The astonishingly prolific crime wirter John Creasey wrote nearly sixty novels about the Honourable Richard Rollison aka the Toff, an aristocratic amateur sleuth whose gimmick is that he’s well-connected in the West and the East End of London, between 1938 and 1977. Like Creasey’s the Baron, who had a 1960s TV series, the Toff was pretty much a knock-off of Leslie Charteris’ the Saint … only his sigil (a caricature toff with top hat, monocle, and cigarette holder) is fiddlier and less memorable than the Saint’s stick figure, and he’s liked and respected by criminal East End types (there aren’t any other sort) without actually having been a crook himself.
In 1952, Maclean Rogers directed a brace of solid little Toff movies starring John Bentley as the well-spoken, slightly stiff sleuth – with a holdover supporting cast consisting of Inspector Grice of Scotland Yard (Valentine Dyall), who always wants to arrest the wrong man, eccentric butler Jolly (Roddy Hughes), who has odd dietary quirks and unexpected boxing skills, and Aldgate publican Bert Ebbutt (Wally Patch), who runs a gym on the side. Unusually, Creasey himself provided the scripts, making these among the more faithful adaptations of series sleuths – Charteris was always complaining about the film and TV versions of the Saint. However, despite the character’s popularity, the low-budget series didn’t take off – competing second-string British heroes Dick Barton and Paul Temple (also played by Bentley) appeared in more films than the Toff did, and market leaders the Saint and Sexton Blake managed multiple reboots over the years. Even with only two specimens, it’s obvious the stories have a formula – in both, a pretty ingenue (Carol Marsh, Patricia Dainton) gets the hero involved in mysteries, but any romantic aspiration the hero might have are diverted as the girls have other love interests … also in both, the Toff hunts for but then teams up with a supposedly shady character who turns out to be as clipped, well-spoken and decent as he is … and there’s a mystery angle, with the (all too obvious) culprit unmasked as a preliminary to a general melee that resolves everything. Once thought lost, the films have turned up and are regularly programmed on the Talking Pictures channel – they’re available on DVD from Ranown.
In Salute the Toff, secretary Fay Gretton (Marsh) worries about a missing employer she’s sweet on and prevails on the Toff to break into the man’s flat, where he finds a corpse … who turns out not to be the missing Draycott (Tony Britton), prompting Grice to start a murder hunt for the guilty-seeming man. The mcguffin is a stock swindle involving ‘the Midland Provident’, which is about as interesting as it sounds, but there’s an array of interesting baddies – Peter Bull as a petulant thug with a blowsy wife (Shelagh Fraser), Arthur Hill (later a busy Hollywood player in the likes of Harper and The Andromeda Strain) as a bespectacled crime reporter, and an East End crime family (the Klesses) who sound a lot like the Krays (who didn’t become famous until a decade later). An odd aspect of the series, especially considering Creasey’s involvement, is that the Toff often needs to be rescued by other people – here, it’s the comedy butler who actually saves the day.
Hammer the Toff, which has a slight edge in excitement, has Rollison (who is more often called ‘Rolly’ by his friends) meet cute with Susan Lancaster (Dainton) in a train compartment which is raked with machine gunfire then her boffin uncle (Ian Fleming, the character actor and sometime Dr Watson, not the 007 man) is felled by a poison needle in a briefcase and everyone seems to think the culprit is ‘the Hammer’, another vigilante adventurer. The Toff tracks down Linnett (John Robinson, the second TV Quatermass) and identifies him as the Robin Hood-type Hammer (yet another Saint knock-off), and realises the murderous villain has usurped the Hammer’s pseudonym. By leading the cops to the well-liked Hammer, the Toff temporarily makes himself unpopular with his East End pals – the genial publican Ebbutt sneers that he’s just a policeman out of uniform, but comes round later when the truth is out with a consolatory barrel of beer (both the girls in the case have copped off with other blokes) for a cheery fade-out. The fact that his supposed great friends in the lower classes turn on him in an instant is actually interesting – and punctures the Toff’s somewhat smug social amphibiousness.
The films are full of people catching sight of the hero and muttering in awe that he’s the fellow ‘the papers call “the Toff”’ and bigging up his one-man war on crime – though Bentley plays him as a bland dilettante rather than a roguish daredevil or grim avenger. We’re also told that Rollison’s address (10, Gresham Street) is as famous as Sherlock Holmes’ – which a) would only be true in his creator’s dreams and b) arguably treats Holmes as a non-fictional character in the universe this movie inhabits. Hammer the Toff has roles for familiar faces Charles Hawtrey, Katharine Blake and Lockwood West.
Here are some Toff covers … showing his sigil. It’s possible that some of these titles haven’t worn well.