Saturday, 1 April 2017

Seventies TV: Whodunnit

I genuinely thought I had already blogged about this already, but am unable to find it. I suspect I may have written a piece about this show and it vanished when I had a netbook die some time ago. Anyway, Whodunnit is a show which I can't resist writing about - as usual for all the wrong reasons!
By all means, watch this show the way it was intended to be watched, if that is what floats your boat - as an exercise in deduction, expanded into a full programme by a panel's deductions and audience participation. The formula is very simple, yet surprisingly effective: the show begins with a film showing the actual death. The panel and members of the audience who have also been selected to deduct who did the murder, are introduced. The events surrounding the murder are elaborated in another film. The celebrity panel members get to ask to see parts of the film again - they have to give some notice, because I imagine this would have presented some technical difficulties in the 1970s. The celebrity panel then question the actors (in character, obviously) in the film of the murder, they and the audience panel give their solutions, and Jon Pertwee, the compere, reveals the true murderer. If you want a straightforward deduction to work out, and to engage in a virtual discussion about how could be the murderer, then this is exactly what you are looking for. I do like a nice murder myself, but tend to lack the attention required to work it out.
But that is not all there is to a watching of this show in 2017. Did I mention that Jon Pertwee is the host (for most of the series - Edward Woodward was the host for the first series)? If I also mention that the two resident members of the celebrity panel are Anouska Hempel and Patrick Mower, it will reveal further what I am getting at here. This show is an orgy of 1970s culture, with none of the bleakness we expect from the gritty television of the era. The other guest celebrities, who differ each week, are an array of the big names of the time. One can name Honor Blackman, for example. I still intend to write about Aimi Macdonald elsewhere but she appears on this as a guest. Diana Dors is another. There are also great names among the men as well: who would have thought you could get Kingsley Amis among the panel of a TV quiz show? Obviously normally I don't like familiar faces distracting me from a TV programme, but in this case the big names are obviously the point. It is a very nice touch that members of the public also get to form a panel of deduction and submit their solutions.
Quite apart from the big names on the celebrity panel, there is something else that I love about this show. I was strangely hooked from the moment I saw Jon Pertwee smoking while presenting the show. The actors who are being questioned are often smoking as is the panel. Nobody questions this, and as a dedicated smoker who has given it up, even I am slightly surprised to see people smoking as they present a TV show! Probably that more than anything else, has brought home to me the fact that there is a huge historical gulf in the forty years between the 1970s and now.
The collars. It's not only the smoking which brings home that we are well and truly in the unadulterated 1970s here. It's the collars. Nowadays, if anyone wore a collar like those worn by virtually all of the men, it would be for a joke. Did people really wear collars like that and smoke as they presented TV shows? They must have done. Did people really have hair that long? Could Aimi Macdonald really maintain that squeaky voice without going hoarse? All of these are things which this show is making me wonder about.
The attitudes. There are some surprisingly sexist things said, or else some innuendos, which I have a feeling wouldn't appear on TV nowadays. There are even some double-entendres which probably would seem very unsophisticated nowadays, but they remind me that the 1970s was the age of the sex comedy, and the Confessions films were among the highest-grossing films of the decades. This is not even to mention some of the period attitudes which come out in the films showing the murders and the circumstances surrounding them.
There are other nice touches about this show. The set changes each show, since it based on the set of the film of the murder. The new set each week and the big names in the panel, make me think that this show must have been high-budget and high-kudos at the time. I also particularly like the relaxed way in which Jon Pertwee moderates: it is a far cry from the some of the more sedate quiz shows of the time. It is also very interesting to see Pertwee in a very different setting from the role he is best known for, and one is which he is not obliged to play anybody but himself, but just act as the host.
To be frank, I think the possible criticisms of this show are ones that you would really have to squeeze out of it. You could say, for example, that many of the filmed murders include large amounts of over-acting, but I feel that that is deliberate. The show is meant to be fun, and it makes gentle fun of its own genre. Personally I'm finding it very difficult to criticise this show for production or any in any other way. The actors who play in the films and are afterwards questioned by the panel, are doing something incredibly difficult for an actor: they are being asked questions for which they are sometimes visibly unprepared, about a character which is only a bit role for them after all. The murderer can lie, but the others have to maintain a consistency in the story, which must have been incredibly difficult to do. Naturally one thing this does is sort out the truly great actors, who answer their questions looking calm and collected in their role.
So contrary to the drabness of much UK 1970s TV, this programme not only does what it sets out to do, but also provides an entertaining spectacle of contemporary costume, celebrities, and attitudes.

6 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Greetings once again from Chicago IL 60453 (USA)!

