (Paul Brooke) rushes outside to tell Constable Oates (Alan Gilchrist) that someone’s been killed in a horrible accident.
Meanwhile, Back in London…
Before we get the juicy details on that, the action jumps back a few days to London, where Alleyn is observing brilliant young prosecuting attorney Luke Watchman (Kevin McNally) in action. Watchman makes short work of the defendant, who attempts to claim that he was in three places at the same time on the night in question in his eagerness to prove he couldn’t possibly have committed the crime – which, as it happens, is not our Cornish murder, not yet, anyway. Watchman wins his case handily and invites Alleyn, along with his cousin, film idol Sebastian Parish (Alex Jennings, who also appeared with Mr. Malahide in “The Franchise Affair“) to his club for a celebratory massage and steam bath (cue the gratuitous towel-wearing! No really, the towels were quite gratuitous. 😉 ). We discover along the way that Parish is in debt to Watchman despite his film idol status, but Watchman is refusing to subsidize him any further. While relaxing in the steam room, Parish and Watchman tell Alleyn about their plans for their annual holiday in Portenna along with Parish’s friend, artist Norman Cubitt (Ben Daniels, Robert “Limbo” Ridley’s foe James Steele from “Law and Order U.K.” and soon-to-be son-in-law to “The Paradise’s” Lord Glendenning), and he says he hopes they have a wonderful time. Little does he know…
Watchman has a minor fender bender on the way down involving Robert Legge (David Calder) and, while irritated, doesn’t seem to think much of it though he later thinks Legge’s face is familiar. We get a sense of Mysterious Dynamics going on upon his arrival in Portenna, as significant looks are exchanged between the publican’s daughter, the oddly named Decima Pomeroy (Kate Hardie), her current flame Will Moore (Mark Anstee), and Watchman. Coincidentally, we also learn that the bar’s garage/stable is infested with rats, requiring the application of rat poison – because what could possibly go wrong with setting out poison?
The Consequences of Silly Pub Games
Later that night, Watchman, Parish, and Cubitt get involved in a Silly Pub Game. Legge claims with deadly seriousness (pun not intended) that he “never miss[es]” with darts, and proves his skill by landing darts between the fingers of a brave volunteer’s hand splayed on the dart board, without piercing his skin. Then we suddenly cut back to Alleyn and Fox (William Simons) on a train to Portenna as a series of flashbacks fill us in on the rest of the story: Legge’s supposedly “deadly” aim failed as the lights were flickering on and off during the storm, while Watchman was playing the target. His finger is penetrated to the bone by a dart and in the ensuing confusion over the accident, finding the first aid box, and intermittent lighting, he begins gasping desperately for air. Decima makes a well-intentioned(?) attempt to revive him with brandy, but he knocks the glass aside and collapses, dying horribly of cyanide poisoning – the same poison put down for the rats. The dart, a broken brandy glass, and a bottle of iodine are all suspected as delivery methods, but only the dart retains any traces of poison. When Fox notes that Watchman was on his way up in the world, Alleyn replies in a regretful tone that Watchman was first in his class at Oxford and destined for great things, and that he “admired him”. The coroner’s verdict is “death by misadventure”, but we can already tell that Alleyn thinks it may be otherwise.
Beginning the Investigation
Alleyn and Fox immediately set up shop in the private part of the bar upon their arrival, annoying Pomeroy despite Alleyn’s extremely polite apology (surprisingly, there are some people immune to his charm) for taking up his space, and begin their investigation. Alleyn’s first order of business is ensuring that Superintendent Harper (David Hargreaves) has the remaining rat poison found in the barn tested; the second is beginning the questioning with Pomeroy. However, Pomeroy describes an incredibly confused scene that makes it difficult for Fox and Alleyn to determine who poisoned Watchman in the first place, or by what method.
Alleyn and Fox then go out to “look under a few stones, see what’s crawling underneath” (as Alleyn says with a certain amount of glee), requiring Fox to be pried away from his tourist guidebook. They meet Parish and Cubitt, and we get a rather interesting double entendre as Cubitt eagerly says to Alleyn, “Is there anything I can tell you, Inspector? I love being questioned.” Seriously funny if you imagine James Steele saying it to Robert Ridley. 😀 Parish is rather less enthused and hastily denies that Watchman knew Legge at all prior to meeting him in Portenna, quickly ushering Cubitt away. His manner doesn’t escape Alleyn’s notice; he dryly notes that Parish “seemed very distressed at the death of his cousin”, to which Fox replies, “I nearly cried my eyes out.” (The two of them have some great double-act dialogue in this.) Some of their suspicions about Parish may indeed be justified, as he later confides to Cubitt that he already has all sorts of plans for the great whacks of cash he’s sure he’s about to inherit from Watchman’s will.
The Best-Dressed Hill-Walker Ever
Meanwhile, impeccably clad in his usual gorgeous double-breasted pinstriped suit and homburg, Alleyn walks the cliffs to look for clues, finding some lipstick-stained cigarette butts and a button. He also meets Miss Violet Duffy (Anna Cropper), a lady artist Of a Certain Age who’s also vacationing in Portenna (apparently Portenna is just lousy with artists; it’s a wonder Troy didn’t get the memo). Miss Duffy describes a fight she witnessed between Decima and Will Moore over Watchman, with whom Decima had “a fling” the previous summer. At the same time, Fox talks with ex-Hurricane pilot Moore and finds that there was indeed bad blood between him and Watchman. He also goes over the crime scene a bit more, investigating the woodbox in particular.
Alleyn questions Decima next, and once he gets past her annoyingly coy flirtiness and reluctance to answer questions (requiring a lot of patience and persistence on his part), confirms she quarreled with Will Moore when the he discovered her kissing Watchman on the cliffs. She claims the relationship is long over even though Watchman thought otherwise; she only smoked a cigarette or two with him and lost her button when he grabbed her, but that nothing else happened, really. She’s since made up with Will, an outcome no doubt made easier by Watchman’s death.
While strolling the rock beach and occasionally becoming distracted by his guidebook, Fox informs Alleyn that the woodbox by the fireplace is reeking with brandy – then abruptly breaks off to admire the scenery (he’s looking for a rock “in the shape of a woman” in particular) and comment that the nearby headland is reputedly the spot where Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur, was struck with irresistible passion for Ygraine, Duchess of Cornwall. This inspires Alleyn to unexpectedly and delightfully declaim a few lines from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King:
So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur:
But ere he dipped the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.
His entire manner transforms as he does this, and it’s wonderful to see. Those double firsts in Classics from Oxford are such show-offs, although Fox does get some of his own back by noting that it wasn’t “a mere, it was a lake, sir”.
They question Legge next, but he has little to offer except his apparent remorse at causing Watchman’s death and his belief that Watchman must have moved his hand; Legge seems more worried that everyone else will be suspicious of him, but names no specific names save Pomeroy’s, whom Legge thinks is resentful because Decima is sympathetic to Legge’s pacifism. That night, a rather moody Alleyn writes a mash note to Troy (with her picture in front of him on the desk, aaaawww), evidently missing her, but unfortunately I couldn’t make out more of his letter than “My dearest Troy” and something that looked like “I caught” something something “would have been” something something. Hopefully Troy was able to decipher it.
Of Brandy Glasses and Philatelists
The next day, Fox and Alleyn question a somewhat more subdued, less flirty Decima about her exact movements in the bar room on the night in question, specifically which brandy glass she picked up and why. Decima isn’t too clear on details, but Fox uses some of his own charm to coax from her that she was trying to revive Watchman with the brandy. However, he only drank a little before knocking the glass away, and she thinks it might have been Parish’s glass that she used – although Alleyn’s sure that she’s lying about that. As this is going on, Parish angrily informs Cubitt that cousin Luke has played a giant joke on him “from beyond the grave” by splitting the inheritance money between the two of them. Parish’s plans to live as “a man of means” have been thrown awry and he’s rather resentful of Cubitt for it, to put it mildly, even though Cubitt vows he knew nothing about it.
Questioning Legge and Decima for the second and third times respectively (he really does have to drag these little smidges of information out of them bit by bit), Alleyn discovers that Legge actually did recognize Watchman when he first saw him but didn’t think it worth mentioning. He also claims that he’s been seriously “ill” for seven years and is now recuperating, in part by becoming treasurer for a philatelists’ society and volunteering on a refugee board. Later, Decima finally reveals to Alleyn that she was worried Will was the one who took the rat poison from the barn, but she stops short of admitting that she deliberately used Will’s glass to give brandy to Watchman.
New Evidence and a Deadly Scottie Dog
Some new physical evidence slowly begins to bring the pieces together. Alleyn and Fox visit Superintendent Harper at his headquarters to get the test results on the poison left in the barn. It turns out to be surgical spirit rather than rat poison, suggesting that a switch was made. Harper’s convinced the dart must have been the murder weapon, but Alleyn tells him it couldn’t, because hydrocyanic acid would have evaporated too quickly from its tip to be effective. Instead, the poison was likely smeared onto the dart after the murder specifically to incriminate Legge, creating yet another puzzle (or the same one): how was Watchman poisoned? But at least Fox finally figures out something that’s been bothering him, when he realizes the one item missing from the bar is the R.S.P.C.A.’s scottie dog-shaped collection box.
Just as he’s realized that, by an amazing and unfortunate coincidence Mrs. Freeman (Mary Miller) collects the R.S.P.C.A. donation box early and takes a big whiff from a small bottle she finds inside; its poisonous fumes overcome her and send her to hospital. It seems she’s found the murder weapon, which Alleyn and Fox determine was swapped for the safe iodine bottle later found by the police, with the killer intending to retrieve the poisoned one from the box before it was collected. They also believe the killer engineered a situation by which everyone would be drinking brandy that night, while the killer remained sober by tossing his or her brandy into the woodbox.
A Little Eavesdropping
That night, Alleyn is just about to retire when he hears a noise… so like all good chief inspectors, he dons a robe over his jammies and sneaks out to investigate. He discovers Legge skulking about the corridors after tucking a note under someone’s door, arranging to meet “at the usual place”. The following morning, Alleyn tails Miss Duffy, who appears to be setting off for an ordinary day of watercolour painting, and ends up at a church. He finds that Fox, who was tailing Legge, is already there and has even settled in enough to be crunched up in a hiding spot, taking notes on Miss Duffy and Legge’s very cryptic and hushed conversation. It’s not clear exactly what’s being discussed but it does seem they have a prior relationship. At any rate, Legge is not satisfied by the discussion, which Miss Duffy concludes by telling Legge he should go to Watchman’s funeral and “show some respect for the dead”.
Murderers at a Funeral and the Irish Peer Connection
Fox and Alleyn scan their murderers’ row at the funeral and decide they can’t rule anyone out. “Even the ladies?” Fox asks, and Alleyn dryly replies, “Especially the ladies.” After the service, Parish casually mentions to Alleyn that Miss Duffy is the sister of disgraced Irish peer Lord Denatle, who was convicted of embezzlement and fraud and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Parish also recalls that Denatle had a partner in his fraud though he can’t quite remember the name: “Jingle? Dingle? Something Dickensian.” I can’t help but hope this had to be a sly, in-joke reference to Mr. Malahide’s earlier (and extremely enjoyable) role as con man extraordinaire Alfred Jingle. As it turns out, the man’s name was actually “Pringle” (it’s really too bad it wasn’t “Jingle”; that would’ve been poetic, especially considering the fraud conviction) and by an even more remarkable coincidence, the lawyer for both men was… Luke Watchman. The plot thickens!
