Simon is spending a few days in Sussex, partly to do some sailing and partly because he wants to see Kathleen Howard (Christine Gregg) again. But intrigue and mystery dogs the Saint wherever he goes and the sleepy fishing village of Bosham is no different. Three seemingly respectable sisters of a certain age – Florence (Avice Landone), Ida (Renee Houston) and Violet (Barbara Mullen) – find themselves targeted by an uncouth blackmailer called Alfred Powls (Philip O’Flynn). What is the dark secret that all three women have been harbouring for decades?
I love the fact that everybody in the world seems to have heard of the Saint. Simon and Florence are introduced to each other in the pre-credits sequence (she bumps into his car) and when he tells her his name, she reacts in the time-honoured fashion (and then, of course, a halo appears). Ida and Violet are equally perturbed when they learn that the Saint is in the vicinity, no doubt worried that their – as yet unknown – secret will shortly be divulged.
As with the series opener, The Talented Husband, this is something of an atypical Saint episode. There’s a crime element, but the village setting and the byplay between the sisters is something of a departure from the usual, more hard-boiled action. As the title suggests, all three sisters have gentle personas, so it’s something of a shock for them when their comfortable lives are rudely interrupted by the arrival of Powls. They know him of old – and whilst his blackmail begins modestly enough (a demand for fifty pounds) he then tells them that he wants a cottage and a yearly stipend of two thousand pounds. The fact they seriously consider his request makes it clear that they’re all women of very substantial means ….
Avice Landone, Renee Houston and Barbara Mullen were all veteran actresses, each boasting highly impressive cvs. Landone had appeared in a score of films during the forties and fifties (including Carve Her Name With Pride), before becoming something of a television fixture during the sixties and seventies. Houston’s film career started in the late twenties and ended in 1975 (her final credit was The Legend of the Werewolf). Amongst her other notable film appearances were a couple of Carry Ons (including playing the wonderfully named Agatha Spanner in Carry On At Your Convenience). Barbara Mullen will always be best remembered as the indomitable Janet in Dr Finlay’s Casebook (she notched up nearly two hundred episodes between the early sixties and early seventies).
As the episode proceeds, the personas of the three women all become better defined. Florence might be hopelessly accident-prone (seemingly unable to take her car out without bumping into something) but unlike the others she seems set to break free of her spinsterish bonds. The affable George Marsh (Anthony Nicholls) has been conducting a long-term, low-key courtship of her, although the arrival of Powls drives a wedge between them. Nicholls, later to become an ITC regular in The Champions (complete with a remarkably false-looking beard) is a strong addition to the cast whilst Timothy Bateson makes an amusing cameo as Charley Butterworth.
Violet’s the most retiring and twittery (Mullen’s very watchable during all her scenes – always doing something to catch the eye) whilst Ida is the strong arm of the three. She’s quite prepared to give the grinning blackmailer a hefty slap!
Once Simon learns the reason for Powls’ presence then there’s the inevitable fisticuffs. Moore again scores high on the intensity level as Simon drops his usual relaxed persona in order to forcibly ram his point home. “Whatever the Warshed girls did in the past, they’ve lived down and I don’t want to know the dirty details. They’re loved in this town and they’re happy here. And no dirty minded, sewer minded little creep like you is going to blackmail them. You understand?”
John Graeme’s teleplay relocates the action from America to England. In both the original story and Graeme’s adaptation, Simon’s well-meaning attempt to run Powls out of town only drives him back to the sister’s house – but what happens next is quite different. On television, a drunken Powls accidentally falls down the stairs to his death, but in Charteris’ story Florence bludgeons him with a poker (leaving Simon with a hole to dig in order that they can dispose of the body).
The Warshed sisters’ dark secret is quite different too (although both in print and on television it’s revealed that they’re not actually sisters). It’s not difficult to see why it was changed though. On television they’re revealed to be highly improbable fine art thieves, in print they were prostitutes – Florence had been the madam of a notorious bawdy house, whilst Ida and Violet had been two of her girls.
A story that coasts along thanks to the guest performances of the three veteran actresses, The Gentle Ladies rates a respectable three and a half halos out of five.