Just in time for Halloween, I re-watched “Dying Day“, a 1982 episode of the Thames Television series, “Armchair Thriller“, a sort of Twilight Zone-esque anthology series of spooky/scary-ish mysteries. This particular episode is notable not only for featuring a rather young Patrick Malahide as a delightful and incredibly sarcastic member of the Berkshire constabulary, but also for having a surprisingly dark-haired Ian McKellen as Anthony Skipling, the repressed milquetoast whose dying day it might be. Making it even better is the fact that it’s the thirteenth episode… oooooooo… [cue spooky music] Somehow we can already tell that this probably isn’t going to go well for Skipling!
Mr. Skipling Has a Serious Problem
The episode begins with Skipling (he helpfully identifies himself at the start of each episode) apparently being interrogated by two plainclothes detectives. He describes what starts out as a fairly typical day for him, in a style that reminded me a lot of Celia Johnson’s narration in “Brief Encounter“: jam-packed with absolutely mundane and rather boring details. Skipling definitely seems to have an almost OCD-like need to ensure things are done a certain way. When Skipling tells the detectives that his wife left him because he “got on her nerves”, it comes as no surprise whatsoever. A more interesting question might be, “why didn’t she leave a lot sooner?”
Don’t Talk to Strange Naturalists on Trains
Skipling’s day unfolds very much as all of his other days do. He’s taking the train home from work when he’s accosted in his carriage by a somewhat crazed self-identified naturalist, Foster (David Howey), who insists that Skipling listen to his cassettes of “the natural history of Berkshire” – nowadays it would be an iPod and mp3s. Skipling is treated to various soundtracks, including the munching sounds of a Cabbage White butterfly emerging from its pupae and the ambient conversation in a saloon (called a “saloon bar in a pub” – aren’t those three terms redundant? Is there a difference?). He’s just beginning to lose his patience when Foster realizes they’ve reached his stop and hastily departs, leaving behind the saloon noises cassette.
An Anonymous Death Threat
Skipling takes the cassette home, perhaps thinking that he’ll run into the nutty naturalist on tomorrow’s train. On a whim, he listens to the saloon noises tape again on his “music centre”, the only item in the house on which he’s spent a fair amount of cash (he’s something of a cheapskate and his idea of what constitutes a good dinner is… rather horrifying). This time, he’s startled to hear his name being mentioned:
“Skipling.” [second voice] “Who?” [first voice] “Anthony Skipling. Doesn’t know he knows. Still, safer to get rid of him. Out of the way.” [second voice] “Kill him.” [first voice] “Have him killed. Professionally. It’s all arranged.” [second voice] “Seems a pity. Harmless little bugger.” [first voice] “Won’t know what hit him. February the 28th. Wednesday. I’ll be in Inverness.”
It’s not even all that cryptic and the 28th is just three weeks away! The tape then goes blank, of course. Well, that doesn’t seem like a very good thing to hear about oneself!
A well-aimed brick has been smashed into Skipling’s tidy little world, and he’s at quite a loss as to what to do. He finally asks his co-worker, Lane (David Ryall) for advice. Lane at first assumes Skipling must be writing a thriller (in fact, his reading tastes run to Love in a Cold Climate – make of that what you will), then advises that if he really thinks someone’s trying to kill him… perhaps Skipling should go to the police… and tell them he has reason to believe someone’s trying to kill him (Lane’s very logical). Skipling does just that, and thus first encounters our Berkshire sergeant.
The Berkshire Constabulary to the Rescue!
Unfortunately for Skipling, he has the mis(?)fortune to run into one of the most sarcastic members of the Berkshire constabulary (complete with authentic accent), or perhaps any police force within the United Kingdom, ever to be found. He’s sporting an impressive set of Seventies sideburns (the police force really lets him get away with those? But I suppose that would mean someone telling him he had to shave, and probably no one wants to do that) and a… rather unfortunate haircut, but we’ll forgive him for that; it was the very early Eighties, after all. We have a theory here at the Appreciation that this particular sergeant might even be a not-so-distant relative of a certain Cockney Detective Sergeant that we know and love quite well, given their similar predilections for sarcasm and attitudes towards their work. Maybe community policing runs in their blood. 😉 I think the presence of D.C. Melish (Michael Troughton), disguised here as another unnamed police constable, further supports this theory. I’d like to know where D.C. Taff Jones is hiding, though.
