Whatever Happened To Mr Temple?
I suspect there are a few readers out there who not only remember Francis Durbridge’s books but who can also whistle his theme tune, which was either ‘Coronation Scot’ by Vivian Ellis, or Rimski-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherezade’, depending on your age.
The author and playwright was born in Hull in 1912 and died in 1998. His output was prodigious; I count at least 35 novels, 22 TV series, 7 theatrical plays and around 30 radio plays and serials. He sold his first play to the BBC at 21, and created his most enduring character, the crime novelist/ detective Paul Temple, at 26. In many ways he was the first of the popular multi-media writers, with simultaneous hits on radio, TV, film and in print.
In later life he turned to the theatre with similar success. I seem to vaguely recall the plays – usually stagey and amateurish – being on at every end-of-the-pier theatre in Britain. Typically, the critics sneered and the public adored him. Now, his books have completely vanished and only some of his radio plays survive, kept alive by the BBC’s desire to turn a buck and make up for wiping much of their archives. Although maybe he’s still a hit in Great Yarmouth, who knows?
Durbridge also used the pen name of Paul Temple, thus becoming his own character. There’s a warm glow of nostalgia around his middle-class mysteries, which usually turn on the elaborate planning and solution of a murder, with plenty of cliff-hangers. He was less interested in the whodunit so much as the will-he-get-away-with-it? because he knew this was a better way to create suspense.
But are the stories any good? Actually they’re not at all terrible; I think of him as the English Cornell Woolrich, a pulp fiction writer whose energetic style contrasted with the enervating period in which he wrote. Paul Temple is absurdly British, a man born to wear a hat, rather too solid and square-jawed for most people to take seriously, but he proved instantly popular and went on to become one of the most successful characters ever created for broadcasting, which makes his disappearance strange and rather sad.
Our detectives are more complex and beset with personal problems now. Temple’s world is filled with lost images; it’s a world of telephone exchanges, manor houses, glamorous cabaret artists, Mayfair flats, mysterious piano tuners, diamond robberies, kidnaps, clergymen and calling cards, where carrier pigeons are used to smuggle gems and the only clue to a crime is a cocktail stick.
It’s easy to make fun of such period plots – but why not? ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ became a huge hit again on the London stage by playing the ironic period card – but it’s a shame that Durbridge’s thrillers disappeared so completely. Be heartened, though, as a few of his best books have lately been reprinted.