Sergeant Cork is an excellent example of just how good a mid sixties studio-bound VT series can be. Running for a total of sixty six episodes, it was made on something of a production treadmill – the first production block of forty episodes ran from April 1963 to September 1964. Following a break, there was a second production block of twenty six episodes which were recorded between March 1965 and March 1966.
This meant that an episode would have to have been designed, rehearsed and recorded every two weeks. Given the relentless nature of the production process it’s remarkable that the quality of the series remained as high as it did. There are, naturally enough, some lesser episodes over the run, but the general quality remained very high.
A major part of its success has to be down to the two main regulars, Cork (John Barrie) and Bob Marriott (William Gaunt). Barrie is always incredibly watchable and manages to highlight many facets of Cork’s character over the duration of the series. Cork is a crusader and an innovator, with a highly developed sense of justice. Bob is initially a bewildered intruder into Cork’s world, but quickly develops an a wry sense of humour and becomes a perfect foil for the unpredictable sergeant.
Sergeant Cork is set in the late Victorian era, at the time when science was beginning to make a breakthrough in the detection of crime. In some ways Cork isn’t too dissimilar from Sherlock Holmes – since he also was keen to find scientific ways to fight crime. And they also both live for their work (there’s no Mrs Cork, for example)
Bob has decided on a career in the police force. It’s interesting that he can just turn up for an interview with Superintendent Nelson (John Richmond) and find himself working as a detective the same day. But Nelson does explain that recruiting people into the detective branch has been difficult. “Some people, you see, regard the CID as an experiment, some regard it as a failure and very few regard it as important.” He decides to assign Bob to Sergeant Cork.
Our first sight of Cork sees him using his long-suffering general factotum Chalky White (Freddie Fowler) as a guinea pig (Cork is testing various methods of taking fingerprints). He mentions to Bob that the Americans have been using fingerprint identification for several years and the possibilities of introducing such a system in Britain clearly both intrigues and stimulates him.
With an air of absent-minded enthusiasm, Cork’s character is quickly defined – he’s somebody who is quick to embrace any scientific advance in the fight against crime. But since Superintendent Nelson has already told Bob that the CID is not highly regarded, it’s plain that Cork (due to his unorthodox methods) will face a struggle to convince others that he’s not simply a crank.
In these early scenes, Bob finds himself bewildered by Cork’s tangential enthusiasm and it takes a little while before he’s able to find his bearings and settle in. To begin with he’s not even sure what case they’re supposed to be investigating – until Cork eventually explains.
After Mr Oxley dies in his bed, the question has to be, was it suicide or murder? Suspicion falls on his beautiful young widow Julie Oxley (Jean Trend). But Dr Cato (Peter Halliday) reports to the inquest that he found traces of chloroform in Oxley’s stomach and from this declares that the man took his own life. For the local police this seems to close the case, but Cork is far from convinced and he’s quite forthright (in a manner that will be become very familiar) in making this clear to Superintendent Bradnock (Gerald Case). Cork is no respecter of seniority and isn’t at all cowed by Bradnock’s initial hostility.
John Barrie hits the ground running. His questioning of Mr Oxley’s mother Kate (Hilda Barry) is a classic scene. Although Cork gives the impression of being an affable sort, his cross-examination shows that he can also be ruthless. Whilst Mrs Oxley professes a deep love for her son (and also makes it clear that she believes he was murdered by his wife) Cork is relentless in exposing the fact that she held her son in contempt.
Suspicion falls on Clive Graham (Christopher Guinee) after he’s spotted throwing a bottle of chloroform away. Graham runs the cafe owned by Mr and Mrs Oxley and certainly seems to be on intimate terms with Mrs Oxley. But Mrs Oxley appears to be heavily implicated as well – despite her tearful protestations of innocence to Cork.
Jean Trend (a familiar face from the likes of Emergency Ward 10 and Doomwatch) gives a good performance as Julie Oxley. Mrs Oxley’s histrionics are impressive, but they cut no ice with the suspicious Cork. Another actor who’s instantly recognisable is Peter Halliday as Dr Cato. Halliday didn’t often use a Welsh accent (despite being Welsh-born) so The Case of the Reluctant Widow is something of a rarity.
With a final surprising revelation, this is a very decent opening episode. It’s a pity that the existing telerecording (like most of the series one episodes) is rather hacked about (the adcaps have been very clumsily edited out) but that’s only a minor niggle.