‘Everybody knows he’s hand-in-glove with the sack-em-up men!’
An early TV movie, shot under the aegis of the busy Harry Alan Towers, adapted (minimally) by director Dennis Vance from James Bridie’s play about Dr Knox, the patron of Burke and Hare. The old warhorse piece was first done for BBC-TV in 1939 (!) with Andrew Cruickshank and again in 1980 with Patrick Stewart, but this version was made in 1956, and released theatrically in the US in 1961 (perhaps prompted by the more elaborate and lurid – and, it has to be said, exciting – The Flesh and the Fiends). It takes place on very few sets, in long, talky scenes and dwells rather more on a dull side-issue love affair between Knox’s pupil Walter Anderson (George Cole) and the supposedly upright (actually shrewish) Mary Belle (Jill Bennett), sister of Knox’s genteel mistress Amelia (Margaret Gordon). Burke (Diarmuid Kelly) and Hare (Michael Ripper) appear surprisingly little, and whole swathes of important story are passed on in speeches about arrests, trials, mobs and demonstrations – even the key moment as Walter recognises the ‘anatomical subject’ brought in by the Irish louts as the barely-cold Mary Paterson (Adrienne Corri), whom he met in a pub the night before, is conveyed by an offscreen scream with nothing so gruesome as a shot of the dead body (presumably, this was in deference to television audience sensibilities in the ‘50s since it’s an instance where a more dramatic staging wouldn’t have blown the budget).
The text is problematic since it sets out as a character study of a complicated man, but boils down to making him an arrogant swine in Act One, a shifty rascal in Act Two and a contrite but unbowed visionary in Act Three without any need for scenes in which he changes his mind. It’s clearly a vehicle for Alastair Sim, who holds the attention as the eccentric, snaggle-toothed, epigrammatic Knox, a scandalous figure for leaving his invalid wife (whom we never meet) at home while calling on Amelia to play the flute (rather unfairly, Mary Belle condemns him for this but lets her sister off without blame). The play doesn’t even settle the question of whether Bridie thinks Knox knew or cared that he was paying for a murder victim, and there’s a huge leap in the last act as people who previously were agin the doctor are suddenly his boosters. Bridie writes good talk (if rather a lot of it), and we get a fair amount of close-up speechifying in broad brogues: Cole is fairly weedy in the ‘Francis Matthews’ role and especially poor in his drunk scene, while Corri manages to blather drunkenly in broad Scots as a lipsticky common woman who isn’t really identified as a prostitute. Kelly and Ripper are dark-faced, sinister and glowering resurrection men, and get to menace Corri in a set-piece which is the film’s only shot at being all-out melodramatic and sinister; considering how many horror films Ripper made for Hammer and other companies, it’s surprising how few scary or villainous roles he played, and he makes a fair fist here of the gap-toothed, rat-eyed, flowery-spoken Hare.
Interesting people worked on the show: production assistant Aida Young, assistant director David Tomblin. Towers was a pioneer in British TV production with an eye on the market beyond one-off telecasts, but this compares poorly with, say, Rudolph Cartier’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.