Question: what do Steptoe and Son (1962-74), Porridge (1974-77) and The Onedin Line (1971-80) all have in common?
If you answered “they all featured work from Production Designer David Chandler” then congratulations on being Andrew Pixley. If however you answered “they all started life as a one-off in an anthology series” then you might have an idea where I’m going with this.
Drama Playhouse ran over three years between 1969 and 1972, a testing ground for potential series, The Onedin Line was its most successful legacy but it also birthed Codename (1970), The Befrienders (1972), The Regiment (1972-73), Sutherland’s Law (1973-76) and The Venturers (1975).
One or arguably two of the those series could be regarded as a success but sadly The Incredible Robert Baldick failed its audition.
This is rather a shame as the fifty minute drama gives us a glimpse of what looks a fun drama in the mould of 21st century Sunday night fayre like Ripper Street (2012-17) and The Musketeers (2014-16). The writer was Terry Nation, a man who never knowingly underused an idea. By 1971 he was back at the BBC, having made his name on Doctor Who (1963-89) and various ITC series but failing to fully establish himself in the US. He pitched this, as “Victorian gothic suspense” and a post apocalyptic drama entitled Beyond Omega, which would eventually see the light of day as Survivors (1975-77).
Drama Playhouse‘s producer was Anthony Coburn, who, despite whatever else his might have done will always be remembered at the first scriptwriter on Doctor Who (worth noting that Terry Nation was the second), while the director was TV veteran Cyril Coke.
I read somewhere that this programme was being considered as a replacement for Doctor Who but I can’t really see it. This is not Saturday tea time viewing that an eight year old could enjoy. We open at night, with a village Vicar (James Cossins) and Squire (Reginald Marsh) discovering the body of murdered woman (Anna Martine) in the crypt under a ruined church. We establish a place, a sense of threat and a tone. Rural. Dark. Gothic. Suspicious.
While it’s certainly treading the well-worn path of the eerie (this is the early 70s after all), this isn’t the ‘other’ of Folk Horror. The Squire talks to the vicar about the smell of “corruption, decay”. This is the ‘other’ of morality. The murder victim, a young woman. A symbol of lost innocence, one way or another (the close up of her is rather ruined by Martine’s rather noticeable breathing). Once again we’re being subtly invited to sit in judgement on the working poor.
And with that we are introduced to our hero, with a curiously minimalist title sequence. No music, just the actor credit and the title superimposed on Robert Baldick (Robert Hardy) working at his desk. For an adventure series, that suggests it’s trying to be rather more serious-minded than perhaps it ought to be. We shall see.
As we’re introduced to Baldick we’re meant to believe he’s something of a maverick. He’s friends with his servants (Julian Holloway and John Rhys-Davies) and appears to be in the middle of inventing the telephone. We don’t know why he seems to be the first port of call for mysterious deaths, perhaps this would have been explored in later episodes. Nevertheless we’re left with a somewhat characterless lead, neutrally pitched by Hardy somewhere between Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes. All we know is, he’s very rich and very clever. Good job too, we need a few more of those in popular fiction. As the story progresses however there are a few crumbs thrown our way, Baldick would seem to have a bit of a drink problem and there’s a strong implication that he may be homosexual. His own morality would seem to be highly progressive, he lets a lynch mob go free because he knows they’ll hang for it. Again, we’re left to wonder what might have been with a full series, and how these themes may be developed and challenged. The pet owl seems a piece of pointless window dressing though.
Of course this isn’t a character piece, the adventure’s the thing and once we’re off on his private train1, and get down to some serious info dumping, matters start to get a little more interesting. We learn there have been many such deaths in that place over the centuries going back into “pre-history” so now we’re striding confidentially in Nigel Kneale territory and Quatermass and the Pit (1959) would seem to be a major influence.2 There’s more than a shade of MR James too.
Rapid historical research, supernatural horror and a late sci-fi twist all lead to a slightly unsatisfactory conclusion of “it was the unknown” but there’s a really enjoyable series here if they can pitch it slightly differently. Either tone down the horror and make it family friendly or ramp it up and show it after the watershed. As it is, we’re left with something not suitable for children but not quite in the Lawrence Gordon Clark vein either. Oh, and it could probably do with at least one female character that isn’t a maid or a murder victim.
This is also another of those programmes that sets Christianity up for a fall, Baldick is arrogantly atheist and the Vicar’s faith is broken with a failed exorcism, like the class elements it comes across as slightly, er preachy.
The direction is a little pedestrian but that probably more to do with studio limitations than anything else. The score though is anything but, and despite the fact it’s all stock, there’s some very eclectic choices including Borodin, Dvorak and Bartok. I’ve not heard a pipe organ used to score a chase sequence before.
So why didn’t it get commissioned for a full series? There probably isn’t a definitive answer. The programme was generally well received but public feedback on Sutherland’s Law was more positive, and that was commissioned. Also it didn’t help that transmission was delayed because of a dispute with the son of a late friend of Terry Nation’s called Robert Baldick who objected to the name of the programme.
It was eventually broadcast on 6 September 1972, the day after the Olympic Munich tragedy, and while Doctor Who also had its first broadcast the day after a shock international event, that was already in production as a series. The Incredible Robert Baldick‘s only episode was somewhat overshadowed.
To date it’s not been commercially release but it’s worth tracking down if you can. I write this the day after Robert Hardy’s death and this flawed, fun and forgotten little gem shows there’s always new things to discover even from one of Britain most successful and popular character actors.
1 The information we’re given about the train raisies some issues with the dating of this story. The business with the telephone suggests a date prior to Alexander Graham Bell’s patent in 1876 (and note that Baldick/Nation playfully references Innocenzo Manzetti as well) but Baldick later states his train was originally built for Tsar Nicholas II, who came to the Throne in 1894.