Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Murder She Wrote: Sing a Song of Murder

Recently I asked Mike Doran on a comment on this blog whether Angela Lansbury sounds British or American to American ears. He rightly mentioned various accents, but then said that most Americans have long forgotten that she isn't American born and bred, which answered the question which was actually in my head. Of course it is in the nature of the thespian to conjure something which isn't there, into the minds of the audience. That said, it's always difficult to reproduce something you haven't seen. At the weekend my God mother and I were in a National Trust property and the guide was making the point that the bizarre colours on much old china are simply explained by the fact that the artist had either never seen what he was supposed to represent, or else he had only seen a monochrome picture.is
These ramblings on accent and the difficulty of reproducing something you haven't seen are actually by way of an introduction to this episode of Murder She Wrote, in fact the original conversation was partly prompted by my wondering why the other characters kept referring to a British character in another episode of Murder She Wrote, since I couldn't spot one. It turned out one of the actors was talking in his best British accent which I had missed completely!
Anyway, let's get the actual show out of the way first. I have started watching Murder She Wrote for the first time since I saw episodes on TV as a child. I like this show enormously. There is a sense in which it stays safely with the Golden Age canon of detective fiction, firmly and without breaking any of the rules. If you want to watch Murder She Wrote as a strict detective puzzle, you can, and you won't find new information hastily introduced or anything like that. The series is a remarkable translation of the inter-war cosy murder story to the TV screen.
One of the things which the cosy murder mystery was famous for was that it would set the murder in an apparently safe community - such as Miss Marple's village - and turn the social conventions on their head by having a murder in the vicarage, or wherever. On the whole, the earlier series of Murder She Wrote stick to this formula with Jessica Fletcher investigating things in Cabot Cove. Even when it strays further afield a traditional cosy setting is created.
And that is where this episode starts to go horribly off the rails. Let's start with the slight problem that Angela Lansbury is playing two characters, one of them a flamboyantly outrageous theatrical. Probably in any other genre of TV you can camp this up and make it work, but in a detective story my own feeling is that if you get two characters who are obviously the same person it sets up the expectation that one of them will be the murderer, or they're in cahoots, or something along those lines. Obviously it couldn't possibly be Jessica Fletcher, so it sets up the expectation that her cousin will be the baddie, a very bad mistake in a murder mystery.
Which brings me nicely to the question of expectations and unreality. This Murder She Wrote achieved the big draw of having Patrick Macnee on the payroll. I genuinely don't want to bitch about the show but I can only guess that his finances weren't looking too good at this point in his life, forcing him to take this role. It's wrong, wrong, wrong. Macnee's quality of course makes up for the fact that he is cast wildly out of character, and in fact he makes a convincing job of his character. It's the character that's not right.
Which brings me nicely to the accents and here my reason for thinking about reproducing something you've never seen, will become apparent. The difficulty is this: just as Mike Doran commented about different American accents, obviously we have a number of different accents as well, with connotations of both place of origin and class. I'm afraid whoever has devised the accents here has picked up on stereotypes of Northern people and working class people from films of the past. Suffice to say that to native ears *none* of the accents sounds real, not even coming from British actors - they all sound as if they are caricaturing people. At this pont we have actors pretending to speak with accents which are themselves based on caricatures from the cinema! They would have been better hiring British jobbing actors and just getting them to speak normally - surely much simpler.
I realise I have omitted to mention that while it is difficult to reproduce something you've never seen, it is also rather difficult when you are the subject of what is being reproduced, because it forces you to see how others see you, and that is always a painful experience! Most of this episode is set on location in London, but it is very much a London created by someone who had never been there and I love the way it shows how its creator saw it. So many things are subtly wrong - you can see the big landmarks from everywhere (giving the impression that London is a tiny village). I love the scene in Scotland Yard, where a very obviously American telephone sound is heard. That said I think the best bit is the street scene which illustrates this post - that is just not in the British Isles. That sort of light is the sort of light you leave Britain to find! And *three* Minis in such close proximity? Once again it is like a caricature.
I feel rather bad at this point because I feel as if I'm really having a go at this show. The fact that it is appearing here at all of course indicates that I don't think it is a dead loss, and it is precisely the fact that it is like a moving caricature and so bad that makes me like this show. Yes it's a complete fake, the accents are just all wrong, the scenery is hilarious, several big name actors have demeaned themselves by appearing in it, and it even manages to break a cardinal rule of detective fiction, but these things are the reason it's good. My advice for watching this show is treat it as if it's a comedy. Seriously. This Murder She Wrote is so bad it passes all the way over into being good, if you watch it with a view to a laugh. It's difficult to find real comedy this ridiculous, so it should be enjoyed when you find it.

6 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (he wrote):

This may run several parts; your indulgence, please.

- Murder, She Wrote has a strange history, even for an American TV series.
For example: did you know that Angela Lansbury was not the first choice to play Jessica Fletcher?
When Levinson & Link, together with their protege Peter Fischer, proposed MSW to CBS, they all had the same lead actress in mind: Jean Stapleton, who'd just come off her long run as Edith Bunker on All In The Family.
Word had come that she was looking for a new TV gig, preferably as far from "Edith the dingbat" as possible.
L&L&F were all for a sure sale - nobody had ever thought of a "cozy mystery" for USTV, so the field was clear.
Somebody defined the cozy mystery thus: "It's a story where somebody gets killed, but nobody gets hurt." As good as any definition, I suppose, which indicates that everybody was thinking in humorous terms.
Long story short: Jean Stapleton decided she didn't want to get back into weekly TV, and turned CBS and L&L&F down.
But right then and there, Angela Lansbury suddenly made herself available for TV, after years of staying away from it. Exactly why is not really known, and anyway it doesn't really matter. Anyway, CBS and L&L&F were certain she'd never go for MSW - weekly hour filmed in Hollywood? No way.
But she did go for it, and CBS put it on the board.
Once there, all the ad agencies and audience-testing outfits said that MSW would be the fastest flop of 1984 - the wrong demographics (old people and kids, exactly what advertisers didn't want).
Even Link & Levinson & Fischer thought so.
Dick Levinson's quote: "We thought six (episodes) and out!"
But the US TV audience fooled everybody (not the first time, or the last); Murder, She Wrote was the breakout hit of 1984-85.
And Angela Lansbury - due to her Broadway stardom, no more than a Major Get for any TV show - became the most popular TV star in the US for the rest of the decade, and halfway into the next one.

I don't know if you have a character limit here, so I'll close Part I now; I'll reread the post, and add stuff about this episode later on.
Stay tuned!

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling: Murder, She Wrote, Part II:

One small matter at the start:
Levinson & Link & Fischer set a few rules for the MSW format from the beginning.
Rule #1 was that in any given season, there would be no more than five episodes set in and around Cabot Cove ME.
As a best-selling mystery novelist, Jessica Fletcher would spend the rest of the episodes "on the road", either selling her books or visiting her many relatives in the USA and around the world (with special reference to Britain and Ireland).
The Universal City backlot and soundstages would supply "the world".
Cabot Cove was "played" by Mendocino CA, an area picked out by Peter Fischer, who'd lived there for a while some time before.

This second-season episode was a gift from Fischer to Angela Lansbury, a sort of inside joke: the song that Emma McGill sings at the start is the same one that she sang in the movie The Picture Of Dorian Gray, for openers.
Also, the name "McGill" comes from Lansbury's own family: her mother was an Irish-born actress named Moyna MacGill, who'd accompanied her children to the USA during WWII and played many small roles in Hollywood films and TV for her whole life.

