In 1988, Patrick Malahide starred in the BBC’s “The Franchise Affair“, an adaptation for television of Josephine Tey’s 1948 mystery novel. Malahide plays Robert Blair, a small-town lawyer in Milford who is called upon to handle a case far beyond his usual scope and comfort zone.
The story opens with a young girl running away from… something… in a driving rainstorm. She stumbles through some woods and onto a roadway, only to be nearly mowed down by a drowsy lorry driver. She’s only wearing a thin dress and appears to have just escaped an incredibly scary situation. She collapses onto the roadway just as the driver is able to come to a stop.
Small Town Lawyer
We next arrive in the town of Milford, where Robert Blair is gazing out his office window. He appears to lead a very quiet, staid existence as a partner in a small law firm, and he is bored, bored, bored. He complains to his partner and friend, Nevil Bennet (Alex Jennings) that the most exciting thing that happened to him post-World War II was falling off a horse. Incidentally, a rather nice panning shot establishes both the quietness of Blair’s current existence and his nostalgia for his service years: we hear clock chimes striking the hour as the camera takes us past a framed picture of a heavy bomber (likely an Avro Lincoln), one of at least three pictures of the plane that appear in various places. Nevil suggests that Blair alleviate his boredom with a round of golf and Blair is just going out the door with his clubs when he’s summoned back to his desk by a phone call.
Called Out for a Case
His presence and legal advice are urgently required at the Franchise, a rather out-of-the-way, run-down house outside of town, inhabited by Marion Sharpe (Joanna McCallum) and her mother (Rosalie Crutchley). Blair expresses some reservations because he and his firm don’t usually handle criminal cases, but he goes anyway to do what he can. When he arrives, he discovers that his clients are being accused of kidnapping, drugging, and unlawfully imprisoning Betty Kane (Kate Emma Davies), an innocent-looking, pigtailed fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who went missing from her family home for three weeks. To make matters worse, Betty alleges that the Sharpes forced her to perform menial servant work in return for food, cruelly beating or starving her if she failed to complete work to their satisfaction. Her attempts to escape were always thwarted until she figured out a way to poke her room key out of its lock, catch it on a piece of paper, and slide it under the door. She takes Blair, the Sharpes, and the police on a tour of the Franchise, showing where she was held and describing some details accurately, others inaccurately. She is also able to describe the Sharpes’ car accurately.
Blair acknowledges to his new clients that the situation doesn’t look promising and is not within his usual realm of knowledge or skill, but that he’ll do as much as he’s able to do. In discussing the case with Nevil, he mentions that it might be more desirable to pass the Sharpes on to Carley, another Milford lawyer. At this point, Blair has his own doubts about the Sharpes’ innocence, but an encounter with Carley in the pub (he’s sniggering over the case with a couple of gossipy ladies) convinces Blair that he should take the case.
At first it seems as though his services may not be necessary after all, as it’s Betty’s word against the Sharpes’ and the police are unable to gather enough evidence to make it worthwhile to pursue the case. However, the police’s hands are forced after the story hits the local tabloid and they begin to develop a case against the Sharpes. Blair explains the situation to the Sharpes and says that he and Nevil will try to establish Betty Kane’s presence elsewhere during the period of her alleged imprisonment, since it’s her word against theirs for what actually happened. He also tells Marion Sharpe that he’s somewhat unclear on what their exact sentences might be if they’re found guilty – either two years’ incarceration or seven years’ penal servitude – and she tartly replies that perhaps he’d better find out for certain, as the difference is “considerable”. “Bloody woman!” Blair mutters to himself after she’s left – a phrase he’s to utter many times before the story’s done.
Amidst growing ill feeling towards the Sharpes from the townsfolk, Blair and his team begin to gather evidence, knowing that they are searching for many needles in a very large haystack. They engage a private investigator to assist them, who posits that Betty Kane (whom he judges as “oversexed” by appearance alone!) was possibly running around with men and pretending to be much older than her fifteen years during her three weeks’ absence from home. Blair also begins to work on the theory that Betty’s knowledge of the Franchise’s interior comes not from imprisonment, but from being given very detailed information to parrot from a former employee. By the time of the Sharpes’ first hearing, however, Blair and his team are still searching for evidence and don’t have a defense case built. They decide to bank everything on having a case ready when the charges are heard at the Assizes in six weeks’ time.
The pieces slowly start to come together just as time runs out, with Blair’s entire staff abandoning their usual work in order to pitch in, including “Timmy”, the oldest partner. They learn that Betty Kane frequented a hotel in order to pick up older men, dressing and behaving as a much older woman; that the hired girl who corroborated Betty’s stories of screaming as she was being beaten was lying and is also the likely source of Betty’s knowledge of the Franchise’s interior; and most telling of all, that Betty would not have been able to provide the description of the Franchise’s grounds she gave with the view available from her small attic window. The description would, however, be available to someone peering over the Franchise’s wall from the top level of a double-decker bus – and Blair is able to dig up schedules proving a double-decker bus ran past the Franchise on the dates in question. Blair is also able to convince Kevin McDermott (Bryan Murray), an old school friend and very persuasive defense counsel, to present the case.
