Friday 23 October 2020

Colonel March of Scotland Yard

We stay with Talking Pictures TV for this next post (indeed one could easily base an entire blog around that splendid channel, such is the appeal of their excellent vintage-centric output, but perhaps that is a project for another time and place...) as their schedules also recently included an obscure 1950s British B-movie that really appealed to me and which - suitably in the run-up to Hallowe'en - starred one of the greatest horror film stars of the 1930s and '40s, Boris Karloff.

source - IMDb
This little gem amongst gems is Colonel March Investigates, an 80-minute feature made in 1953 with Karloff in a rare non-villainous role as the titular Colonel March, the debonair head of Section D.3 of Scotland Yard - otherwise known as the Department of Queer Complaints (and one of the things that hasn't aged so well of course, these days sounding more like the name of a Channel 4 medical documentary(!).  I keep mistakenly calling it the Department of Queer Goings-On, which at least sounds slightly better to my mind).

Colonel March Investigates was in fact a series of three pilot episodes of a new TV series, Colonel March of Scotland Yard, commissioned with an eye for the then soon-to-be-launched British commercial channel ITV, spliced together into a feature-length film (with extra mid-story scenes of Karloff added in to link the stories together) that was also shown in cinemas.  In each case, Colonel March sets out to solve a set of seemingly impossible mysteries - Hot Money sees him investigate a bank robbery where the money disappears after the thief is seen entering a solicitor's office; Death in the Dressing Room involves the strange murder of a Javanese nightclub dancer and The New Invisible Man sees murder committed by a pair of disembodied gloves!  

These initial episodes were originally shot in 1952 following Karloff's return to England from Hollywood earlier that year, his horror film heyday behind him.  At 65 and beginning to suffer from emphysema as a result of a heavy smoking habit Karloff was looking for an interesting yet undemanding project, plus the chance to settle back in his home country, and was attracted to the role and the opportunity to work for a London-based TV studio.  It can be seen from his on-form performance that he clearly relished playing the part of the be-tweeded, eyepatch-wearing (for which no reason is ever given) Colonel - Karloff is a joy to watch, mixing his trademark levels of subtle menace and sinisterness with a wonderful degree of enthusiasm, mysticality, decency and gallantry.  Despite his advancing years and health problems Karloff still enters into the spirit of things with aplomb - there are several incidences of what for the time could easily be termed action sequences and Colonel March even carries a swordstick umbrella such as another later TV hero sports!  Indeed in many ways Colonel March of Scotland Yard could be seen as a sort of forerunner to The Avengers, with in both cases our debonair protagonists investigating strange and outlandish occurrences.

Cecil Street, Carr's inspiration for the
character of Colonel March
The character of Colonel March was the creation of the American mystery writer John Dickson Carr who wrote The Department of Queer Complaints in 1940 under the nom-de-plume of Carter Dickson, one of several pseudonyms he used for the many different detective stories he would write between 1930 and 1971.  Generally regarded as one of the best of the "Golden Age" detective novelists and the master of the "locked room mystery", the Anglophile Carr set most of his stories in England and based some of his creations on real-life acquaintances or other contemporary crime characters (Dr Gideon Fell, for example, was directly influenced by G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown).  The character of Colonel March was inspired by Carr's friend, former Army officer and fellow mystery writer Cecil Street (who also wrote under the aliases of John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Wayne among others).  Regrettably much of both Carr's and Street's work has now been long out of print and is therefore difficult (and therefore expensive!) to come by, which is a great pity especially as I have now a desire to read The Department of Queer Complaints and maybe a few others.  Both authors have however had a couple of their stories reprinted recently as part of the British Library's excellent Crime Classics series, which includes Street's 1930 offering The Secret of High Eldersham (which I have read) and 1936's Death in the Tunnel (which I haven't) along with the first three of Carr's novels - It Walks By Night, The Lost Gallows and Castle Skull.  Some more reading material to be on the lookout for then, at any rate!  

Although the first three pilots of Colonel March of Scotland Yard were made in July 1952 it was not until a year later in 1953 that the series was finally given the green light by ITV executives, with Karloff again returning to England from America where he had been continuing to appear on TV, film and radio.  Even so it was only in September 1955 that the series finally premiered on British television following the launch of ITV that year -  and then just in the London area where it was first available.  Later broadcasts followed when ITV Midlands began in February 1956 - the same time that U.S. broadcasts started - and even B.B.C. viewers were not left out, with the feature-length Colonel March Investigates being shown in September of that year.

Sadly only one 26-episode series of Colonel March of Scotland Yard was made; on release it garnered largely negative reviews (perhaps somewhat coloured by the general antagonism many people had at the time towards the new-fangled "commercial" television channel) with only Karloff's stand-out performance receiving any positive comment.  Today it seems rightly regarded as something of a [forgotten] cult classic, with good reviews on the likes of IMDb.  As well as having Boris Karloff in the lead role many episodes feature the great and the good of British, American & Canadian TV and film from the 1950s and beyond including Christopher Lee, Dana Wynter, Joan Sims, John Laurie, Richard Wattis, Patrick Barr, Patricia Owens and Hugh Griffith.  Karloff is also ably supported by Ewan Roberts as the sceptical, put-upon Scottish Inspector Ames and Eric Pohlmann as March's opposite number Goron of the French Sûreté.  The three episodes that form Investigates were also directed by Cy Endfield, who would later go on to do Hell Drivers and Zulu in the 1960s.

Certainly I have been thoroughly enjoying both the film and any episodes I have been able to lay my hands on.  I'm told all 26 are on Amazon Prime, if that's your sort of thing, but for now I am happily making do with the nine episodes that are currently available on YouTube.  I can heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys a bit of Fifties TV mystery drama in the mould of The Twilight Zone and now have another new hero in the form of Colonel March, head of Department D.3, Scotland Yard - the Department of Queer Complaints!

***Colonel March Investigates is available to buy on DVD and will be shown again on TPTV weekly from Saturday 7th November 2020 at 5pm (and which they previously ran daily at 7:30pm a few years ago).  Coincidentally a new illustrated reference book - Colonel March of Scotland Yard: The Series - has also recently been published and seems to be well worth a look.***


  1. How lucky you are, Bruce, to have access to Talking Pictures TV, but in the meantime, I shall certainly avail myself of the youtubes offerings you included. Colonel March and Carr are both new to me and sound right up my alley.

    Wheeling out the great and the good for the tv series sounds like the template for all subsequent murder mystery shows!

    1. Thanks Pipestrello! Yes it's a shame that TPTV's small-scale operation means it can't be made available outside of the UK - it would certainly have a ready market from all the positive comments I've seen. Youtube will have to suffice for now I suppose! A pity that The Department of Queer Complaints would be one of Carr's hard to find offerings (why is that always the way with these things?!) as I'd rather fancy getting hold of a copy too.

      It's always good fun to spot the then-young actors and actresses on their way up the ladder in these early TV appearances, I agree!

  2. My wife and I are throughly enjoying the Colonel March episodes. I like the fact that they can be told in about 30 minutes and without the colorful language that todays writers seem to think adds appeal to the story. Also black and white films add to the appeal, much like the Hitchcock era of mysteries. Just wish there were more episodes.


Don't just sit there, type something! I enjoy reading all friendly and positive comments.


Popular Posts