❉ Paul Abbott revisits the gentleman detective, best known for Peter Davison’s TV portrayal.
This April sees the reissue by Agora Books of a collection of short stories by Margery Allingham, one of the key writers in what is now called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Whilst Christie dominated the field, Allingham has come to be seen as a significant contributor to the genre and it’s no small part due to the success of her gentleman detective, Mr Albert Campion.
The book, The Return Of Mr Campion, was originally published in 1989, some 23 years after the death of the author and collects together a number of Campion short stories as well as other tales, both comic and mysterious. The book also features an interesting short piece by Allingham musing on her own relationship to her most popular character, My Friend Mr Campion, which is a fascinating insight into how your own creation can seem to take on a life of their own.
Campion is amongst the most enigmatic and peculiar of these types of characters – his name is a pseudonym, his true moniker never to be fully revealed, although we know he’s of aristocratic origins. He’s also an adventurer as much as a sleuth, but he’s generally to be found at home in his flat above a police station in Bottle Street, Piccadilly, attended to by his not-particularly-reformed manservant, Magersfontein Lugg. Campion first appeared as mysterious bit-part player in 1929’s The Crime At Black Dudley, but proved so popular with readers that Allingham was encouraged to bring him back and he returned the following year as the lead in Mystery Mile.
One of the joys of Campion is that Allingham never made him into either a dashing hero or a brooding enigma. He’s not an intense Sherlock Holmes figure, nor is he a fastidious Belgian or a determined officer of the law – in fact he’s often described as having an “abysmally foolish expression” showing behind his huge horn-rimmed spectacles, but he is a gentleman – even if he has a habit of saying silly things at inappropriate times. Allingham writes with the notion that once you drop Albert Campion into a situation, anything could happen. She explains in My Friend Mr Campion that she never plots Campion’s role in the stories and simply enjoys discovering how he deals with situations as he finds them.
Of course, if you’re reading this on We Are Cult, which you are, then you’re already likely to be familiar with Albert Campion’s most famous onscreen portrayal, by a post-Doctor Who and post-All Creatures Great and Small Peter Davison. The two series of Campion on the BBC in 1989/90 were helmed by John Hawkesworth. Hawkesworth had guided much of the writing and development of Granada’s peerless Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but had also been instrumental in bringing Upstairs, Downstairs to the screen. Campion, with its period and detective elements, was firmly in Hawkesworth’s wheelhouse and eight of the Campion books were adapted, each shown in two parts. The cast-list is, as you’d expect, a who’s who of British screen actors. Not only is Davison’s Campion aided, abetted and annoyed by Brian Glover as Magersfontein Lugg, but he’s joined by Andrew Burt who rounds out the main character ensemble as Inspector Stanislaus Oates. A quick look through the guest cast reveals such names as Ian Ogilvy, Gordon Jackson, Dilys Laye and Mary Morris, who’d put in a fantastic turn alongside Peter Davison in Kinda in 1982 and who’d also played a memorable Number Two in The Prisoner. You’d also find Michael Gough, Milton Johns, Christopher Benjamin and David Haig crowding the Doctor Who/Campion Venn diagram.
Whilst in the UK Campion was shown on the BBC, in the US it formed part of the Mystery! series for PBS. This anthology series featured a guest presenter introducing episodes of British crime and mystery stories and after Vincent Price ended his time as host, Diana Rigg took up the reins and it was she who would have introduced American viewers to Campion. It’s worth hunting out these episode introductions on YouTube, not least for the fantastic animated opening sequences by Edward Gorey.
On screen, Davison’s Campion is the most complete and satisfying take on the character. Earlier BBC adaptations of a couple of the stories had featured Bernard Horsfall as Campion and later Brian Smith in the lead role, supported respectively by Wally Patch and George Sewell as Lugg. On radio, Richard Hurndall took on the role in the 1960s, playing against actors such as Mary Wimbush who later played Mrs Bradley on BBC Radio 4 in 1990 and 1991. There may not have been loads of adaptations of Allingham novels, especially when compared to Agatha Christie, but the ones that have been done have had astonishingly good casts and generally been very well-adapted and produced.
In Agora Books’ The Return Of Mr Campion you’ll find more than just Campion, however, and the other short stories have shades of Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected and Wodehousian romance-plotting amongst other qualities. Where the first ever Campion tale, The Crime At Black Dudley, is a dense and complex murder-mystery and novels such as Sweet Danger combine political, criminal and folk-horror elements, the short stories feel like you’ve been given a tray of petits-four – they’re fun, satisfying and come in all sorts of flavours. Now that most of Allingham’s work is available in print, The Return Of Mr Campion, is an excellent and welcome addition to the canon and will hopefully help to keep raising the profile of Allingham and her most loved character. Perhaps it’s time to start speculating on who you’d cast the next time Albert turns up on television?
❉ ‘The Return Of Mr Campion’ by Margery Allingham is published by Agora Books and will be released on 11th April 2019. Available in eBook (£5.99) and Paperback (£10.99).
❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly.
He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.