In the midst of all this, we also see that Blair is developing feelings for Marion. He becomes increasingly resentful of Nevil’s attentions to her and jealous of the time Nevil spends at the Franchise. He’s both frustrated and fascinated by her, lying awake at night and declaring “Bloody woman!!” in offended tones. His aunt sees the growing attraction as well but doesn’t seem in favour of it at all. During a visit to Blair’s parents’ gravesite, she tells them that Marion is not the sort of wife their son needs, even if he wants her. For her part, Marion doesn’t seem to reciprocate Blair’s feelings very much, if at all; she remains quite thorny towards him, even accusing him at one point of believing Betty’s story. She does seem to thaw a bit at Blair’s discovery of the attic window clue, and relies heavily on his protection when a local gang of delinquents decides to target the Franchise. Blair obtains a bodyguard/live-in lodger for their protection (his garage mechanic), and one night when no one answers the phone, even rams his car through the front gate to discover the delinquents have set the Franchise on fire and injured the bodyguard. Events are reaching a head in more ways than one; Blair declares his love to Marion in the empty courtroom the day before the trial. Her reply is not exactly gushing sentiment or even very reassuring: “I know you do.”
The Day of the Trial
The day of the trial arrives, with Nevil bringing in two crucial witnesses after it’s already begun. Kevin McDermott makes short work of the prosecution’s witnesses, saving his big guns for Betty Kane. He disproves her story about the attic window’s view and demolishes the rest of her testimony by bringing forward the two last-minute witnesses: the man she picked up at the hotel and his irate wife, who chased Betty out of the couple’s holiday chalet. Betty’s credibility is destroyed, the Sharpes are acquitted, and Blair has managed to win his first (and perhaps only) criminal case against incredibly long odds.
A Proposal, a Refusal, and a Happy Ending
For an encore, Blair proposes marriage to Marion in the courthouse corridor immediately post-case and is devastated when she turns him down flat. She explains that she’s not the right sort of woman for him and that furthermore, when a man of forty hasn’t married yet, it’s because he doesn’t want to be married. She suggests that the only reason he’s asking is because he thinks at his age he should be married, like an expected milestone. Not much consolation for him, and even worse when a few weeks later she sends him an “I’m leaving town and not giving you my forwarding address” letter, saying that she’s leaving for London on the morning train.
Despite all of this evidence and with no real reason shown for her change of heart towards Marion, Blair’s aunt tells him he can still catch her train if he leaves now and meets it at Milford. Blair manages to get on the train and find Marion, who has inexplicably changed her mind about him. They kiss (as the train goes into a tunnel, natch) for a Happily Ever After ending.
This is a well put-together, enjoyable production with, for the most part, a tightly constructed plot. The mystery itself was quite intriguing; I was quite convinced at first that the Sharpes were guilty (there were a few red herrings along the way to complicate matters) and was genuinely surprised as the pieces began to fall into place to indicate Betty’s true character. The cast brought their roles to life very well: Malahide was warm and funny as Blair, with very human moments of self-doubt and frustration. Joanna McCallum as Marion was scratchy and thorny, both fiercely independent and somewhat off-putting. Blair’s auntie (can’t find her name on IMDB!) was wonderful as his understanding “surrogate mother”. Bryan Murray as the flamboyant, utterly confident Kevin McDermott and Alex Jennings as best friend/annoying gadfly Nevil Bennet were also fun to watch.
Attention to detail in wardrobe, settings, set decoration, cars, and props was also remarkable. I was never conscious that I was watching a “made in 1988” production; it seemed as though I was looking through a window on the period. There were many small period details that made a difference: Blair’s picture of himself in RAF uniform on his mantle, pictures of his bomber suggesting fond remembrances of a time when life was far more exciting (and dangerous), pewter steins and horse brasses at the local pub, household accoutrements like radios and lamps – they’re all there.
And I must mention Patrick Malahide’s truly gorgeous 1940s wardrobe! I’ve seen him in 1940s clothes before as Alleyn, and it was interesting to note the differences between Alleyn’s posh, very tailored look and the somewhat rougher (but no less attractive) clothes worn by Blair. There was quite a stark difference when Blair wore his snazzier “court day” clothes, which were more like what Alleyn wears every day. But Malahide wears all of it with panache and I could watch the entire show again for the fedoras alone. 😉
I do have two quibbles with the production, and one is not its fault. It would be wonderful to see this remastered on DVD, with the video and audio cleaned up. The version I saw was transferred to digital from what appears to be an older VHS copy, resulting in an annoyingly “soft focus”, muddy picture. The soundtrack is also harsh at times, with its jazzy themes seeming a bit overpowering and loud.
My other quibble is that the romance between Blair and Marion seems very… forced. We are given a few hints as to Blair’s growing attraction (and Malahide portrays them well), but they really do seem to come out of left field. Even more out of left field is Marion’s sudden change of heart at the end. Maybe she felt obligated after he took all the trouble to catch her train? We do see a hint or two that she’s thawing towards him when they discover the clue about the attic view, and later when he rescues her from the delinquents, but it doesn’t seem like enough for her to change her mind, still less truly reciprocate. The chemistry just doesn’t quite seem to be there.
But we also have any number of delightful scenes to make up for these deficiencies. I particularly enjoyed how Blair’s entire staff got roped into the case, dropping their usual work and dusty old routines to come out of their shells in unexpected ways and contribute any way they could. And of course, Patrick Malahide acquits himself extremely well as a small-town lawyer longing for action, who overcomes self-doubt and lack of experience to win the case of a lifetime.
Some kind soul has loaded “The Franchise Affair” in its entirety on Youtube; you can start watching it here: The Franchise Affair, Part 1/11 (embedding disabled).