Murder on the Home Front

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.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next update will be June 6th.  Thank you!

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This train will terminate at….1884.

Alas, dear Readers, the hot weather is playing with my brain and last night I dreamt I boarded my usual northbound Northern Line train only to alight at some point towards the end of the nineteenth century.  I couldn’t be entirely sure, but I think I was wearing a bustle.  There was a hint of Edwardian langour in my hat, although why my unconscious chose to dress me in flip-flops I’ll never know.  Alighting at my normal station, I was suddenly overground in a vast amount of space (they forgot to build Finchley until about 1924.  And then they built it.  All of it).  A small wooden fence was erected at the platform which replaced the usual, sweeping, beeping, tube train doors.  Stepping out I realised that they hadn’t bothered to build a platform yet.  There was only a short descent down a hill, towards a rickety, wooden station, and then out into a main road which wasn’t, and I was standing opposite a Tesco which wasn’t, and in fact everything that I could use to alert me to my whereabouts – wasn’t.  It didn’t help to be wearing the flip flops either because I was knee deep in snow.

I was in snow because just before I had nodded off, I was thinking about Russia.  Not exactly about the country, but about Russian-related things.  You see, family research had dragged me towards the 1901 census to discover that a wandering great-grandmother who was supposed to be born in England, went around telling everyone she was born in England and probably thought that she was born in England had been born in Russia. At least that’s what was written on the 1891 census.  By 1901, she’s changed her mind and decided she was born in Poland.   Easy mistake to make.  Most days I have to remind myself I was born in Watford, not Abyssinia and it’s always a clammy, cold wake-up call.  But the great-grandmother was about one or two when she eventually made it to England.  I can see her coming off the ship now – 20 months old, sturdy ankles marching steadfastly towards Britannia, concentrated chubby brow on her face, a sewing machine jammed under one arm and a steaming vat of bean and barley soup, slowly starting to cool in the midday sun, under the other.  From there it was a hop, skip and jump to tawdry, squashed lodgings in a small street which now runs directly beside the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel which, if nothing else, would have been at least slightly warmer than Russia.

I suppose it’s a happy accident that anyone ever really ends up anywhere slightly warmer than Russia at all.  Even London can look chirpy compared to Russia to a two year old emigrant with a plan. And all of this – all of three of four generations – only happen to exist as clusters of molecules because one chunky legged toddler toddled from a ship in 1877 and happened to get married 16 years later to my great grandfather (a roof over her head and all the beef brisket she could eat) who also appeared to toddle off a similar ship at a similar time from a similar destination.  Not that anyone can work out his story, because he said he turned up in 1876 on his own, doesn’t appear on any censuses until 1901 and makes his entree into the public records system only in the act of marriage in 1893, so God knows where he was half the time.

So, I went to sleep with all of this murky, eastern bloc history swimming and fizzing inside my brain.  God knows how any of us actually manage to be anywhere at ANY of the time with all this nonsense going on.  In the move from my concious to my subconscious mind the issue became me slipping through time, to the most uncertain patch in the old family history annals.  No one seems to be anywhere in the 1880s.  It’s a complete Marty McFly Moment.  Almost everyone (on that side of the family at least) vanishes in the 1880s, only to pop up again in the early/mid 1890s demanding to be naturalized by the British.  Perhaps we are relying too much on the census?  What if you’re out that evening?  What if you can’t understand the questions?  What if you lie?  What if, a hundred years later, your great grand-daughter is driven to consume three Twix bars on the trot with the sheer emotional strain of being unable to locate you?  Did they spare a thought for THAT?  Selfish, I call it.

In my dream, however, there were no answers.  There was only a sheet of snow and a soundless, graceless, empty Finchley.  Once I walked out of the station and into the snow I started up the hill , aware my dress was too long for the weather, and dragging in the ice.  I was surrounded by other late Victorian people – stovepipe hats, practical millinery, gloves that button up at the heel of the hand – but whether any of these dream ghosts shared DNA with me was unknown.  Soon my dream descended into what Nabokov called “the insolent logic of nightmare” and I was suddenly on a RyanAir flight, celebrating the launch of their new kosher menu options and resplendently waving a box of Rakusen’s matzos over my head.  Perhaps, readers, the flight was on its way to Russia?

My trail continues.  Only another 8 years and I’ll get my mitts on the 1921 census by which time all grandparents will be present and accounted for.  Perhaps they’ll be Bright Young Things, or at the very least not Dull Old Things.  Perhaps they’ll be brylcreemed and wife-swapping and doing charleston dancing in bizarre parties in St Johns Wood.  Unfortunately, I’ve been lead to believe that they are running carpet importing businesses in Willesden, but, as last night proves, a girl can dream, can’t she?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next update will be Thursday May 23rd.  See you then….