?If you ever cozied up under a blanket to watch some PBS at your grandparents’ house in a frosty November, chances are you caught an episode or two of Mystery! This show, starting in the 80’s, broadcast episodes from various other British mystery shows until just a few years ago. Anyone who watched multiple episodes learned an important fact: nobody likes a mystery more then the British. Seriously, at least 80% of their economy has to be dependent on mystery stories and their adaptations. And Sturgeon’s Law says that 80% of anything is crap.
But that’s not to imply that any or all of the characters who headlined these shows are second-rate. On the contrary, some lesser-known limey sleuths rank with some of the finest television has to offer. And some don’t. The point is, while you’re reading this sentence, 500,000 fictional British detectives are probably being born somewhere. Here’s a chance to get to know the family a little better, both the good and the bad.
10) Lord Peter Wimsey
Ah, the gentleman sleuth, a man of class, money, jowls and heavy breakfasts by the bushel. There are many of these types cluttering up the British mystery landscape and Wimsey is exhibit A. A couple different TV adaptations of note have been produced but Ian Carmichael’s amused portrayal is generally considered the best.
9) Hetty Wainthropp, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates
Patricia Routledge, star of the totally irredeemable Keeping Up Appearances gains a few acting credibility points as dowdy Mrs. Wainthropp, who checks out local Lancasharian wrongdoings with the help of her bumbling husband and a teenage Dominic Monaghan. Seriously. It’s once again interesting to note how much these shows all tend to follow the same formula, despite the setting, although here we have a little more of that twee slice-of-life comedy the Brits like so much. Just try not to imagine Ms. Routledge bellowing BOO-KAY! too often and you should get along fine.
8) Miss Marple
You could almost do a whole list of Marples, as we have about four or five different series to choose from. There have been some big-ish names (Helen Hayes and Angela Lansbury) as well as small but the important thing is the enduring appeal of the character: a fiery old lady with a penchant for amateur detectivery, made of stronger stuff than the police and surprisingly sharp. She’s one of those characters we’re always going to have around with us, and has inspired a whole sub-genre of older tv crime-solver characters, none quite as memorable as she. Let’s go with the Geraldine McEwan version, for the really quick shot of Derek Jacobi in this trailer if for nothing else.
7) Adela Bradley, The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries
An independent older woman in the roaring twenties (former Avenger Diana Rigg) and George, her lovably goofy attache’ investigate occurrences too baffling for high-society. Crimes are committed, mysteries are solved, people get naked, etc. All the usual stuff. And like many other period mystery series, this one feels somewhat nostalgic at times, with its colorful costumes and Fats Waller songs on the soundtrack. Once again, we have a Doctor on display, this time in a supporting role, although this was before David Tennant’s run. I’m starting to see a pattern…
6) Albert Campion, Campion
Ever wonder what Peter Davison got up to after dying of Spectrox Toxemia on Doctor Who? Well, aside from a hilariously unrecognizable cameo in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, he starred in this humble little show about an awe-inspiringly average 1930’s aristocrat and his thuggish manservant, Lugg (the wonderful Brian Glover). Albert Campion is dull for a hero, but that’s part of the point. As a parody of the Wimsey-type upper-class detective, Campion was originally conceived as a bland, foolish drone but became something of a genuine hero when he got his own series. Campion’s adventures are generally more Tintin than Miss Marple but they still involve enough criminal activities, mysterious plots and the like to earn a spot on this list.
5) Dr. Joseph Bell, Murder Rooms
It is known that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock at least partly on his tutor and mentor, Edinburgh doctor Joseph Bell. Murder Rooms casts Bell and Doyle in a sort of pseudo-real-life version of the Holmes/Watson dynamic, with Bell as the brilliant deducer and Doyle the supportive number two. The fact that Bell is played by the staggeringly amazing Ian Richardson sporting some truly formidable silver chops should not go unmentioned.
4) Jonathan Creek
Awkward, bug-eyed Jonathan reisdes in a windmill and makes a living designing magic tricks for the dickish showman Adam Klaus (played by the hilarious Anthony Head, but unfortunately only in this first episode). Guess what? He solves mysteries on the side (and listens to “Danse Macabre” far too many times) with the help of various friends and sidekicks, solving a seemingly impossible situation bybreaking it down into its simplest parts. The very first episode, “The Wrestler’s Tomb”, is notable not only for the appearance of Head but also Sixth Doctor Colin Baker, many pounds after the days of his clown-coat, as a pretentious artist and murder victim. Oh, and also for the vacuum cleaner scene, a wonderfully stupid spoof of countless “You better stay away” scenes that’s worth watching the episode for on its own.
3) Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, Prime Suspect
I know this is a crime series and not a mystery series, but I’ll make an exception because we have Helen “The Tank” Mirren in the lead. As strung-out, chain-smoking DCI Tennison, she had to deal with way too much shit in addition to murders, child prostitution rings and whatever other sordid affairs came her way. The subject matter was often dark and uncompromising, but Tennison rose to the challenge by becoming a hardass, albeit one with deep issues of her own to contend with. She may not have got to brandish a machine gun quite yet, but this role was definitely a step in the right direction.
2) Hercule Poirot, Poirot
David Suchet’s interpretation of the famous fussy Belgian has long been considered definitive, and if no other names on this list jump out at you, this one has to. Come on, you know you’ve at least seen his round, cookie-like face on a DVD cover behind the glass at a Borders somewhere. Suchet, aside from having a suitably French-sounding name, is one of the few actors on this list who continues in his signature role to this day (we still have two feature-length adaptations to come out later this year). Not going to lie, though: when it comes to Poirot, there’s another actor I’ll always think of as a strong second…
1) Brother Cadfael, Cadfael
With so many detectives based in the late 19th/early-to-mid-20th centuries, how refreshing it is to see someone getting up the same business around 500 years earlier. Once a man of the world, Brother Cadfael (pronounced “cad-file”, like “Peter File”) has retired to a monastery, but, of course, dead bodies and such just happen to turn up, and Cadfael is the only monk with the experience necessary to handle such occurrences. The cinematography and supporting cast of characters are all swell, but the best part is definitely Derek Jacobi’s performance: wise, controlled and yet vulnerable, a great actor in a unique part. And there is more to this Cadfael than just solving mysteries, as we got to see him develop as a character. This scene where he finally meets his long-lost son and does not dare tell him the truth is pure heartbreak, and ten jillion times more emotional than the average Campion. Give it a watch, kids.