My local PBS station (KQED in the San Francisco Bay Area, don’t forget to pledge!) has been killing it lately with obscure older historical costume flicks. Not always the ones I’m on the hunt for — you know, the ones that aren’t available for streaming anywhere and I’d have to plunk out for an actual DVD of — but some quirky choices I missed the first time around starring fabulous actors and featuring pretty darn sweet costumes. So while everybody’s talking about going unplugged re: TV, let’s not forget that good old-fashioned terrestrial telly can serve up the goods too.
So my latest discovery is the always brilliant Diana Rigg in The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries from 1998. This is a five-episode series based on murder-mystery novels written by Gladys Mitchell mostly in the 1940s and 1950s. The main character is Adela Bradley, a happily divorced, fiercely independent woman in her 50s. She’s very well educated, especially in psychiatry and psychology (being an associate of Freud) , and is an adamant suffragette (and friend of Emmeline Pankhurst). Mrs. Bradley is financially set and is accompanied by her personal chauffeur George. The first episode opens in 1929, with a brief detour at Mr. Bradley’s funeral, where we also meet the couple’s grown son and his wife, who Mrs. Bradley doesn’t appear terribly maternal towards.
Everything in Mrs. Bradley’s attitude and background screams “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries!” for an older generation. Well, not older as in the stories are slower or more tame, because they aren’t. Really, the only thing essential difference is that the detective is older — she’s still smart, witty, sexy (yes, mature women can be sexy!), adventurous, and has a great fashion sense.
Mrs. Bradley tosses off bon mots such as, “Marriage is one of those things it’s best to get over with early in life — like chicken pox” and “I never cared much for he countryside. It’s a soggy sort of place where animals and birds wander about uncooked,” often directly to the camera, breaking the third wall. She wears wonderful clothes and has an outrageous collection of cloche hats that will cause fans of the 1920s (or good millinery) to squee with delight. It all makes me wonder if the author of the Miss Fisher books, Kerry Greenwood, had read Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley books and simply recast the idea a bit younger and in Australia.
The miniseries encompass upper-crust country house parties, a few funerals (it’s a murder-mystery show, after all), a wedding, a girls school, a circus, and a seaside resort — though Mrs. Bradley supposedly lives in London. The variety of settings gives the opportunity for many costume changes including day frocks, sporting clothes, evening wear, and many, many hats. Diana Rigg can really wear a hat, and mad props to designer Mécheal Taylor and team for giving not just Diana Rigg but every actor the perfect topper for each look. There’s some really stunning 1920s headgear in this short series. If you liked what you saw in the final seasons of Downton Abbey, you’ll adore Mrs. Bradley’s Mysteries just for the hats.
If that’s not enough to tempt you, the second episode has a Doctor Who tie-in. Titled “Death at the Opera,” the story takes Mrs. Bradley back to her alma mater, a private girls school where she’s to give a speech after some recitals (the “opera” of the title is The Mikado). Naturally enough, there’s a murder or two so she hangs around for longer than planned. An initial suspect is the music teacher, Max Valentine — played by David Tennant, some years before his turn as the tenth Doctor Who. The police detective called in after the first murder is Inspector Christmas — played by Peter Davidson, some years after he played the fifth Doctor Who, and coincidentally, he was David Tennant’s own favorite Doctor. Dawwww! Although they barely have one scene together in this production.
Fans of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries who’ve already binge-watched the last season and need another fashionable and snappy 1920s murder-mystery series, you’ll want to hunt down The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries. Currently, the first episode is available on Amazon.com and more may be elsewhere, so keep an eye out!
Who’s your favorite female detective on screen?