In the last couple of weeks, this robust two parter has been one of ITV’s real winners. Usually scoring own goals, ITV occasionally flips the BBC-drama bias coin and presents the nation with some of its fruitiest and well-paced dramas. Whilst viewing figures will determine whether Murder on The Home Front gets commissioned for a full 6 or 8 part series, it surely deserves to be granted this on technical merit alone.
Ingredients : One male socially awkward, scientifically brilliant pathologist. One startling ingenue female with sparkling eyes and a 1942 lipline. Three dead corpses, one comical mortuary assistant, and a war. Mix. Add powdered egg. Serve to sounds of Home Service and distant bombs dropping on Ealing. The two parter was based on the memoirs of the astonishingly named Molly Lefebure, whose name I have avoided pronouncing all week so that I do not get it wrong. Molly Lefebure was an assistant to the Home Office pathologist during the war, was integral in the foundations of the National Health Service and seemed to become a specialist in Romantic poetry after the war. But the sparkiness of her writing, the feel of blood, passion and interest is evidenced by her wartime memoir, “Evidence For The Crown”. As a writer, she appeared never more alive than when she was witnessing the cutting open of dead people. She died in February this year, before she had a chance to see her work brought to the small screen. It’s feistier than Foyles War and has a sort of sexy knowingness about it; amongst the drab taupes and mud greens that make up the torpor of 1940s interior design there is a smattering of sexual chemistry between our two lead characters, permeated by dance hall cigarette smoke and lousy, lousy air raids. The final section of the second part went a bit Foyles War meets The Third Man, showing our characters defying Polish murderers by running through a series of suffocating, filthy empty tube tunnels around Aldwych Station, but the technical and artistic standard of the drama holds well.
The premise seemed rather 1880s to me. In the Conan Doyle detective stories of Sherlock Holmes there is frequently a level of marked suspicion from Inspector Lestrade and his contemporaries at the Yard and occasionally even Watson. Holmes is a forensic thinker, an independent detective, unmarked and unfettered by the police force heirarchy. Most of his time is spent trying to convince Lestrade of his methods, which illustrate how he is concerned by nothing other than logical scientific and observational data. He is that most new of new things a detective – the breed that had been suddenly foisted upon the Metropolitan Police Force in the 1840s. What is alarming is that a whole hundred years later our pathologist is having to defend his similarly brilliant forensic methods. He does this with remarkable flair. He cuts into a dead woman’s foot, which his female sidekick taps away on a manual Underwood typewriter in a lemon coloured blouse and war chic cardie. The war wins, however. An interesting plot point towards the end evidences just how much is at stake nationally and what must be sacrificed for the common good.
The war was a gift for street criminals of many hues. Frankie Fraser described the Second World War as the “Golden age of breaking and entering”. It was so much simpler. The blackout, coupled with anxieties and absent mindedness brought about by the preoccupation with imminent fear and loss, rendered people forgetful. Doors were frequently left unlocked, the windows and various members of the populace both appeared not strongly hinged. Lungeing out to rob provided a cloak of darkness. When the war began, any prison inmate with less than three months to serve was released. For borstal boys, those who had completed only six months were granted freedom to leave and enrol in compulsory conscription. In addition to this rise of criminals in the services and the streets, the police force became weakened by members of the force joining up. War provided a series of controlled disguises. It was relatively easy to dress up as an ARP (Air Raid Protection) Warden and encourage neighbours to instantly trust you. It became a standard ruse for thieves to dress themselves up in this costume and break into shops during a raid. Often members of the public would kindly help them to load their car up with valuables they’d stolen. When the Cafe de Paris was hit during an attack in 1941, looters were seen dragging rings and jewellery from the West End nightbirds who had been dancing on the floor an hour earlier. All in all, the crime rate increased by 57% between 1939 and 1945 in Britain.
War is perfect for a crime drama. We have seen how crime rates ballooned statistically, and the drama – well, that comes from the rest of the war. Murder on The Home Front picks up not only on the rationed austerity and physical uncertainties of surviving blitzkrieg, but also on the heightened reality – the hyperreality – of life lived in a dark fired through only by searchlights, a life danced before you’re bombed out of it, a life of secret Nazis hiding in Balham boarding houses, of disruption, perversion and suspicion. For reasons that are not entirely clear, The Observer shat all over this. Didn’t like it at all. But we don’t care, because Matthew Sweet (a fave here at Bluebird Towers) championed it in The Telegraph. Aren’t the summer television schedules ripe for a clever, funny (although not gleeful) sharp and twisted drama? It certainly is. Of equal importance is that fact that here the female sidekick, played brilliantly by Tamzin Merchant, may currently be the only example of that fabulous archetype, the fast talking dame, currently on our screens. This archetype is, at least, a welcome refreshing antidote to the cluster of preoccupied, shallow, stupified fools currently parading orange shins on TOWIE and similar. Murder On the Home Front certainly deserves a commission for a full series. If it doesn’t get one I’ll eat my gas mask.
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