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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Francis Durbridge (1912-1998)

Detectives of the Golden Age
Francis Durbridge (1912-1998)
by Carol Westron

Francis Durbridge was born in Hull and educated at Bradford Grammar School and Birmingham University. When he was twenty-one, while still at university he sold a radio play Promotion to the BBC. After graduating he spent a short time as a stockbroker's clerk, while all the time writing and submitting radio plays. Soon he decided, quite correctly, that his fortune lay in writing, and he gave up the 'day job.' In 1940, soon after his success with the Paul Temple serials, Durbridge married Norah Lawley; they had two sons. Durbridge is very different to the majority of Golden Age authors because, although he wrote successful novels, his great love was writing plays for radio, stage and the screen.

In 1937 Durbridge first created the character of Paul Temple, journalist turned successful novelist and an amateur detective who was far more skilled at solving crimes than Scotland Yard. In 1938, Send for Paul Temple was broadcast in eight episodes on the BBC Midland Regional Programme, with Hugh Morton playing Temple and Bernadette Hodgson taking the part of Temple's wife, Steve. During the next thirty years, Durbridge wrote numerous other Paul Temple radio plays with various actors taking the parts of Temple and Steve, the best remembered of whom are probably Peter Coke and Marjorie Westbury. These all had the same format, with a 'cliff-hanger' at the end of every episode. The BBC shipped recordings of these serials to many other Commonwealth countries, which increased the longevity and fame of the Paul Temple series. Durbridge was a prolific writer and, between 1937 and 1968, while writing the Paul Temple serials, (and co-writing the novels that succeeded the serials) he also wrote several other radio plays.

Throughout the 1960s German radio adapted twelve Paul Temple serials. These were so popular they were known as 'Strassfeger' or 'street-clearers, because the streets were deserted when they were broadcast, as everybody was at home listening to their radios. Just after the radio serials were produced, Durbridge brought out a corresponding Paul Temple novel. Many of these were written in collaboration with other writers: John Thewes, Douglas Rutherford and Charles Hatton. Those co-written with Douglas Rutherford were published under the pseudonym 'Paul Temple', presumably to add verisimilitude to the fictional character Paul Temple being a detective story writer. The earlier Paul Temple novels were a hastily compiled follow on to the radio serials, but later novels were more fully developed and took on a life of their own.

Between 1946 and 1957 nine films were produced based on Durbridge's work, the first four of these were based on Paul Temple stories :Send for Paul Temple (1946); Calling Paul Temple (1948), which was based upon Send for Paul Temple Again; Paul Temple's Triumph (1950), which was based upon News of Paul Temple); Paul Temple Returns (1952), which was based upon Paul Temple Intervenes.)

Between 1952 and 1980 Durbridge wrote seventeen television serials for the BBC. These were first promoted as A Francis Durbridge Serial, but in 1959 this was altered to the snappier Francis Durbridge Presents. Versions of these serials were also made in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, and were extremely successful and popular in these countries.

The World of Tim Frazer introduced Durbridge's other serial character, although one much shorter lived than Paul Temple. It was broadcast from 1960-61 as an eighteen-episode serial starring Jack Hedley as Tim Frazer. Frazer was a very different character to Paul Temple. He is an ordinary man sucked into becoming an agent for British intelligence. The serial was very popular, especially in Europe, which makes it strange that it did not run after its initial eighteen episodes. Three Tim Frazer books followed the serial: The World of Tim Frazer (1962); Tim Frazer Again (1964) and, many years later, Tim Frazer gets the Message (1978.)

Durbridge has always been popular in Europe, with many mini-series adapted from his work appearing in Italy and France in the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1960s ,mini-series adapted from the Paul Temple novels appeared on European television. These were especially popular in Britain and Germany, which resulted in the first international co-production between the BBC and a West German television company for thirty-nine of the fifty-two episodes between 1969-1971. These starred Francis Matthews and Ros Drinkwater. Unfortunately only sixteen of the episodes survive with their original English soundtrack.

In an interesting return to the roots of the Paul Temple phenomena, in the early 2000s the BBC7 digital speech channel repeated the early recordings. The BBC then released all the surviving recordings on CDs and cassettes. In 2006 BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first episode of a new production of a lost 1947-produced script, Paul Temple and the Sullivan Mystery. The reproduction was careful to maintain the authenticity of the original broadcasts in every possible way.

Francis Durbridge was an incredibly prolific, hard-working writer, who liked to maintain control over the quality of everything he produced. He was also adaptable. In the 1970s, when it was clear that his brand of cosy, middle-class sophistication was no longer popular, he turned to the theatre, writing a number of well-received plays. None of these became smash-hits but they were popular with provincial theatres and amateur theatre companies.

