Zodiac – Death of a Crab

"Death of a Crab" TX 25/02/1974 Thames Television Production

Written by Roger Marshall
Directed by Raymond Menmuir

Although not as familiar a name as, say, Brian Clemens, Roger Marshall is something of a British television drama legend. He co-created Public Eye and wrote many of its best episodes (including all of the first Thames series).  During the 1980’s he created and wrote two well received series, Travelling Man and Floodtide.

He was also very adept as a writer-for-hire, crafting quality episodes for programmes like The Avengers, Van Der Valk and The Sweeney.  Another outstanding Marshall script was provided for series two of Survivors (Parasites, tx 2nd June 1976).

Having said all this, I can’t put my hand on my heart and claim that Zodiac (which he created and wrote three of its six episodes) is a highlight on his CV, but it does have its moments – mainly thanks to the lead performances of Anouska Hempel and Anton Rodgers, some witty dialogue and a number of quality guest stars.

Rodgers is David Gradley (a most unusual policeman) and Hempel is Esther Jones (an astrologer) and together they solve crimes that hinge, more or less, on the signs of the Zodiac.  Alas, it seemed that public and critical indifference ensured that they only managed to cover six of the twelve signs.

The opening five minutes of Death of a Crab could be seen as an exercise in testing the patience of the audience. Since it’s a new series, you might expect a good, swift hook to capture their attention – instead we see Parker (Peter Childs) making himself at home at the luxury penthouse apartment owned by Aikman (John Rhys-Davies).  Aikman isn’t there, but he’s left a recorded message inviting Parker to treat the place as his own.

So Parker wanders about, examines the fixtures and fittings, pours himself a drink, has a cigar, draws a bath and settles down to enjoy his scotch.  By now, five minutes have elapsed – but just before you wonder exactly when the story will start, Parker slumps in his chair, unconscious.  Next morning, the maid discovers his dead body in the bath and the police, in the form of Gradley, are called.

Whilst this has the hallmarks of a police series (with a mystical edge) one thing that’s missing are (with the exception of Gradley) the police.  Unusually, he’s the only representative of the force we see.  He doesn’t have a sidekick (something later mentioned by Esther) and there’s no sign of fingerprint or forensic officers at the scene of the crime either.

When he and Esther meet for the first time she expresses incredulity that he’s a policeman (presumably because of his, by 1974 standards, natty clothing).  He responds that “we no longer sport the blue serge and silver buttons.”

Gradley is intrigued by Esther’s trade, but is unconvinced (at least to begin with).  “An astrologer?  Shouldn’t you be in gypsy kit, polishing your crystal ball?  I hear your union is pressing for a universal ban on tea bags.  Any truth in it?”  When Esther asks him if he’s a bigot or sceptic, he replies “neither, I just think it’s a load of old … Taurus.”

The clash between the rational police procedure of Gradley and the mystical intuition of Esther is obviously one of the series’ selling points, although the elements do sit rather uneasily together.  If the series had run for longer then maybe Esther’s skills could have been integrated better into the stories – on the evidence of the first episode she tends to deliver uncannily accurate predictions based on people’s astrological signs with the occasional leap into the unknown. Having somebody with that level of insight does create problems in telling a straightforward story – if the writer’s in a hole, then it’s tempting for Esther to have a vision and provide Gradley with previously unknown information.

The revelation that Esther was married to Parker does (briefly) make her an object of suspicion – but to be honest, this is a murder mystery with only one suspect.  That does sap a little of the interest, but Hempel is gorgeous and Rodgers is amusing, and their witty byplay is good enough to keep this viewer interested.

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