Frederick Seddon (Michael Jayston) and his wife Margaret (Carol Drinkwater) stand accused of the murder of their lodger Eliza Barrow ….
Running for fourteen episodes during 1980 and 1981, Ladykillers dramatised real life murder cases, mostly drawn from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the trial of Ruth Ellis in 1955 was one notable exception to this rule). Series one concerned itself with female defendants whilst the second series (from which this episode is drawn) was male dominated. Although since The Root of All Evil featured Margaret Seddon as the co-defendant, it does hark back to the format of series one.
The writer was Sue Lake, who has a somewhat limited television cv. In addition to this installment of Ladykillers, she wrote an episode of Supernatural, seven episodes of Triangle and her final work was an episode of Angels in 1983. I’ve not yet been brave enough to tackle her Triangle work, but based on what we see here it’s surprising her credits were so limited as The Root of All Evil drips with menace and dark humour.
The gallows humour comes from Michael Jayston who, sporting an impressive moustache, gives a typically rich performance as the pompous and pernickety Frederick Seddon. He remains blithely convinced right to the end that the jury are bound to find him innocent.
His calmness is contrasted by Carol Drinkwater as Margaret Seddon who, away from the courtroom, seems to be on the verge of collapsing into hysterics (although she always manages to control herself when she’s back in the court).
As good as the courtroom scenes are, it’s the intercutting between the Seddons in their respective cells that’s really the heart of the story. Both are provided with prison confidants to talk to – with Trevor Cooper (as Oliver) providing the episode with another dollop of dark humour. Despite the fact that Frederick Seddon stands accused of murdering Eliza Barrow for her money, Oliver is quite happy to approach him for financial advice!
And shuttling between her mother and father is their teenage daughter Maggie (Sarah Berger). This was only Berger’s third television credit, but it’s a very compelling one – Maggie’s relationship with her mother is teased out across several well drawn scenes in which Berger drips with polite malice.
Several familiar faces (Eric Dodson, Pam St Clement) take their turns in the witness box whilst the always dependable Michael Ripper (sporting some memorable face fungus) makes an impression as Seddon Snr.
As with the rest of the series, Robert Morley is your avuncular host – introducing and summing up each case. His presence feels slightly odd (possibly a simple VO or caption would have worked better).
For those who don’t know the verdict, please look away now.
Frederck Seddon was found guilty and Margaret Seddon was acquitted.
The Root of All Evil seems less sure of her innocence though as not only does Morley raise his eyebrows after imparting the news that Margaret remarried only two months after her husband’s execution, there’s also the fact that Drinkwater allows a faint smile to play across Margaret’s lips as she exits the condemned cell. Then there’s also Maggie’s innuendo laden conversations with her mother to consider ….
Having given this one a 40th anniversary rewatch, I’m happy to report it stands up very well – not least for the performances from Jayston, Drinkwater and Berger.