Filming a television show is not the same thing as putting several cameras in front of a play, usually. Television shows, even though they're sometimes referred to as “teleplays” tend to have a different feel than a play. However, that's not always the case, as the recently released to DVD 1980s British series Time For Murder shows.
The two-disc box set includes all six hour-long episodes of the series, each by a different writer and each featuring a different cast. It is, in the truest sense of the term, an anthology television series. And, much like an anthology series, despite the different characters and plots that exist from one episode to the next, they definitely fit together as a single, cohesive, whole.
The six episodes, “Bright Smiler” (Fay Weldon), “The Murders at Lynch Cross” (Frances Galleymore), “Mr. Clay, Mr. Clay” (Antonia Fraser), “This Lightning Always Strikes Twice” (Michael Robson), “The Thirteenth Day of Christmas” (Gordon Honeycombe), and “Dust to Dust” (Charles Wood), all not only focus on the same theme, but were all quite clearly filmed on the same stage and in the same style. There are embellishments and slight variations here and there, but by and large the similarities are greater than the differences.
Thus, after watching “Bright Smiler,” in which a mentally unstable masseuse contemplates murder, one is not surprised when “The Thirteenth Day of Christmas” features a mentally young man actually committing murder. In fact, insanity is a key factor in “This Lightning Always Strikes Twice” and “Dust to Dust” as well.
Do not be mistaken, each episode stands by itself, and having seen one in no way diminishes the audiences enjoyment at watching the next. However, being written and acted by different people, each episode's ability to entertain varies wildly as well. It is great fun to watch the hapless writer struggle with right and wrong in “Bright Smiler” and to watch the guests at the isolated hotel figure out whodunit in “The Murders at Lynch Cross.” It is however less enjoyable watching the decent to insanity and murder in “The Thirteenth Day of Christmas” and watching people figure out who the murderer really is in “Mr. Clay, Mr. Clay.” The answer to this last one is obvious from the minute the villain firsts sets foot on screen and the audience will question why none of the other characters can figure it out.
Though each episode does feature some similarities, they are all constructed in a different fashion. There are times when it truly is a whodunit, there are times when it is about whether a murder will occur, and there are other moments when the question is not whether nor who, but what will be done about the murder.
As for the more theater-based (as opposed to television-based) aspects of the series, they tend to be Time For Murder's major letdown. The performances in the series, particularly those of the mentally unstable and the murderers are incredibly over the top. There is no subtly to the acting whatsoever, the performances are all broad enough that the person in the back row of the mezzanine will be able to clearly delineate sane from insane. It's something that's not necessary when the camera is placed 6, and not 60, feet from the actor.
Additionally, the same set is used for the series over and over and over again. In each episode there is a main room with a staircase that winds around it's back. The hallways that extend from the room differ slightly (sometimes, anyway), and the paint, wallpaper, and furnishings change, but it is always the same room and quite clearly so. By the end of the second or third episode one can't help but wonder if all the authors, when being commissioned to write their story, were told that said room had to be one of the main sets used.
The last play-like element to the series is the audio. One gets the feeling all too often when the characters speak that they are in a terribly large room, like a theater, as opposed to whatever moderately sized den or living room or entryway they are supposed to be in.
While all of these elements conspire to diminish one's affection for the series, mystery fans (and fans of British TV) will find that they have done well to watch the series. There are, as with all anthology series, greater and lesser episodes present in Time For Murder, but the good outweigh the bad, even if the evil outweighs the good within most of the tales.
Time For Murder also has the good sense to begin and end with two best episodes of the six, “Bright Smiler” and “Dust to Dust,” which certainly helps one feel as though their time has been well spent. The only extra included are some cast filmographies, but those are usually just for killing time anyway.