Anyone who frequented public libraries as a child will recall the hushed reverence within those walls often evoked the chilly ambience of a church, particularly the old-school Victorian model. Despite being a notoriously noisy breed, children were nevertheless accustomed to being seen and not heard during my own childhood, not as indulged as now, and raised on the kind of disciplinarian diet that rendered the silent environs of the public library less of a challenge than I suspect it would be for today’s kids. The location’s enforced quiet also attracted senior citizens; OAPs always managed to select a seat close to the magnetic pull of a radiator that made the library a more comfortable environment than their own homes, and many probably passed out in those heated enclaves, never to wake again. One notable ‘pensioner’ of 71 shuffled off this mortal coil in just such a fashion at Marylebone Library back in 1978 whilst reading the Spectator, a death that lacked the drama he’d made a career from embellishing with his customarily loquacious eloquence. And nobody today has a name that rolls off the tongue with quite the same dramatic spark as Edgar Lustgarten.
The name sounds undeniably Dickensian, though it was genuine – no theatrical affectation. If ever a name fitted the character gifted with it, Edgar Lustgarten was the right man for the right name. Following in his father’s footsteps as a barrister, Lustgarten absorbed all he encountered in his initial profession and soon embarked upon his second career as an author, expert and broadcaster on the criminal mind, working in counter-propaganda during WWII and then producing and presenting programmes for the BBC. By the early 1950s, he was regarded as a sufficiently authoritative voice to front the long-running series of cinematic shorts titled ‘Scotland Yard’. Each instalment would receive an introduction from Lustgarten in a library setting, and his role as host established the cliché later revived by Roald Dahl when he acted as fireside storyteller for the first series of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. The difference between ‘Scotland Yard’ and Dahl’s celebrated television anthology, however, was the fact that the former series was drawn from true-life cases gathering dust in the Met archive.
‘Scotland Yard’ being produced as a support series for the big screen meant it was shot on 35mm and it has the look and feel of a major motion picture. Lustgarten’s flamboyant, melodramatic delivery before each case unfolds certainly adds to the atmosphere, with every episode of a series that ran from 1953-61 reeling the viewer in from the alluring intro. The fact that none of the crime stories featured were fictional concoctions but rooted in truth means few of the episodes contain formulaic storylines and one never knows exactly what to expect; I’ve no idea what the process was when it came to the writers choosing which tales from Scotland Yard’s extensive files to dramatise, but every crime imaginable seems to be in there even if murder understandably recurs more than any other. But with Lustgarten at the helm, there’s relatively little chance an instalment will deal with the late return of library books.
With so much television from the 1950s surviving as poor quality telecine recordings of 405-line transmissions, the pristine cinematic look of ‘Scotland Yard’ undoubtedly makes it easy on the eye, and the period charm of the series has a style reminiscent of ‘The Blue Lamp’. Although the crimes depicted occasionally venture into the Home Counties, most are concentrated in the capital, which offers the viewer one more tantalising glimpse of London before the game-changing redevelopment of the 1960s altered the physiognomy of the city forever. Everything about ‘Scotland Yard’ is ultimately reassuring. All CID detectives wear hats and macs, whereas all uniformed officers have a distinct ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ vibe to them; avuncular seems to be the appropriate description of the police as portrayed in ‘Scotland Yard’, and there’s a notable absence of the mistrust in their honourable intentions that would be second nature today. It’s probably one of the last-gasp dramatisations of the boys in blue free from a cynical perspective, still viewed as the ultimate bastions of honest law enforcement before ‘Z Cars’ came along and reminded us the police were flawed human beings too.
For any aficionado of vintage TV, ‘Scotland Yard’ can also boast numerous sightings of eventual household names in early appearances. Roger Delgado, later to earn his spurs as the original incarnation of the Master in ‘Doctor Who’, routinely features whenever the story calls for an olive-skinned foreigner. Frenchman, Italian, Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean – Delgado’s your man. I even spotted formative ‘Coronation Street’ stalwarts Minnie Caldwell (Margot Bryant) and Albert Tatlock (Jack Howarth) in small parts, along with Arthur Lowe, Wilfrid Brambell, and Howard ‘Captain Baines’ Lang from ‘The Onedin Line’. Comic actors John Le Mesurier and Harry H Corbett have a rare opportunity to get their teeth into dramatic roles in the series, though the actor who figures most in the lead detective role tends to be Australian-born Russell Napier as Superintendent Duggan.
It goes without saying that ‘Scotland Yard’ serves as a neat diversionary alternative to current preoccupations, a reminder – even if a sanitised one – of how this country’s premier police force was once perceived as a force for incorruptible good that resided firmly on the side of the angels. As with most previously-revered institutions, the Met has somewhat damaged its brand in recent times, though we expect nothing less from our institutions now. By throwing their lot in with activists promoting an agenda that alienates them from the masses, these institutions have lost all respect and left those they were intended to serve with a sense of self-sufficiency in the absence of hope from the State. When the public – as I have personally heard twice in the past week – have to wait upwards of six or seven hours for an ambulance or when I myself am found sitting as the solitary patient in a deserted GPs surgery (something I wish I’d had a camera on hand to photograph – #NHSCrisis), one knows the game is up. Edgar Lustgarten is no doubt turning in his grave as we speak – and probably delivering a memorable introduction to a heinous crime at the same time.
MIKE NESMITH (1942-2021)
He was the one with the woollen cap – singled out as an easily identifiable character along with the other three Monkees by the manufacturers who’d observed the cartoon incarnations of the Fab Four via ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’ and seen the potential in extending a franchise that The Beatles themselves had already moved on from. It was perhaps inevitable the American entertainment industry would seek to capitalise on Beatlemania by turning the phenomenon into a TV show, but the fact they put together their very own Prefab Four by assembling competent musicians and allying them to some of the best professional songwriters in the business sowed the seeds of the brand’s destruction.
Mike Nesmith was a Texan in possession of a Lennon-esque nonchalance that gave him a distinct persona within the Monkees’ unit and marked him out as a Bolshie critic of their clean-cut slickness. He was apparently the dissenting voice that rejected ‘Sugar Sugar’ when it was offered to the band and a prime mover behind the post-TV show career suicide movie that was the cult classic, ‘Head’. It was thanks to Mike Nesmith’s attitude that The Monkees remain one of the most admirable and likeable of all manufactured pop acts, and his death at the age of 78 leaves Mickey Dolenz as the remaining member of the original quartet – yet another sober reminder of mortality in an industry in which immortality still lingers as currency.
© The Editor