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June 2010

The Blackheath Poisonings

cast: Christine Kavanagh, Ian McNeice, ZoŽ Wanamaker, Judy Parfitt, and Patrick Malahide

director: Stuart Orme

150 minutes (15) 1992
widescreen ratio 16:9
Network DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
review by Alexandra Bunning

The Blackheath Poisonings

This is Masterpiece Theatre's three-part TV series based on Julian Symonds' novel of the same name. Set in Victorian London, it concentrates on the family of the Vandevents and Collards. Tensions are rife in the unhappy family, presided over by the matriarch Harriet Collard (Judy Parfitt), who controls not only the family business (a suitably creepy toy manufacturing company) but in turn, the entire family's movements and purse strings.

Ruled with an iron fist, it is clear from the off that each member harbours grudges and disappointed hopes, and each is quietly scheming and plotting in an attempt to achieve their own ends. Then, members of the family start dying in the same unusual manner, and all signs point to the promiscuous Isabel Collard. But are things really that simple, or does the family hide an even darker secret?

Despite Masterpiece Theatre being (their website assures me) the recipients of "more than 40 primetime Emmy and 16 Peabody awards," I would be surprised if this series earned them anything. 'Masterpiece' it certainly isn't. Although blessed with an impressive cast of British actors (Ian McNeice, ZoŽ Wanamaker, etc.) the acting can be described as lacklustre at best.

The cast seem to spend most of the time wandering around laconically, only rousing themselves when the narrative demands it, and then delivering performances that are comical as often as not. At one point, Inspector Titmarsh (Donald Sumpter) spent so long writhing around on a table-top during his 'interrogation' of Paul Vandervent that I began to wonder whether this was actually supposed to be a comedy.

The storyline seemed to be a little unoriginal, and the characterisation couldn't be more generic: the harsh and dominating mother-in-law, the corpulent and gluttonous male heir, the dissatisfied and adulterous wife, the bumbling and pompous family doctor. Although obvious, I thought, at least there's not much chance of anything going horribly awry with the narrative. How wrong I was. When it came to the ubiquitous twist at the conclusion, I was left roaring with laughter. The supposedly shocking conclusion is so ludicrous and full of plot-holes, I couldn't help but wonder why they'd bothered.

This strange juxtaposition of Victorian murder-mystery and farcical attempts at scandal makes the three episodes rather hard to get through, and this isn't helped by the downright lazy production of the DVD. 22 minutes into the first episode, a title screen on a black background appeared, leaving me wondering if the episode had finished. 30 seconds of title screen later we were back into the episode. I was really confused until I realised they had simply not bothered to edit out the advert breaks.

I hate to give a totally negative review of anything, and so I'll admit that the scenery was good, and the sets were relatively well produced, as were the costumes. Unfortunately, The Blackheath Poisonings just isn't enough to recommend something that will massively disappoint and take nearly three hours of your life to do it.



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