“The Final Curtain“, the third episode of the first season of the BBC’s “Inspector Alleyn Mysteries” (1993), finds Patrick Malahide’s Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn called upon to unravel a nasty case of poisoning within a rather unpleasant thespian family, and along the way discovering more about whoopee cushions, ringworm, and ancient embalming techniques than he ever wanted to know. And believe it or not, these three things are related. But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself.
Back From a Long Ocean Voyage
We first see Alleyn on a just-docked ocean liner, where he appears to have been saddled with the worst sort of travelling companion: the kind of guy who can’t or won’t be shaken off, talks incessantly, takes the last sticky bun at breakfast, and steals Alleyn’s newspaper before he even gets the chance to read it. It’s from Trumper (Michael Elwyn), for so his annoying travelling companion is called, that Alleyn learns one of Agatha Troy’s (Belinda Lang) latest portrait subjects has mysteriously dropped dead; one hopes it wasn’t due to some sort of “Oval Portrait” situation(!). But before Alleyn can read the details for himself, Trumper manages to lose the paper overboard and, perhaps in karmic retribution for giving Alleyn a hard time, his hat as well. But we finally discover why Alleyn’s really there when he claps the darbies on Trumper (who turns out to be a con man Alleyn’s escorting back to justice) and tells him it’s time to go ashore.
Alleyn’s next stop is Troy’s, and he turns up on her doorstep bearing a pineapple – one pineapple when he’s been away for two months?? – and an ever-so-slightly put-upon expression when she indicates surprise that he’s back so soon. He regales her with the gory details of his trip for a while before finally realizing she’d rather talk about what she’s been doing (the scene is seriously funny, especially when Alleyn picks up on the fact that he’s being not-so-subtly dissed – payback for that pineapple, I tells ya), but he steals Troy’s thunder by knowing all about her doings – or seeming to know all about her doings – already, even though he’s been away in South Africa for two months. Nonetheless, he asks Troy to fill him in on the details.
A Portrait Commission
In flashback, Troy describes how Thomas Ancred (Peter Blythe) convinced her to paint a portrait of his father, legendary stage actor Sir Henry Ancred (Graham Crowden), by wearing down her resistance with an expensive black market meal and offering to pay whatever fee she cared to name. She subsequently ended up making the acquaintance of Sir Henry’s somewhat creepy grandson, Cedric (Jonathan Cullen), on the train to the family seat at Ancreton. She’s met at the station by more Ancreds, Paul Kentish (Edward Atterton) and Fenella Cairnes (Sarah Winman), who seem more normal than Cedric (not that that’s hard to do), and warn her about the rest of the formidable clan who’ll be present for Sir Henry’s birthday and the portrait’s unveiling: Jenetta Cairnes (Patricia Garwood), Pauline Kentish (Susan Fleetwood), Desdemona “Desi” Ancred (Felicity Dean), and creepy Cedric’s mother, Millamant Ancred (Eleanor Bron). As a bonus, there’s also Paul’s horrible ten-year-old sister Panty (Samantha Glenn), who’s been sent home from school with a case of ringworm (you knew ringworm had to come into it somewhere), and Sir Henry’s less-than-half-his-age mistress and recently retired vaudeville chorus girl, Sonia Orrincourt (Emma Amos). All of them have theatrical connections in one way or another. Lucky, lucky Troy!
Putting the “Fun” in “Dysfunctional”
Over the next few days, Troy learns a lot more about Ancred family dynamics (tl;dr version: bad, very bad); they’re all in competition for a share of Sir Henry’s estate when he dies, and he has a habit of capriciously changing his will to reflect whoever’s currently in favour. First cousins Paul and Fenella earn Sir Henry’s ire by announcing their intention to marry and a book on ancient embalming keeps mysteriously turning up, suggesting someone is fascinated by death in a rather detailed and practical way. While all of this is going on, Troy’s portrait-painting is continually disturbed by upheavals over recurring pranks: red paint is daubed on a stair bannister and used to leave a rude message (“Grandfather is a boring old ham”) on Sir Henry’s mirror, and a whoopee cushion is left on his chair at dinner (I told you there were whoopee cushions – a.k.a. “raspberry” cushions – involved!).
