Gladys Mitchell is one of the true eccentrics of the Golden Age mystery, an author that easily divides fans of the genre, especially for her highly idiosyncratic plots and her decidedly ‘colourful’ detective, Mrs Bradley. After a couple of failed attempts to get in sync with her style in my youth, I decided to try again with Death at the Opera, reputed to be among her best. It was also adapted for the short-lived Mrs Bradley Investigates TV series, which I rather liked. The setting is a progressive school where, on the night of a staff and student performance of The Mikado, one of the cast apparently commits suicide. Only nobody there believes she would do that. And soon two further drownings follow …
I submit this review for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film / TV meme hosted by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom blog and Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge.
“But – you don’t mean – not the Mrs Bradley, Headmaster?”
I can’t now remember which were the Mitchell titles that I didn’t much like way back when, though I suspect one must have been The Twenty-Third Man as I still have a copy in my loft. Why didn’t I get on with her books? I suspect that it may have been my reaction to some unlikely plotting and Mrs Bradley herself, as she can be hard to warm to. Like Albert Campion, she was not apparently conceived as a series character at all and was thus depicted in rather extreme terms, an OTT eccentric who sits outside of the action for the most part, flies in and then flies out, a notable supporting character existing really just to add colour. However, Mitchell grew to love her and ended up writing 67 novels about the character, a rich, much-married, self-assertive psychiatrist who is also described as having an unpleasant, reptilian countenance to match her outrageous fashion sense. She also has a very personal approach to justice which, like Philo Vance before her and Poirot afterwards, didn’t stop from taking matters into her own hands – and then there is the whole matter of her being a possible descendant of witches …
“Please, Mrs Bradley, was Miss Ferris really murdered?”
Mrs Bradley smiled in the manner of a well-disposed cobra and kindly boa constrictor …
However, even though Mrs Bradley may be so extreme a character as to be more than a little on the edge of caricature, let me say right away that I really enjoyed this book. It’s funny and clever and outrageous (the surprise villain and their motive is really something …) with some deftly drawn characterisations too (Mitchell often used school settings, drawing on her own background as a school mistress, her chosen profession for forty years, making the sheer size of her literary output even more impressive). Known in the US (where little of her work was ever published) as Death in the Wet, it focuses on the drowning of Calma Ferris, a meek maths teacher at a co-ed school who wouldn’t say boo to a goose but who ends up putting herself in the way or various colleagues. She irritates the highly charged, highly ambitious games mistress, Miss Camden, by getting a role in the production of The Mikado that she would have been very good in (probably because she was financing the school show) – and by keeping her star netball player in for detention, possibly leading to the loss of a championship. Then there are the pair of teachers who have been having a very discreet affair for 11 years, which Calma in fact knew about; then there is the headmaster’s niece, who was discovered by the teacher kissing a love-sick pupil; and then there is the art master whose statue of ‘Psyche’ she accidentally knocks over, infuriating him. And what about Helm, the man she met while on holiday at her aunt’s boarding house, foiling an attempted burglary in the process?
The TV version is really quite radically different from the book. Some of the changes are inevitable, like the compression of the original novel’s timeline, which is spread out over nine months but is now condensed to as many days. Also one of the series characters – light-fingered chauffeur and confidante George (a pre-Midsommer Neil Dudgeon), a less prominent Mitchell creation – has been added for consistency (while Inspector Christmas – a post-Campion Peter Davison – was created for the TV series). Other changes reflect the overall conception of the show. Mrs Bradley is much less extreme, though she is definitely domineering and naughty (is she having an affair with her driver? Probably not, but …) and sports some extraordinary fashion accessories and breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to camera. I actually rather like this latter aspect of the show, matching the strangeness of the character in terms of TV norms rather than physical eccentricity that might have made it very hard to sell as an ongoing series (as it was, it never got past a feature-length pilot and a brief single series of 4 hour-long episodes).
Dr Simms: “I hope you like Gilbert and Sullivan?”
Mrs Bradley: “Frankly doctor, I wish they’d never met”
On the other hand, the plot and characters have been comprehensively overhauled. Miss Ferris is now a tougher, somewhat misanthropic person, much more senior in the school (and teaches Art not Maths), which is now an ultra traditional finishing school for girls where everybody boards. The progressive headmaster is now an old fuddy-duddy with a passion for mechanical gadgets under the thumb of his wife, with whom he runs the school, which is now Mrs Bradley’s alma mater (she hated it). Yes, Miss Ferris dies during a production of The Mikado and Mrs Bradley solves the murder but to be honest this is about as near as the plot gets to the book. The murder methods are completely different (there are no drownings) and most of the original characters no longer appear at all, while the motive (which is utterly absurd, but Mitchell knows it is) and identity of the murderer have also been completely changed (and a huge subplot set in Bognor Regis has also been filleted out completely). So, as an adaptation it really isn’t much good, but on its own terms it is actually very entertaining as a breezy period mystery with its tongue in its cheek and some nice period tunes on the soundtrack.
Ela reviewed the book, touching also on the TV version, over at her blog, Ela’s Book Blog, which for a while has not been as active as it once was.
If you want to know more about the author and a detailed analysis of her prolific output, you can do no better than visit: www.gladysmitchell.com/
Mrs Bradley Investigates / Death at the Opera (BBC One, 16 January 2000)
Screenplay: Simon Booker
Producer: Deborah Jones
Director: James Hawes
Music: Matthew Scott (after Gershwin, Fats Waller et al)
Cinematography: John McGlashan
Production Design: Anthony Ainsworth
Cast: Diana Rigg (Mrs Bradley), Neil Dudgeon (George), Peter Davison, Annabelle Apsion, Roy Barraclough (Dr Simms / Mr Cliffordson in the book), Elaine Claxton (Miss Ferris), David Tennant
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘medical’ category as Mrs Bradley is a psychiatrist: