Zodiac – Death of a Crab

"Death of a Crab" TX 25/02/1974 Thames Television Production

Written by Roger Marshall
Directed by Raymond Menmuir

Although not as familiar a name as, say, Brian Clemens, Roger Marshall is something of a British television drama legend. He co-created Public Eye and wrote many of its best episodes (including all of the first Thames series).  During the 1980’s he created and wrote two well received series, Travelling Man and Floodtide.

He was also very adept as a writer-for-hire, crafting quality episodes for programmes like The Avengers, Van Der Valk and The Sweeney.  Another outstanding Marshall script was provided for series two of Survivors (Parasites, tx 2nd June 1976).

Having said all this, I can’t put my hand on my heart and claim that Zodiac (which he created and wrote three of its six episodes) is a highlight on his CV, but it does have its moments – mainly thanks to the lead performances of Anouska Hempel and Anton Rodgers, some witty dialogue and a number of quality guest stars.

Rodgers is David Gradley (a most unusual policeman) and Hempel is Esther Jones (an astrologer) and together they solve crimes that hinge, more or less, on the signs of the Zodiac.  Alas, it seemed that public and critical indifference ensured that they only managed to cover six of the twelve signs.

The opening five minutes of Death of a Crab could be seen as an exercise in testing the patience of the audience. Since it’s a new series, you might expect a good, swift hook to capture their attention – instead we see Parker (Peter Childs) making himself at home at the luxury penthouse apartment owned by Aikman (John Rhys-Davies).  Aikman isn’t there, but he’s left a recorded message inviting Parker to treat the place as his own.

So Parker wanders about, examines the fixtures and fittings, pours himself a drink, has a cigar, draws a bath and settles down to enjoy his scotch.  By now, five minutes have elapsed – but just before you wonder exactly when the story will start, Parker slumps in his chair, unconscious.  Next morning, the maid discovers his dead body in the bath and the police, in the form of Gradley, are called.

Whilst this has the hallmarks of a police series (with a mystical edge) one thing that’s missing are (with the exception of Gradley) the police.  Unusually, he’s the only representative of the force we see.  He doesn’t have a sidekick (something later mentioned by Esther) and there’s no sign of fingerprint or forensic officers at the scene of the crime either.

When he and Esther meet for the first time she expresses incredulity that he’s a policeman (presumably because of his, by 1974 standards, natty clothing).  He responds that “we no longer sport the blue serge and silver buttons.”

Gradley is intrigued by Esther’s trade, but is unconvinced (at least to begin with).  “An astrologer?  Shouldn’t you be in gypsy kit, polishing your crystal ball?  I hear your union is pressing for a universal ban on tea bags.  Any truth in it?”  When Esther asks him if he’s a bigot or sceptic, he replies “neither, I just think it’s a load of old … Taurus.”

The clash between the rational police procedure of Gradley and the mystical intuition of Esther is obviously one of the series’ selling points, although the elements do sit rather uneasily together.  If the series had run for longer then maybe Esther’s skills could have been integrated better into the stories – on the evidence of the first episode she tends to deliver uncannily accurate predictions based on people’s astrological signs with the occasional leap into the unknown. Having somebody with that level of insight does create problems in telling a straightforward story – if the writer’s in a hole, then it’s tempting for Esther to have a vision and provide Gradley with previously unknown information.

The revelation that Esther was married to Parker does (briefly) make her an object of suspicion – but to be honest, this is a murder mystery with only one suspect.  That does sap a little of the interest, but Hempel is gorgeous and Rodgers is amusing, and their witty byplay is good enough to keep this viewer interested.

Zodiac – The Cool Aquarian


Written by Roger Marshall
Directed by Don Leaver

Whilst Gradley was a confirmed astrological sceptic in Death of a Crab, at the start of this episode he seems to have revised his opinion somewhat when he calls on Esther to ask her advice. Of course, it just might be that he wants to spend more time in the delectable Ms Jones’ company – which is completely understandable.

Gradley has received a tip-off that something’s going to happen on Thursday evening.  He doesn’t know what and he doesn’t know where, but he hopes that Esther will be able to provide him with the answers.  Esther is incredulous.  “You mean, 4:45 Lloyds Bank, Lower Sloane Street, a ginger-headed man with a thirty denier nylon mask and a left-footed limp? Of course I can’t. You really do have some strange ideas about astrology.”

Whilst Gradley is left to ponder on this problem, the episode develops two seperate plot-lines.  The first concerns two businessmen – Reuben Keiser (Michael Gambon) and Mark Braun (George Baker).  They’re very different types – Keiser is somewhat sharp and unscrupulous (as he says himself he’s “more barrow boy than Harrow boy”) whilst Braun is more refined and keener to do the right thing.

