Hetty Wainthropp Investigates (1996-98) is a slight but amusing BBC mystery series, Britain's answer to Murder She Wrote which, of course, was in turn America's answer to Britain's Miss Marple. Hetty Wainthropp Investigates is in some respects superior to the long-running Angela Lansbury-starring favorite. This series, starring Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances) as the eponymous sleuth, is made much more believable while drolly injecting humor that gently pokes fun at Hetty and her burgeoning detecting business.
Acorn's Hetty Wainthropp Investigates: The Complete Collection culls all 27 episodes, repackaged on 12 discs in four DVD cases. The transfers look okay, and the Dolby Digital stereo is surprisingly robust.
The series takes place in Daren, in suburban Lancashire, where Hetty Wainthropp (Patricia Routledge) is an ordinary, 60-something housewife married to new retiree Robert (Derek Benfield, whom audiences will remember as Albert, the first chambers clerk on Rumpole of the Bailey). To help pay the bills, Hetty briefly goes to work as a cashier at a Pakistani-owned convenience store. In the feature-length pilot film ("The Bearded Lady") she soon quits to investigate a suspicious young couple cashing an elderly lady's pension checks there.
Her success with that case prompts Hetty to establish a home-based private detective agency, aided by 20-something shoplifter-turned-lodger Geoffrey Shawcross (Dominic Monaghan, Lost and Meriadoc Brandybuck in the Lord of the Rings movies).
Hetty Wainthropp Investigates differs from Miss Marple and Murder She Wrote in various ways, all good. She's not merely nosy or passively observant, nor the talented amateur detective. She becomes a private detective as a means to help support her husband and herself. She's an eminently practical, sturdy woman, even stereotypical of her generation and economic class, who regards detective work as a means to an end. For her this is a business, plain and simple.
Yet, at the same time, amusingly, she has no doubts at all about her talents and abilities. She's clearly familiar with Agatha Christie, molding herself after the writer's famous characters, often referring to her own "little gray cells" (a la Poirot) while weighing clues and other leads. This over-confidence serves her well: she may look a bit ridiculous to everyone else, but clearly she cares not a bit what others may think of her.
The series is based on David Cook's 1986 novel Missing Persons, whose main character in turn was based on his mother. The novel was adapted into a 1990 TV-movie also starring Routledge but with different actors player her husband and Geoffrey. That film, produced by rival ITV (via Yorkshire Television) is not included on this set. Cook co-wrote many of the early episodes that establish the series' interesting mix of subtle comedy and small-scale sleuthing.
The best Hetty Wainthropp Investigates teleplays are those working off a believable premise. Instead of packing episodes with sensational murders and red herrings played by familiar movie and TV stars like Murder She Wrote, this program is quite content with mysteries too minor for the police to want to bother themselves with. And it's clear Hetty's agency struggles to get by; her clients aren't rich and the writing suggests weeks often pass between Hetty's marginally profitable cases.
I skipped around among the four seasons, but the episode I liked best was "A High Profile," in which a desperate mother hires Hetty to locate her adult, schizophrenic son, a young man off his medication. It's the kind of desperate situation ordinary police either don't involve themselves in or tend to give only the lowest priority. The episode is interesting on many levels: the often sanctimonious, self-assured Hetty admits to knowing nothing about mental illness, relying on Geoffrey to research the disease for her. When she sees the toll the illness has taken on the boy's mother she's heartbroken, especially when the case ends badly with the type of realistic ending Murder She Wrote wouldn't dream of doing.
Routledge is enormous fun as Hetty. In a business where stars often insist on playing likeable characters, Routledge isn't averse to playing Hetty as occasionally irritating, self-absorbed, sanctimonious and conceited. Her character is balanced nicely by Benfield as Hetty's long-suffering husband and Monaghan as callow youth Geoffrey.
Video & Audio
Hetty Wainthropp Investigates is presented in full-frame format and appears to have been filmed entirely in Super-16(mm). The transfers look okay, but the Dolby Digital audio makes up for their general blandness with, for what it is, a fairly aggressive surround mix. Closed-captioning is offered. This is, apparently, a reissue, slightly discounted, of a 2007 complete series set.
Supplements include a 26-minute interview with Routledge, production notes, and a photo gallery. According to Paul Mavis's review of the 2007 complete series set, that version had the Missing Persons TV-movie that preceded the series, but it does not appear here for some reason.
Slight but charming and intelligent, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.