TV review: The Mrs Bradley Mysteries: The Rising of the Moon

Adela Bradley, a glamorous, more saucy version of Miss Marple, is brought vividly to life, says Gary Day

February 23, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

A woman should always be careful about losing her head over a man. It could end up in a saucepan simmering nicely at gas mark 3. This was the rather grisly fate of Mrs Cockerton (Janine Duvitski) who, having failed to impress Mr Forrester (Nicholas Woodeson) with her Madeira cake, resorted to more underhand means of gaining his heart: blackmail.

Being a member of Little Fordham parish council does not mean that a respectable citizen can't behave like a Frenchman when the need arises. Mr Forrester had already proved himself every bit as capable of committing a crime passionnel as his Gallic counterpart, and killing is easier the second, or was it the third, time around. It was getting to the point where you couldn't pop to the post-box without tripping over bodies.

All of which confirmed Adela Bradley's (Diana Rigg) observation to the viewer that murder was simply a means of relieving the boredom of village life (The Mrs Bradley Mysteries: The Rising of the Moon, BBC Four, Wednesday 15 February, 9pm). She herself kept ennui at arm's length by a frequent change of hats. The millinery was not just for decoration, it helped her think. The red beret in particular seemed to enhance her powers of detection, alerting her to several red herrings, as well as blending in nicely with the bright costumes of the circus folk.

That's where it all started. The roll of drums, the crack of the whip, the gasp of the crowd as the blindfolded knife thrower propelled his blades at his assistant who was strapped to a board, leaving them quivering in the wood, millimetres from her skin. It was therefore cruelly ironic that the exotically named Celestine Venus (Sheila Steafel) should be stabbed to death moments later. Her fellow performers mysteriously had no interest in finding the culprit, which made things rather tricky for Inspector Christmas (Peter Davison).

If they wouldn't talk to him, then they would talk to Mrs Bradley. "Facts are my forte," he said. "The psychology of the criminal mind is yours." He phoned as she was explaining the merits of jazz to George (Neil Dudgeon), her chauffeur. "It's innovative." "Oh, is it?" said George. As it turned out, the inspector had about as much appreciation of the facts as George had of jazz. But with a name like Christmas, this was not unduly surprising. More so was Mrs Bradley's desire to have George targeted by Castries (Francis Magee), the knife thrower. It's to gain the artistes' confidence, she said, pulling out the still-vibrating steel from between his legs.

Because Castries was a man who could look daggers, and throw them with eye-watering precision, he was the prime suspect and therefore obviously not the murderer. The next person to die was Madame Marlene (Meera Syal), the ringmaster. Even by the end, it was not clear why she had her throat cut. Perhaps it had something to do with her less-than-perfect imitation of an Eastern European accent. But then, as Gladys Mitchell, the creator of Mrs Bradley, writes in The Longer Bodies (1930), one of the 60 plus novels to feature the amateur sleuth, "No murder has what the police would term an adequate motive."

Philip Larkin was a great fan. "I am reading the new Gladys Mitchell: naked bathing by p.22," he wrote to Kingsley Amis. Mrs Bradley is not afraid to talk about sex, as you might expect from one who reads Freud. In another one of her addresses to camera, she said that scratches on a man's back are the sign of passion, and then paused, before adding that the late Mr Bradley bore no such stigmata. She spoke in such a way that you wondered how the said Mr Bradley had become "late". Nicholas Fuller, one of the critics of Mitchell's work, has suggested that Mrs Bradley has "an unorthodox philosophy" that "condones murder". Ah, so that would explain why she is willing to put George to the knife, so to speak.

She is certainly a more complex character than her contemporary, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, if only because she is descended from a witch and is not averse to using a little magic to solve a crime. Mrs Bradley's views are decidedly mixed. The Rising of the Moon contained several criticisms of the conventional notion that a woman's place was at home but, in the novel The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), she advocates euthanasia for the criminally insane. The many layers of Mrs Bradley make her a character who transcends the genre of the detective fiction, and this may be one reason why Mitchell's novels have not fared as well as Christie's. It's impossible to do justice to a novel in an hour's television, but Julie Rutterford's sparkling script showed us that here was one woman who would never lose her head.

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