This month Flashback remembers the short-lived 1920s based detective drama The Mrs Bradley Mysteries which starred Diana Rigg and Neil Dudgeon.
The BBC drama was based on the novels by Gladys Mitchell which featured the character of Adela Bradley, a woman who for all intents and purposes goes against all the social codes of the 1920s/1930s society. Adela Bradley was a woman who investigated murders but she is no Miss Marple – far from it. Adela Bradley is a woman who enjoys the 1920s society, openly discusses her numerous affairs and doesn’t mince her words. If Adela Bradley has something to say she’ll go ahead and say it even if it isn’t the “proper” thing to do.
Gladys Mitchell wrote over 60 novels which featured her amateur sleuth, Mrs Bradley, within them and during those novels the character married and divorced several times. For the BBC television series only five of the novels were adapted starting with Sleepy Death which was made into a television movie running at 90 minutes – acting as a pilot for the four-part series that followed. The series was co-funded by the American Public Service Broadcaster WGBH and in America The Mrs Bradley Mysteries was introduced by the series star, Diana Rigg. The actress presented the Mystery strand of programmes on WGBH, introducing other programmes as well, which meant she also had to introduce her own show. To do show Rigg was dressed in 1920s style of clothes in-keeping with the show’s setting.
The Mrs Bradley Mysteries was a slightly more light-hearted take on the detective genre than presented by other shows such as Poirot or Miss Marple. Adela Bradley breaks the “fourth” wall and addressed the camera – and viewer – directly throughout the series. It is extremely rare in television for characters to do this as the “fourth wall” is often strictly adhered to by productions. Mrs Bradley’s aside to cameras, addressing the audience, are often comments on the people she has encountered or recalling events from her own life.
These little asides are often more comical – observations of the characters/motives and little digs at them. Starring alongside Diana Rigg in all five episodes was Neil Dudgeon as her chauffeur George who assists her in the various murder investigations she undertakes. A recurring theme throughout the episodes is George trying to “better” himself or “educate himself” while working for Mrs Bradley. In the pilot episode, Sleepy Death, George is seen to learn new words using a dictionary and also to borrow books to read. In The Rising of the Moon he is seen to study magic tricks at several points as he and Mrs Bradley investigate a murder at a travelling circus show.
Another recurring theme throughout the five episodes – but in particular in Sleepy Death and Laurels are Poison – is the Great War – aka The First World War. The events of the war are referred to several time and in Laurels are Poison are a significant part of the plot. In Laurels are Poison chauffeur George must deal with the legacy of his dead brother when he comes across his commanding officer. That is just one point of the plot with several other strands also connecting back to the war. 1920s society was very much impacted by the Great War with many who thought in the war throwing themselves into the partying life style to try and forget their harrowing experiences. In many ways 1920s England did its best to forget the war and the thousands lost and to embrace the “swinging” culture of flappers, jazz and parties.
The Mrs Bradley Mysteries despite only running for five episodes managed to attract a strong array of guest-stars some of whom have since gone onto bigger things. In the pilot episode Sleepy Death established names such as John Alderton, Tom Butcher, Sue Devaney and Linda Baron guest-starred alongside Emma Davis, Emma Fielding and Tristan Gemmill.
The first episode of the subsequent series Death at the Opera also had a strong cast. Susan Wooldridge and Roy Barraclough starred alongside Annabelle Apison who is now known for her role of Monica in Shameless. Death at the Opera also featured David Tennant in an early acting role and, of course, he’s better known now for his roles in Casanova, Doctor Who and Single Father. The Rising of the Moon guest-starred Meera Syal, Francis Magee, Ken Colley, Janine Duvitski and Felicity Montagu.
Laurels are Poison guest-starred Phyllida Law, Ronan Vibert, Michelle Dotrce and Kenneth McDonald. The final episode, The Worsted Viper, starred Pooky Quesnel, Isla Blair, Rebecca Callard, Charlotte Francis and Jason O’Mara. Former Doctor Who actor Peter Davison played Inspector Christmas in three of the stories and there are slight hints throughout these episodes of a possible future romance between Christmas and Mrs Bradley. In the final episode though there is a “big twist” in which a hidden agenda of Inspector Christmas is revealed.
In terms of ratings The Mrs Bradley Mysteries did relatively well. The pilot episode Sleepy Death aired in August 1998 and had 8 million viewers. The four-part series aired from January 2000 with the opening episode Death at the Opera seen by 7.4 million viewers. The second episode The Rising of the Moon had 6.7 million viewers while the fourth episode, The Worsted Viper, had 6.9 million viewers.
However, despite its relatively modest performance no second series of The Mrs Bradley Mysteries were ordered. While those ratings would be excellent to a broadcaster today a decade ago they were pretty much average with “good dramas” pulling in over 10 million viewers.