Campion (1989-1990)

Campion is a BBC TV adaptation of Margery Allingham’s crime novels featuring the mysterious Albert Campion, a character first created in 1929. I only discovered this show a short while ago, never having even heard of the character before. I got the Complete Collection on DVD and watched it in one go.

Albert Campion is not only mysterious and suave, but also slightly eccentric. He employs Lugg, a retired burglar, as a butler, even though his rough manners and limited talents for domestic service render him rather unsuitable for that position. Campion also never locks the door to his flat – “If I lock my door, how are people supposed to come in?” – and relies on the fact that he lives next to a police station to work as a sufficient deterrent against thieves.

Campion is basically a consultant detective. The first episode opens on the following monologue in which our hero introduces himself: “Albert Campion, born May 20th 1900. Name known to be a pseudonym. Education: privileged. Embarked on adventurous career: 1929. Justice neatly executed. Nothing sordid. Deserving cases preferred. Police no object. Business address: 17 Bottle Street, Piccadilly, London W1. Specialist in Fairy Stories.”

The “justice neatly executed” phrase is used several times on the show.

Little is known about Campion himself. He uses several aliases, and as you can see he even claims that “Campion” is just a pseudonym. But he has relatives; and several people who know him from his past as far back as his university (Cambridge) or even public school days know him as Albert Campion. He lives the life of a bachelor of independent means and never seems short of money, but at least once it is claimed that he depends on a mysterious anonymous benefactor who not only supports him financially, but also has influence over which cases Campion takes on.

If there seems to be a certain inconsistency in terms of Campion’s identity, it is also mirrored in an inconsistency in his character and in the show’s tone.

The show is to a large part a period crime&mystery drama series not unlike Poirot or The Mrs Bradley Mysteries, and the looks of the sets and costumes are in accordance with that. But Campion verges on the surreal more than once. This is especially noticeable in the first episode, in which the character of Albert Campion is also extremely eccentric. Both the surrealism and the eccentricity have been toned down for the rest of the series, but do pop up on occasion. The cases are also sometimes rather tragic and cruel, in my opinion. More importantly, the plots are often a bit outlandish (at times with hints of the supernatural) and the solution to the cases sometimes not entirely satisfactory.

Important story elements are Campion’s relationship with the police, especially the intelligent but procedure-loving Inspector Oates, and his interaction with his Butler Lugg. Lugg is Campion’s more practically-minded counterpart and uses his connections to the underworld for collecting valuable information.

Albert’s complicated relationship with women is a recurring theme of the show. The fact that he saves the day but someone else gets the girl is used as a bit of a running gag in the series.

As I have never read any of the novels, I have not idea to what degree the tonal peculiarities and inconsistencies mentioned above already exist in the source material. But in spite of these problems, I found the series on the whole highly enjoyable, thanks in large part to the cast. Peter Davison is perfectly cast as Albert Campion, and Brian Glover makes for an excellent Lugg. Andrew Burt is also a very good choice for the role of Inspector Oates. On top of that, this BBC show is bursting with first class British actors, even in minor roles. All of these actors only appear in one of the cases, there are no recurring roles. Apart from Michael Gough these are Gordon Jackson, Timothy West, John Franklyn-Robbins, Geoffrey Bayldon, Moray Watson, John Fortune, Dilys Laye, Pat Keen, Isabel Dean, Lysette Anthony, Hilda Braid, Milton Johns, Elizabeth Chambers, David Haig, Miles Anderson, Paul Brooke, Ian Ogilvy, Michael Melia, Hugh Paddick, Barrie Ingham, Roger Hammond, Christopher Benjamin, Robert Lang, Mary Morris, and Jean Anderson. You could make that list even longer and it still would not be complete. Practically all of these are actors you have seen dozens of times in films or on TV and whose faces you will immediately recognise even though their names will not ring a bell.

This show must have been a costly production, given the many veteran actors employed and the general look and production values of the episodes. Which is probably one of the reasons why Campion (like so many other British shows) has very few episodes to its name. There are eight cases in total. Since these were originally broadcast as two-parters, this equals sixteen episodes, but – as I said – that’s still only eight stories.

Even though the show is not an entirely perfect fit for my tastes, I enjoyed the show quite a bit, even with its slightly uneven tone. I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys this kind of period detective stories.

 

 

PS: I’ve had another look around, and it seems to me that the Region 2 and Region 4 DVD sets are currently better value for money than the Region 1 DVDs? If you plan to buy the DVDs,  I suggest you check what technical options you have at home regarding Region codes and then start comparing prices a bit.

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