Written by Keith Waterhouse, Charters & Caldicott was a six part serial which aired on BBC1 during January and February 1985. Waterhouse had by this point enjoyed a lengthy writing career (often collaborating with his friend Willis Hall). Some of their early film screenplays – Whistle Down The Wind (1961), A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963 – adapted from Waterhouse’s original novel) – were key entries in the early sixties new wave British cinema movement. The pair would go on to enjoy further success on the small screen, not least when they created Budgie (1971-1972) – a memorable vehicle for Adam Faith and Iain Cuthbertson.
The characters of Charters and Caldicott first appeared in the 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, scripted by Frank Launder and Sidney Gillatt and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, the characters instantly caught the public’s imagination. Charters and Caldicott were two cricket-obsessed men whose only interest was to return to England to catch the final day of a vital test match. Unfortunately they find themselves tangled up in a mysterious case of international intrigue on their train journey home ….
The pair proved so popular that they returned in several more films – Night Train to Munich (1940), Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). Wayne and Radford would also play very similar characters in a number of other films and radio plays (but for copyright reasons weren’t named as Charters and Caldicott).
Given the 1930’s setting of the original film you might have expected Keith Waterhouse to have scripted Charters & Caldicott as a period piece, but instead he elected to set it in the modern day. Whilst it’s possible to imagine this was done for budgetary reasons (thereby avoiding the necessity to redress locations in a period style) I’m more inclined to think it was a deliberate choice.
It may be the 1980’s, but Charters and Caldicott still dress and act like it’s fifty years earlier and this culture clash generates a number of memorable comic moments. One lovely one occurs in the first episode, when the pair set off to meet Jenny Beevers (Tessa Peake-Jones), the daughter of a recently deceased schoolchum. They rendezvous in the sort of fast-food restaurant that you know will be anathema to both of them. This is made plain when Charters strides up to the counter and requests a pot of tea for two – only to be handed two cardboard cups with milk sachets on top (which he then proceeds to spray over himself!) In a later episode they both attend a country house party and descend the imposing staircase for dinner immaculately dressed – only to find themselves in their version of hell, surrounded by 1980’s yuppies.
Although there’s a puzzling mystery at the heart of Charters & Caldicott – complete with dead bodies, people who may not be who they claim to be, coded messages and several gun-toting heavies – this isn’t the strength of the serial. The mystery is simply an excuse for Waterhouse to spend six episodes scripting wonderful dialogue for both Robin Bailey (Charters) and Michael Aldridge (Caldicott).
Bailey and Aldridge are both a joy as they blithely navigate their way through the story. Their contrasting characters help to generate a great deal of the humour – Charters is severe, precise and suspicious whilst Caldicott is warm, vague and trusting. The pair exist in a never-never land of comfortable gentleman’s clubs, complete with a library where it’s considered bad form to speak and a sauna where they can complete the crossword in peace – sometimes!
But the recent death of their old friend Jock Beevers, forces them out of their comfort zone. Jock left a trunk of papers in Caldicott’s possession which he passed over to Charters for safekeeping. Several unsavoury types seem very interested in the content of the trunk and this seems to be the reason why Caldicott discovers a dead girl in his flat. Initially both Charters and Caldicott believe it to be Jenny (who they haven’t seen since she was a child) but Jenny later appears to tell them that she thinks her life is in danger. The long-suffering Inspector Snow (Gerard Murphy) is assigned to investigate the murder and drops another bombshell – could Jock have been a Russian spy? If not, what do his cryptic messages sent to Charters and Caldicott actually mean?
Apart from the spot-on performances by Bailey and Aldridge, Gerard Murphy is wonderfully dead-pan as Snow, whilst Tessa Peake-Jones is suitably beguiling as an apparent damsel in distress. Caroline Blakiston as Margaret Mottram also gives a fine performance – she’s an old flame of Caldicott and finds herself mixed up with the mystery after she agrees to give the homeless Jenny a place to stay. Blakiston is gifted with some tart dialogue and she bounces off both Bailey and Aldridge very agreeably.
I was slightly surprised that this was an all-VT production. By the mid eighties the BBC was beginning to move towards film as the medium for many series and serials and you would have assumed that Charters & Caldicott would have been just the sort of programme to benefit from the extra gloss that film would have provided. But no matter, the serial works just as well on videotape as it would have done on film.
As I’ve said, the mystery part of the story does play second fiddle to the character interactions and there’s no doubt that over the six episodes the plot does meander somewhat. But even if the storyline does drag in places, the pleasure of watching Robin Bailey and Michael Aldridge at work more than makes up for this.
Released as a two DVD set, each disc contains three 50 minute episodes. There’s no issues with either picture or sound and as usual subtitles are provided.
Charters & Caldicott is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016. RRP £19.99