Reviewed: Murder on the Victorian Railway and The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track

Stations of the cross.

Robert Whitelock (Detective Dick Tanner) in Murder on the Victorian Railway.
Robert Whitelock (Detective Dick Tanner) in Murder on the Victorian Railway.

Murder on the Victorian Railway;
The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track

BBC2

So, someone at the BBC had the great idea of adapting Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colqu - houn, which tells the story of the first murder on a British train (Murder on the Victorian Railway, Thursday 21 February, 9pm). Only they weren’t quite sure how to do it. A fullblown drama was clearly out of the question. As murder mysteries go, this one – poor man kills rich man for his watch; poor man is caught; poor man is hanged – rather lacks the necessary twists and turns.

The book is as much about the rise of the Victorian railway and the effect it had on people’s lives as it is about the murder. But a mere documentary wasn’t going to do the trick, either. It’s quite difficult to turn two old photographs and an extended interview with a writer into an hour of prime-time BBC2.

What we got instead was a bizarre mashup: part documentary and part drama. Boy, was it silly. The producers had coughed up for actors but not for locations, with the weird result that Ben Addis, who played Frederick Wicks, a journalist who reported the case, had to march through the 21st-century ticket barriers at Hackney Central station dressed in full Victorian garb (Thomas Briggs, a 70- year-old banker, was attacked in a first-class compartment of a commuter train to Hackney, where he lived as a gentleman in Clapton Square). It was a bit like watching Catweazle. (In case you don’t know, Catweazle is an ancient children’s TV series in which an 11thcentury wizard lands in 1970 and has to grapple with such inventions as the telephone.)

Even odder, Toby Jones, who provided the film’s voiceover, had to interrogate the various “witnesses” –more actors wearing stickon mutton-chop whiskers and bowler hats – from behind the camera, as if he were taking part in a school history project.

Actors do get in the way sometimes, don’t they? Wicks, determined to stay with his story right until the end, accompanied Franz Müller, the impoverished German tailor who was found guilty of the crime, up the steps to the scaffold, so there exists an eyewitness account of his judicial murder (he is said to have cried: “I did it!” in German as he made the drop).

Yet to hear his words, plainly read, would have been enough: Addis’s laboured pauses drained them of all pity.

One thing I will say, though: in Hackney, no one looked twice at the strange man in the frock coat and billycock hat. They rushed by, oblivious. In Leeds, where we travelled in the second episode of The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track (Tuesday 18 February, 9pm), it might have been a different story.

In Yorkshire, people do tend to gawp. It’s as much of a pastime as drinking beer and moaning. I notice that this fly-on-the-wall series has come in for a bit of a kicking from the critics so far: apparently, it doesn’t adequately explain why train tickets are so expensive. I think this misses the point. It’s a series about people, not business: you watch it for the crazy expressions on their faces and the delicious cadences of their speech, not to discover why a ticket bought on a train is 8,000 times more expensive than one purchased in advance, however disgraceful this discrepancy is.

In any case, the second film was better than the first. There was poor Craig, the transport police officer whose job it was to go and tell a mother working the night shift at Asda that her teenage son had been killed on the line while playing chicken. Then there was poor Bridie, a train manager who told us that she can look at her watch of a morning and know exactly which of her regular passengers will be locked in the loo and for how long (though not, thank goodness, why). And poor Jason, a driver on the Batley-Stalybridge route, where people are often so shamefully inebriated – on Saturdays, this line is used as a real ale trail – that there is a real danger they will topple in front of him as he pulls into the station.

This series isn’t a great ad for our beleaguered railways, slow and crowded and so easily ambushed by what the management calls “weather events”. Yet it is surely doing wonders for its foot soldiers, who appear to be on the fast track to sainthood – something I will try very hard to remember the next time I’m stiffed for a £200 return.