The second sees Gradley pay a visit on George and Paula Sutton (Bill Maynard and Betty Alberge).  Their niece, Sheila, has disappeared and shortly afterwards they receive a note to say she’s been kidnapped.  The two plot-threads converge when Kesier receives a ransom note.  He’s never met Sheila, but unless he pays one hundred thousand pounds the girl will die.

As the kidnap happened on Thursday evening, Esther wonders if this is the job that Gradley received a tip-off about.  Although that does seem unlikely, since it transpires the kidnap was a one-person job – why would they inform on themselves?

Remarkable coincidence number one is that Esther already knows Keiser and Braun (she’s supplied both of them with astrological readings).  Remarkable coincidence number two is that when Braun persuades Keiser to call the police, it’s Gradley who’s assigned to the case.

Like Death of a Crab, the solution to the mystery isn’t particularly taxing, but producing a baffling puzzle doesn’t seem to be this series’ raison-d’etre.  Instead, Marshall’s script focuses more on the characters, especially Gradley and Esther.  Just two episodes in, there’s an obvious “will they, won’t they” vibe about their relationship.

The story boasts a cracking guest cast.  Gambon and Baker are two actors that enhance any production and whilst Bill Maynard’s role is a little more serious than many of his signature parts, it’s still a pleasure to see him.  He does have one good comic scene though, when he and his wife manage to give a description of Sheila to Gradley that takes an age – mainly because they can’t agree on the most basic questions (her height, whether she’s pale or not, etc).

Also well worth watching is the ever dependable Trevor Baxter as Esther’s temporary butler, Neville.  He proves to be an invaluable help to Gradley (picking out a few clues from the ransom note) and Gradley’s way of thanking him seems to involve putting on an apron and helping him clean the silver!

Esther saves the day by casting a horoscope which leads the police to the place where Sheila is being held.  This is a slight cop-out and is probably one of the series’ main flaws.  As previously mentioned, the temptation to use Esther to pull a rabbit out of the hat can be damaging to the integrity of the narrative.

But although this is a problem and the mystery isn’t that mysterious at all, The Cool Aquarian is still an enjoyable fifty minutes.

Zodiac – The Strength of Gemini


Written by Philip Broadley
Directed by James Ferman

Paul Derring (Norman Eshley) is a smooth-talking conman who targets beautiful, young, upper-class women.  He spies his latest mark, Elizabeth Charmont (Jenny Hanley), and moves in.  Elizabeth has never met him before – but he seems to know everything about her.  “Although we’ve never met, I know you. There is an empathy between us.”  He goes on to tell her things about herself that no stranger could possibly know.  Initially it seems that he’s an astrologer like Esther, but it turns out he’s been abusing Esther’s gifts for his own ends – which proves to be his downfall.

Since Esther writes a successful horoscope column (under the name of “Sibyl”) she receives many requests for personal horoscopes.  One such letter strikes a chord and she suddenly realises that recently she’s been sent numerous pleas for horoscopes – apparently from different people – but now it dawns on her that they’ve all come from the same person.  The names are different each time, but a handwriting expert called Toby (Charles Lloyd Pack) confirms that the signatures are all from the same hand.  So Esther calls in Gradley – she wants to find out who’s been doing this and why.

Since the opening of the story is Esther-centric, Gradley doesn’t appear until thirteen minutes in – but it’s worth waiting for, as Anton Rodgers is a vision in denim.  Maybe he was dressed down in order to make Hempel (who’s wearing a rather nice black evening dress) look even more stunning?  Esther shows him the letters and they decide that the first one – sent by a Paul Derring – is probably genuine.  So can they locate Derring?

Jenny Hanley & Norman Eshley
Jenny Hanley & Norman Eshley

The system he’s worked out to provide himself with victims is quite neat – he has a confederate called Penny (Deborah Norton) who works at a flower shop which is frequented by the upper-classes.  Whenever somebody visits to buy flowers for a likely target’s birthday, Penny makes a note of their birth-date and address and passes the information onto Derring.  He then requests a horoscope from Esther and therefore is able to astound his latest conquest with a host of impressive facts about their life.

Philip Broadley’s script follows the template laid down by Roger Marshall’s first two stories.  There’s plenty of banter between the two leads and a general lightness of touch throughout.  Whilst Derring is a conman, he also has a sense of humour and the script and direction help to accentuate this by throwing in the odd, wrong-footing moment.  My favourite is the scene that opens with a close-up on Derring’s face.  He looks quite serious, but as the camera pans down it becomes clear that he’s merely standing in his underpants, ironing his trousers!

The obvious plan is for Esther to present herself to Derring as his latest victim, which causes Gradley a little pain as she artfully stokes up his jealousy by casually mentioning how charming Derring is.  Fashion-wise, Hempel sports a variety of costumes, from the aforementioned black dress to a towel (and looks good in all of them).  Thankfully, Rodgers’ denim interlude is quite brief and he spends the rest of the story more conventionally attired.

One unusual thing about the series to date is that it’s completely studio-bound.  It wasn’t unheard of for some 1960’s series (like Sergeant Cork) to be almost entirely recorded in the studio (although that, I assume, was probably due to the show’s Victorian setting – it would have been difficult to film outside without major redressing of most locations).  Since Zodiac was a contemporary series, that problem didn’t apply – and the lack of location work does make the programme feel a little claustrophobic at times.

Zodiac – Saturn’s Rewards

saturn 1

Written by Pat Hoddinott
Directed by Don Leaver

Richard Meade (Peter Vaughan) is awoken by noises from the flat opposite.  He opens his bedroom window to investigate and is shocked to see a man attacking a woman.  He rushes to the phone, but then stops – the woman sharing his bed isn’t his wife and since he’s an MP he can’t afford any scandal.  Next day, Gradley visits him to ask if he saw anything the previous night.  Meade responds in the negative.

A few days later, Esther is entertaining Meade’s daughter Deborah (Joanna David), her mother Susan (Dinah Sheridan) and Deborah’s new boyfriend Martin Seacombe (Ian Ogilvy).  Martin is a smooth-talker, but he doesn’t believe in astrology – which causes Esther’s hackles to rise slightly.  One of her gifts is an ability to tell the star-sign of anybody, just by looking at them.  She declares that Martin is a Scorpio, but he tells her he was born in May – which would make him an Aries.

Esther simply doesn’t believe him or that she could be so wrong.  His insistence would already be enough to mark him out as a wrong ‘un, but he was also the man we saw at the start, committing the murder, so he’s clearly going to be the villain of the piece.  When Meade arrives to pick up his wife and daughter he’s shocked to see Martin with his daughter.  He knows the man’s a murderer, but if he tells anybody then the story of his infidelity will come to light, and this puts him in something of a quandary.

Anouska Hempel & Ian Ogilvy
Anouska Hempel & Ian Ogilvy

Saturn’s Rewards isn’t the first episode of Zodiac to use some outrageous coincidences, but the ones here are worth repeating.  Meade’s daughter’s fiance chooses to commit a murder in the flat opposite Meade (it’s never explained why he’s in that flat).  Gradley is the detective assigned to investigate the murder, whilst Esther is an old friend of Meade’s daughter, Deborah, which is how Esther becomes involved.  Too many coincidences!

The studio-bound nature of the production becomes rather apparent when we see the murder committed.  The gap between the two flats isn’t very wide and it’s impossible to believe that Martin didn’t see Meade looking at him.  Obviously he didn’t, otherwise the story simply wouldn’t work, but the camerawork seems to imply otherwise.

Whilst the plot has its problems, we can take solace with the cast.  Peter Vaughan is good fun as a rather shifty, untrustworthy politician and Ian Ogilvy (complete with a moustache that may be fake, I think it is) is the charming, but dangerous Martin.  Joanna David and Dinah Sheridan have less to do, but having two good actresses in those roles is some consolation for their slightly underwritten parts.

Esther and Gradley are kept apart for a while, which is a pity, since the series really sparkles when the two of them are together.  When they eventually meet up, Gradley tells her a little about the murder case but then says he doesn’t need her help on this one.  Esther is incredulous. “It must be straightforward. What happened, did you find the killer drunk on the floor, prints all over the murder weapon and a signed confession in his top pocket?”

Undeniably, this is clumsily plotted, but once again the performances of both the regulars and the guest cast manage to make something out of the fairly thin material.

Zodiac – Sting, Sting, Scorpio!


Written by Roger Marshall
Directed by Piers Haggard

Madame Lavengro (Anne Dyson) is a fortune-teller who lives and works in Brighton. Two maids from a local hotel visit her for a reading. Brenda (Jeananne Crowley) waits in the other room whilst Peggy (Susie Blake) goes first.

Whilst she looks like the archetypal fake fortune-teller (complete with headscarf and crystal ball) it’s clear that she has genuine insight. She knows that Peggy has problems with her boyfriend and that he possesses money that doesn’t belong to him.  A moment later she realises that he’s the Brighton Hotel robber.

Like Peggy, her boyfriend Brian (Robert Powell) works at the same hotel. He knows that he has to silence the fortune-teller – which he does. The day after, Esther pays a visit to Madame Lavengro and discovers her body. Esther was a friend and admirer of Madame Lavengro, so she takes the lease on her shop and tells Gradley she’s determined to track down her murderer.

Esther’s in something of a huff with Gradley as he’s reluctant to get involved in the case (it’s well outside his patch). He does eventually travel down to join her, after taking some leave, but they still indulge in a good deal of bickering once they do team up. There’s also another sighting of Anton Rodgers in denim (not good) and later he sports an interesting cravat (also not good).

A curly-headed Robert Powell is the villain of the piece. He’s not really known for playing baddies, which is probably why the character doesn’t quite have the dangerous edge he should have. The rest of the cast also features some familiar faces. Wensley Pithey (a regular in the early series of Special Branch) is Inspector Duggan, Susie Blake is the sadly doomed Peggy and Frank Gatliff brightens up the screen briefly as the camp-as-anything Felix Pettigrew.

Another eyebrow raising performance is given by Bob Sherman as the hippy singer Bob Thomas. Sherman’s probably best known for playing an American spook in The Sandbaggers, so this role is something rather different. Although the 1960’s was long over by this point, Thomas is obviously a throwback (“Yeah baby, I’d really freak out man”). He doesn’t contribute anything to the plot, but he’s a nice bit of local colour.

Anouska Hempel obviously had a cold whilst the story was being recorded, as her voice is pretty strained at times. This is referred to right at the end, presumably via an adlib, as Gradley declines to kiss her because of her cold and she threatens to spit all over him!

Sting, Sting, Scorpion! is a nicely plotted tale. There’s one example of Esther’s special powers (she receives a vision that Peggy has drowned) but that doesn’t affect the solving of the crime too much, so it isn’t a particularly large cheat.

Another strongly-cast and well-acted story.

Zodiac – The Horns of the Moon


Written by Peter Yeldham
Directed by Joe McGrath

General Weston (Peter Jones) is the autocratic chairman of a small merchant bank.  He wishes to initiate a merger (which effectively means selling the bank).  His fellow directors and his son Tony (Peter Egan) are against the plan, but the General always gets his way – and he does so again.

But shortly afterwards, he falls down the bank’s lift shaft.  As Tony later remarks, anybody else would have broken their neck, but he escaped with just a sprained arm.  However, it does seem to indicate that somebody at the bank wishes him harm.

There’s no shortage of suspects.  His son would inherit everything on his death, whilst the vampish Julie Prentiss (Michele Dotrice) seems to have the General wrapped around her little finger.  The other directors, Rodney Tyce (Graham Crowden), Ian Rentoul (Ronald MacLeod) and Agnes Courtney (Gillian Raine), could all have motives whilst the servant Dobbs (Norman Chappell) is another possibility.

Tony is a regular client of Esther’s and he calls on her to ask for advice.  He wants to leave the bank and break free from his father – but only if she confirms that the stars are correctly aligned.  She visits him at the bank to deliver the horoscope and he suggests they have a drink.  It comes as something of a surprise to find the General frozen solid in the fridge …..

The Horns of the Moon is by far the best mystery of the series since, as the above list indicates, there’s no shortage of suspects.  Once again, Esther is at the scene of the crime when the body is discovered, much to Gradley’s despair.  He’s also a little peeved at having to leave his dinner companion.  “You may not know it but I was at a charity dinner, escorting a debutante of the year.”  When Esther asks which year, he tells her it was quite a recent vintage.

Gradley quickly gets a feel for the list of suspects and it’s clear that Tony is his favourite.  Esther violently disagrees as she says it’s astrologically impossible for him to have committed the murder.  Gradley doesn’t arrest Tony straight away as he knows he’ll make his way to Esther’s flat in order to unburden himself.  This he does and what Tony says is pretty damming.  “What would you say if the files showed that I embezzled two hundred thousand pounds from the firm and the gun that killed the General was in my desk and that I wiped it clear of fingerprints and put it back in the boardroom and I took the files and put them in the cellar?”

Tony protests his innocence – he looks guilty, but that’s only because somebody has framed him.  Later on, even more evidence pointing to his guilt comes to light and Gradley arrests him.  Esther remains unconvinced and continues to nag at him to consider the other possibilities.

As with all the episodes, there’s a lovely group of actors here.  It’s a shame that Peter Jones doesn’t last longer as he’s got some nice comic business as the General.  Peter Egan is a bundle of nerves as the perpetually twitchy Tony whilst Graham Crowden is quite restrained as Tyce.  Tyce is a character that exists on the outskirts of the majority of the story, but he does have a part to play later on.

The banter between Gradley and Esther also helps to keep the interest chugging along.  Both of them, especially Anton Rodgers, have great comic timing and it’s their partnership which is one of the main strengths of the show.

The Horns of the Moon was the final story of this short series.  The real murderer is eventually found and Tony is set free, but that’s the end of the line for Gradley and Esther.  The premise of the series (detective and astrologer teamed up) was an intriguing one, although it’s fair to say that some of the plotting was a little loose in several of the episodes .

The partnership between Hempel and Rodgers as well as the guest casts more than made up for this though and there was certainly enough potential for a further run of episodes.  It wasn’t to be though, which is a shame since Zodiac is a nice little series and provided you don’t mind studio-bound drama (not a single location shot in the six episodes) it’s well worth tracking down.