In the last year I finally got an all-region DVD player, that I might have access to discs not released in the USA.
As one of my first purchases in this direction, I acquired all five seasons (or series - whatever) of Whodunnit?

I'd seen some bits and pieces of these on YouTube, but in fact, my interest goes back a bit farther.

Circa 1979, the NBC network launched an American version of Whodunnit?, as a summer replacement show - six half-hour episodes, with an eye toward future use.

The US show was packaged as a standard panel game.
At first, civilian player were used, but this was dropped a couple of shows in.
Retained were the celebrity panelists, who in this version were mainly lawyers and crime writers, usually quite prominent ones.
Two American superlawyers were the most frequent guests:
Melvin M. Belli, a burly man with a mane of impressive white hair, and a track record for well-publicized criminal and civil trials (he was known as "The King Of Torts").
F. Lee Bailey, best known in recent times as a player in the O.J. Simpson murder trial (but this was years before that).
The third panelist was usually a crime reporter (often female), but the main draws were Bailey and Belli (I know that's too good for words, but really, can you resist?).
The US format was geared toward Yank-style gimmickry: the murder victim was a well-known American star (on this side of sea, at least; the best-known of the lot was probably Jack Klugman), playing a nasty character, while the other actors were familiar players from the prime-time actor pool.
There was the murder, followed by the flashback play, followed by the interrogation by Bailey & Belli & #3, and then - well, you know ...
The host of the US Whodunnit? was Ed McMahon, best known as Johnny Carson's sidekick on the Tonight show, who ran this show exactly as he would any of the other game shows he'd hosted over the years - and that's where they went wrong, in my view. They should have used a cop-type actor with a sense of humor ( I was thinking perhaps Leslie Nielsen, but he didn't get into comedy for a couple of years yet).
The US Whodunnit? had a six-episode run, to no discernable reaction, and was gone.
About this same time, I was in a mystery bookstore here in Chicago that sold imported titles, hard-and-softcover, where I found a British paperback tie-in of Whodunnit? with Jon Pertwee on the cover. I recognized Pertwee (my brother was a devotee of Doctor Who on PBS), so I bought the book - where it sat unread for many years, but that's another story.

Anyway, fast-forward to 2016, my spanking-new all-region DVD player, and the availability of British Whodunnit?.

I've been sampling these a bit at a time - I don't believe in binge-watching - and the guest celebrities are a revelation to me.
People I've only read or heard about - except when they turned up on summer variety series that Sir Lew Grade made for the US market (I first saw Aimi Macdonald on one such show).
And of course the occasional American visitor, like Lindsay Wagner or George Savalas (that latter was a bit of a jolt).

Meanwhile, I'm keeping a weather eye on "the collector's market" (aka bootlegs) for any stray recordings of the US Whodunnit? - just in case.

So that's the story from here ...

John said...

Mike, thank you for commenting again. I had no idea the series had a US counterpart.
You have made me desire the tie-in book, though. Does it have an ISBN?

Mike Doran said...

Full-service reply:

I was a while finding it, but the British Whodunnit? tie-in paperback finally turned up, amid my stacks (piles?).

Whodunnit?, written by Alan Radnor, introduction by Jon Pertwee (or at least credited to him), based on the Thames Television series devised by Lance Percival and Jeremy Lloyd.

An ITV/Arrow Book (75p), ISBN 0 09 919070 2

And there you are.

Funny - lately I've been looking at a number of British game panels on YouTube, with some emphasis on Blankety Blank.
I grew up in the '60s and '70s watching the US original, Match Game, which ran daily for the better part of twenty years.
Actually, it didn't adopt the format we all know until the mid-'70s, with the panel full of celebrities and the double-entendre questions; by that time, the anchor panelists came to be Broadway star Charles Nelson Reilly, actress Brett Somers (Mrs. Jack Klugman), and Richard Dawson (when Diana Dors broke up their marriage, the US got custody of him; he went on to be a Game Show Luminary - but that's another story ...).
I see, from reading the late Leslie Halliwell's reference books, that the British seem to share an attitude with Americans toward celebrities whom appear a lot on panel games: " ... famous for being famous ..." is the well-worn phrase. Your comments would be appreciated here.

John said...

Mike, thank you very much for this info.
The only thing is I'm going to spend the whole day with the rheme to Blankety Blank going through my head!

John said...

Mike, thank you very much for this info.
The only thing is I'm going to spend the whole day with the rheme to Blankety Blank going through my head!

Mike Doran said...

John:

If it's any consolation, I've always had the same problem with Match Game's theme - even more so now that the ABC network's brought it back in prime time ...