Patrick Malahide as Robert Dangerfield in The Blackheath Poisonings

Staking out the Vandervents'. Oh noooooo, he doesn't look in the *least* suspicious.

Staking out the Vandervents’

Patrick Malahide appeared in the 1992 television adaption of The Blackheath Poisonings. His character, Robert Dangerfield, returned from India and is attempting to rekindle an old flame with Charlotte Collard (Zoe Wanamaker). He is a bit of a cad, mostly looking to pay off his gambling debts, but he quickly learns Charlotte is not the silly, soppy girl he remembers. He finds himself involved with her ghastly family, a bit of murder, and all sorts of things that will turn the image of a proper Victorian household on its head.

The Collards and the Vandervents

The story deals with the Collards and the Vandervents, a family ran toy making business.

Here is the dynamic:  The household is headed by the stubborn, hard-as-nails matriarch Harriet Collard (Judy Parfitt). She has three children:  George Collard (Ian McNiece), Beatrice Vandervent (Julia St. John), and Charlotte Collard. George is married to Isabel  (Christine Kavanagh).  Beatrice is married to Roger Vandervent (James Faulkner) who has a son from a previous marriage, Paul (Christien Anholt).  Charlotte is, for the moment, unmarried but that changes when Robert Dangerfield comes bouncing on the scene.  Finally, there is Cousin Bertie Williams (Nicholas Woodeson).

They all live together as one big, miserable family. Harriet despairs of her children and relies on Vandervent to run the business. George is seen as indiscreet (we find out why later). Charlotte doesn’t get much respect, though that changes. Cousin Bertie is mostly just tolerated, although he seems a rather nice, albeit very pious, fellow.

George and Isabel have a loveless marriage. They do not like each other at all and live essentially separate lives. Isabel finds solace in Roger Vandervent. She writes sensual letters and reads them out during their romantic sessions in a secret apartment he keeps. While Isabel falls for Roger, the feeling really isn’t mutual. He has no plans to leave his wife, Beatrice, and when things get close to being revealed, he makes it clear to Isabel that the relationship must end.

Paul Vandervent, Roger’s son, is now of age and is expected to join the firm. He has no such desire and wants to write poetry instead. He has a great ally in the romantic Isabel, who he happens to have a massive crush on, but everyone else insists he joins them.

Enter Robert Dangerfield

Having a cigarillo (not a cigar) while waiting to waylay Charlotte...

Having a cigarillo (not a cigar) while waiting to waylay Charlotte…

So Dangerfield has returned from India. When we first see him, he is skulking behind a tree having a smoke, waiting for Charlotte to happen by. When she does, he leaps out in front of her (nearly giving the poor woman a heart attack) and launches head first into a desperate attempt at seduction.  The scene and dialogue are really fun. It is obvious he is on the make.

Robert: Calm yourself Charlotte. I’m not a demon or even a ghost.

Charlotte: I thought…everyone thought. I mean, you disappeared so suddenly. Then no word for months…for years

Robert: Did you think I was dead? I was, without you. (little derisive laugh from Charlotte) Bring me back to life Charlotte. I did not forget my promise. I have come back for you. (hand kiss)

Charlotte: No Robert!

Robert: I have frightened you. I’m so sorry. I’ve been too…presumptuous. Do not bother with me, dear lady. I could never deserve your hand.

And with that he leaves. Of course he’s made his mark on her. (swoon) But, Charlotte is no longer a silly girl. She wants Dangerfield, no doubt, but this time she will be in control and get him hook, line and sinker.

Malahide’s performance as Robert is very chameleon-like. I say that because he really changes over the course of the production. He starts off a very bouncing, vibrant, happy-go-lucky sort of guy who knows his luck is running out. He is harassed for gambling debts and needs to get them paid quickly. This is why he needs Charlotte, or rather, Charlotte’s money.

And when I say bouncing, I mean it. He has a total bounce in his step. He wears a suit that is a bit too small for him and his bowler hat is worn thin about the brim. He is optimistic that he can pay his debts, finagle his way into the family business, and keep Charlotte at a safe distance with the continued promise of marriage. It mostly goes to plan.

The happy, smug (and gorgeous) smirk of a man who knows he won't be thrown in the Thames with his legs broken.

The smirk of a man who won’t be thrown in the Thames with his legs broken.

When he is brought into the firm, he is marched out as though for inspection. He is out of his shoddy duds and now dressed to the nines. But, he is a lot stiffer; the bounce is gone.  There is a moment where he explains that his former business, the tea trade, is much like any other (such as the toy trade), with buying and selling. It is a bit ironic considering he basically sells himself to the Collards.

Ultimately, he does marry Charlotte, but it is she who controls the finances, a situation that causes him some embarrassment. However, his chameleon like progression continues and he secures considerable changes to the firm which benefit his standing. By the end, he is well and truly trapped in the firm, but you know he is going to make the best of it, even if he would like to have his freedom back.

The Poisoning Stuff and Spoilers: A Super Quick Recap

Roger Vandervent is the first to be poisoned.  Isabel’s letters to Roger are discovered so the police believe she killed him out of jealousy.  Harriet, who made inquiries about a rogue corset found in Roger’s desk, also dies from poisoning.  The corset is believed to have been Isabel’s, giving her good reason to want Harriet dead.

But, it was not Isabel.  It turns out George is a cross-dresser who gets up to all sorts of mischief as his alter-ego “Georgina”.  Okay. The basic gist is Georgina posed as a veiled Isabel (?) and purchased rat poison. If anyone could devise a corset that can turn Ian McNiece into Christine Kavanagh, that person would be a billionaire.  What is worse:  Being convicted of murder or finding out people can’t tell the difference between you and Bert from Doc Martin in drag? <—(click that link — it’s funny)

Anyway, jumping forward, Isabel ultimately gets off because Paul, who (sort of) solves the whole thing, poisons George (or Georgina) thus casting a big, fat shadow on Isabel’s conviction. No hanging for Isabel and no more George either. Yay for Isabel!

"I wish I was coming with you..." I bet she does, too. We all wish that!

“I wish I was coming with you…”

The last we see of her, Dangerfield is escorting her to the train station. She is off to India, where she will marry some guy unseen. He is an associate of Dangerfield’s, so he’s probably a lot more dashing than George (or Vandervent for that matter)!  Dangerfield promises Isabel that he will keep Paul out of the firm so the boy can focus on his writing. Awwww.

The best thing about that scene is the way it shows how Malahide’s character has fully evolved.  He starts out as the bouncing, jumped-up cad, gradually becomes something of a kept man, but ultimately winds up enjoying a sense of achievement for his work in expanding the firm and his help in giving Isabel  (and possibly Paul) a new lease on life.

 Victorian Morality Turned Upside Down

I have read some negative reviews of Blackheath.  Some make sense, such as the notion that Ian McNiece could fit into a small corset!  Others, I thought, were unfair.  Particularly criticisms leveled at Isabel for her adulterous behavior.  They seem to think she is being portrayed as a heroine when she is just an adulteress.  I don’t see her that way at all.  I thought she actually was a victim and her only “crime” was to fall in love with a married man who was only interested in having fun with her.  Certainly from Beatrice’s point-of-view Isabel is a bad guy, and I don’t blame Beatrice for that.  But, I simply can’t dislike Isabel.

Plus, Isabel does show she has morals when Dangerfield (in another excellent scene) hits on her.  He thinks she is game for a bit of fun, but she calls him out as “an adventurer and a flatterer.”  She’s right!  But, he comes back and calls her a “pleasure seeking sensualist.”  He’s right! But she’s not a bad person for it.  She just wants love, romance, and poetry.

It is almost a shame they didn’t hit it off more.  Nothing would have been nicer than for him to get on the train with Isabel.  But, by the end he, that former cad, is now a proper Victorian gentleman, sworn to do his duty for family and firm.   I guess that is good; I wouldn’t want to see Charlotte get hurt again anyway.

And a bit more about Charlotte.  When Dangerfield first approaches her, she goes to Cousin Bertie.  Bertie is actually a rather sweet, earnest character.  He is very pious, and his heart seems to be in the right place.  He is very concerned that Charlotte will simply wind up being hurt again, but he agrees to go to the park with her where she meets Robert.

Charlotte ponders a rather heavily worn, possibly tear-stained picture of Robert...

Charlotte ponders a rather heavily worn, possibly tear-stained picture of Robert…

It is obvious that she has carried a torch for Robert for a long while, because she goes back to her room and finds an old photograph of him.  It is a sad scene because you know she loved him.

There is a surprising moment, shortly after Harriet has just had a confrontation with “Georgina” on the heath, where she says to Charlotte, “and take that mealy look off your face, you’re as hungry as a jackal for that man of yours so we want no airs and graces from you!”  Charlotte looks only a slightly shocked at that outburst and even gives a wee smirk.  By that time, she knows exactly what she wants.  It is weird to see Victorian ladies being blunt about physical desire like that on a Masterpiece production 🙂

For years Charlotte has been kept outside of the firm.  Vandervent is responsible for running it, while Harriet is there ruling with an iron fist.  But, after Vandervent and Harriet die it is Charlotte who suddenly steps into the matriarch role.  There is some fine acting from Zoe Wanamaker as she rather transforms herself into Judy Parfitt.  It is refreshing to see her character come out on top as it contravenes the usual image of the desperate Victorian spinster.  In other words, Charlotte is no Miss Rachel (Pickwick Papers reference).