So who was Paul Temple and why did he capture the attention of so many listeners and readers in Britain and Europe? Although Paul Temple had a privileged background and attended Rugby School and Oxford University, when he graduated he had worked hard to 'eventually become a reporter on one of the great London dalies.' (Send for Paul Temple, 1938.) After a year as a general reporter he became an expert on criminology and specialised in crime stories. At the same time he was writing: first a play, which flopped, then a thriller, which was an immediate success. Temple left his job as a reporter and became a successful and wealthy novelist. At the start of the series, Temple is forty years old, unmarried, drives 'a long black coupé,' and has two residences, a service flat in London and an Elizabethan country house near Evesham. Set in its own extensive grounds, this house is the ultimate in good taste and luxury. 'Paul Temple was often asked by artist friends (and strangers) as well as photographers, for permission to make some permanent record of the lovely old mansion. Only to Surrealists did he refuse.' (Send for Paul Temple, 1938.) Of course, Temple has the necessary servants to maintain this lifestyle, including the requisite faithful manservant, Pryce.

In Send for Paul Temple (1938) the reader first meets the great man in person while he is entertaining two visitors at his country house. The conversation turns to the Tenworthy murder case, in which Temple had intervened to reveal the murderer when the police had arrested the wrong man. Temple had 'made several startling discoveries which the police had entirely overlooked.' Temple is described as 'a modern embodiment of Sir Philip Sydney. Courtly in manners, a dominant character without ever giving the impression of dominating. He was equally at home in the double-breasted dinner jacket he was now wearing, the perfect host entertaining his guests, or in coarse, loose tweeds striding along the country lanes.'

In younger days Temple played both rugby and cricket but preferred rugby. 'He had done well in the pack for his college team at Oxford but, strangely enough, he had never got past the selection committee for the varsity side. The fact that he had never secured his blue was a constant source of regret.' As well as his sporting interests, Temple is an expert on fine food. 'They had just enjoyed an excellent dinner prepared under the very personal supervision of Temple himself, for he quite rightly prided himself on his culinary knowledge. In fact he used to boast that his knowledge of West End restaurants was second to none.'

Before the reader meets Temple, we hear about him through the viewpoint of the dignitaries of Scotland Yard. A series of daring robberies have left the police baffled and everything points to the crimes being the work of a masterly criminal organization. The Press is mounting a campaign demanding that the police 'Send for Paul Temple', which Sir Graham Forbes, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, is angrily refusing to do. '”Temple is just an ordinary criminologist,” said Sir Graham Forbes, with a vast amount of scorn in his voice. “He had a great deal of luck over the Tenworthy affair and a great deal of excellent publicity for his books.”' However, Sir Graham's hand is forced when one of his  senior officers is murdered, a man who is also a friend of Paul Temple. Soon Sir Graham is not only reconciled to Temple's help but, as the series of adventures continues, turns to him as a matter of course, even, on occasion, deferring to Temple's judgement.

It is in this first adventure that Temple meets the young woman who is soon to become his wife, a reporter who works under the name of Steve Trent. When Steve forces herself into Temple's home to ask for his help, he sees at once that she is extremely pretty but also 'there was something about Steve Trent that distinguished her from other women reporters in Fleet Street. Her eyes shone clear and bright, with no hard sophistication to mar them. Yet they spoke of experience, of difficulties, even dangers encountered. They were dark-blue eyes, one curiously lighter than the other, and they sparkled with the vivacity of her nature.'

The plots of the Paul Temple serials were all similar, often closer to the thriller than the simple detective story. They usually involved a gang, led by a master criminal, whose identity was unknown to all but his closest associates. The cliffhangers would often depend on a suspect who had been captured and then died, often from poisoning, the lethal dose being contained in a bottle of whisky or a cigar or cigarette, frequently intended for Paul Temple or Sir Graham Forbes. Indeed social interaction with Temple often seemed to be a particularly hazardous business. As for Steve, amongst a list of her hobbies, getting kidnapped by villains could rank very high. This is ironic when Temple is a chauvinist of the 'don't bother your pretty little head about that' variety.

Perhaps the thing that most appealed to listeners or readers of the Paul Temple adventures was their approachability. Despite Temple's purported upper-class education and luxurious, wealthy lifestyle, there is something distinctly middle-class about him and his companions. Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey also studied at Oxford but, between Temple and Steve there are none of the clever multi-lingual conversations or philosophical and academic discussions that distinguish the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Durbridge  himself went to Birmingham University, not Oxford, and was obviously unaware that referring to the university as the 'varsity' was out of date, as an undergraduate explains to Montague Egg, Dorothy L Sayers' wine-salesman sleuth, 'Varsity has somehow a flavour of the nineties.' (Murder at Pentecost; Hangman's Holiday, 1933.)

For the ordinary listener in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, there was great pleasure in Durbridge's 'distinctive blend of naïve middle-class sophistication and essentially cosy and bloodless murder.' (Independent, Obituary for Francis Durbridge by Jack Adrian, Sunday 12th April 1998.)

As the insightful Obituary for Francis Durbridge says, 'Durbridge was never a great writer... But in his chosen media, those of sound broadcast and the small screen, for a generation he was without peer. He had no other
ambition but to entertain, and entertain, on a generous scale, he did.'


Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014.

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