Not only does Skipling have to deal with the most sarcastic sergeant on the force, he’s also forgotten to bring the cassette with him, leading to a hilarious exchange in which the Berkshire Sergeant (maybe I’ll call him “Sarge” for short) asks, “You didn’t feel it necessary to bring it, sir? You didn’t feel that being able to listen to it for ourselves would assist us in any way with our inquiries?” Failing to heed the warning in either Sarge’s tone or words, Skipling vows he’ll bring it in tomorrow, but Sarge reminds him that will be Sunday. Skipling says he’ll bring it in first thing Monday instead, but Sarge replies, “Don’t bother, sir. If you really have occasion to believe that some person unknown has not only decided to kill you, but has chosen this idiosyncratic method of informing you of the fact…” I love the way he calls it “idiosyncratic”. We can already tell that Sarge would be a great guy to go to the pub with and hoist a few. 😀
Taking Skipling’s Concerns Seriously… Sort of…
It’s also easy to make some guesses as to what Sarge’s opinion of pencil-mustached individuals claiming to have received anonymous death threats on cassette tapes is. However, he nonetheless treats Skipling’s concerns (mostly) seriously, no matter how far-fetched they sound – and they do sound very far-fetched. When Skipling protests that he “never suggested…” something – he doesn’t complete the thought – Sarge replies:
“Oh, of course not, sir. I beg your pardon. This person has merely informed a friend. Or an associate, in the privacy of a saloon bar in the pub, of his intention to make away with your good self. If, as I say sir, you really have occasion to believe this to be so and supportive evidence in your possession, then the sooner we begin our inquiries the better, wouldn’t you say? I’ll send someone ’round, straight away.”
See? Unfailing politeness. And I love the phrase “make away with your good self”. 🙂 Sarge then decides to send the luckless Melish around to investigate, something his London cousin would no doubt highly approve of. It’s just extremely unfortunate for Skipling that when he plays the tape for Melish… the conversation planning his murder has completely vanished. The tape plays only the ambient saloon noises, with no blank spots to indicate that it’s been erased. Skipling is confounded and Melish, who’s more polite than his sergeant but now just as skeptical, leaves empty-handed.
Then Things Get Really Weird
Skipling starts to become a bit frantic and paranoid, because he knows what he heard – or thinks he heard. He goes to the Samaritans, a counselling service that offered him advice and a “Befriender” after his wife left him, for help, but they just suggest that maybe he should see a doctor. But Skipling knows he’s not mad – he’s not!! He tries to go back to business as usual, but he understandably can’t get the death threat out of his mind. He’s repeating the words to himself – well memorized by now – when the entire situation is complicated by Foster’s reappearance as a bloody-eyed, dying apparition outside of Skipling’s train carriage window. Now there’s really murder involved!
Sarge Reaches the Limits of His Patience
Or is there? Skipling makes a return visit to his favourite sergeant who asks, very logically (I just adore his extremely logical sarcasm) why Skipling didn’t pull the emergency cord as soon as he saw Foster outside the train. Skipling protests that it would have been a £25 fine, and an exasperated Sarge replies that if he’d stopped the train, he would’ve been able “to ascertain whether the gentleman you say you saw was, in fact, lying there – dead, dying, or merely ‘orribly mutilated about the eyes.” Merely!! 😀 But since Skipling waited to phone the police until the train reached its next stop, there’s no body or evidence to be found. In fact, Sarge has been investigating the case (we knew he had a heart of gold!); he’s “personally spoken to every Foster… of whom there are many…” in the Redding area directory and he’s been unable to find evidence of anyone missing, let alone a Foster who’s a naturalist or teaching at the university. It doesn’t look at all good for Skipling.
Skipling then protests (an unwise thing to do with the Sarge) that Foster might not be listed in the telephone directory, causing Sarge to finally loses his patience: “Look, I’m not a bloody psychiatrist! Will you understand that I’m a sergeant of the Berkshire constabulary. I’m overworked, underpaid, and not particularly well equipped to deal with nutters! You talk about a £25 fine. Have you any idea of the time and effort you’ve cost us? Have you??” (I think Chisholm would sympathize with the overworked and underpaid part for sure, as well as dealing with nutters.) But Skipling’s a brave man (or crazy) in the face of Sarge’s wrath; he sticks by his guns and keeps asserting that he saw Foster. Sarge says that everything that needs to be reported will be. He then tries to toss Skipling out with a request that he “please do [him] the kindness of going away, and stop wasting [his] time”, while Melish eyerolls in the background. Skipling pouts that Sarge will look “bloody stupid” when he’s dead in three weeks’ time, but Sarge just replies that he’ll “attempt to bear it.” Over a light ale at the pub, most likely.