The finger of blame for the pranks seems to point at Panty, who is easily horrible enough to have perpetrated them, though Troy’s gut instincts tell her Panty is actually innocent (this time, anyway). Sir Henry has little to no sense of humour about it all and re-writes his will to punish everyone he’s angry at, but, in a change of heart over his impending nuptials with the lovely Sonia, he announces another will dividing his estate equally at his birthday dinner – a rich meal of crayfish and champagne. Troy finally manages to complete the portrait, but the unveiling loses some of its cachet when the painting is found to have been vandalized by the addition of a crude flying (and pooping) green cow, of just the sort Panty likes to paint – or maybe it’s just been transformed into more of a surrealist work. Sir Henry erupts in a huge fit of rage at his ungrateful family’s disrespect and ends up dying that night of what’s thought to be acute “gastric misadventure” (yes, I watched “The Blackheath Poisonings” just recently). Maybe it was sort of an “Oval Portrait” thing after all… a portrait causing death?
Making the Case for an Investigation
Her job done (in more ways than one), Troy returns home and recounts the entire thing to Alleyn, saying that she thinks there’s more to it; he then goes to his superior, Assistant Commissioner Connors (Leslie Schofield) in an attempt to convince him that an investigation might be warranted. Connors is a wee bit skeptical (“Practical jokes, you say. Defecating cows…”) and despite Alleyn’s assurances about Troy’s instincts, sees no reason to send Alleyn “haring off” to Ancreton to investigate what seems to be death by natural causes. Connors is also a bit doubtful of Troy’s memory with regards to Sir Henry’s will, as the newspapers are reporting that everything was left to Sonia Orrincourt. He’d much rather leave the situation as is – until Inspector Br’er Fox (William Simons) brings the news that the entire Ancred family received anonymous letters “hinting at foul play”. Alleyn resists saying, “I told you so!” to Connors, though he certainly looks as if he’s thinking it.
Alleyn and Fox discover from Thomas Ancred that the letters accuse “the one who has received the most benefit” of causing Sir Henry’s death, and that everyone except Sonia got one. Furthermore, upon searching Sonia’s room, the Ancreds discovered a long-missing tin of rat poison, although Alleyn (the wag!) is doubtful of it being the murder weapon – he says it “doesn’t look as if it’s been opened since Madeleine Smith gave arsenic to her boyfriend”, though Fox (another wag) correctly retorts that Smith’s verdict was “not proven“. As an additional wrinkle, Thomas also tells Fox that detecting poison in his father’s body might be a bit difficult, as he was embalmed. Meanwhile, Alleyn learns from Sir Henry’s lawyer, Mr. Rattisbon (James Greene), that Sir Henry had two wills on the night of his death, destroying the one dividing his property equally in favour of the one leaving everything to Sonia, after his fit of rage over l’affaire de la vache déféquer.
Whoopee Cushions and the Infamous Panty
Alleyn then takes his leave of Troy to investigate further at Ancreton; he says it’s partially her doing to put “the cat among the pigeons”, but she predicts (prophetically) that he’ll be more like “the pigeon among the cats” when he meets the Ancreds. His and Fox’s first stop is a chemist’s shop selling, among other things, “raspberry” cushions. Fox turns on the charm and extracts information from the proprietor that the “new auntie” at “the big house” bought a whoopee cushion for the “little girl feeling poorly”.
Alleyn and Fox meet the infamous Panty for themselves when they arrive at the big house. She’s holding graveside services for Carabas the cat, who evidently died soon after her grandfather did. She denies all responsibility for killing Carabas with “the ringworms” but threatens to give it to Fox, whereupon Fox (who’s used to dealing with hardened criminals) threatens to give her his “gum boil” (I don’t know what that is, but eeww) in return. Unaccustomed to such a response, Panty then decides she’d rather play a game instead, and Alleyn callously consigns Fox to playing “Happy Families” while he makes good his own escape. Well, it’s not like he’s going to play “Happy Families”. One can only hope Fox got suitable revenge later.
A Pigeon Among the Cats
Over bikkies and tea with the Ancreds, Alleyn learns more about Sir Henry’s last night. Apparently Sonia had usurped Millamant’s nightly hot-drink-making duties for Sir Henry, who was also accustomed to taking indigestion medicine before bed. Sir Henry even shared some of his drink with the late Carabas (hmmm…) before knocking everything off his nightstand and yanking a bell push out of the wall in his death throes. Playing a little hard ball, Alleyn gets Sonia to admit that she was the source of the practical jokes, but she also reveals that they were Cedric’s idea in the first place, in order to disinherit Panty. It’s still not clear who the murderer might be, and the Ancreds seem all too willing to muddle the situation; in the course of questioning two of the Ancred sisters, Alleyn’s treated to an overwrought, fake confession scene from Desi that drives him to drink. Maybe Troy was right about that pigeon among the cats stuff after all.
