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Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1960)

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Main image of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1960)
For Armchair Theatre, ABC Television for ITV, tx. 3/1/1960
90 minutes, black & white
DirectorAlan Cooke
ProducerSydney Newman
ScriptConstance Cox
TeleplayGerald Savory
From a Story byOscar Wilde

Cast: Terry-Thomas (Lord Arthur Saville); Robert Coote (Baines); June Thorburn (Sybil); Ambrosine Phillpotts (Lady Julia); Arthur Lowe (Mr. Podgers); Eric Pohlmann (Herr Winkelkopf); Ernest Thesiger (Dean Of Paddington); Nora Nicholson (Aunt Clementina)

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Lord Arthur Savile finds himself in a dilemma on the eve of his wedding. A palmist has foretold that Arthur will commit a murder. Of his many relatives, who will be the victim?

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1960 was the year that confirmed Armchair Theatre's (ITV, 1956-74) shift away from literary and stage adaptations and towards new drama in contemporary settings written specially for television, with the likes of Alun Owen's 'Lena, O My Lena' (tx. 25/9/1960), Clive Exton's 'Where I Live' (tx. 10/1/1960) and Harold Pinter's 'A Night Out' (tx. 24/4/1960). But the year began with this adaptation of Oscar Wilde's short story 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime', condensed from Constance Cox's stage presentation.

Originally published in a collection in 1897, Wilde's story is a black comedy satirising upper-class morality, though in a lighter way than his earlier novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lord Arthur, told the shocking news by a palm-reader that he is destined to be a murderer, and fearing that this will prove a complication in his forthcoming marriage, decides, with wonderfully Wildean logic, that it would be better to get the deed out of the way as soon as possible.

At 80 minutes excluding commercial breaks, this is around half as long again as a typical Armchair Theatre play (though still only half the length of Cox's stage version), and considerably expands Wilde's story. The drama fills out roles for Lord Arthur's butler, Baines, his fiancée, Sybil, and his future mother-in-law, Lady Julia, and adds a few more failed murder attempts and a much less satisfying ending. With Terry-Thomas in the lead, the comedy is played rather more broadly than Wilde might have intended; it is disappointingly short of the story's bons mots and wordplay (finding no place for such Wildean gems as "the proper basis for marriage is a mutual misunderstanding", or "the world is a stage, but the play is badly cast") and at times tips over into crude farce. The perils of live television are occasionally evident, with actors talking over each other's lines, or blocking the camera. Nevertheless the drama is sumptuously designed, and makes for a diverting, if wafer-light, confection.

The presence of Terry-Thomas and Ernest Thesiger (in one of his last roles) demonstrates the kind of big-screen stars that Armchair Theatre could draw, while the up-and-coming Arthur Lowe makes a memorable impression as the unctuous 'cheiromantist', Mr Podgers.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Mr Podgers the Cheiromantist (4:21)
2. Planning the deed (4:15)
3. A dreadful discovery (3:22)
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Armchair Theatre (1956-74)
TV Literary Adaptation