Ellery Queen comes to UK DVD

Wednesday, 20 April 2016 23:00

Ellery Queen - out now on UK DVDBack in 1975-76, on some early weekday evenings on BBC1, you were asked to see if you could solve 22 mysteries from the New York vista of 1946-47, with Ellery Queen (Jim Hutton) and his widowed father Inspector Richard Queen (David WayneThe Mad Hatter in the 1960s Batman). It has become something of a short-run classic series from the creators of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. In America it was called simply Ellery Queen, but when BBC1 first screened it way-back-then, they opted to call it The Ellery Queen Whodunit (in much the same way as they bizarrely decided to rename Ironside as A Man Called Ironside).

Guest stars included Roddy McDowall ( “Planet of the Apes”), Eve Arden (“Grease”), Tom Bosley (Happy Days), Cesar Romero (Joker in the 1960s Batman), Don Ameche ("Cocoon"), Joan Collins, Vincent Price, Milton Berle, Eva Gabor, Betty White, Larry Hagman, and even a cameo by the iconic George Burns! And you had the chance to win one of three copies we had up for grabs in our prize competition.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Ellery Queen was in the running as one of the best-known American fictional detectives. Over the years, the character has been centre stage for a radio show and four separate television formats – this particular incarnation being the most recent of these.

Ellery Queen was created in 1928 by cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee from Brooklyn, USA. They entered a McClure's Magazine ‘first mystery novel’ writing contest. Not only was their lead character called Ellery Queen, but they also decided to write under that pseudonym. They won the contest, but not everything was plain sailing from that point. Before their work could be published, the magazine closed.  Seeing the crisis as an opportunity, they used the success to shop their novel around to other publishing houses, and “The Roman Hat Mystery” was published in 1929. More than 30 novels and several short story collections followed.

Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators, won a Special Edgars Award for their work on the Columbo and Ellery Queen TV formats. They met on their first day of junior high school, after each of them fancied themselves as magicians. They eventually teamed up through this mutual fascination. They began writing together soon after. This duo sold their first short story, "Whistle While You Work," to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which published it in the November 1954 issue.

The collaborators continued to have a fascination and connection with the character.  They would sometimes write under the pen-name ‘Ted Leighton’, and this was the case on a TV movie from 1971 entitled “Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You”. Not thinking anything amiss when they were sent by the studios for a holiday in Europe, their absence saw their work substantially re-written by other hands, under the jurisdiction of the producer, Leonard Ackerman. Peter Lawford starred as Ellery, with Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H) as Richard Queen. Stefanie Powers was also on-hand as a guest star.

Levinson and Link eventually got to make the series on their own terms. The 1975 television movie “Too Many Suspects”, based on the story “The Fourth Side of the Triangle” made its debut in the USA on 23 March 1975, revealing a unique revision of the format. This pilot is included in this DVD set. The series quickly followed, with “The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne” coming to Stateside screens on 11 September 1975, set on the New Year’s Eve between 1946 and 1947.

The changes added to the depth and tapestry of the series. Breaking of the fourth wall was a good touch, where Ellery would, just before the final act and its denouement, ask viewers if they had also cracked the case, pointing towards particular clues, but reeling off the list of suspects to keep people on their toes. This conceit was recently aped by Kevin Spacey in the Netflix revamp of House of Cards – with Frank Underwood constantly breaking the fourth wall to shepherd viewers into an exposure of his inner thoughts.

Ellery was also made to be a little clumsy and scatter-brained – he didn’t stumble around in the original novels, in those he was always very assured. It was the same sort of disarming addition to his approach which was on-par with what had been used in Columbo. Both characters would be underestimated by the villains.

Sergeant Thomas Velie (Tom Reese) was Inspector Queen's assistant, who had appeared in the novels and the radio series, but had not been seen regularly in any of the previous television adaptions. He had a penchant for calling Ellery ‘Maestro’, which was a back-handed term of endearment.

The one major addition to the character roster, never featured in the novels, was Simon Brimmer, played by the excellent John Hillerman, who would go on to play almost the same character of Higgins, except in a contemporary setting, in Magnum PI (1980-88). Brimmer was portrayed as a radio star of the time, in a mystery detective series, who also fancied himself as a crime cracker. However, he never got the clues right, and was constantly getting in the way. Brimmer featured in eight episodes across the run, beginning with the pilot movie.

Aside from its original run on BBC1 on an early weekday evening in late 1975 and early 1976, the series has more recently been used as a filler show by the BBC in the last few years. BBC1 gave the entire run a late morning weekday slot in 2006, followed by a post-midnight weekday slot in 2008.

Star Jim Hutton died incredibly young in June 1979, just two days after his 45th birthday, from liver cancer. Gaining attention for his role in a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone (“And When the Sky Was Opened”), parts in films such as Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” and Ray Kellogg and John Wayne’s “The Green Berets” have posthumously cemented his credentials as an untapped gem of an actor.

Of note to Cult TV fans is that in 2011 the Leverage episode “The 10 Li’l Grifters Job”, the lead character of Nate Ford appears at a costumed murder mystery party as Ellery Queen. The actor playing Nate is Timothy Hutton, Jim’s son, in homage to his late father.

The major extra in this DVD set is an 18 minute video interview with co-creator William Link about the series.

This is a really fun show, and due to it being set before its time has aged very well indeed. The plots and whodunit elements are extremely well done, and even viewers who fancy themselves as tip-top amateur sleuths will be taxed to work out exactly what happened, the clues being sparingly delivered. Hutton and Wayne are exceptional leads, with a superb chemistry, and it’s a shame the show only lasted one season.

The reason for its cancellation by NBC in the USA is lost in the mists of time. It was up against The Streets of San Francisco, which might have dented its ratings, and as a period show it wouldn’t have been cheap to produce. It also came out at a time when gritty realism was becoming the order of the day, with the likes of Kojak, Starsky and Hutch, and Baretta (and, of course, The Sweeney in the UK, but that would have been unlikely to impact NBC!).

Ellery Queen Mysteries – The Complete Series is out now on DVD from Fabulous Films Ltd / Fremantle Media Enterprises. It has a running time of 1,198 minutes approx, a ‘PG’ certificate, and a RRP of £39.99 – or get it for less at www.culttvstore.com

You had an opportunity to win one of three prizes of the DVD set of Ellery Queen Mysteries to put on to your mantelpiece, in our competition. All you had to do was tell us the answer to the following question: Which Ellery Queen star played The Mad Hatter in the 1960s Batman TV series? The answer was DAVID WAYNE, and the winners were Ray Dodds of Tottenham, Stuart Diver of Aldershot, and Paul Sahl of Yelverton. Well done all, and thanks to everyone who entered.



Last modified on Friday, 22 April 2016 11:11

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