I’ve been watching the “Alleyn Mysteries” produced by the BBC in 1993-1994, based on Ngaio Marsh’s mystery novels. These adaptations are quite good, for the most part. Patrick Malahide and William Simons are perfectly cast as Alleyn and his assistant, Inspector Fox. Their interpretation of the characters and of the relationship between them is exactly right. Malahide conveys Alleyn’s fastidiousness, compassion, and keen intellect with subtlety and distinction. Simons’ rugged, working-class Fox is solid, dependable, and loyal; he may lack Alleyn’s flair but he is clearly, as in the books, a competent and intelligent detective in his own right
Strong supporting characters enliven each episode. Much care has obviously gone into casting these characters as well. Belinda Lang gives an excellent performance as Agatha Troy, the artist whom Alleyn eventually marries. Lang’s Troy is as complex, prickly, and independent as Marsh’s original creation. However, the production staff evidently decided that Troy’s short-cropped hair and habit of running a painty hand through her locks were insufficiently glamorous for television. Lang therefore displays a level of sophistication somewhat at odds with Marsh’s descriptions of Troy.
The British television and film industry is blessed with an abundance of fine character actors, and lovers of British television will delight in seeing familiar faces in these films. Particularly memorable is the late Sir John Gielgud’s performance as Mr. Percival Pyke Period, a loveable Victorian snob, in “Hand in Glove.” Other episode-specific characters are equally well-played, from David Haig’s Arthur Wilde (“A Man Lay Dead”) to Harold Innocent’s Lord Robert “Bunchy” Gospel (“Death in a White Tie.”) Only occasionally do these characters fail to satisfy the died-in-the-wool Marsh fan, and then the fault can generally be laid at the writers’ and producers’ door. Moira Redmond’s Lady Desiree Bantling (“Hand in Glove”), for instance, lacks much of the outrageousness and over-the-top flamboyance of her novelistic counterpart.
Some alterations are inevitable whenever books are adapted to the screen, and the writers were sensitive to Marsh’s original works for the most part. The entire film series is set in the mid- to late-1940s, shortly after World War II. This necessitated some changes in detail and even plot; for instance, the now-laughable Russian brotherhood subplot in Marsh’s first book, “A Man Lay Dead”, is replaced by one involving the theft and sale or return of European artworks during and after the war. Similarly, the “Bolshevist” subplot in “The Nursing Home Murder” was given more weight and transformed into a Zionist arms-smuggling scheme. These changes work reasonably well without destroying the overall storyline or character of the novels.
Somewhat more distressing are the alterations necessitated by the inclusion of Troy in each film. In “A Man Lay Dead,” the character of Angela North has been completely replaced by Troy (and the character of Nigel Bathgate is reduced so far that, contrary to his role in the early novels, he never reappears as Alleyn’s Watson.) “Hand in Glove” was altered significantly to include the addition of a subplot involving forged Troy paintings, an additional murder, and an attempt on Troy’s life. This film is the most heavily altered of the adaptations I have seen so far, and while much of it was delightful, I must admit that I found the changes both irritating and unnecessary.
All in all, however, my hat is off to these productions, and particularly to the performances of Patrick Malahide, William Simons, and Belinda Lang. My standards for British mystery perfection were set by the Miss Marple films starring Joan Hickson and David Suchet’s Poirot mysteries, and are thus very high. These “Alleyn Mysteries” are very nearly as good. It’s a shame that only eight were made; I should quite like to have seen more.*
Added 4/22/2019: The Alleyn Mysteries are available for streaming from Amazon (in the US.)
*Not counting the 1990 pilot, “Artists in Crime”, which starred Simon Williams (not William Simons!) as Alleyn. I haven’t managed to get hold of a copy to watch it.