Newton's laws of television

Virtual Murder

An episode guide by Matthew Newton
Cornelius and Sam

Virtual Murder was an offbeat British show that was produced in the early 90s. It was a far cry from the standard crime drama of the time and only lasted for six episodes. However, it still deserves to be remembered...

Thanks to Barry Smith.

The early 1990s were a grim time for British drama. Schedules were dominated by shows that were concerned only with reality and each channel launched a succession of programmes about the lives and loves of policemen, doctors, vets, dustbinmen and just about every other profession imagineable. While some of these shows were not without merit, there was not much in the way of variety. In particular, something was missing - dramas that were not set completely in the real world. This was most obvious in the absence of conventional science-fiction and fantasy; Doctor Who had been axed in 1989 and there had been no new such shows outside of children's schedules. However, there were not even any sign of shows that although notionally set in the real world nevertheless had a fantastic edge, such as The Avengers and most of the ITC shows of the 60s. More recently, there have been a number of attempts at this type of show (albeit usually ill-fated): Bugs, Crime Traveller, The Vanishing Man, etc. In the early 1990s there was nothing of this type. Apart from one show that very few people seemed to notice...

The basic premise of Virtual Murder sounded conventional enough: it concerned the adventures of one Dr John Cornelius (known as JC), a psychology lecturer at a provincial university who assisted the police in tracking down macabre criminals. Indeed, Cracker found great success in a similar premise. However, it was the style of Virtual Murder that set it apart from its contemporaries with a deliberately surreal atmosphere pervading all of the episodes.

Virtual Murder was produced by the BBC's Birmingham outpost, Pebble Mill. Its creators, Harry Robertson and Brian Degas, had also been responsible for Specials, a short-lived drama about special constables. The star of the show was Nicholas Clay, who was known from the ITV business drama Gentlemen And Players and films such as Excalibur. Kim Thomson played Cornelius's glamourous lover and assistant, Sam Valentine. Also amongst the recurring cast was Stephen Yardley, who was well known at the time from his role as the villainous Ken Masters in Howard's Way, but here was on the side of law and order as Inspector Cadogan.

The show was set in an un-named city, although the locations used were around Birmingham, with Cornelius's base clearly identifiable as the university of the second city. In promoting the series at the time, Nicholas Clay claimed that all of the episodes were based on real cases, which seems unlikely given their nature. However, what cannot be disputed is the quality of the guest casts assembled for the episodes, which featured many well known names.

Virtual Murder lasted for just one season of six episodes. It seems likely that viewers at the time just did not know what to make of it, given how different it was to every other drama on television. However, even reviewers who recognised that the show was trying to do something different just dismissed it as a poor copy of The Avengers. While it is probably fair to say that although Virtual Murder was not the greatest show ever produced, it does not deserve to be completely forgotten.

Enn Reitel from Meltdown to Murder    Stephen Yardley as Inspector Cadogan    JC and Sam
ABOVE (LEFT TO RIGHT): Enn Reitel as master of disguise Jed Frewin from "Meltdown to Murder"; Stephen Yardley as Inspector Cadogan; Nicholas Clay and Kim Thomson as JC and Sam Valentine.

A BBC Pebble Mill Production. Colour. 6 x 50 minutes.
Broadcast dates for original UK transmission on BBC1.

Produced and Created by: Harry Robertson and Brian Degas
Executive Producer: Barry Hanson
Technical Advisors: Dr Clive Hollin and Professor Kevin Howells
Designers: Ian Ashurst and Roy Barrett ("A Bone to Pick" only)
Music Composed and Performed by: Harry Robertson

Regular Cast

Dr John Cornelius: Nicholas Clay
Samantha Valentine: Kim Thomson
Inspector Cadogan: Stephen Yardley
Sergeant Gummer: Jude Akuwudike
Professor Owen Griffiths: Alan David [1-2,4-6]
Miss Phoebe Littlejohn: Carole Boyd [1-2,4-6]

1:   Meltdown To Murder 24 July 1992

Writer: Philip Martin
Director: Philip Draycott

Guest Cast: Enn Reitel (Jed Frewin), Julia Foster (Carol Bolitha), Brian Gwaspari (Simon Chamberlain), Helen Lederer (Meriel Connors), Bernard Bresslaw (Lithgow), Laura Brattan (Emily Hibbert), Timothy Watson (Tim Foster), Jean Warren (Bernice), Ian Burford (Bernard), John Ross (Gallery Attendant), Sita Ramamurthy (Television Newsreader), Philip Martin (Giles Bern), Dev Sagoo (Mini Cab Driver), Alan McBride (Scots Cab Driver), Damien Wild (Passerby).

