As it’s Halloween what better way time to talk about a murder mystery game show… from 24 years ago. I’ve always got my finger right on the pulse. And this being the internet I still feel I have to label that it contains spoilers in case anyone complains.
Cluedo is a popular Waddingtons board game that has seen many different incarnations, and was even adapted to what has become a cult classic film, Clue in 1985. This television version in the UK in the 1990s was also an attempt to bring the game itself to the screen, adapting it as a gameshow. The theme music sounds a bit like the theme music from The Bill, but with creepy haunted house sound effects thrown in.
Like the board game, there would be a murder committed at Arlington Grange, and the contestants had to deduce from six suspects, six potential weapons and which of the six rooms the murder was committed in.
There were four series and a Christmas special. Here I’ll talk about the first series from 1990, which was presented by James Bellini, and the contestants were two teams of two. In this first series it was a celebrity, including in this series Andrew Sachs (Manuel in Fawlty Towers) and Thelma Barlow (Mavis in Coronation Street) paired with a private detective, someone who had worked in the police force or a criminologist, while in later series the teams would just be two celebrities. After seeing a film showing the events leading up to the murder, the contestants would have to ask questions to the suspects, played by well known TV actors, and all the suspects had to tell the truth, only the murderer could lie. In this series the studio audience would vote halfway through as to who they thought the murderer was. When the answer of who was the murderer, what weapon they used and in which room they committed the crime was discovered, the spotlight would go on the murderer who would make a confession.
The best thing about this show however was never really the gameshow aspect, but the drama of the murder and the actors all staying in character as they were interrogated in the studio.
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock, the lady of the manor in Arlington Grange, is just the sort of part that Stephanie Beacham was born to play. She looks very glamorous, a beautiful grande dame wearing sparkly silver and blue dresses, big hats and lots of diamonds. I like a lot of the little things she does in her performance, such as drinking vodka and tonic and rolling her eyes at how the evening is going, and how she often gives death glares at people who have displeased her. It is notable that her version of Mrs. Peacock is the only character to be the murderer twice in one series, in the first episode Countdown, and in Going, Going, Goner. The latter sees one of the confessions which got the biggest laughs from the audience, as she laments about having “paid a fortune for a forgery” and after slicing the antiques dealer with a sword, “Oh they’ll understand it was an accident. Well they will…. won’t they?”. Stephanie Beacham is fabulous in this part, I can see why her character was used a lot in this series.
Reverend Jonathan Green (Robin Nedwell) in this version, he’s “green” as in interested in green issues. He’s an environmentalist, an animal lover and a vegetarian. The issue he’s most concerned with is raising money for his Save The Mole charity. He’s quite mole-like in appearance himself. He seems to be such a nice man that you find it hard to believe he is capable of murder, and indeed it turns out he never is the murderer.
June Whitfield is great as Mrs. Blanche White. Mrs. White in this series is a gossipy tea lady who takes sneaky drinks of sherry from little bottles in her handbag. The studio audience often booed quite loudly whenever she was accused, as she is very likeable and funny. When once asked if she hit someone with a statue she replies “I wouldn’t dream of doing anything to that statuette!”. The one time the studio audience did believe she was the murderer was the time when it was obvious she was, having been the only one who had any real interaction with the victim. She kills with poisoned lemonade! She says in her confession, “He was very grateful for it. Well, he wasn’t to know it was poisoned”.
The version of Professor Peter Plum (Kristoffer Tabori) in this series is quite different from how the character is usually portrayed. He is a bit younger, and American, a graduate from Harvard University. He has a hopeless crush on Miss. Scarlett, and seems more interested in dodgy insider trading on the stock market than academia. He is very annoying in the studio though, getting up and protesting loudly about being accused.
The two least interesting members of the cast in this series are Miss. Vivienne Scarlett (Tracy-Louise Ward) and Colonel Michael Mustard (Robin Ellis). It’s not as though there’s a lot wrong with how the actors play it, and there is the Peacock-Mustard-Scarlett love triangle as always, but they don’t really do very much.
Miss. Scarlett in this version is very by-the-numbers. She’s basically a trust fund girl with far too much money and free time driving around in her fancy red car flirting with various men. This version of Colonel Mustard is a bit dull. He’s so uptight and formal, he’s more like a newsreader. He’s the only version of Colonel Mustard in all series of the game show not to have a moustache. That is literally the most significant thing about him!
As often is the case with murder mysteries, they make the murder victim a bit of an arsehole so there are no shortage of suspects and motives. The victim in the first episode Countdown is Henri de Beauchamp, a fake French comte (and yes, the show does make play of the fact that “comte” sounds very like a certain insulting word that’s seldom allowed to be used on TV). Henri’s French accent is bad, which is deliberate, but his actual apples and pears Cockernee accent isn’t much better.
Episode two, Deadly Disco, sees property developer Mr. Hall wanting to drain the village duck pond to build a discotheque. How could I not adore a show that has an episode synopsis like that?
Mrs. Janet Hope in episode three, A Bridge Too Far is a bridge hustler, who meets her end getting whacked on the head with a bridge trophy by Miss. Scarlett.
Peregrine Talbot-Wheeler, an art critic and presenter of (fictional) TV show called The Antiques Treasure Trail, is such an awful obnoxious, pretentious snob it’s hilarious. He tries to blackmail Mrs. Peacock in the fourth episode Going, Going, Goner, but as mentioned above it doesn’t end well for him.
In episode five Politician’s Funeral we meet smug Mr. Chapman, of which there seem to be a lot of motives. He’s a rival candidate for Colonel Mustard to be elected as an M.P, he cattily mentions that the deaths of Mrs. Peacock’s two husbands were suspiciously convenient for her financially speaking, and he’s seen going off somewhere with Miss. Scarlett, but it’s still fairly obvious the murderer is Professor Plum, as Chapman was his boss and had just fired him.
The best episode is the final one, A Fete Worse Than Death, despite the corny pun. It is set in the village fete, which is to be opened by Bernard Kirkbride (Art Malik), a rude, horrible minor celebrity most famous for coffee adverts. Everybody hates him. But in a genuinely unexpected twist… he isn’t the murder victim! That turns out to be a man in a fancy dress dragon costume. As host James Bellini puts it “The Dragon has been slain”. In the studio we find out the backstory to this. The Dragon was in fact a policeman who Mrs. Peacock has asked to work undercover because the previous year the proceeds of the fete were stolen, and she wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. The ‘Dragon’ is killed by Mrs. White’s poisoned lemonade.
This series of Cluedo was a lot of fun, and I think the most enjoyable. What is surprising is how it took some chances and how it played with its own conventions compared to the series which followed, such as a different sort of Professor Plum and Reverend Green than usual for instance, and the Bait and Switch in the final episode with the murder victim not being the most obvious one. The other series became a lot more formulaic. That’s not to say they weren’t good themselves, and I’ll talk about the other series later on, but I think this one was the best.