Peter Barkworth as Martin Hewitt in The Affair of the Tortoise by Arthur Morrison
Adapted by Bill Craig. Directed by Bill Bain
Martin Hewitt (Peter Barkworth) visits Miss Chapman (Cyd Hayman) to inform her that she stands to inherit a considerable fortune, following the death of a distant relative. As Miss Chapman lives in genteel poverty, this is very welcome news.
When Hewitt is talking to her, he hears a dreadful din coming from elsewhere in the house. Miss Chapman explains that the noise is made by one of the other residents – Rameau (Stephan Kalipha). He’s a very strange fellow, he favours sliding down the bannisters, is frequently drunk and makes the life of Goujon (Timothy Bateson) a misery by playing practical jokes on him.
When Rameau’s latest practical joke results in the death of Goujon’s beloved tortoise, Goujon declares that he’ll kill him. And shortly afterwards, the maid Millie (Cheryl Hall) discovers Rameau on the floor of his rooms, covered in blood, with an axe beside him.
It’s a clear case of murder – but when the police enter the room, Rameau’s body is gone. Goujon has also left and he’s obviously the prime suspect – but Miss Chapman isn’t convinced and she commissions Hewitt to investigate. Another resident, Captain Cutler (Esmond Knight), tells Hewitt that he’s seen a man hanging around for a while, watching for Rameau. The discovery of a voodoo doll in Rameau’s rooms and the knowledge that the man lived in fear of strangers are enough to convince Hewitt that there’s more to this case than meets the eye.
Like The Case of the Dixon Torpedo, this was written by Arthur Morrison and appeared in the collection of stories entitled Martin Hewitt, Investigator which was published in 1894. The book can be read here.
But unlike the Dixon Torpedo, Martin Hewitt appears in this adaptation and he’s expertly played by Peter Barkworth. One of the pleasures of watching archive television on a regular basis is that you tend to see the same faces appear again and again. Recently I’ve seen Barkworth in an episode of Out of the Unknown – To Lay a Ghost as well as an early edition of Public Eye – Nobody Kills Santa Claus. Any performance by Peter Barkworth is worth treasuring since he was such a meticulous, tidy actor and he fits the role of Martin Hewitt (modest, undemonstrative but forthright) perfectly.
Not only was he a first class actor, but he taught at RADA during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Simon Ward and Diana Rigg were amongst his pupils. He later remarked that “of all the jobs I have ever had, teaching at RADA is the one I should least like to have missed”.
With Barkworth providing a solid foundation as Hewitt, he was supported by a very decent cast of fellow actors. The gorgeous Cyd Hayman had appeared alongside him the year previously in the WW2 drama Manhunt, whilst Timothy Bateson makes a decent attempt at a French accent and Stefan Kalipha is suitably unhinged as Rameau. As neither Bateson or Kalipha have a great deal of screen-time, they have to make a strong impression early on, which they both do.
Inspector Nettings (Dan Meaden) naturally favours Goujan as the murderer, but when it’s proved that he’s innocent, the policeman is in a bit of a quandary. It’s a staple of detective fiction to have the police baffled whilst the private detective runs rings around them, but even allowing for this, Nettings is exceptionally dim. As Hewitt says “I have heard the opinion expressed that Inspector Nettings couldn’t find an omnibus in Oxford Street. But I don’t share that opinion. On the other hand I’m not convinced he could find the one he was looking for”.
Much as I love Barkworth, I’m never quite sure if the scene where he questions a cabman (and adopts a rough approximation of a lower-class accent) is deliberately meant to be unconvincing (to indicate that Hewitt didn’t really go in for that sort of thing) or whether Peter Barkworth just wasn’t very good at accents.
Whilst the solution to the mystery seems clear fairly early on, nothing’s quite as it seems and there’s a number of twists and turns in the story – which could quite easily sit alongside many of Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. With Holmes having apparently faced his Final Problem in 1893, Martin Hewitt proved to be a very acceptable substitute and his stories (prior to being collected in book form) were published in various magazines, including The Strand (which had been the home of Sherlock Holmes). Sidney Paget’s illustrations (like they did for Holmes) also added a touch of class.
It does seem remarkable no series were spun out of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes as many of the stories we’ve seen so far have demonstrated that there was definite mileage in taking the characters further. So a series with Barkworth as Hewitt wasn’t to be, unfortunately, but he’ll return in one more tale – The Case of Laker, Absconded.
Next Episode – The Assyrian Rejuvenator