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Friday 3 February 2023

The Jumbo Jinx by Peter Lovesey

Most published writers dream of getting a TV series. It happened to me indecently early in my career in 1979 when Granada bought all eight books featuring Sergeant Cribb, a Victorian policeman, for the small screen. Bliss! 

Granada generously involved me from the start. I saw the production
process from script to readthrough to shoots on location and in the studio. I adapted one of my own books into a screenplay. All this gave me experience that eventually provided the setting for a detective novel. Forty years on, in
Showstopper, my modern policeman, Peter Diamond, investigates a jinxed TV crime series. There were times during the making of Cribb when I almost believed in a jinx. One memory stands out.

Each novel was constructed around a Victorian entertainment: music hall, Madame Tussaud’s, the seaside, spiritualism, boating, prize fighting and athletics. For the second series, my wife Jax and I were invited to write six new screenplays. Granada accepted them all, even the ambitious one called The Last Trumpet, involving the famous Jumbo, the tallest elephant in captivity.

When W C Fields coined the axiom ‘Never work with children or animals’ it had a basis in truth. On the face of it, the plot had a lot going for it. Jumbo was a much-loved attraction at the London Zoo. He came there as a small beast in 1865 and grew and grew. He gave rides galore, ate thousands of buns and behaved impeccably until the early 1880s, when he started raging at night. He smashed the doors of his shed and broke his tusks. He couldn’t be trusted anymore with children riding on his back. It was believed he was going through bouts of musth, the hormonal reaction exhibited by mature bull elephants. Modern studies of his teeth have shown it was more likely he was suffering from toothache brought on by the diet of sticky buns.

At about this time the zoo was offered a solution. P T Barnum, the American impresario, offered to buy Jumbo for £2000 and ship him to America. The superintendent of the zoo accepted with alacrity, but the public were outraged.

A protest movement was organised. 100,000 letters were sent to the Queen. A music hall song was written: Why Part with Jumbo, the Pet of the Zoo? A lawsuit was heard and, horror of horrors, the court ruled that the sale was lawful. Jumbo was crated up and shipped across the Atlantic. His devoted keeper, Matthew Scott, a hero of the story, insisted on going with him. They spent three years with Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, but in 1885, Jumbo was hit by a train while being led along the track to his carriage. He died with his trunk curled around Scott’s hand. All this was a powerful and moving background for a murder plot. The only problem I could see was in the casting: where to find an elephant big enough to play Jumbo, who stood eleven feet tall. The producer of the series was June Wyndham Davies, and she was irrepressible. “Darlings, we love the script, and the zoo is going to love this, too.”

Unfortunately, there was a setback. The London Zoo hadn’t come out of the Barnum episode well and wanted nothing to do with it. Other zoos were approached. None had a remotely suitable elephant. The episode was put on hold and moved to a later slot in the schedule. Everything went ominously quiet. Was Jumbo jinxed?

Then a phone call came from June: “Brilliant news, darling. We’ve found our Jumbo.”
“Marvellous,” I said.
“You’ll love Womba. She’s from Chipperfield’s Circus. She’s trained and well behaved and perfect for us.”
“Did you say ‘she’?”
“That’s not a problem. It won’t be obvious when we film. She isn’t as big as Jumbo, but we were never going to find one as tall as that.”
“How tall?”
“Trust me, darling, she’ll look enormous on screen. Our cameraman will see to that.”

When I saw Womba, I was in for a shock. She wasn’t much taller than I was. The picture of Alan Dobie, who played Cribb, standing close to Womba, gives you an idea of her size. It would need miraculous camera work to turn her into the star of our show. This was before computer-generated imagery made such things possible.

I should have had more faith. Using close-ups, low-angle shots and high angles of visitors to the zoo from the
elephant’s point of view, the young cameraman, David Odd, worked the miracle and created the illusion of a huge bull elephant.
The Last Trumpet can still be seen on YouTube. I watched it again recently and marvelled at how ingeniously the effects were achieved.

In the 42 years since that episode was made, David Odd has worked on numerous series including Prime Suspect, Vera and Silk. In 2016 he was presented with the Royal Television Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Cribb went out in prime time on Sunday nights and attracted audiences of 13 million. It was chosen to launch the Mystery! series in America and sold to 88 countries. More importantly for me, it justified my earlier decision to give up teaching and become a full-time writer. But during the second series the head of drama at Granada, Peter Eckersley, who had backed Cribb from the beginning, died from cancer at the age of 45. A new head took over and understandably wanted to commission new projects. As June Wyndham Davies recalled in a 1996 interview, “I had done a very successful series called Cribb and it made a lot of money and as a result Granada was able to take on Sherlock Holmes.” At Eckersley’s funeral, the talk got around to future shows and June suggested Jeremy Brett for what would become a series of legendary brilliance that I think screened the entire Holmes canon. The rest, as they say, is history. My flirtation with TV was over.

Peter’s new novel, Showstopper,
was published by Sphere in January
and in America by Soho in December
To read the review click on the Book jacket.

 More can be seen about that and the Cribb series at:\

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