About Patrick Macnee's presence here:
When he permanently relocated to the USA about five years before this, Macnee started racking up credits in American TV all over the place; The Avengers had many fans in New York and Hollywood, and many of those fans at the production level remembered Macnee from his previous stint in Hollywood back in the '50s. It was during this period that Patrick Macnee formally took the oath of United States citizenship.
All of the above is a somewhat agonized way of saying that Patrick Macnee wasn't "needing the work"; he was able to pick and choose, and Murder, She Wrote was a show that actors wanted to get on.
And if the part was out of the actor's usual typecast (as was Macnee's part here), so much the better.
I don't know how far you're going to go with MSW, but if you stick it out to Season Nine, Macnee turns up again in an episode called "The Dead File", playing a not-at-all-nice publisher (but that's another story ...).
As to the other characters here, there's one Major Get in Glynis Johns, who was scaling back her career at this point; she was an old friend of Angela Lansbury's, and that subgroup was a prime source for MSW guest stars.
The rest of this cast were British players in Hollywood, either full- or part-time - with the exception of Kristoffer Tabori, who was the eager young solicitor. Fun Fact: Tabori was the all-American son of Don Siegel, best-known as the director of Dirty Harry (make of that what you will).

As noted above, the whole show was shot at Universal City, and stitched together with loads of stock footage - one of the last gasps of Old Hollywood.
The director was another British expat, John Llewellyn Moxey, who I understand was an old Avengers hand (correction welcomed, if needed); he made Hollywood TV his home in the last part of his career.

Should you be writing up any more Murder, She Wrote shows, be warned that I stand ready with more nickel knowledge than you'll never want - or need - to know.

Be seeing you (oops, that's another show).

(And now that I think of it, Patrick McGoohan turns up in at least one future MSW ...)

John said...

Knowledge welcome :o)
Not least because a major point of me starting this blog was that there was a lot of description on the internet of the TV shows I like and relatively little in the way of discussion. So I've always made sure that the blog is short on facts and rather heavy on my own humble opinions!
I didn't know that about Angela Lansbury!
As for Macnee's presence in this show I'll still maintain that it was not a career-defining moment! That said I maintain that this episode is so bad it's good.

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (Epilog):

What exactly do you mean by "a Career-Defining Moment"?.

Patrick Macnee's CDM was arguably when he was allowed to make 'John Steed' into his own wholly-owned character on the early '60s Avengers.
Macnee borrowed Ralph Richardson's character from Q Planes and used it as Steed's template, with the full assent of the producers, who wrote the show to that specification. In its turn, the whole show went in that direction, which made it a world-wide success - definitely Career-Defining.
When The New Avengers stared up, Macnee has written that he felt he'd lost the character after years away from it - until he saw Benny Hill doing a take-off one night and adapted accordingly.
Post-all this, Macnee's American career took on the trappings of a kind of "paid retirement": in 1986, he was 64 and starting to look it. Macnee made the wise decision to embrace his age, rather than try to conceal it. His stateside career thus was long-lasting, and when his health went down by the turn of the millennium, he was able to fade out on his own terms.
or so it seems to me ...

There are two books I have here at home that I'd recommend , if you'd like to know more about Murder, She Wrote:
- Me And Murder, She Wrote, by Peter S. Fischer, who created the series, and was its showrunner for the first half of its 12-year run.

- The Adventures Of The REAL Tom Sawyer, by (surprise!) Tom Sawyer, who was an important writer/producer throughout MSW's run, but particularly during the second half.

Somewhere along the line, Mr. Fischer and Mr. Sawyer had a falling out; their differing accounts of things that happened during the production make interesting reading.
Much of what I've written here about Murder, She Wrote has been cribbed from these two books (among many others, as well as the DVDs).
Presented As A Public Service.

Grant Goggans said...

You might enjoy a Columbo episode called "Dagger of the Mind" - or you may not, it's one of three from the original run that I don't like - to compare that show's wildly varying accents with this one.

There's also a little bit about the light difference in it, as most of the exteriors in "Dagger" were filmed on location in London, but some, along with all the interiors, were done in Los Angeles. One of my blog's favorite actors to spot in small roles, Walker Edmiston, is very briefly in the LA exteriors as an English gardener, apparently because they didn't have time to find a big country house on their shoot in Britain and cast a local actor for two lines.

John said...

Oh I love that Columbo episode! I'm sure I've blogged about it here. I don't remember the variations being distracting though.