Cornelius is called in by an insurance company when valuable paintings are inexplicably melting. The madman behind this is demanding a ransom or he will continue destroying works of art, and he requests that Cornelius delivers the money. A situation which started as extortion suddenly becomes personal...

Notes: Although the first episode, "Meltdown To Murder" was not a conventional pilot in that it made no attempt to introduce a format - it simply launches into a plot with all of the characters and their relationships already in place. The writer of the episode was Philip Martin, well known from his work on Gangsters and Doctor Who, and who also appeared briefly. The episode is generally a good introduction to the show in establishing its quirky nature, although it is unfortunate that for a series that was being unfairly compared with The Avengers, the opening episode featured its most Avengers-esque plot. The villain of the piece is an old enemy of Cornelius, Jed Frewin, played by Enn Reitel, a well known impressionist and the original choice for Del Boy in Only Fools And Horses. Reitel's talents are well used, as he appears in a range of disguises including a wonderfully oily reporter. The episode does have some problems; the murder of Helen Lederer's character is not well handled (JC and Sam don't seem to tell anyone when they find her body!), and seems to have been included merely in order to justify the episode title and to make Frewin a nasty enough character to justify killing him off. There are some hilarious flashback sequences in which there is no attempt to make Nicholas Clay and Enn Reitel look younger, other than making them wear silly wigs and clothes! But all in all, not a bad start.

2:   Last Train To Hell And Back 31 July 1992

Writer: Barry Smith
Director: Philip Draycott

Guest Cast: Richard Todd (Judge Rawcliffe), Sarah Jane Fenton (Caroline Rawcliffe), Anita Carey (Chief Inspector Grant), Natasha Pyne (Helen Bach), Stacy Davies (Mottran), Colin McFarlane (Professor Daniels), David Miller (Morris), Tim Meats (Radio Presenter).

There have been a number of murders around the grounds of the home of Rawcliffe, a judge who is known for the harsh sentences he passes and who has a secret collection of confessions and torture equipment. The bodies are found with strange clues, such as a string with knots tied at irregular intervals, and Cornelius believes that the killer is trying to tell him something...

Notes: The genesis of the second episode arose due to its writer Barry Smith being a self-confessed steam train enthusiast, so he was able to take pleasure in attending the filming at the Severn Valley Railway in Worcestershire. Guest star Richard Todd is well known for his films in the 50s, most famously "The Dam Busters"; he apparently took great pleasure in the villainous nature of his role here. The episode generally works well; it is in a totally different in style to its predecessor. Indeed, it would probably have made a better opening to the series, since it dealt with Cornelius and Sam being called in by the police to use their methods to help solve a murder, which was exactly the premise on which the series was promoted. There are some delightful scenes, including Cornelius accidentally sending a fax of his tie and someone inexplicably dressed as Bugs Bunny delivering Cornelius a message at a murder scene! However, things do fall apart at the ending which is very confusing and not exactly credible. And the pun used in the episode title (there is a character called Helen Bach!) is unforgiveable!

3:   A Bone To Pick 7 August 1992

Writer: Tom Needham
Director: Peter Rose

Guest Cast: Tony Robinson (Roger Smith), Hywel Bennett (Harold Bingham), Marcia Warren (Annie Smith), Debbie Arnold (Mrs Bingham), Dora Bryan (Mrs Mim), Richard Coleman (Chief Inspector Truscott), Ron Donachie (Police Doctor), John Boswall (Professor Humber), Judi Spiers (Television Presenter), Louise Beattie (Amanda), Charles Pemberton (Police Constable), Neale McGrath (Shopkeeper), Beverley Walding (Receptionist).

Roger Smith is a patient of Cornelius and a compulsive liar. He has turned up at a police station with two skeletons, claiming to be the brother of Santa Claus. The bones turn out to be two display skeletons and an extra hand, but Roger disappears before he tells anyone where he found them.

Notes: The show hit its stride with the third episode, which manages to perfect the balance of humour and plot. The cast is great, particularly Tony Robinson and Hywel Bennett. Bennett was here cast against type as the vilain, given that he was best known for comedy such as Shelley; however, he has since gone on to play other characters similar to Harold Bingham (most notably Dennis Potter's Karaoke). Even minor characters, such as Annie Smith and her eccentric cooking methods, were a delight. Professor Griffiths and Miss Littlejohn didn't appear, the only time any of the regulars are missing from the series.

4:   A Torch For Silverado 14 August 1992

Writer: Tim Aspinall
Director: Peter Rose

Guest Cast: Jon Pertwee (Luis Silverado), John Bluthal (Tonu), Cindy O'Callaghan (Patsy), Sheila Bernette (Mrs Hall), Paddie O'Neil (Marcella), Bernard Horsfall (Professor Donn), Hu Pryce (Specialist), Gordon Warnecke (Doctor Harry), Jenny Jay (Juney), Susie Ann Watkins (Dawn), Emily Hartley (Emily), Barbara Young (Rita), Ozzie Yue (Connie), Choy-Ling Man (Minnie).

There have been a number of fires at brothels and other places of disrepute and arson is suspected. The man behind this is Luis Silverado, who is terminally ill and trying to make up for his past. Cornelius finally tracks him down, just as Silverado dies, and discovers that he has left one last fire bomb to go off...

Notes: The main hallmark of this episode was the brave casting of Jon Pertwee as the retired brothel keeper around whom much of the early part of the episode revolved. Unfortunately A Torch For Silverado ended up as the weakest of the six episodes and it certainly suffered from coming straight after the best. It was far too confusing, dull and it ultimately ended up going nowhere. One problem was that Cornelius and particularly Sam did very little early on and curiously enough things do pick up after Pertwee's character dies. The highlight of the episode is the climax, where Cornelius and Sam being told how to diffuse a bomb over the telephone - a wonderful treatment of a well-used cliche. As usual there was some nice direction, particularly the opening shot of Silverado as a chef with flames in front of him, and Bernard Horsfall was splendidly bombastic as the Physics professor with a grudge against Cornelius.

5:   A Dream Of Dracula 21 August 1992

Writer: Bennett Byron Sims
Director: Philip Draycott

Guest Cast: Alfred Marks (Professor Zeff), Hugh Quarshie (Dr Mellor), Jill Gascoine (Victoria Fleming), Ronald Fraser (Van Helsing), Tessa Wyatt (Andrea Pinkerton), Sam Kelly (Paul Pinkerton), Peggy Mount (Mrs Weaver), Julian Clary (Undertaker), Philip Whitchurch (Clive Warren), Laura Brattan (Emily Hibbert), Ken Randle (Mr Timson), Lesley Coburn (Brenda), Norman Tipton (Sketch Artist).

It would appear that there is a vampire at loose in the city when a number of women have been abducted and bitten on the neck. The newspapers have now got the story and Cadogan is under pressure to find the culprit, so asks Cornelius to help. Cornelius and Sam start their investigations and find that Dracula is closer too home than anyone imagined...

Notes: This is another showpiece episode with many well-known guest stars, although with many on appearing briefly. Julian Clary's cameo created a lot of publicity for the episode and fortunately his appearance did work in the context of Virtual Murder. Also appearing is Hugh Quarshie, later seen in The Phantom Menace. This episode dealt with another Avengers like plot; indeed characters such as Clary's undertaker seemed to have wandered in from the 60s series. The ending was cleverly ambiguous in whether or not the villain really was a vampire.

6:   Dreams Imagic 28 August 1992

Writer: Harry Robertson
Director: Peter Rose

Guest Cast: Steven O'Donnell (Reggie Milsom), Pat O'Toole (Annie Piper), Sean Pertwee (Matt Andries), Sarah Lam (Liang Ti), Mark Caven (John Jacoby), David Allister (Professor Vere Percival), Tim Preece (Professor Wilbur Gutteridge), Arthur White (Security Guard), Ellie Darvill (Miss Miniver), Morgan Jones (Greg Gunning), Takashi Kawahara (Yam Yamazaki), Martin Phillips (Motor Cop), Tim Stern (Albert).

Dreams Imagic is a computer software company which specialises in Virtual Reality, the system of creating a computer environment for a person to enter. The company have created a revolutionary new method of achieving this using lasers and Cornelius is called in because the managing director fears industrial espionage. However, it would appear that there is already something going on and someone is using the Virtual Reality system to kill...

Notes: It is interesting to speculate whether the final episode of the series was originally intended to be the first; it was written by one of the creators of the show and it is implied that Cornelius and Cadogan had never met prior to the Dreams Imagic murders. It is also unusual in having no big name guest stars - instead the cast is filled with actors who may be familiar faces but were not well known names (including the second Pertwee to appear in the show). It is also interesting that the title of the series actually seems more appropriate for this episode! However, it is a weaker episode and it easy to see why it wasn't transmitted first, having a strange atmosphere untypical of the rest of the series. The fact that it is last heightens the drama of the climax, to make one believe that Cornelius has been killed. Of course, it is not completely successful in this, since killing off the main character would have been alien to the style of the show.

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