ITV’s Cluedo

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There’s not been a great history of televised board game adaptations. Over the years, American viewers have ‘enjoyed’ short-lived onscreen runs of Monopoly, Boggle, and The Game of Life, while Brits were mostly limited to Pictionary rip-off, Win, Lose or Draw; a Rory McGrath-fronted Trivial Pursuit; and a live-action, giant-sized Mouse Trap segment on Saturday morning kids show, Motormouth. Though board games have surely gone through a lockdown renaissance, modern TV is more fixated on the shit you play on your phone, with Mario Lopez’s Candy Crush and a Jamie Foxx show where contestants race to name popular songs against mobile app Shazam, both actual things which have aired in the past few years, and not just me making stuff up for a laugh.

But in the early nineties, there was another, with ITV’s Cluedo taking one of the biggest tabletop brands and getting 25 episodes out of it, which is 24 times more than anyone would ever play it in real life. It was a good fit, since ITV has long been the channel for light and inoffensive tea-time murder mysteries, and while today’s games employ armies of faceless wooden meeples, Cluedo was one of the few with a firm cast of recognisable characters. Perfect foil, then, with its roster of middle-England country life archetypes, to have their roles filled by the familiar faces of British drama.

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Cluedo had a revolving cast, renewing its repertory players each series. Over the years, the role of society lady Mrs Peacock had been filled by — among others — Stephanie Beacham, Kate O’Mara and Joanna Lumley. For the Reverend Green, such pastorly figures as Derek Nimmo and Nicholas Parsons. Ambitious young socialite Ms Scarlet was portrayed by Toyah Wilcox, Jerry Hall and Tracy Somerset; an actual duchess. Tom Baker, John Bird and Ian Lavender tackled boffin Professor Plum, while housekeeper Mrs White is a roll-call of television’s best ladies-of-a-certain age, boasting Dame June Whitfield, Liz Smith, Mollie Sugden, Pam Ferris and Joan Sims; who’d reprise the role in a 1995 CD-I game. The role of Colonel Mustard contains a curious piece of typecasting, counting a certain ex-landlord of the Queen Vic among its number.

You have to admire the sheer gold-bollocked gall of hiring Leslie Grantham for a show where he’ll be publicly interrogated about whether — as a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces — he’s done a murder. They all must’ve been saying it behind his back; “It was Dirty Den, in the taxi with a pistol!” Following the episode where Grantham’s character did do it, ITV received a letter of complaint from the family of the man he shot dead for real, during a robbery while serving in the Royal Fusiliers. Incidentally, the Colonel’s full name is Mike Mustard, which sounds more like a local radio DJ who swears he’s best friends with Timmy Mallett as he cuts the ribbon on a new playground, than a fusty war hero of British colonialism.

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Each episode revolves around a series of pre-taped vignettes, where a guest character becomes involved in the affairs of the toffs at Arlington Grange — more recently seen as the home of Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders — and ends up getting done in. Just like the game, the player’s goal is to name the killer, murder weapon, and room where the foul deed was committed. I’m beginning with a second series episode dating from April 24th, 1991, where our host is a familiar face on these pages. But Chris Tarrant makes even less effort than usual pretending he’s not disgusted to be there, spending most of the show with a hand in his pocket, like a schoolboy kicking a 7up can along the pavement on the slow walk back to an unhappy home. Years later, he’d be quoted as saying of his stint: “I absolutely hated hosting Cluedo, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. It took forever to make the thing. We used to have to turn the studio audience over just to make sure they didn’t get any bed sores.

As well as the cast, it’s a double-celebrity fest, as the pairs of “guest detectives” are all off the telly too. This week sees Sally from Corrie and Matthew Kelly vs Brookie‘s John McCardle and Michaela Strachan, who’s wearing a massive hat like Blossom, and whom I always think of as Michelle Scratchin’, after a Popbitch story about one of the NKOTB reminiscing about a hot presenter they met back in their heyday, only half-remembering her name. This year’s cast is a cracker, with David McCallum as Professor Plum, Koo Stark as Miss Scarlet, Michael Jayston as the Colonel, Richard Wilson as Reverend Green, Mollie Sugden as the housekeeper, and as Mrs. Peacock, the woman who’d go on to feed an imaginary bowl of milk to horny George Galloway while he pretended to be a cat, Rula Lenska.

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The filmed sections are the absolute tip-top highest of camp, making Eurovision seem like Ross Kemp forthrightly demonstrating the correct way to lay a brick and mortar wall. Everything’s got the energy of those Jackie Collins type novels about shagging the stable boy, with characters giving murderous looks from atop staircases and dramatically falling on grand piano keys in moments of anger. But there’s also the strong feel of an FMV video game, as the storytelling limitations of a board game don’t lend themselves to good drama, coupled with the inherent problems of Cluedo itself. With just 24 minutes to play with, including Tarrant’s in-studio segments, there’s no time to construct a solvable mystery complete with red herrings, so it’s merely a series of scenes where every single character’s got massive beef with the victim and clearly thinking about — or outright voicing intentions of — murdering them.

Consequently, the cast spend their time sinisterly caressing the six murder weapons, with Wilson idly twisting an ebony ruler in his palm while McCallum fills rat traps with poison, as Mollie Sugden furiously smashes a tray of cold cuts with a hammer. Everyone’s constantly looking at or picking up knives, and when the victim leaves the room after blackmailing Rula Lenska with the threat of prison, she takes a gun from a drawer and thoughtfully licks the barrel. Being laid out like this really exposes Cluedo as a pointless guessing game of pure numbers, with the requirement of “which room?” solely thrown in there to lengthen the odds of figuring it out too soon.

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This week’s plot, titled A Deadly Deal, involves investment broker, Simon Charles, swindling everyone out of their money. He got Mustard and Stark in big. He’s blackmailing Lenska out of her house. On his advice, the Reverend’s gambled — and lost — all the money Mrs. Peacock gave him for a stained glass window. He’s taken Sugden’s life savings. He’s stolen McCallum’s idea for a computer program “to make all software compatible,” mocking him with a “have you registered it, old boy? Patented it?” When Mollie Sugden bangs a gong to announce he’s been murdered, who could possibly have the motive to whack him?! Everyone. Literally everyone. Contestants just need to keep guessing until they hit the right combination of killer, weapon and room.

The suspects are revealed in line-up by Tarrant via dramatic lighting, before they’re interrogated by Matthew Kelly and co, with everyone roleplaying in character, in what it must be like to play Dungeons & Dragons with Victor Meldrew. Only the murderer can lie, while the rest must tell the truth, and they’re clearly having fun with it, improvising around the memorised backstory of their character’s movements. The highlight is Sugden floundering when questioned about the whereabouts of knife — “a ceramic bowl thing, that I just put things like spoons with ‘oles in…” The audience (quite audibly a studio of pensioners) are really into it, letting fly a loud “noooo!” and “awww” when Michaela correctly pegs Sugden as the killer.

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Once revealed, the guilty party gets a spotlight confession, complete with flashback under a Psycho soundtrack, which only shows them raising the weapon in slow-mo and no actual violence. Hauntingly, Tarrant informs us Sugden’s to remain there “for a very, very long time,” suggesting he means in the studio, which is the worst punishment of all; trapped for a ten-stretch in front of Strike it Lucky, Surprise Surprise, and You Bet, and praying for the return of the death penalty. But the world of Cluedo is within its own bubble, and the guilty are free to return to Arlington Grange, week on week, to commit yet more savage murders, as in the episode A Traveller’s Tale, four weeks later.

This could not be more up my street, opening on Richard Wilson wandering through the cemetery with another vicar, aghast as they come across a hippie commune, which is a glorious collection of clichés, somewhere between Swampy and the Manson Family, all loose dogs and an actual flower-painted love bus. The long-haired leader — denim waistcoat, neckerchief, t-shirt with a skull on it — strums a guitar by a campfire as Koo Stark drapes adoringly round his neck, offering the infuriated vicar to “pull up a crate,” and telling him “I’m sure if Jesus was alive today, he’d love our commune.” Will this week’s murder have helter skelter written on the drawing room wall in blood?

06

Crack detectives on the case are the dream teams of Amanda Barrie and Jim Bowen versus DJ and rapper Mike Read and Michelle Collins, who’s introduced as “presenter of The Word,” which I don’t remember at all, and amounted to just four episodes. Our soapy tale of death sees smelly Dave (rubbish cult leader name) loudly slurping soup at dinner, to serious stink-eye across the banquet table from everyone but Koo Stark, madly in love because “he’s a free spirit!” Lenska believes “the cultists” are bringing property values down (after a single day in the village), while Dave harbours a secret with the Professor, and Sugden’s so mad at the “impertinent little oik” that she accidentally stabs herself with a corkscrew.

The school play-level ‘toffs struggle with hippie’ scenes are tremendous value, with Dave saying things like “I need to take a leak” and Stark trying to build common ground between the vicar and her new love, who’s “very devout” and spends ten minutes every day chanting. Colonel Mustard: “you should spend ten minutes shaving instead.” Dave suggests he and the vicar “drop acid” together. “You mean drugs?!” gasps a shocked Richard Wilson, storming off, but having a quick poke through the gun cabinet on the way out. “A dose of National Service,” says the Colonel, “that’s what that type needs if you ask me!” until inevitably, Mollie Sugden runs in all of a fluster, announcing “it’s the hippie; he’s dead!

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In interrogation, old dog Jim Bowen earnestly asks Koo Stark if she truly loved Dave, while casually slipping a reference to “those beautiful eyes,” while Mike Read pursues a bizarre ‘secret son’ line of questioning, believing Dave to be the Colonel’s illegitimate heir; something which isn’t even hinted at in the videos — “the way you spoke to him sounded fatherly…” I’m just surprised he didn’t get his guitar out. Jim should be working for the CIA, as he too goes off-script, forcing Colonel Mustard to improvise an admission about an affair with Koo Stark, much to her surprise. As a result, it takes ages for them to figure it out, back and forth with guess after guess, and Tarrant clearly wishing someone would stick a letter opener into his kidney and get it over with. As it turns out, Stark did it, having overheard Dave bragging about conning the “little rich girl,” and his plan to bring down land values in the village by flooding it with BO-reeking hippies, before buying up the manor and turfing them all out.

Jumping forwards to series 3, for 1992’s A Hunting We Will Go, its rebooted cast is the show’s best, with Lewis Collins as a younger, harder looking Col Mustard, Tom Baker as Professor Plum, Pam Ferris as Mrs. White, Lysette Anthony as Ms Scarlet, Susan George as Mrs. Peacock, and Christopher Biggins, with a lovely curtains haircut, as the Reverend. Tarrant’s out too, replaced by Richard Madeley, who also emerges with a hand in his pocket. What follows is a top-notch half hour of television, with tag teams of Valerie Singleton and Johnny Ball against the absolutely wild combo of Tory MP Edwina Currie and Richard O’Brien, who’s dressed like a space biker, with a studded waistcoat made from leather as thick as dinosaur hide and assorted glinting jewellery.

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Our story begins the day of the Arlington Hunt, where a young man arrives at the manor, cut and bruised from a beating, from which he would’ve been killed if not for the intervention of Christopher Biggins — we’ve all been there. As Pam Ferris dabs his boo-boos with TCP, it’s not just any young man; the dirty coat and jeans of an obvious commie lefty layabout; lovely ponytail mullet; it’s only bloody Neil Morrissey! The politics of this episode are fascinating, unclear who we’re meant to be siding with, as they all return from ripping terrified foxes to shreds to slap each other’s backs for “teaching one of them (Neil Morrissey) a lesson.

Susan George is livid, as hunt saboteurs set off a firecracker, causing her beloved horse to throw her, before bolting into the road and getting mashed by a lorry. She arrives home to find one of the culprits wandering round the manor in his tatty jumper like that bloke who broke into the Queen’s bedroom, inspecting silver candlesticks all “how the other half live, eh?” It could be the Orient Express twist, as they all want him dead; George for the horse-icide, Mustard for ruining his dashed good fox torturing, Biggins for threats to expose years of his secretly helping the saboteurs, Lysette at the shame of letting him ride on her back in the day, and Baker because Neil Morrissey’s got a video of him “feeding a live fox cub to the hounds.” Fucking hell, Tom!

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Baker plays the Prof very differently to McCallum’s effete, glasses-wearing intellectual; now a big posh roughneck, with the bulging eyes, mad hair and clothes giving the air of a frightening waxwork on the Mary Rose that you move past quickly because you feel it may attack you. Teamed with army thug Lewis Collins, it’s no wonder Morrissey keeps them at bay wielding a poker like a fencing sword, as a livid Collins rips the phone out of the wall so he can’t call the rozzers, and threatens to wrap the curly wire around his neck. The pitch of a saboteur holed up in the hunter’s country mansion is a decent set-up for a survival horror movie, with a You’re Next or Ready Or Not vibe, and a woke activist facing a manorful of braying Tories, in a heavy-handed metaphor for class and the unending 21st century culture war. Netflix, come get me.

As Neil Morrissey stomps off to look for another phone, I don’t fancy his chances. Baker’s armed with the poker, while Susan George opens a desk drawer containing all the home office basics — calculator, spiral bound notebook, big glass bottle with POISON written on it and a literal skull and crossbones. But under questioning from Johnny Ball, George exonerates herself, as she was simply preparing to put down an injured foxhound; the humane way, by injecting it with poison. The slaughter of Neil Morrissey (does Les Dennis have an alibi?) is an emotive case, which leads the audience of elderly amateur detectives to emit a genuinely startling bovine murmur of uproar — “NOOOO!” — at an incorrect guess of Pam Ferris, before a big cheer of “YESSS!” when the killer’s correctly pegged as Christopher Biggins. “God help me,” he says, in a very impassioned confessional, “I actually forgot who I was…

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As television, Cluedo is hugely fun, with its bizarre detective pairings, actors having a ball hamming it up, and weekly guest corpses, but as a game show, it doesn’t work at all, hampered by all the reasons the cardboard version gets shelved after a single play. But now board games are back, with brand recognition to be had from the likes of Settlers of Catan, Gloomhaven, and Ticket to Ride, and the next great adaptation is obvious; Dean Gaffney getting buffeted through an assault course inside a cramped, airtight glass sphere for ITV2’s Screwball Scramble, (Paddy McGuinness to host).

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as £1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my videos, my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on August 17, 2021.

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