Late Night Exhumations
He’s on somewhat firmer ground when he learns from the family doctor, Maltravers (David Waller), that Panty’s ringworm is being treated with thalium, a medication that acts as a soporific and makes hair fall out at lower doses, but is poisonous at higher doses. Its sedative properties make it very unlikely, if not impossible, for Panty to have carried out the pranks, since she’d have been asleep. Fox also discovers crumbs of sealing wax from the thalium bottles that lead him and Alleyn to conclude that someone’s been siphoning off the drug and topping off the bottle with water to hide the fact. However, it takes a joint exhumation (Alleyn gets to excavate Sir Henry, Fox gets the far less glamorous job of digging up Carabas) to prove that both of the now-hairless deceased died of thalium poisoning. The Ancient Arte of the Embalming of Corpses book, intended by the murderer to draw attention to the (assumed) presence of arsenic in Sir Henry’s corpse and thereby finger Sonia for the deed, turns out to have been a complete red herring.
A Final Clue
It’s Troy who provides Alleyn with the final clue. She calls him in Ancreton to tell him that Sir Henry ranted about his papers being tampered with before his death, and this final bit of information allows Alleyn to put everything together. He logically concludes that Millamant was most likely to have seen the two rough drafts of Sir Henry’s wills. Liking neither version, she set him up with a rich crayfish dinner and spiked his milk of magnesia with thalium, all in an effort to make Cedric the sole heir. However, she didn’t count on Sonia inheriting, so Alleyn needs to arrive in the nick of time to prevent Millamant from poisoning Sonia and removing the final obstacle to Cedric’s inheritance. Millamant is hauled away while Cedric dissolves in floods of tears, and both Alleyn and Fox are left unimpressed by the entire family. For his part, Fox says he feels sorriest for the cat.
Alleyn and Fox stop at the pub for a bite to eat on their way out of Ancreton, and Alleyn quotes Charles Lamb: “If ever I marry a wife, I’ll marry a landlord’s daughter”. From another part of the pub Troy replies, “Well, then I may sit in the bar, and drink cold brandy and water”, adding that in his letter to her about the case, he never told her who did it – so of course she had to come to Ancreton to find out. For some odd reason, Alleyn doesn’t look too pleased to find Troy there… but maybe he was just surprised. Let’s go with that.
A Bizarre but Fun Episode
I really enjoyed this one. It was a fun episode, with a lot of truly bizarre, and in some cases, totally reprehensible characters. It was an interesting approach to make the most “lower class” of them, Sonia, ultimately the most virtuous, relatively speaking. But I did feel sorry for the more “normal” ones, Paul and Fenella, who were stuck in the middle of the dysfunctional mess, and I even felt a bit sorry for Panty, who probably couldn’t help growing up as a total brat while surrounded by such relatives. Interestingly enough, she seemed to react best to those who took the firmest stance with her, like Troy or Fox.
But I must say, I just loved the scene where Patrick Malahide as Alleyn showed up on Troy’s doorstep with the pineapple (one pineapple! and a pineapple!), only to have to resort to puppy-dog eyes when she gave him a hard time. He was put-upon yet persistent and charming, so of course she couldn’t hold out for long. 😉 And I also really liked the tinge of smug he showed when he cold bloodedly abandoned Fox to playing “Happy Families” with Panty. I have to wonder if Fox’s putting the deceased (and very fragrant) Carabas the cat in the car’s back seat rather than the boot wasn’t a (not so subtle) means of payback. We also got to see some lovely expressions: his barely contained annoyance when Alleyn was bringing Trumper off the ship, a wonderfully goofy look at being busted by Sonia while searching Sir Henry’s room, surprise and disgust while watching Cedric snivelling all over his mother, complete discombobulation at Desi’s confession, and best of all, his satisfaction (with just a bit of smug) at solving the case. And there were beautifully tailored and elegantly worn pinstriped, double-breasted, and single-breasted 1940s suits to enjoy. 🙂 Malahide as Alleyn is always one of my favourites.
You can view “The Final Curtain” online starting at the link below, watch it via streaming video from Amazon.com (U.S. viewers only), or scroll down for a gallery.
UPDATE: Youtube has removed “The Final Curtain” and I’ve deleted the link, so just proceed to Amazon.com instead!