Whodunnit?

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After my piece on Cluedo, I was recommended Whodunnit?, ITV’s previous murder mystery quiz, which aired from 1972-78, and entirely passed me by. Going in blind to old telly is like launching yourself off a high building, but at least with this, there’s a visible crash pad waiting below, in the pedigree of its co-writers, Jeremy Lloyd (‘Allo ‘Allo; Are You Being Served?) and beloved comedy performer Lance Percival. Like Cluedo, each episode is a self-contained playlet about a ghastly killing, which celebrity contestants have to solve. I’m starting my watch with an episode from 1973, fittingly for 2022’s first post, titled A Happy New Year.

We open at a country manor on New Year’s Eve 1899, as a grandfather clock strikes thirty to midnight, at which time the elderly Sir Gerard will be signing a new will. As he announces to his family they’re getting “not a damned penny,” he’s bitten by a deadly snake that’s been planted inside a safe. With exactly half an hour before the venom finishes him off, he has the butler lock the doors until they figure out the murderer, with whoever solves the case getting his entire fortune. Goddamn, what a set-up! They should buy the rights for Knives Out 3.

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From the first minute, this is several bleeding cuts above Cluedo, and our host, rather than Chris Tarrant obviously wishing he was dead, is a young, bearded, and extremely hunky Edward Woodward. It’s incredible this is the same year he was stumbling round Summerisle a blushing virgin, and yet sits here capable of stealing our mums and turning our dads. The audience too, as always in this era, is an incredible sight. Tear down the portraits and statues, and fill our galleries with screencaps of those applauding Bullseye and Whodunnit; brown suits, enormous glasses, and hairstyles you’d get prison time for today. More than just passive observance, the audience are playing along, given cards to fill out with a pen.

Then we meet our panel of sleuths. “She is delightful, she is delicious,” she is Barbara Windsor, along with actor John Woodvine, crime reporter Tom Tullett, and the man last seen trying to get off with every contestant at the Miss Nightclub contest, Patrick Mower. What’ll become clear through these is that Mower’s behaviour wasn’t a one-off, and he’s the only man horny enough to be fooled for real by a Bugs Bunny pile of fizzing bombs tied into the shape of a lady. He probably calls an ambulance if he’s got an erection that lasts less than four hours — “get here as quick as you can, something’s terribly wrong with my dashed old chap…”

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We’re given scenes from which to root out clues and motivations for our killing, and Woodward warns us not to believe anything we see or hear, as at least one person will be lying. The play’s a terrific collection of haughty archetypes, with everyone pitched at just the right level; not quite tongue-in-cheek, but hammy enough to have fun; all enormous sideburns and “you insolent old devil!” The stories are surprisingly complex, told non-linearly with completing flashbacks and unreliable narrators, and shot on visually gorgeous period cameras, leaving light trails daubed across the screen as it pans past flickering candles.

Clues and red herrings abound. Motoring clothes and a riding cape. A pair of gloves. The sudden zoom on a shocked brother caught sneaking into a room he thought to be empty. A “very puzzling swishing sound” heard by the butler, hidden behind curtains while stealing a sip of the master’s brandy — “damned cheek!” At three minutes to midnight, Peters the butler scribbles the killer’s name on a napkin, handing it to a sweaty, near-death Sir Gerard. For his prize, Gerard amends his will, leaving Peters everything, keeling over onto the desk as the clock strikes midnight, pen in hand like Chris Feather — “Sir Gerard, are ya dead?” Peters mocks the stunned family; “it does rather look like I get everything… by the way, Happy New Year.”

It’s back to the studio to figure it out, and like Cluedo, the suspects (including Roy Barraclough) are in person to be interrogated, in nineteenth century clobber amid everyone else’s 70’s funk clothing. Celebrities can each request twenty seconds of replayed footage, and Babs asks for the butler poking the fire, instinctively giggling with a “pardon me,” having been ruined by years of Carry Ons, and explaining she means his putting the coal on, and not giving it a good seeing to with his willy. During questioning, as Patrick Mower chews thoughtfully on a biro, there’s some lovely in-character touches. The butler stands when he’s addressed, and one of the ladies raises a shocked handkerchief to her mouth at Barbara’s mention of loose bodices, as if keeping the horrid stench of commoners at bay.

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With none-more-analogue tech, Woodward thumbs through literal cards filled out by contestants, while the audience winner selects a prize off a table of show-used props, including a silver tray and old books, but sadly no rubber snake or sideburns. Dear Sir Gerald returns to announce the killer; albeit not covered in talcum powder and chains as his own ghost, earning correct guesser John Woodvine an incredibly measly £25 cheque for the charity of his choice; which is still only about £310 in today’s money, like heroically dropping a penny’s change into the little blind boy on the newsagent counter.

Jumping forwards a couple of years, an episode titled Too Many Cooks has a farcical quality, with secret identities and foreign accents straight from Lloyd’s ‘Allo ‘Allo. The murderous beginning sees a chef locked inside a meat freezer by an oven-mitted hand, gazing out of the porthole like when Charlie died in Lost. After an opening theme heavy on funk flute, Woodward is out, replaced by Jon Pertwee; and the best Jon Pertwee of all; the one who’s dressed in his own clothes in the 1970s, looking like Mid-Atlantic era Ric Flair, and busily taking notes beneath the opening credits. In a brilliant choice, everyone’s placed within the kitchen set, with the panel seated at kitchen tables, giving the unusual sight of everyone’s legs underneath, as though manning the tombola at a summer fete.

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Celebrity cops are Julie Ege, Anouska Hempel, a returning Patrick Mower, and Rodney ‘The Beast‘ Bewes, who’s wearing the very tuxedo shirt that’d be referenced on Inside No 9 some decades later. Taking place at Hotel United Nations, the chef was whacked for refusing to aid an assassination plot against Nosdrovnia’s visiting president, with a cast of suspects including Stephanie Beacham and Clive Swift (aka Richard Bucket, and subject of the most arsey interview ever) as the brilliantly named Commander Blade. They pack it with intrigue — Dracula-accented chef Count Igor turning out to be plain old Stanley Brown putting on a voice, a French chef that’s undercover Special Forces, and Blade accidentally blowing the cover of a CIA operative; [Hyacinth voice] “Richard! Mind the CIA man’s secret identity!”

Even the blocking’s on point, everyone arranged in casually perfect Baroque tableaux, with suspicious facial expressions and Judas-like posture. The clues take in long-lense photos of Nixon, secret documents stashed in a saucepan, a discarded cigarette butt, and a secret message slashed in a block of ice during the victim’s final moments; the letter B, which rather unhelpfully, is an initial of every character. “Perhaps even B for Bewes,” suggests Pertwee. Yes, or Beast. Bewes lives up to his rep, pointing out his own shirt in case nobody spotted it — a shirt only someone who’s really funny would wear — before ‘accidentally’ addressing the character of Lazlo Bretz as “Mr. Breast.” He’ll repeat the gag later, to mortifying silence, and throw in a line about “getting the hump” at the subject of camel racing. Mower meanwhile, treats the show like Tinder, praising the chef’s “impeccable taste in women” after he takes Stephanie Beacham to dinner, and resting his head simperingly on a fist to opine “isn’t she nice?” I think the long white scarf Mower’s wearing is for mopping up all the spunk which must bubble out of his flies at all times like a flooded drain.

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Most shocking revelation on a replay is cigarettes and a lighter falling out of the non-smoking Beacham’s handbag, which pegs her as the killer for everyone except Mower. “You’re far too lovely to have done it.” It’s just left for Pertwee to collect and mark the answers like a teacher, and announce the audience winner, one Doris Perks, an era-classic old lady in horn rim glasses and pearls. She gets a round of applause — including from a 17-year-old Peter Capaldi sat in the row behind — plus a framed magnifying glass, having to smile and nod as Pertwee mistakenly calls her “Mrs. Martin.” As it turns out, Beacham did do it, though Mower probably fancies her even more now, like when your dad went off Foxy Knoxy when she was found not guilty.

Things get real weird when we skip forwards to 1976; or rather, 2076, in an episode titled Future Imperfect. The set design is exceptional, with shiny metal walls and everyone in big-sleeved white jumpsuits and bright white hair. The men’s long wigs last came out of the props cupboard when an impressionist said “now then, now then,” and visually, this is Planet of the Saviles. They cram in a ton of world building for London 100-years-from-then, which is a patriarchal society (or as Pertwee puts it, “women’s lib has been successfully checked”), where husbands have two wives. The Chinese took over Britain, lead by a regime called the Circle of Power, and having discovered the secret to long life, the planet’s so overcrowded, people can’t leave their homes. The only way to vacation is via a “hallucinatory device;” a VR which mainlines a week’s holiday in six hours, and is basically what Arnie plugs into in Total Recall, except just big headphones and a sun lamp, loaded with a film cannister.

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Setting the sun to “Ultraviolet 3,” dad’s off to Majorca, but starts moaning in agony, crying out “no, no, God help me!” before dropping dead. They revive him by pulling up the wig of their android, Mr. Seven (a 5ft human actor), and shooting his battery power straight into dad’s heart. It turns out someone switched films, sticking a Majorca label over a black market thrill-tape of a savage tiger, inducing a heart attack due to dad’s fear of animals. He accuses one of his wives, even though they’ve just celebrated their plantonium anniversary, but as to the true guilty party, that’s for the celebrities to solve.

Among this week’s detectives is nutty professor and professional eccentric, Magnus Pyke, forever waving his arms and poking out his tongue, with different strength lenses in his glasses rendering just one eye enormous. Though I don’t wish to looks-shame, the gaze inevitably falls on a front tooth which is distractingly the colour of dark chocolate. Joining him is Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner; in the unfortunate seat next to perma-engorged Patrick Mower, who must live in that studio; and a member of the public who won their spot in a TV Times competition, and clearly went to the hairdressers with a picture of Mike Reid in his dirty panto wig. Though Pertwee tells us this Paul is “only 16 ½ years of age,” because of the decade, he looks like a 45-year-old chartered accountant.

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This is pretty fitting, in an episode dominated by age-related weirdness of a society which cured growing old. The ‘adults’ in the story look to be in their thirties, but dad’s 140, and his wives 101 and 92, while grown up twin boys, Anagram and Po, are both 70. Makes sense, but then the daughter Crystal, played by a 23-year-old, is meant to be seven. “I wonder what the age of consent is?” jokes Pertwee, which even in the Yewtree hellscape of 1976 doesn’t get much of a laugh. As the Savile family join the studio for interrogations, the permanent lockdown of 2076 is so boring, they spend their time fiddling with little objects. One wife’s constantly knitting, while the other sticks paper-clip chains to a magnetic rock, and Anagram’s never seen without a drooping pair of metal balls, which he rubs and clinks together obsessively. They’ve basically predicted the fidget toy.

Further flashbacks help piece together, not just the complex murder mystery, but this utopian/dystopian future. Three course meals are served in pill form by Mr. Seven, who speaks like the guy that channelled aliens to Louis Theroux, and reminds you he’s a robot by his arms always gently swinging like he’s on the way to Amarillo. Crystal asks daddy about the olden days, “before the Chinese came,” which was a time of wars and a sinking economy; “£100 for a loaf of bread.” And now, England’s in permanent winter “after the ice caps changed,” while Iceland’s so hot, everyone lays around under the sun all day with no clothes on. That’s Patrick Mower straight off to the travel agents.

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Flashbacks show Mr. Seven taking meals to Chinese neighbours Mr. Lim and Mr. Sung (“one of their top men in electronics”), who don’t have Savile wigs but get the plinky-plonky Chinaman soundtrack, and in a manic final five seconds, dad’s accidentally killed a second time, while re-enacting how he was murdered. A dervish of limbs, Magnus Pyke bellows questions at Po, while Mower says he’s forgotten how to be a policeman as “I’ve been playing lots of lovers lately. I’d be better off asking Lindsay a few questions…” Directing his query to “pretty Crystal,” you can forget horny jail; if there’s a horny death row, get him in cuffs. I mean, the next thing out of his mouth is a lusty “you’re seven years old? Good job she’s sitting over there; I might get arrested!

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Even Magnus is at it, gesticulating like he’s on fire and raving how food will never be in pill form, adding “I can believe in Crystal. Girls are maturing younger, and by that time, they may be on the go at seven!” The android improvises a line about a “bionic headache,” which gets a big laugh, used as cover by Mower to needlessly paw at Lindsay’s shoulder in amusement. It’s revealed Mr. Seven was hacked by the Chinese lads, (or as Pertwee says “the cunning Chinese”) because dad was putting “reactionary views” in his newspaper. When fingered, Mr. Seven self-destructs in a pop of sparks and smoke, and of note, the actor under Seven’s wig, Paul Marten’s IMDB page contains the following catchphrases under ‘trademarks’: “I say, what a smasher!” and “Wotcher, Tosh.” The former could rightly describe Whodunnit?, which turns out to be one of those things which is really great rather than terrible, albeit with Patrick Mower’s insatiable drive to fuck everything in sight. And where else could you see a thirteen-year-old competition winner sat next to Yootha Joyce, who’s puffing away on a cigarette, as they attempt to ascertain which monk slaughtered his fellow brother?

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 February 9, 2022.

One Response to “Whodunnit?”

  1. […] Whodunnit, contestants interrogate in-character suspects, while filling out LA Noire style […]

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