An additional wrinkle is tossed into the mix when Fox and Alleyn are invited to the Chief Constable’s home for a black tie dinner to explain their progress thus far. Alleyn doesn’t seem too worried about it, but poor Fox doesn’t have a tux! He sets off to London to have some fingerprints processed and remedy his sartorial situation while Alleyn stays behind and promises the guests (in his best, most sincere “I mean it” way) that he’ll find the murderer. Later, he reveals to Miss Duffy that he knows she’s Lord Denatle’s sister; in return, she reveals that she knows he’s Sir George Alleyn’s brother, giving them an interesting commonality. But Alleyn doesn’t let that stop him from asking her about Pringle’s much heavier sentence – seven years to Denatle’s two – for committing the same crime even though they had the same lawyer. He questions Miss Duffy as to why it happened that way – was it Pringle’s face, or something else – but her answer is to abruptly and frostily clam up, accuse Alleyn of spying on her (which he’s totally been doing), and depart in a huff.
However, she later has a sudden change of heart and, in a more conciliatory mood, asks Alleyn how he knew that Legge and Alex Pringle were the same person; he replies that it wasn’t difficult to figure out. She then confesses that contrary to his claimed pacifism, Pringle actually joined the British Union of Fascists in 1936 and was “a Nazi in all but name”. It’s evident to Alleyn that Miss Duffy has romantic feelings for Pringle that have endured beyond his involvement with fascism and his criminal conviction, but she says, rather sadly, that they’re “completely unreciprocated”.
An Attempted Poisoning
Fox and Alleyn get ready for their black tie dinner at the Chief Constable’s, though it must be said that Alleyn looks far more comfortable in black tie attire than Fox does (I suspect Alleyn owns several tuxes and he certainly looks fetchingly James Bond-ish in one – mind you, it’s amazing he thought to bring it to Cornwall. Is it his emergency black tie? Was he expecting a surprise formal dinner to break out?). They’re both given glasses of Pomeroy’s excellent sherry as they’re dressing and Alleyn is just about to take a sip when he hears a thud from the next room. He rushes in to find Fox on the floor, gasping for breath; recognizing the signs of poisoning, Alleyn induces Fox to vomit (now there’s a devoted friend) and makes sure he’s is all right before going downstairs with a fine head of intensely angry steam. He seizes the sherry decanter as evidence before putting the entire bar in lock-down, ordering Constable Oates to keep anyone from leaving as “someone has just tried to kill Inspector Fox” (and himself, but he’s being altruistic).
Alleyn’s in a slightly better mood once Fox has been seen by the doctor and is obviously out of danger. While tending to a scratch on Fox’s leg, housemaid Mrs. Ives (Carol MacReady) even supplies a vital clue, revealing that the bar has two first aid kits and two bottles of iodine, and furthermore that Legge used one of them to treat a shaving cut a few days ago, which explains how the bottle swap might have been carried out. However, before Alleyn can nab Legge, Miss Duffy fakes a faint, distracting Oates long enough for Legge to leg it (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Despite all of his misdeeds, she loves Legge not wisely but too well (my apologies to Shakespeare) and is still willing to help him. Legge makes a getaway in his car but is forced to swerve to avoid a tractor, ending up crashing through a fence and into a pond, which is where
James Bo- Alleyn finds him.
Trying to Rattle Legge
A recalcitrant Legge is brought back to the bar for interrogation, though he puts on a great show of indignation at being detained and sticks to his story. Alleyn still needs to prove he poisoned the sherry decanter, so after getting Legge to empty his jacket pockets on the pretext of having his jacket cleaned, he tries (rather effectively, I thought – he’s really quite intimidating in this scene) to rattle Legge into a confession by revealing he knows about Legge’s seven years in Pentonville Prison and his true identity as Alex Pringle. He accuses Legge of murdering Watchman for revenge for obtaining Lord Denatle’s light sentence at Legge’s expense by shifting most of the blame for the fraud onto Legge. Legge blows up angrily about Denatle but still refuses to admit he had anything to do with Watchman’s murder. Alleyn counters that he knows Legge poisoned the second bottle of iodine by using his shaving cut as an excuse to access it, but Legge calls Alleyn’s bluff (he’s totally bluffing), telling him he’s improvising because he’s got nothing solid to go on.
Alleyn still has no concrete proof and Legge is on the point of leaving as a free man, even threatening to bring charges against Alleyn – presumably for being a big meanie and making him drive his car through a fence. He’s just gathering up his belongings when a second fountain pen (an old-style reservoir one) falls out of his pocket. He and Alleyn both swoop onto it, but Alleyn seizes it… and reveals (in an adorably showy gesture) that Legge used the pen to deliver the deadly cyanide doses to Watchman’s brandy and Fox’s sherry, undetected.
What Does He Do with All of Those Portrait Sketches?
On the train back to London, Alleyn reminisces with Cubitt (who’s broken up with Parish, but doesn’t seem too sad about it) and Fox, speculating that Legge “must have had Watchman in his sights for a very long time” and was an “opportunist” and “improviser” when it came to carrying out the crime. Cubitt says that the whole thing “doesn’t bear thinking about”, though he admits he benefited financially from it. He offers Alleyn a portrait sketch (which honestly looks more like Sam Neill or maybe Hugo Weaving than Patrick Malahide! Can no one draw this man?? Did Cubitt learn from Troy??) as a farewell present while asking Alleyn to “give [his] regards to Agatha Troy”; nice to know that the entire London artistic community is aware of Troy’s dating habits. 😉 Cubitt’s drawing of Legge on the reverse side is at least a better likeness and Alleyn remarks, while showing it to Fox, that Legge was “a man who created his own darkness”, just as the train conveniently passes through a tunnel. Great timing!
Inspector Alleyn Wraps Up Another One
This was a highly entertaining episode with a lot to enjoy in it, even if it may have suffered – only slightly – from a sameness in structure of the repeated questioning scenes, although I suppose some investigations (and mystery stories) are like that. We got to see a more relaxed Alleyn trading casual banter with Fox, needling him gently over his guidebook obsession (William Simons appeared to be having an effortlessly good time, as usual) and seeming to enjoy the Cornish scenery (which is incredibly beautiful) as he investigated the crime. We also got to see a range of his techniques with suspects, ranging from relatively gentle persuasiveness to outright looming and intimidation. I have to say that whoever lit Mr. Malahide in the final interrogation scene with David Calder did an excellent job of making him look subtlely predatory and Mr. Malahide completed the picture by being predatory – or maybe it was just me. It was fascinating to see Alleyn deal with an openly defiant opponent.
I also particularly enjoyed Alleyn’s angry reaction at the poisoning attempt on Fox, when we got to see just how enraged he could be when a friend’s life was threatened, and also the wonderfully expressive way he recited from Idylls of the King. That was a nice little surprise – or maybe not, given Mr. Malahide’s wonderful performances reading audio books. 🙂 I really liked the Jingle/Pringle in-joke, if indeed in-joke it was – but how could it not be? It was also interesting to see a younger Ben Daniels in a role that wasn’t opposing Mr. Malahide’s character, though perhaps that will change (we hope!) with season 2 of “The Paradise”.
As always, Forties fashions suit Mr. Malahide to an absolute “T” (how does Alleyn manage to pack so much luggage, including black tie, for a short trip?? And why do we never see this luggage?) with his gorgeously tailored single- and double-breasted suits as well as his lovely tux. Never has anyone looked more fitting stepping out of a Forties car. I felt rather sorry for poor Fox trying to keep up; hopefully he could return his tux later.
You can view some clips from “Death at the Bar” below, courtesy of Admin (thanks! 🙂 ), watch the entire thing online through Amazon.com streaming video (U.S. viewers only), or scroll down for a (rather large) gallery.