By Timothy!


BY TIMOTHY!    Michael Bartholomew-Biggs rediscovers and re-examines the Paul Temple stories he enjoyed listening to on the wireless in his younger days


“But who is Mr Gregory?”
“I can’t tell you now Inspector. But if you care to come to a little gathering
I’m arranging tomorrow I should be able to satisfy your curiosity. It will be
at the Madrid Club… Just ask for Mr Temple’s party in Room 34.”

We are very close to the denouement of Paul Temple and the Gregory Affair, one of a series of more than thirty radio dramas broadcast by the BBC between 1938 and 1968. The stories, all written by Frances Durbridge, were each serialised over six or eight episodes. And, with my parents, I probably listened to just about every one that was aired between the mid 1950s and early 1960s. At the time, no doubt, I found them pretty enthralling with their week to week cliff-hanger endings; but it would probably be true to say that I soon forgot about them – except perhaps for retaining a memory of the signature tune. But having recently come across some recordings of these old programmes on YouTube, I have lately been enjoying listening to them again (for example as a distraction during a treadmill session at the gym). And it occurs to me now that these relics from the mid-20th century can be seen as interesting sociological documents highlighting attitudes which are obviously outmoded – and yet which have not yet entirely vanished.

By the time I became aware of Paul Temple the programme’s central format and conventions were well established. Paul is a successful thriller writer and amateur detective. He is also a close personal friend of Sir Graham Forbes who is “chief commissioner of police”, a role which seems to approximate to being head of Scotland Yard. Sir Graham is always remarkably ready to call in Paul to assist the police in any high-profile or unusual case. How this arrangement came about was probably explained in the early adventures but recordings of these broadcasts are lost. Paul has a glamorous wife who is always known as Steve because of her pre-marital career as a journalist who adopted the masculine by-line “Steve Trent”. None of the stories I have listened to have troubled to mention the couple’s back story and so I still don’t know how they met or why Steve willingly abandoned her own career in order to be Paul’s companion, assistant and occasional hostage to fortune. Rather oddly for a BBC drama of the mid-twentieth century there are hints that Paul led rather a rakish life before settling down with Steve and occasionally he encounters minor characters from his past – both men and women – and any mention of “the old days” generates a good deal of knowing laughter.

Plots are very action driven and are mostly set in and around London. Very often they involve a master criminal who hides behind an alias – such as “Mr Gregory” in the opening dialogue above – whose real identity is the final puzzle piece to fall into place in the closing minutes. One rather clever variation on this plot device of having a nagging conundrum running through a whole story is the case in which several criminal gangs are striving to outwit one another to get possession of a perfectly ordinary pair of reading glasses. The eventual explanation turns out to be very ingenious even if pretty implausible…

… but then plausibility isn’t really the hallmark of these plays. For example, Paul and Steve are regularly forced off the road by malevolent drivers but rarely suffer any injuries (although their motor insurance premiums must be pretty alarming). Steve, being a weak and feeble woman, may be a little shaken; but after five minutes rest by the roadside Paul can resume the investigation. In fact these car mishaps are sometimes the spur that cause Paul to start an investigation he had previously been too busy to bother with (his books evidently do not write themselves). “By Timothy!” he might say, using his favourite all-purpose expletive, “If they think they can scare me off they’ve another think coming!” Coincidences also abound and so we can be fairly sure that as soon as Paul and Steve start walking away from their wrecked vehicle at least one other major character will happen on the scene in order to keep the story moving.

Paul’s deductive processes are often assisted by enigmatic messages arriving by telephone or letter. These communications typically summon him to some remote or deserted building in order to receive vital information that, for some compelling reason, cannot be included in the message itself. There will of course be no response forthcoming when Paul knocks at the door of the rendezvous. Fortunately the door will prove to be unlocked and once it is opened there is an 80% chance that a body will be discovered and a 20% chance that a booby trap will go off.

The scripts employ stock rhetorical devices for slowing the action and, presumably, for building suspense. Speakers portentously echo themselves in order to emphasise the seriousness of the observation they are making as in “I hope nothing’s happened to him. I really hope nothing’s happened to him.” And characters also frequently echo one another

“Where are we going Paul?”
“To a night club, Steve”
“A night club…?”
“Yes Steve, a nightclub…”

Readers may detect here a rather patronising note in Paul’s words to his wife. And it is true that he quite often teases Steve by withholding new information he has discovered or fresh deductions he has made. Then, having left her relatively short of data, he teases her again for making conjectures based on little more than her “women’s intuition”. (Her intuitions do sometimes turn out to be correct however.) Behind this husbandly “banter” however Paul is genuinely devoted to Steve and is prepared, for instance, to rush to her rescue when she has ignored his advice and allowed herself to be trapped in a burning building. But on other occasions when she is in danger she can be self-sufficiently resourceful as when she brandishes a pistol (unloaded as it turns out) very effectively to thwart a kidnap attempt.

It is of course easy to poke fun at outdated light entertainments. But one aspect of the Paul Temple stories that I want to think about a little more seriously is the degree of freedom that the characters enjoy. Thus Sir Graham seems perfectly content to by-pass police command structures and issue arrest warrants or suspend an ongoing police operation purely on Paul Temple’s say-so. Worse still, Paul himself sometimes feeds Sir Graham false information to stop him doing something that might inadvertently assist a criminal; yet he is never rebuked for this, let alone charged with obstructing the police in the execution of their duty. Indeed Paul is so far above criticism that listeners can be sure that if he or Steve produces – or even fires – a gun then they will not be called to account because they are known to be acting for the best.

No doubt all these plot features were preposterous even at the time of writing over half a century ago; but they do quietly embody and reinforce what is sometimes called the “good chap” assumption. A dislike of procedures and protocols (and approval of the absence of a written constitution) is reckoned by some to be a distinctively British – maybe especially English – character trait; and it goes with an underlying assumption that “good chaps” or “our sort of people” will always do the right and decent thing even if it occasionally appears a little unorthodox. It follows that an undue emphasis on the observance of arbitrary rules may sometimes be a barrier to bold, necessary and effective action.

Since 1968 and the end of “The Paul Temple era” much has changed in the real world. It is widely accepted as being in the public interest that prescribed checks and procedures now govern many areas of life. Sir Graham’s wide discretionary powers would be much curtailed by, for instance, the Police & Criminal Evidence Act. Even in everyday matters the average citizen will be aware of increasing numbers of protocols and safeguards around employment practices, financial transactions, sharing of information and so on – all of which supposedly prevent fraud, reduce risk and instil confidence that decisions are made fairly and openly.

But note that “supposedly”. Is it fanciful to suspect that the degree of fictional freedom exercised in a Paul Temple story is still cherished by a rich, powerful and successful elite? After all, some people in government had a pretty cavalier attitude towards Covid lockdown restrictions which were designed to be applied universally. “But we all know each other” was reported as a bland excuse given by one MP as a reason for not observing social distancing rules. We have also learned of the relaxed informality with which those who had personal connections to government ministers were awarded contracts for supplying protective clothing for hospital staff. This was portrayed as a justifiable case of cutting procedural corners “for the sake of the general good” in a national emergency. But not all such casually negotiated deals did work out for the general good …

We might also consider the long-smouldering and now erupting volcano that is the Post Office scandal. When a malfunctioning computer system produced spurious financial discrepancies at small local post offices hundreds of post-masters were charged with “fraud”. It now appears that Post Office investigators chose not to follow strict and clear legal requirements about disclosure of evidence which would greatly have helped the defence of those being prosecuted. Presumably this side-stepping of proper procedures was part of a plan by executives from the computer manufacturer and Post Office headquarters to avoid reputational damage; in which case it seems to be turning out to be a strategy that has spectacularly failed.

When we enjoy the rule-breaking in a Paul Temple story we are getting a glimpse of – and being invited to sympathise with – a mindset that considers rules and restrictions to be no more than guidelines, easily ignored by those blessed with the means and experience to know when and how to over-ride them. In matters of law enforcement and justice Sir Graham, Paul and Steve might conceivably excuse themselves for “not playing it by the book” by claiming to be on the side of the angels. But when the sole arbiters of acceptable or unacceptable behaviour are the members of a small self-interested peer group in business or politics then angels probably don’t come into it.