Derek Jacobi as William Drew in The Secret of the Foxhunter by William Le Queux
Adapted by Gerald Kelsey. Directed by Graham Evans
After two European spies join a hunting party at an English country house, William Drew (Derek Jacobi) tags along as well. As a friend of the family Drew is easily able to mingle amongst the guests – and one especially catches his attention.
Beatrice Graham (Lisa Harrow) is a luminous beauty, engaged to one of Drew’s colleagues, but she’s clearly very perturbed. Can she, or her fiance, be a traitor? It later turns out that Beatrice is in possession of a document that the foreign spies are extremely eager to obtain – and they’ll stop at nothing, including murder, to achieve their ends.
William Le Queux was a prolific writer, most successful in the decade or so before WW1. The Invasion of 1910 (serialised in the Daily Mail in 1906) was a notable bestseller for him. Le Queux tended to concentrate on the thriller, spy and mystery genres and whilst there’s a certain pulpiness about his works, he can still lay claim to being one of the founding fathers of British spy fiction. The Secret of the Foxhunter can be read here.
Gerald Kelsey’s adaptation takes certain liberties with the source material, mainly by injecting a certain amount of humour (Le Queux’s original is lacking in this). One major difference is the role played by Miss Baines (Denise Coffey). Miss Baines is governess to the daughter of the German spy Count Kremplestein (Richard Warner) and takes a much more active role in the adaptation (in the original story she’s a very marginal figure). Coffey, a noted comic performer, tackles her role with gusto and plays against Jacobi very well.
Another touch added by Kelsey is the extreme reticence of the British government, in the form of Drew’s boss The Marquess of Macclesfield (Richard Pearson), over the whole beastly business of spying. The Marquess clearly regards spying as a deeply underhand business and not something that a British gentleman should undertake. A good example is when Drew comes into possession of a letter written by Beatrice – it could contain a vital clue, but the Marquess really doesn’t like the idea of opening a lady’s letter (he does overcome his scruples though).
The Secret of the Foxhunter was Lisa Harrow’s television debut. She would rack up an impressive list of television, film and theatre credits over the years (she’s probably best remembered for playing Nancy Astor in the 1982 series of the same name). Here, she brings an excellent, doomed intensity to Beatrice – Drew is keen to help her, but it’s to no avail sadly.
Derek Jacobi (despite a fake moustache – the curse of the series, alas) gives a strong central performance as William Drew. Equally able to play comic scenes with Denise Coffey and Richard Pearson as well as more dramatic moments with Lisa Harrow, Jacobi’s never less than first rate. In terms of the adaptation, a major change by Kesley comes at the conclusion of the story, which provides Jacobi with another chance to shine. It’s an unexpected moment – but all the more powerful because of this.