PBS’ august “Masterpiece Theatre” enters somewhat unusual and rather lurid territory with an adaptation of Julian Symons’ period mystery “The Blackheath Poisonings.” First two hours look and sound like something out of Agatha Christie; final episode more resembles Alfred Hitchcock or Brian DePalma — if that isn’t redundant — and reveals a villain who’d be welcome on “Geraldo.”
It’s 1894, and the Collard and Vandervent families jointly own a toy company and share a large suburban London estate. Members of the two intermarried households can barely stand each other: Roger and Beatrice Vandervent (James Faulkner and Julia St. John) are having bedroom problems, as are George and Isabel Collard (Ian McNeice and Christine Kavanagh); Roger and Isabel find solace in one another’s arms.
Other occupants ofAlbert Villa include matriarch Harriet Collard (Judy Parfitt), spinster Charlotte Collard (Zoe Wanamaker), Roger’s son Paul Vandervent (Christien Anholt), and Harriet’s nephew, Bertie Williams (Nicholas Woodeson).
The “downstairs” staff is represented by a maid (Lucy Driers) and butler (Ian Bartholomew).
Just as the various relationships are being established, Robert Dangerfield (Patrick Malahide) enters the scene. A rake and schemer, he woos Charlotte in hopes of marrying into the family business. Before long, two family members are poisoned. But by whom, and why?
Paul, who’s determined to forego the family business for life as a poet, becomes the de facto detective: he’s the first to suspect a wrongdoing, and the most interested in absolving the chief suspect, upon whom he harbors a crush.
This is pretty slow going for the first hour, giving the uniformly exemplary cast a chance to do their stuff.
Part II picks up considerably with the entrance of Inspector Titmarsh (Donald Sumpter), a wisecracking policeman who delights in alliteration and in making fun of Detective Sergeant Clark’s (Daiwydd Hyweller) Welsh ancestry.
Revelation of villain is surprising, if only in this context, and there’s no cheating with the clues or motivation. Show would probably play better in a single viewing than broken up into three episodes, the final one involving a major change of tone.
Stuart Orme directs with a sure hand, though certain fantasy sequences are a bit over-the-top. And, of course, the scenery, sets and costumes are worth watching even when the action is a bit deliberately paced.