(Air Date: Week Of 1/8/97)
Small, meticulously crafted mysteries are rarely seen on the big screen anymore, which is shy 1995's Oscar-winning "The Usual Suspects" was such a welcome surprise. But as long as PBS broadcasts "Mystery" every week, whodunit buffs can watch classic detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Sergeant Cribb, Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Jemima Shore and the great Jane Tennison. What these mysteries have in common,, of course is that they were all created in Great Britain. Like "Masterpiece Theatre", "Mystery!", as Americans know it, is not identified as such on British television, nor is a context supplied by hosts like Russell Baker and Dame Diana Rigg.
Americans who visit Britain discover to their dismay that not all British television is as vintage as these two syndication packages. PBS subscribers are paying for the best, although not as much as they would for a domestic series developed from scratch. Over the past few years, KQED books has published a series of coffee table volumes celebrating PBS series such as "Are You Being Served?", "Prime Suspect", & "Masterpiece Theatre". Now "Mystery!" receives similar lavish treatment from Ron Miller, who also worked on the "Masterpiece Theatre" tribute with Terence O'Flaherty.
The "Mystery!" celebration is attractively designed and filled with memory-jogging colour photographs of the many shows we've enjoyed since 1980. BUT THERE ARE NO REAL CAPTIONS! Yes, the pictures fit the shows, but you have to turn to pages 284 and 285 for identification of the folks who appear in the production stills. This won't be a problem for viewers who've memorised every character and every plot thread of every story. But let's say you were born in, say, 1982, and are just beginning to be a real mystery buff. Would you recognise the 37-year-old- fluffy-haired charmer on page 16 as the same 53-year-old character actor who specialises in playing villains? Okay, so you can turn to page 18 AND page 284 to sort it all out, but it may be frustrating to do that for every still, especially for actors less well-known than Malcolm McDowell. Moreover, even when you do turn to the back of the book, some stills are described ONLY by episode title...Let's just hope this doesn't become a publishing trend!
Miller's affectionate text is brightly written and complemented by incisive quotes from the likes of Ian Fleming, Dorothy Sayers and Vincent Price. And there's a bonus for trivia quiz whizzes in the form of 100 questions: if you love Helen Mirren and David Suchet, you'll know the answer to question 88 straight off. The hundreds of pages of facts, photographs and Edward Gorey illustrations are sure to delight casual viewers as well as "Mystery!" devotees. But next time, puh-leeze, get a good photo researcher who can write a decent cutline! "Mystery" airs nationally on PBS every week.
Copyright 1997 Monica Sullivan
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