Victoriana, Blackheath Poisonings Style

There are a few intriguing historical elements in this production.   First off, there is the matter of the love letters.  They play a huge part in Isabel’s guilty conviction.  In real Victorian life, love letters played a significant role in the “not proven” verdict in the Madeleine Smith trial.  However, the more sensual elements of Miss Smith’s letters were censored, which was not the case for Isabel.  In her book, The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, Judith Flanders writes:

The trial rapidly altered perceptions of the young lady’s respectability. There were two big legal battles in court, one won by the defence, one by the prosecution. The defence’s win probably saved Miss Smith’s neck; the prosecution’s destroyed her reputation. L’Angelier had kept a diary, which the prosecution failed to have admitted in evidence. Miss Smith’s letters, however, were admitted, and her frank admissions of sexual pleasure were met with titillated fascination. The prosecution used the letters with discretion: they were read out when necessary, ensuring that no one could view the woman in the dock as a sweet young girl, but what were described as ‘gross and indelicate allusions’ and ‘particular words’ were censored to ensure that no one in court was offended – and even more, perhaps, to ensure that the jury’s imaginations were allowed to run luridly free.

Well, Isabel didn’t have Roger’s diary to deal with, but her uncensored lurid letters were read out.  It is a major point in The Blackheath Poisonings and, I think, rather influenced by Miss Smith.  If so, it would not be the only time Miss Smith has influenced a Partick Malahide vehicle, as she was mentioned by name in Inspector Alleyn’s The Final Curtain. RFodchuk is ever eagle-eared and picked up on Fox’s “not proven” reference in her recap.

Look, a Victorian crime tabloid!

Victorian crime tabloid!

Flander’s book also covers, in fine detail, the popularity of crime oriented newspapers.  For the Victorians, the newspaper was very much a big deal.  They covered all the big trials with lurid details (usually made-up) and evocative illustrations (which generally had nothing to do with the case).  After reading Flander’s book, it was so neat to see a mock up of a crime paper get a cameo. 🙂

Is that Stephen Fry?

Is that Stephen Fry?

The crime paper isn’t the only bit of Victoriana to get a cameo.  Oscar Wilde makes an appearance. Dangerfield gets Harriet and a few willing family members out of the house to enjoy a play.  After it ends, Wilde steps out, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is perhaps not proper that I should smoke in front of you, but nor is it proper that you should disturb me while I smoke.  So happy that you all admire my clever, beautiful play as much as I do, which is very much indeed.  And so, I congratulate myself on my genius, you on your exquisite good taste, oh, and the cast on an admirable performance.”  Isabel likes Wilde because he gives pleasure to the world.  Robert doesn’t like him because, well, he’s Oscar Wilde and Robert wouldn’t understand him. 🙂

Charlotte asks what was in Isabel's letters. Dangerfield: "Nothing to your taste, I fancy. What do you think, George?"

Victorian Silver Plated Folding Biscuit Box next to Dnagerfield’s nose.

The final cameo I’ll cover is made by the Victorian Silver Plated Folding Biscuit box (click link to see a real one for sale, possibly a Fenton, and only £525). It was well spotted by a member of a Patrick Malahide Facebook group. Honestly, anytime you watch a costume drama you’ll wind up learning something. 🙂

Wrap-Up

In short (there was nothing short about this, I know), The Blackheath Poisonings is an excellent production.  I don’t care about any of the criticism leveled against it.  It is fun; it practically sends up the Victorians while honoring so much of their history; and has excellent performances.  The murder mystery element isn’t much, true, but it is the relationships and the way characters change that make it so intriguing to me.  It is a little camp, sure, but part of the charm of it all is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I have neglected to mention a few other excellent elements, which I will now rectify.  Ronald Fraser plays the very funny, very silly, very Dickensian (or possibly Trollope-ian?) Doctor Porter who initially classifies Vandervent’s poisoning as the result of “gastric misadventure”.  I only wish they had given him a name worthy of Dickens or Trollope, who gave us Dr. Nockemorf and Dr. Fillgrave, but maybe that would be overkill 🙂

Also, there are a couple of policemen who need to be mentioned, the aggressive Inspector Titmarsh (Donald Sumpter) and his more laid-back Welsh colleague Sergeant Davis (Dafydd Hywel).  Hmmm, shades of Chisholm and Jones?

Here is a link to Amazon.com’s offerings (including book versions) and a link to Amazon.co.uk’s.

Gallery Courtesy of RFodchuk

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