Television Review: The Mrs Bradley Mysteries

EVERYTHING WAS as it should have been in The Mrs Bradley Mysteries (BBC1). We were in a country house in the early 1920s where the owner was called Bing, the housekeeper was built like a menhir, the scullery- maid was hot to trot and there was a penniless cad on the prowl who looked like a young Nigel Havers.

Half the inhabitants had recently been buried in some corner of a foreign field that is forever England, so no one batted an eyelid when the other half started dropping like flies. They are used to death in these parts, and treat it like the loss of a piece of monogrammed crockery. In an inventory list I checked at the end of this opening episode, I counted two corpses, a broken plate and one crushed wine goblet. The scullery-maid was rather upset about the plate, but otherwise life continued as normal. Two characters announced their engagement at the wake for a third, and the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table. Jolly tasty tea, though.

Into this world stepped the incongruous figure of Mrs Bradley, divorcee, friend of Mrs Pankhurst, disciple of Dr Freud, and owner of a motor car. She wouldn't ordinarily be seen dead with the cardboard inhabitants of the Bing household, but, for the sake of the plot, they had to be seen dead with her. She's one of those people, a bit like Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey, who can't enter a house without somebody getting murdered in the next room. It's probably some perfectly ordinary form of 1920s etiquette, like getting in a case of Sir Algernon's favourite burgundy, or making sure the Hon Laetitia is given a south-facing suite. When a sleuth comes to stay, the hosts lay on a corpse.

Since they enjoyed some sort of pre-war heyday, Gladys Mitchell's crime novels have sunk without trace, and you can see why. The BBC has resurrected them as a vehicle for Diana Rigg, and the first crime she had to solve was the drowning in the bath of a chap who turned out to be a couple of sprouts short of a Sunday luncheon. "Do you seriously expect us to believe," exclaimed Garde Bing, "that Everard Mountjoy was really a woman? I can't begin to comprehend how Everard thought he'd get away with this charade." I don't expect to hear a better speech on television this or any other year.

Mrs Bradley is played with immense suaveness by Dame Diana in a tight bob. She does knowing, told-you-so bits to camera like Francis Urquhart and confides in her chauffeur, George, who has an entertaining habit of learning a polysyllable a day. The rest of the characters bring to the proceedings the psychological depth of the Cluedo board. References to the Somme and Passchendaele are a tacky way to buy them some roundness they don't deserve. When young Miss Bing is revealed as the murderer, she tells her father that she has confined herself to a wheelchair since a motoring accident three years previously in order to get his attention. It was the very plausibility of her explanation that made it implausible.