When I picked up the discs for both seasons of Campion, it was in the firm belief I’d never seen it. As each episode rolled by, however, I realised I’d actually seen quite a few of them. I was shocked by this as I normally have a great memory for TV I’ve watched, and is why I must list it here as a re-watch, even though I’d fogotten the whole thing and there were absolutely episodes I hadn’t seen as well.
Campion was originally a series of mystery novels written by Margery Allingham which started in the late 1920s and ran for decades. The titular character is a detective and has been described as “misleadingly vapid”, which is an… interesting… area to pitch your lead character in, and one which serves to bite the TV series on the bum, thanks to it being such a loving recreation of the novels.
Basically, we have my favourite Doctor Who, Peter Davison, as Albert Campion. He’s aided by Brian Glover as his manservant (and former criminal), Magersfontein Lugg, in solving mysteries during the 1930s. Rinse and repeat. The premise of the series could be the same as two-dozen other TV mystery shows and films, but what makes it stand out is the characterisation of Campion himself. Very early on, we’re plainly told that it’s an assumed name, even a kind of assumed life. He’s very well educated, seems to come from money (I believe early novels even hint that he might be royal but I don’t recall that being part of any TV episode), and has decided to set himself up as a private detective.
Now, while all of that’s quite interesting, it’s the way the character was originally written – as this kind of bland and almost “blank” personality – that the TV series has sought to follow and I’m not sure it really works. Perhaps in a book, where it’s being explained that he’s being bland and it’s fooling someone into underestimating him, such a thing makes sense. Onscreen, however, Davison pulls off the bland… but we don’t really understand why. He just seems a bit dull. Once in awhile he will say or do something quite eccentric, and that’s fun, but those moments are really few and far between.
This is my biggest frustration with the series. I adore Peter Davison. I love the 1930s. I eat up mysteries for breakfast. I even like the way TV was made in the late 1980s and early 1990s (and one day will have to talk on this blog about Jeremy Brett’s superlative Sherlock Holmes series that was made in the same era). So you’d think this would be a bona fide hit for me. And while it’s true that I’m fond of the series, it always feels like… I’m not sure… like it’s not quite working as well as it should?
If you’re thinking of bypassing the series based on these words, however, I’d comment that would be a mistake as well. There’s enough here to get your teeth into. Some of the mysteries are really good (and some are a bit far-fetched, but that’s par-for-the-course in this genre), the interplay between Davison and Glover is excellent, and with much of it shot on film in the English countryside, it delivers on that sort of Edwardian era feeling that was still present, to some degree, even in post WW1 Britain. An era where I think the younger Pete Davison always seemed right at home. It’s not a bad series at all.
I just caution anyone who’s more used to modern TV, or is looking for their leading man to be something other than bland (albeit occasionally quirky), to step with some caution. The images of a bespectacled Davison, hair slicked back, driving a Lagonda, might make the series look like a sexy 1930s James Bond, or similar. Warning! It’s not anything like that! Lower your expectations a little.