Kate Seymour (Eira Heath) is a music-hall performer who’s caught the attention of the Hon. James Stratton (Michael Meacham). Stratton is infatuated with the girl and plans to marry her, much to the dismay of his well-heeled friends (one of whom warns him that “you can’t make a napkin out of a dishcloth”). And those closest to Kate, such as her mother Bessy (played by Cicely Courtneidge), are just as keen to put a spike in their union. Bessy has a low opinion of the male of the species anyway, bluntly telling her daughter that “if you look hard enough you’ll find something rotten in all of them.” The delivery of anonymous letters to Kate, alleging a string of infidelities on Stratton’s part, is clearly designed to break up their intended marriage and the infuriated Stratton sets off to request the cooperation of the police.
The Good Old Days (BBC, 1953- 1983) painted an unforgettable (if rather idealised) picture of the Victorian/Edwardian musical hall and The Case of the Stage-Door Johnnie taps into a similar nostalgic atmosphere. Presumably it was lack of budget that prevented Cork from filming in a real theatre (and even if they had, no doubt they would have struggled to hire enough extras to make it look full) so they had to recreate it in the studio. It’s a decent effort, although a little suspension of disbelief is required.
Part one is set in and around the theatre and is notable for the absence of Cork and Marriott. But it does enable Stratton and Kate to be brought into sharp focus as well as giving Cicely Courtneidge some pithily delivered lines. We also see a young David Burke, who plays Arthur Stephens – one of Kate’s old flames. Some twenty years later Burke would return to the Victorian era to play Dr Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes.
When we eventually get to see Cork, he begins by ranting at the hapless Chalky. “Do you know the crime figures are rising? Do you realise we’re hampered, harassed and neglected? Do you realise we fight on so that you and your family can sleep safe in your bed at night? And you tell me that you’re too busy to make the tea?” But there’s a sense that his treatment of the unfortunate Chalky is done with his tongue in his cheek (although whether Chalky sees it the same way is another matter!)
If his bad mood was genuine then it seems to have dissipated by the time he meets Kate. He apologies that he’s got a piece of stickjaw toffee stuck in his teeth and offers her some for later. They both rhapsodise about favourite sweets, with Cork telling her that “a lady in Chapel Street I know makes them, all home made. Humbugs, winter warmers, acid drops …” Their chit-chat is only brought to an end when Stratton gently reminds Cork that they’ve come to the theatre on business. It’s yet another nice character moment for Barrie.
Cork’s continuing disdain for the niceties of the social hierarchy is demonstrated during his interview with Stratton’s friend Lord George Creighton (Jeremy Longhurst). Creighton, not happy with the tone of the interview, asks Cork to remember who he’s talking to. “Personally I don’t care a damn who you are” responds the Sergeant. Remarkably Creighton isn’t too upset at this sharp retort and goes on to say that Stratton shouldn’t marry outside of his own social strata – he believes that to do so would help to weaken the aristocracy’s bloodline. Creighton is something of a hypocrite, he’s happy to sample the joys of working class girls but wouldn’t ever consider marrying one of them.
The Case of the Stage-Door Johnnie is a fairly low-key story, but Sergeant Cork wasn’t a series that always had to have a serious crime at its heart. Cork deduces who wrote the letters and after he confronts them is happy to consider the matter closed. Richard Harris (later to co-create Shoestring amongst many other notable credits) provided his one and only script for Cork and it’s a well-observed character piece. Courtneidge tends to steal the show as the indomitable Bessy, keen to live her own dreams through the success of her daughter, but Eira Heath also impresses as Kate. We’re later told that Kate is never going to be the next Marie Lloyd (despite what her mother thinks) and Heath has to tread a fine line to show that Kate is a competent, but not outstanding, performer. Michael Mecham has less of a sharply-defined role, but does the best that he can whilst David Burke is far from subtle, but entertaining, as Arthur Stephens. Another good episode.