More Mayhem and Paranoia
Sarge probably hopes that this is the end of it, but he’s doomed to see Skipling again, after the murder of a man named Sellars (“Minder’s” D.S. Rycott in disguise, played by Peter Childs). Sellars works for an eccentric loon named Mountjoy, who happens to be married to Skipling’s not-ex-wife Doris; they’re not actually divorced, but she hasn’t let that stop her from remarrying. By this time, Skipling himself has acquired a new girlfriend, his former Samaritans Befriender Susie (Kate Coleridge). She seems to be on his side, yet she’s also remarkably callous about his fate by turns, and Skipling can’t quite figure her out. Skipling himself has finally managed to trace the saloon sounds to a pub frequented by Doris and Sellars; he’s trying to figure out how Mountjoy’s involved in the murder plot when a dead Sellars tumbles into his arms in the pub’s Gents, strangled by an unravelled cassette tape. Skipling is sure it’s the missing tape with the murder conversation on it and, after an initial panicked moment when he removes the empty cassette from the crime scene, he eventually reconsiders and brings it to the police.
Of Mantovani and Murder
Sarge is not overjoyed to see Skipling again, having thought he got rid of him the last time, and is even more disgusted that Skipling was withholding evidence, which Sarge describes as potentially “[e]mbarrassin’ ” if it were to be found in Skipling’s possession. Skipling begs Sarge to just play the tape used to strangle Sellars, since he’s sure it will prove everything he’s been saying. But Sarge replies that the tape has already been played and investigated in every way, and then drops this bombshell: “There’s no conversation on it. It’s been torn from a commercially produced cassette entitled, ‘Mantovani Swings: An Easy Beat Arrangement of Musical Memories from the Thirties’.” Adding insult to injury, Sarge dryly notes that the same tape can be purchased from “Boots… Woolworths… W.H. Smith’s… and all your favourite record stores.” He then pleads with a stunned Skipling to “Please go see your G.P. It’s so little to ask.” Community policing! 😉
And that’s the last we see of the Berkshire Sergeant. I’ll leave it to the reader to discover Skipling’s eventual fate (hint: it’s not… good, although not totally bad, either – well, it’s bad enough), and how Doris, Susie, Foster, and Mountjoy all figure into it. At least we can say that he’s out of the Sarge’s hair on a more or less permanent basis. It’s really too bad Chisholm didn’t move to Berkshire when he resigned from the force; I think he might have found a kindred spirit and enjoyed the peace and quiet. Maybe he could have even persuaded Jones to go with him.
The Berkshire Sergeant – Just the Sort of Guy You Want on Your Side
I really enjoyed this episode of “Armchair Thriller”, mostly due to the wonderful comic performance of Mr. Malahide’s “Barkshar” sergeant. I do wish the writers had given him a name, since he certainly deserved one. I’ve said it before, but he was just so delightfully sarcastic and completely unflappable. He seemed to enjoy confounding poor, increasingly desperate Mr. Skipling, but I did get the impression that he’d been forced to deal with a lot of “nutters” in his career already. Mr. Malahide gave his lines such panache, delivering them with aridly dry humour in his wonderfully sharp “Barkshar” accent. He looked quite appealing in his police uniform, too; I wouldn’t mind going to the pub for a pint with him, even with those sideburns. 😉
It was also very interesting to see a young Ian McKellen in a very different role than any other I’ve seen him in before; he was very convincing as a weak and rather passive man who’s trying to figure out what the universe has against him (answer: almost everything). I also liked seeing so many other actors who would go on to co-star with Mr. Malahide in “Minder”.
You can buy this season of “Armchair Thriller” on DVD from Amazon.com – for some reason Amazon lists it as S01E01 when IMDB has it as S03E13; the DVD I watched it on was S03 as well – or scroll down for a gallery.