The Edgar Wallace Mysteries

Andrew Roberts charts the rise and fall of a venerated British crime series with perhaps the creepiest title sequence ever.

The time- 1961. The venue – the Southampton ABC. The occasion – a matinee of The Rebel starring Tony Hancock. But first comes the Second Feature and the audience is eagerly poised, just waiting to hurl their Strawberry Mivvis at the screen on seeing the logo ‘Anglo Amalgamated Presents’. However, they are presented with a papier-mache bust of the late Edgar Wallace revolving in the midst of Merton Park’s finest dry ice machine, to the strains of the stirring theme tune Man of Mystery. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all…

Of all the British Second Features of the post-war years, the Edgar Wallaces seem to have enjoyed the most extensive afterlife, being shown on late night ITV and Channel Four well into the 1980s. Between 1960 and 1965 no fewer than 47 one hour B-films based (albeit very loosely on many occasions) on the works of Mr. Wallace were produced at Merton Park Studies (tel. LIBerty 4291) for Anglo-Amalgamated, a production/distribution company founded in 1945 by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy. By the early 1960s the market for second features was still buoyant enough for the duo to purchase the rights to Wallace’s works to screen via the ABC cinema chain and these short epics became as much a staple of the company’s output as Scotland Yard and Scales of Justice. The company’s other offerings during this era were, of course, the Carry On films and, more often than not, Sid James & Co. would be supported by an Edgar Wallace Mystery.

The third offering of the series was 1960’s Marriage of Convenience, directed by the up and coming Clive Donner and with a fascinating plot involving ‘Larry’ out on temporary licence from a 5 year stretch for armed robbery to get married. Alas, Larry is an utter cad and escapes on a Lambretta after hitting the guards. Will Maudle of the Yard (as played by John Van Eyssen at his slimiest) solve the case or will “rough provincial boy” Inspector ‘Jock’ Bruce be on the case? Is a Lambretta a match for a well driven police Wolseley 6/90 with a pealling Winkworth gong? And how could any occupant of the cheap seats resist a film with dialogue along the lines of – “It’s all ragged. Come on, girls!”?

Playing Bruce was Harry H.Corbett with a variable Scots accent but, thankfully, sans toupee, glasses and mackintosh from Cover Girl Killer. Corbett is in fact a prime example of the better entries in the series, which would use respected character actors of the stage to very good effect; other notables are Dudley Foster (Ricochet and Never Mention Murder), Maxine Audley, (ditto), Patrick Magee (Ricochet again), Lee Montague (Five to One), Nigel Davenport (Return to Sender) and Glyn Houston (Solo for Sparrow).

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These worthies were augmented by an array of 1950s ‘A’-list names now sinking into the realm of the Second Feature – notably the former Rank artist Tony Wright in Attempt to Kill, Paul Stassino, an excellent Greek Cypriot actor forever typecast as villains of a swarthy hue as in Man Detained, the future Dr. No villainess Zena Marshall in Backfire, to a number of eager up & coming young actors. Michael Caine’s truly awesome depiction of an Irish hood in Solo for Sparrow – just picture a tall fair haired London-born actor wandering around Merton Park Studios with a bored expression whilst randomly shouting in a Dorset accent – rarely features in retrospectives of the great man’s career for some strange reason, but he is but one of a roster of future notables including the producer Tony Garnett (Incident at Midnight & The Rivals), Barry Foster (Playback), John Thaw (Five to One), Peter Bowles (Dead Man’s Chest), Mark Eden (Game for Three Losers) and Jeremy Kemp & Rosemary Leach in Face of a Stranger.

This last was a highly ambitious attempt at a genuine low budget film noir, as was 1963’s To Have & To Hold, an Edgar Wallace that largely eschews the suburban settings for authentic West Hampshire locations. To Hold features black & white cinematography that is stunning in its clarity and definition, as well as Katherine Blake’s fascinatingly duplicitous female lead and a peerless trio of male leads. Additionally there’s William Hartnell’s incisive but paternal police inspector, the always reliable Nigel Stock as an irate cuckolded husband and, best of all, Ray Barrett as the likeable but fatally compromised hero.

The minor-key incidental music only adds to the downbeat atmosphere of promises broken and friends & mentors betrayed, demonstrating once more that the series was not always reliant upon chases along Wimbledon High Street in either the Wolseley 6/90 – early editions, or the 6/99 – later episodes. Incidentally, the Edgar Wallaces also provide a fine example of low key British automotive product placement, especially with products of the Rootes Group, Standard-Triumph and Vauxhall.

At the helm of To Have & To Hold was Herbert Wise, the future Emmy award winning television director and most of his fellow film-makers were reliable pros along the lines of Gordon Fleyming. Of the series’ screenwriters, Richard Harris is perhaps the best known but because the budgets at Merton Park Studios would not run to a period setting, each of the adaptations was set firmly in the 1960s, which occasionally gave the dialogue an extremely dated air. Still, even the least of the series usually boasted plenty in the way of Wolseley action, menacing incidental music (heavy on the electric bass and alto saxophone) and authentic suburban locations; Ricochet boasts the delightful credit of acknowledging the help of the Streatham Ice Rink!

After their initial cinematic screening, the series was sold to ITV – in addition to US television as The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater – and this provided the Edgar Wallace films with an audience who were too young to remember the heyday of the British B-feature and who never even bought the Shadows’ cover version of the theme tune.

Instead, on the flickering screen of a 12 inch portable, they eagerly waited for the TVS continuity announcer to herald yet another late night screening of villains who chain-smoked Woodbines even whilst being beaten up, glamorous locations varying from Walton on Thames to Hove and speeding Wolseleys lurching around hairpin bends. Who could possibly ask for more in a film?

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Andrew Roberts is a prolific writer, who has written for The Telegraph, The Observer, The Independent and many magazines.