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For those of you who, like I do, love the British mystery tradition, especially as personified by such writers as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, the name Frances Fyfield may not be as immediately recognizable, despite her enormous popularity in the UK. Even less recognizable is Fyfield's approach to her genre, one colored as much by psychology and backstory as it is by procedure, both police and prosecutorial. If Christie, for example, has a set path in virtually every thing she wrote--characters are introduced, at least one of them is murdered, the sleuth (Marple, Poirot, Tummy and Tuppence) get to work, ultimately uncovering all sorts of spider web relationships between the characters, finally revealing the murderer and the motive--Fyfield seems to be more interested in wandering the meandering paths of various characters' personalities, with the crimes, such as they are, almost taking a back seat at times. A perfect example of this is that in all of these cases the "bad guy" is revealed within the opening moments, and in two of the three mysteries included in this Helen West Casebook, the victim (well, at least the murder victim) doesn't show up until about 2/3 of the way through those episodes.
Fyfield (pen name for Frances Hegarty) is herself a professional prosecutor (a vocation she continues to practice even as she writes many best sellers), and that brings a certain air of authenticity to these works. The Crown Prosecution Service is shown to be a teeming morass of competing agendas, various personality tics, and a really, really bad filing system. Wending her way through the chaos, physical and otherwise, is Prosecutor Helen West (Amanda Burton), an aging woman who is as focused on her middle age and her ticking biological clock as she is on putting various bad guys in jail.
West is surrounded by both personal and professional cohorts, including her policeman boyrfriend, Chief Superintendent Bailey (Conor Mullen), her OCD germophobe boss Brian Redwood (Nicholas Woodeson), and her sullen, sulking assistant, Rose (Jessica Oyelowo). In fact, in one of the few things that drove me a little batty with this series, there's an amazing amount of coincidence and overlapping between Helen's personal and professional life. Bailey is inevitably working on the cases Helen is about to prosecute and various personal relationships end up playing important parts in each of the stories. Now anyone who's read or seen a Christie mystery knows that something of this ilk also pops up in those works, but Christie tends to keep it as part of the backstory, and usually with the suspects. Here these synchronicities repeatedly spill into Helen's life and it simply is unbelievable after a while.
This boxed sets includes three episodes, each running a little over an hour and a half:
Deep Sleep is one of Fyfield's best known Helen West stories and one which features an absolutely creepy villainous turn by Dermot Crowley as a friendly neighborhood pharmacist who might be prescribing murder, so to speak. The death of the pharmacist's wife is generally accepted as an accidental death (she evidently had a chloroform habit, as weird as that sounds), but Helen is convinced there's more to it, and despite Redwood's insistence she drop the inquiry, enlists the aid of an anesthesiologist to determine what the facts are. Unfortunately that doctor also has a dark secret he's been hiding, which puts Helen's case in jeopardy. This episode devolves a bit into Grand Guignol toward its final third, but it does offer that riveting, if very, very disturbing, performance by Crowley.
Shadow Play contains one of the more annoying "coincidences" in this three episode arc, and one which I guessed within seconds of a major plot set up, and one which I similarly kept hoping wouldn't turn out the way it did. This episode deals with a supposed child molester named Lycett (Robert Pugh, alternating between horrifying and actually sympathy inducing) who may be getting a bum rap from an over zealous police department. It turns out Lycett is forlorn over his own missing daughter, who up and disappeared (with Lycett's wife) over a decade ago. That of course sets up a slow reveal of Lycett's backstory, one interwoven with his befuddled neighbor (Rita Tushingham in a kind of fun, low rent performance) and a young girl she's taking care of. The entire story spills into Helen's personal and professional life in a way that is simply silly, with a ridiculously overwrought finale that includes Helen getting attacked and another character put in harm's way in a dark basement storage area. This episode does offer great supporting turns by Pugh and Tushingham.
Clear Conscience, probably the overall best offering of the trio, weaves several stories at least tangentially dealing with domestic abuse of various kinds into a slightly smarmy, but nonetheless very compelling, story that ultimately leads to murder. West's rocky relationship with Bailey (who has committed adultery, so to speak, in a previous episode) plays out against a teeming lot of cases involving incest, wife beatings and other charming relics of lower class London life. Lynda Steadman shines in this episode as Cath, a cleaning lady Helen hires who has a rather sordid past that of course becomes central to the episode's major crimes. Steadman's transformation from dowdy abuse victim to woman in control (at least for a while) is a standout in an episode that may leave a slightly sour taste in some viewers' mouths due to its unseemly subject matter.
Helen West is an interesting series that moves slowly (perhaps too slowly for some) at times, but does do great work in revealing its various characters' inner lives. Burton is a graceful yet forceful presence here (doing much better than in the disappointing Lynda LaPlante series The Commander, which I reviewed some time ago). Her interplay with both Mullen and Woodeson is fun and believable. The character West's unfailing patience and wisdom may be a bit harder to swallow for some, but the character's personal failings in other areas (her inability to cook, her rocky personal love relationship) help balance the scales somewhat. This is an unusual mystery series that delves more deeply than most into the inner turmoil that both criminals and those who seek to bring them to justice experience. It's a far cry from Christie and Sayers, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
I was a little surprised to see a series this relatively recent (2002) in a full frame, somewhat lackluster transfer. Color, saturation and detail are all above average to excellent in the first two episodes, but I was amazed at the softness and unbelievable grain of Clear Conscience--was this filmed in 8mm? (A joke--but just barely). Overall an acceptable television image, but nothing remarkable.
The standard stereo soundtrack is just fine for these proceedings, with good to outstanding dynamic range and fidelity. Unfortunately, American ears are not as attuned to the vagaries of various London accents, and I found some of the "low class" (Cockney?--I'm no expert) dialects next to impossible to understand, and there are unfortunately no subtitles available. The more cultured cast members (Burton, Mullen, etc.) are all completely easy to hear and understand.
Disc three contains brief text biographies/filmographies/bibliographies of Burton and Fyfield (ones that seem to either be copied from Wikipedia, or vice versa).
The Helen West Casebook will make an unusual diversion to longtime British mystery fans. Just don't expect the standard suspects-murder-reveal setup here. This is a slower, much more introspective journey into the dark heart of human emotional turmoil. Slightly smarmy subject matters may make this less appealing to some more morally squeamish viewers, so take that into account. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet