One of the great pleasures of reviewing for DVD Talk is coming across the unexpected gem in your review stack, especially when it's in a genre you're fond of. A year or so ago, I took a chance on a British miniseries called The Beiderbecke Affair because the plot synopsis mentioned two things which interest me greatly: jazz and mystery. Once I actually got the DVD, I discovered (as I mentioned in my review) that the mystery element wasn't exactly of Agatha Christie-esque proportions, but the jazz was excellent and the repartee between the stars, James Bolan and Barbara Flynn, may indeed, as the pull quote on the cover the boxed set alleges, harken back to the zany comedies of the 1940's (actually 1930's--think The Thin Man). But it's more than that, really. While this second outing for the Beiderbecke crew has at least a tad more mystery (and just the faintest whiff of actual menace) than Affair did, it's the sparkling dialogue of writer Alan Plater (who adapted his own novel) that makes this show so much fun, and while it may remind some of Nick and Nora, it is actually both a good deal drier and more acerbic than Powell and Loy ever were.
Bix Beiderbecke was a jazz genius who crafted quicksilver solos full of resplendent ideas. Plater's dialogue matches that sleekness, with so many little gems dropped by the wayside it's almost fruitless to try to recount any of them. This is humor that springs from little comments, some more or less snarky, these two "lovebirds" trade with each other, usually delivered in a calm deadpan that only increases their often devastatingly funny effect. Bolam reprises his role as high school shop teacher Trevor Chaplin, a jazz freak whose penchant for collecting Beiderbecke LPs set the admittedly pretty lame plot machinations of Affair into motion. This being a sequel, the recording medium has been upped, technologically relatively speaking (this was 1987, after all), to cassette tapes for this outing, but, once again, Chaplin's collecting habit opens the door to more than a little intrigue that ultimately takes Chaplin and his "probationary cohab" partner, teaching colleague Jill Swinburne (Flynn), not only to some interesting locales on the British isle, but also some picturesque side trips to Edinburgh and Amsterdam.
The mystery here involves illegally dumped nuclear waste and soon involves some mysterious people from the British government itself. A missing bartender and the oldest suffragette in town (Beryl Reid, in a charming cameo) also play into the proceedings, but it's ultimately all about the back and forth between Bolam and Flynn, something they pull off with effortless aplomb. It's delightfully refreshing to see two slightly rumpled, middle aged people involved in an obviously loving, yet ceaselessly bantering, relationship, one that will have more than a hint of verisimilitude to anyone who's been in a long term love affair or, heaven forfend, even a marriage.
Also along for the hilarity, as he was in Affair, is the wonderful Dudley Sutton as the cynical Mr. Carter, a teacher who's been there, done that for so long that virtually nothing elicits much more than an uninterested grunt. In fact, if you've watched Affair (and I highly recommend you do before dipping into this iteration), one of the great laugh lines early in the first episode is Chaplin staring in disbelief at Carter actually evidently laughing about something.
If you're fond of complex puzzle-like mysteries, you may well be disappointed in The Beiderbecke Tapes, even if it does in fact present a more interesting central conundrum than did The Beiderbecke Affair. But if you love that pungent fizz of a carbonated war of the sexes, which just happens to be playing out in a quasi-mystery format, this will be just the ticket for some fun and more than a few moments of laugh out loud hilarity. There's a third episode of Beiderbecke available somewhere in the archives, and my hope is Acorn will be releasing it soon to join its two fancy free siblings.
For British television of this vintage, the news isn't entirely bad. Color is generally at least good, and is often quite good, in fact, especially in interior scenes, where I assume lighting could be controlled more effectively. The entire full frame enterprise does suffer from quite a bit of grain, especially in exterior location shots, and there is occasional passing damage here and there, with specks of dirt and white flecks. But if you're used to British television transfers, this is really way above average.
The DD 2.0 soundtrack is a bit better than the image, by comparison, and offers clear dialogue always front and center as well as a delightful assortment of pastiche jazz underscore cues. There is no noticeable damage or dropouts to report. No subtitles are available.
Pretty slim pickin's here: filmographies of the two leads.
Yes, The Beiderbecke Tapes is fluff, pure and simple, but it's such charming, enjoyable fluff, featuring such subtly hilarious real characters, that it's hard not to be swept along by its effervescence. Slightly better than Affair in the mystery department, but still as wihningly wise and often hilarious in the comedy department, The Beiderbecke Tapes is a fine and funny frolic.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet