❉ Bergerac’s 1986 Christmas Special saw an everyday series dare to do something a little different…
Whilst it may be more usually regarded as a fairly glossy, reliable police procedural drama set on the sunny holiday island of Jersey, Bergerac did occasionally dip its toes into the out of the ordinary with a few tales that can clearly be considered to fall within the ‘cult’ remit. Running for a decade in the 1980s, it would have been all too easy for a programme like this to get stuck in something of a rut, but one or two writers were prepared to take the show in more unexpected directions.
One of these was Chris Boucher, erstwhile writer and script editor on Blake’s 7, and also a practiced hand in writing for the police through his work on Juliet Bravo. He penned the feature-length Bergerac Christmas special for 1986, Fires in the Fall which took a slightly different slant on things than usual. A year earlier the programme had delved into the subject of black magic in Brian Finch’s What Dreams May Come, which featured horror veteran Charles Grey as the villain, whilst later in the run John Collee would script the even eerier and more sinister The Dig. Boucher’s script, however, concerns itself with the kind of deceit practised by spirit mediums and how gullible, vulnerable people can be taken in by them.
The story is a tale of greed, charlatanism, arson and a long-held and terrible family secret. Roberta Jardine (Marguerite Scott) is a retired millionaire, living in luxury in Jersey. She succumbs to the charms of bogus medium Raoul Barnaby (Barrie Ingham), whom she believes is able to speak to the dead. Living with her is her niece Pauline Taylor (Amanda Redman), who appears to be very concerned for the welfare of her elderly aunt. Island bigwig Charlie Hungerford, too, takes a dim view of the business involving his wealthy friend and intends to rumble Barnaby’s antics.
Barnaby, using unscrupulous techniques and in cahoots with Pauline, appears during the séance to speak with the voice of a young child and claims to have made contact with the spirit of Jane Smith, a holidaying girl who died in the island in a haystack fire in the 1960s. Roberta is clearly spooked by this. The ‘ghost’ warns of more fires to come, and true enough when haystacks are once more deliberately set alight in a chilling echo of the events of the past a local journalist gets wind of it and stirs things up in the press..
Meanwhile, mysterious flame symbols are discovered scratched into wooden surfaces at various locations in the island. How are all of these events linked, and just exactly what do they have to do with Barnaby, who appears to have the ability to conjure up flames in his hands during his bogus séances? Why does Jack Plemont, a former States detective who investigated the death of a young girl in the 60’s arson attacks wind up dead, and why do people keep seeing a ghostly monk-like apparition?
Naturally, a prosaic explanation for the events that unfold is eventually revealed, but for a good while the viewer is left unsure and in doubt as to what exactly is going on. One of their favourite shows seemed to have taken a very strange turn for this special episode.
Barnaby, of course, is a wrong’un. He’s been briefed on past events by Pauline (his former assistant in a low-rent magic act he performed under the name ‘The Great Ralph’) in attempt to gain publicity for his forthcoming book. Pauline is just after her aunt’s money. Roberta soon smells a rat and Pauline pushes her down a flight of stairs before staging the death to make it look like suicide.
Naturally, it transpires that the monk has a much more down-to-earth explanation. We aren’t dealing with the occult and it certainly isn’t a case of a man in a mask ‘I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids’ style. Rather, the hooded being is in fact the previously presumed-dead son of the Jardines. He had hitherto been kept safely out of the way in a Swiss sanatorium after his role in the 1960’s arson cases. He was the one who had started the fires, he had been the one whose actions had resulted in the death of little Jane Smith and he had been the one who had suffered dreadful physical and psychological effects as a result of a failed suicide attempt that had involved petrol and a match.
His guilt drove him insane and Roberta and her husband had subsequently sent him away from Jersey in an attempt to avoid the resulting shame from what had gone on. His parents hushed up the affair, paying off people or rewarding them with jobs including Plemont and the undertaker who had provided a corpse to double for Jardine the younger. His return to the island and the subsequent deaths was an effort on his part to punish those whom, in his madness, he thought had hurt his parents, the monk’s habit used as to disguise his terrible injuries (of which we only get the briefest of glimpses).
The case appears to be concluded, but the episode ends with the final supernatural twist of Jim revealing that the staff at the Swiss medical facility swear that the Jardine’s son has at no point left it…
Casting was one Bergerac’s particular strong points and this is certainly the case here. All of the leads are as excellent as ever (even though Louise Jameson’s Susan is rather wasted), and the guest roles are very well cast. Margaretta Scott, more familiar to 80’s viewers as Mrs Pomphrey from All Creatures Great and Small is Roberta Jardine and takes her role very well; Amanda Redman is present in an early role as Pauline; Barrie Ingham perfectly captures Raoul Barnaby’s blend of fraud and stage performer while reliable character actor veteran Ron Pember gives a great performance as Jack Plemont.
Fires in the Fall was an excellent example of an everyday programme daring to do something a little different. This era was the high-water mark for Bergerac and the creative forces behind the show deserve credit for being prepared to take a populist drama in more interesting, more complex and more cultish than many would. Ordinarily Jim and the Bureau found themselves more concerned with financial crime, visiting divas, jewel theft, arms dealing and the various shifty schemes surrounding Charlie, so a tale like this is a much welcome change of pace. Experienced action director Tom Clegg was brought on board for this adventure, his only Bergerac episode, and he adds a suitably spooky touch to proceedings. This was a Christmas episode, set at Hallowe’en for goodness sake (which, rather cruelly considering, ends with a shot of the effigy of a monk being burned on a bonfire)! It was certainly a brave decision of somebody to put this particular story out on Boxing Day when people would have been tucking into their leftover turkey, and perhaps expecting a more festive runout for Jim and Co.
❉ Chris Orton occasionally writes odds and sods, including co-authoring books on Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who for Miwk Publishing. He can be found on Twitter at @chrisorton2011