Armchair detectives will spot some dramatic changes when PBS-TV's "Mystery!" begins its 10th season this week (Thursday on WNYC-TV, Channel 31; Saturday on WNET-TV, Channel 13).
For one thing, the familiar study of the haunted house where Vincent Price customarily delivers his opening remarks is no more. That claustrophobic room, overdressed with mysterious trappings that often include a body or two, has been replaced by two-dimensional sets, designed from drawings by Edward Gorey in black and white and suggestive daubs of red, that depict the exterior and various interiors of the mansion. This week's program - which introduces "Campion," a new detective series based on the novels of the British author Margery Allingham and featuring Peter Davison as her eccentric sleuth - opens on a long, balustraded terrace graced with massive urns, peculiar statuary and tortured pieces of topiary.
Alert viewers will also detect that the host is wearing a dress. Black and elegant and pierced at the waistline by a red, red rose, this dramatic creation is worn by Diana Rigg, the new host of "Mystery!" and an actress not likely to become undone by the topiary on her terrace.
"I'm not a great mystery reader myself," admits Miss Rigg, during a telephone conversation from London, "but I think that mystery stories translate beautifully to television, and I have always watched them with real enjoyment. So, you would be correct in calling me a fan. I also think," she adds, "that mysteries are done incredibly well and with great style on British television."
Miss Rigg will wander freely through the vast Gorey mansion as she acquaints viewers with the rest of the "Mystery!" season. She will be in the library for her introductions to six new cases in the "Rumpole of the Bailey" series, starring Leo McKern as the curmudgeonly barrister, that will follow "Campion". Three new stories about "Inspector Morse", the modern-day Oxford detective played by John Thaw, will find her in the conservatory. A six-part dramatization of P. D. James's most recent Inspector Adam Dalgliesh mystery, "A Taste for Death", will be introduced from the picture gallery of the Gorey mansion. "Poirot", a new nine-part series, will also make its debut this season, with David Suchet playing Agatha Christie's inimitable Belgian sleuth.
"Our viewers love Morse, Dalgliesh, and Rumpole," says Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of "Mystery!" for WGBH-Boston, which produces the Mobil-funded series. "Poirot and Campion are our two new boys this year, and I feel they will do equally well.
"David Suchet takes a very familiar character and plays him with such sensitivity, humor and piercing intelligence that the character becomes absolutely riveting," she says of Dame Agatha's fussy little detective. "It is such a detailed interpretation that the actor does for Inspector Poirot what Jeremy Brett did for Sherlock Holmes - he inhabits him."
Unlike "Poirot", which Ms. Eaton characterizes as "very urban, very London, with a sophisticated Deco feeling," the new "Campion", she says, suggests a different aspect of the same 1930's period. "There's more sense of the English countryside, the atmosphere of little villages and grand country houses."
Albert Campion himself is a total stranger to "Mystery!" viewers and a somewhat elusive character even to readers of Miss Allingham's novels. The author describes him as enigmatic, slightly opaque and fey, and makes a point of shrouding his antecedents in ambiguity. The detective seems to delight in his own quicksilver nature, adopting pseudonyms, if not outright disguises, for his various adventures. Using the name Orlando, he consorts familiarly with gypsies. Calling himself Christopher Twelvetrees, he presents himself as an art expert and moves comfortably in artistic circles.
During the Golden Age of British detective fiction, in the 1920's and 1930's, Miss Allingham was every bit as popular as her slightly older peers, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. "This powerful triumvirate kept readers spellbound," says Miss Rigg, in her opening comments on "Campion", adding, "These women developed the detective story into a novel of social realism." But Miss Allingham drew one distinction about her own work.
"I regard my books as novels, not just as thrillers or detective stories," she declared, claiming for genre fiction that status denied it by the more academic Miss Sayers, who felt that the mystery form "does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." Miss Allingham also felt herself to be more of a social realist than Agatha Christie, whom she nonetheless considered the most ingenious of them all at plot and structure. Although Miss Allingham admitted to no familiarity with the novels of Miss Sayers, a country neighbor with whom she maintained a friendship, her own hero, Albert Campion, began his career bearing a marked resemblance to Lord Peter Wimsey. ("He was the perfect upper class twit," Miss Rigg observes of his inauspicious beginning.) But unlike Miss Sayers's aristocratic amateur sleuth, whose superiority became the greater part of his charm, Campion deliberately obscured his own blue-blooded origins. He worked for hire ("Nothing sordid. Deserving cases preferred.") and cultivated very low-class chums, including his valet, an ex-convict named Lugg. Although he and Lord Peter might have cut their teeth on the same set of silver spoons, Campion developed a more mysterious presence and a more athletic style.
As Miss Rigg notes, the character came a very long way from his first appearance, in 1927, when, "he was so dimwitted one would think he got his Cambridge degree through pull." Although Miss Rigg is known in England primarily as a classical stage actress, her film and television work has taken some adventurous loops about mystery and suspense genres. She appeared in two Agatha Christie mysteries, and in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" she became the first, and still the only, Mrs. James Bond. And for two seasons on "The Avengers", she created the leather-suited, karate-chopping secret agent, Mrs. Emma Peel, now frozen into immortality by late-night television reruns.
One memorable part she played, in the 1973 horror film "Theater of Blood", was the conniving daughter of Vincent Price, in the role of a hammy Shakespearean actor who devised witty and horrible deaths for theater critics. Relishing her co-star's "filthy sense of humor," Miss Rigg invited a friend, Coral Browne, to meet the actor. The couple married and now live in California, where Mr. Price, who withdrew from "Mystery!" after a "good long run," now prefers to work.
His "daughter" still the conniver, carries on.
A TWIT'S PROGRESS
"Well, now, we don't exactly know who Albert Campion is, do we?"
Peter Davison, who plays the mysterious detective in the new "Mystery!" series based on Margery Allingham's novels, sounds positively cheerful about this ambiguity. Speaking from London, where he is filming a second set of "Campion" dramas, the actor declares that part of the pleasure of playing this enigmatic character was the opportunity to "make him up." "We do know that Campion is not his real name," said Mr. Davison. "I am pretty sure that he is the black sheep, probably the youngest son, of an aristocratic family, and that he turned his back on the family traditions to seek adventure." Some of these youthful escapades, he hints, were probably on the far side of the law. "I think it's significant that his manservant is an ex-convict."
Unlike other detectives popular during the Golden Age of British detective fiction, Campion was allowed by his creator to age and to mature intellectually, a consideration much appreciated by the 37-year-old actor, who has been seen by American viewers both as Dr. Who and as the vain young veterinarian in "All Creatures Great and Small". "There was certainly a great change of mood in the world, as well as in fiction, during the 1930's, because of the Depression as well as the war itself," Mr. Davison says. "Although it was great fun for me, playing the younger, more athletic Campion - the 'boy wonder' of the earlier 1920's stories - I almost prefer the more sober Campion, the quiet, observant detective of the later stories."
Viewers who watch all four dramas in this first series will see Campion in all his colors, says Mr. Davison, from the "slightly silly" young blood larking about the countryside in his red Lagonda to the "faintly mysterious" adventurer who maintains old contacts with the underworld. "The ease with which he moves through all ranks of society, from the aristocracy to the criminal underground, makes him something of a common man, I feel," says the actor. He sounded cheerful about that, too.