For Balladeer’s Blog’s review of the first episode of this 1971-1973 series about London by Gaslight detectives from both the Victorian and Edwardian Ages you can simply click HERE
Episode: THE LOOTING OF THE SPECIE ROOM (April 16th, 1973)
Detective: Chief Purser Eli Horrocks, created by C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne. The first Mr Horrocks story was published in the year 1900.
Comment: He’s a Chief Purser who solves mysteries! Instead of doing the thousandth screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, how about someone bringing to life Hyne’s seafaring sleuth Mr Horrocks? The Looting of the Specie Room has a lot of the “snooty British upper class prigs caught up in a crime” appeal that Christie’s later mysteries had.
Rounding up an all-star cast and filming this first-rate mystery as it unfolds amid cushy 1900 trans-Atlantic ship travel might make for a surprise hit. Compared to other Chief Purser Horrocks mysteries like The Derelict THIS little honey would probably work best as a movie. The detective work would just be part of the charm, with the period detail providing the rest.
Synopsis: The RMS Oceanic is hoping to pull off a double-coup – hauling a record-setting TWO HUNDRED FIFTY-THOUSAND dollars in gold bullion (in 1900 money) from New York City to Southampton AND setting a new speed record for a trans-Atlantic voyage. Lord Altington, the owner of the shipping line, is aboard to oversee this venture and keep the pressure on the crewmembers.
Also aboard for this bit of hoped-for history are assorted sleazy reporters and a mix of Upper Class Twits whose pomposity and snobbery rival Lord Altington’s. When half the gold disappears on the way to Great Britain, the spectacular theft could mean the end for Chief Purser Horrocks (Ronald Fraser), whose position makes him ultimately responsible for all valuables on board.
With Lord Altington looking for a scapegoat, with the crew pointing fingers at each other, with Inspector Trent bungling the investigation and with an entire shipload of suspects ready to scatter to the winds upon arrival in Southampton, Horrocks takes it upon himself to play detective in order to save his own skin.
Among the suspects are the sensation-seeking reporters as well as passengers like wealthy widow Mrs Vanrenen, played by Jean “Sara Kingdom” Marsh for this episode’s Doctor Who connection. Snooty Lord Altington has no intention of inconveniencing his fellow blue-bloods by treating them like potential thieves and lets them all leave and return to the ship as they please during a stopover in Liverpool.
Some of Chief Purser Horrocks’ fellow officers had motives and opportunity for the crime as well, like First Officer Clayton (Stephen Yardley), who has a mountain of gambling debts and a hotsy-totsy wife to pamper. It even turns out that Horrocks himself has certain financial enigmas in his past, keeping him firmly in the sights of Inspector Trent. A debut story for a serial detective is the only time their innocence or guilt can really be in question, further cementing the need for The Looting of the Specie Room to be the first Horrocks mystery in any potential series.
Against overwhelming odds, the plucky Chief Purser must figure out how the theft was committed and unearth evidence strong enough to convict the guilty party or parties. If he fails he’ll be the fall guy for the shipping line and his own closely-guarded secrets will be exposed. And speaking of secrets, just how much was the Oceanic and its cargo insured for?
Like so many other detectives, fictional or not, Horrocks finds himself in harm’s way because of his investigation. With so much at stake a brutally violent attempt is made on the sleuthing seaman’s life.
Ron Fraser is pretty good as Eli Horrocks, who solves this Banacek-style mystery while still attending to his many duties aboard ship. The character’s jaded, world-wise way of schmoozing, dealing and finessing in order to see to the various strange desires of the hopelessly pampered passengers emanates a kind of Saint Jack air.
If the Chief Purser has a Watson it would be Assistant Purser Robbins, played by Michael Cashman of Sandbaggers fame. Robbins is young and handsome enough to appeal to the ladies, while Horrocks does the heavy thinking, sort of like the chemistry with Chief Inspector Barnaby and his sidekicks on Midsomer Murders.
Author C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne loved the sea, as made clear in his many novels and short stories. That love is shared by his major fictional creations like Captain Kettle and Chief Purser Horrocks. While Kettle was a conventional nautical hero, Horrocks served in seventeen crime stories.
The Looting of the Specie Room is my second-favorite episode from Season Two of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, after the 1893 Inspector Lipinzki mystery. In this production viewers not only get the usual “Sherlock Holmes without Sherlock Holmes” fun but also some “Agatha Christie before Agatha Christie” vibes. The great story was almost wasted considering the cheap and cramped style of 1970s BBC dramas and cries out for a big-budget version. +++
I’LL REVIEW ANOTHER EPISODE SOON.
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