Obituary: Francis Durbridge

Jack Adrian
Sunday 12 April 1998 23:02

TO CHILDREN of the 1940s and 1950s, who grew up in the Radio Age, Francis Durbridge is the sound of Coronation Scot, that most compelling of descriptive light music pieces by Vivian Ellis which invariably heralded yet another Paul Temple serial.

Just a hint of the first few bars - Der-derder-duhduhduhduhduh-der - is enough to transport anyone over the age of 50 to another world. A world of house-boats on the Thames, luxurious Knightsbridge service flats, fast open sports cars whipping along the Kingston bypass; a world where all women were chic and svelte and elegantly apparelled, men wore cravats and camel-hair overcoats, and our policemen were wonderful (though ever so slightly obtuse). A world, of course, which never existed outside the hessian-covered speaker of the walnut- cased radiogram in the corner of the sitting-room.

But then Durbridge was a spellbinder, a master storyteller, whether for the airwaves or, later, the small screen. No matter (well, not much matter) that his characters were puppets, his dialogue hopelessly artificial, or that in his dealings with the opposite sex Paul Temple himself was an arch- exponent of that most gruesome of all forms of male-chauvinist- piggery, the "Don't-worry- your-pretty-little-head-about- it" school of detectives.

In the headlong rush of events - as the elusive "Curzon" (the murderous diamond smuggler), say, or perhaps "Rex" (the butchering blackmailer), or "Margo" (the homicidal dope-fiend) inexorably upped the body count, bloodily eliminating all who opposed them or were about to blurt out their identities (usually a nano-second before the actual name was uttered) - such piddling irritations were swept aside. The pleasure was in listening to, or watching, Durbridge the weaver of intricate webs attain his cunningly plotted goal, the final astounding revelation.

Born in Hull in 1912, Durbridge was educated in Bradford before going on to Birmingham University, after which, apart from a brief interlude in a stockbroker's office, he earned his living at the typewriter, recognising very early on precisely where his fortune (quite literally) lay - his first radio play, Promotion, accepted and broadcast while he was still a student.

Paul Temple arrived in 1937, though not fully fledged. Durbridge had been playing with the idea of a crime novelist who was also a detective, but getting nowhere. Finally a man engrossed in Arnold Bennett's Imperial Palace with whom he shared a compartment on a train from London to Birmingham, and then a passage from Somerset Maugham's First Person Singular he read the same night, gave him the character.

His ploy, even for the 1930s, was absurdly parochial: a diamond robbery in Birmingham, a smash-and-grab raid in Leamington Spa, and "the most sensational criminal organisation in Europe" operating from a pub in Evesham. And yet Send for Paul Temple, broadcast in April and May of 1938, was such a roaring success that within a week of the serial's final instalment the BBC received 7,000 letters demanding more and had to run it again. A second serial, Paul Temple and the Front Page Men, was swiftly commissioned and broadcast in November and December of the same year. Listener reaction was, if anything, even more enthusiastic than before.

In all Durbridge wrote 20 Paul Temple serials for the wireless over a 30-year period (although the Dick Barton and The Archers co-creator Edward J. Mason supplied a single Paul Temple play, The Night of the 27th, in 1949), as well as other mystery serials and plays. During the 1950s and 1960s he conquered (not too strong a word) television, achieving record ratings with a succession of breathtakingly baffling serials - Portrait of Alison, My Friend Charles, The Scarf, The World of Tim Frazer, Melissa (last year not entirely successfully revamped by Alan Bleasdale) - all of which depended on the simple Durbridge formula: "Everybody is lying; nothing is as it seems."

It's easy to dismiss him with a curl of the lip or what, in one's memory, seems to have been an overfondness for Raymond Chandler's celebrated dictum: "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun." Yet this would be to diminish a talent for bamboozlery second to none. To be sure, Durbridge had his old reliables (if a rendezvous were set up in a motel room or a Thames-side cottage or a West End art gallery after hours, depend upon it a corpse would be waiting), but the fact was, in his maturity, he did not rely on the classic cliffhanger cliche - the threat of violence or sudden death just before the credits rolled.

On the contrary, he was a master of the small shock, the curtain-line or situation which, by its sheer perplexity (the finding of a ticking metronome in an empty house, the arrival of a parcel with a single chess piece inside, the telephone message from someone who had died a month before) forced the listener or viewer to "tune in next week".

This technique was successfully carried over into his many novels where, throughout, the "fog" factor was high - although in his early days Durbridge relied on other writers to see him through the wearisome business of translating six or eight weeks of serial script into 70,000 words for the lending libraries. Of his first five books, all featuring Temple, his friend Charles Hatton, another prolific concocter of radio plays and serials, co-wrote four (John Thewes - who might have been Hatton too, under a pseudonym - helped with the first); Durbridge responded by presenting Hatton with the central idea for his own successful first novel, Mr Everyman (1948). Later the thriller writer Douglas Rutherford collaborated on two more Temple books.

In his heyday a new Durbridge television thriller was an event, even transcending the language barrier (any Durbridge serial televised in Germany was guaranteed to clear the cinemas); in 1967 the European Broadcasting Union commissioned him to create a radio serial for the international market, which resulted in the notably bewildering but riveting La Boutique.

When a changing social climate made his distinctive blend of naive middle- class sophistication and essentially cosy and bloodless murder more and more unreal, he turned to the theatre, writing a number of ingeniously plotted and highly successful whodunnits of the kind pounced on by amateur drama groups, as well as provincial reps eager to fatten their coffers after a season of Ibsen, Pirandello and Edward Bond.

Durbridge was never a great writer (a critic once likened him to Simenon, which is as bizarre as saying that Jeffrey Archer is the Dickens de nos jours); certainly in the field of the published thriller there were cleverer fabricators of plots, superior stylists, novelists (even lowly pulp-writers) who had a far better grasp of characterisation and dialogue. But in his chosen media, those of sound broadcast and the small screen, for a generation he was without peer. He had no other ambition but to entertain, and entertain, on a generous scale, he did.

Francis Henry Durbridge, crime writer: born Hull, Yorkshire 25 November 1912; married 1940 Norah Lawley (two sons); died London 11 April 1998.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments