Francis Durbridge’s “Melissa”

One of our Christmas DVD treats was Francis Durbridge’s mystery drama Melissa, which was televised in 1974. Starring that very fine actor Peter Barkworth, it was in three parts and we watched over three weeks to get the original effect. Although we both remember seeing it when it was broadcast, luckily we didn’t recall more than the premise.

Guy Foster is an unemployed Fleet Street journalist who’s writing a novel. When he comes home one evening, his wife Melissa and their friends Paula and Felix are waiting to go to a party. Guy’s forgotten they’re going out and cries off as he’s tired. The others leave without him. Later that evening Melissa telephones him and persuades him to meet her at the home of another guest. When Guy stops at a police car to ask directions, he hears that a woman’s body has just been found. To his horror the corpse is Melissa.

From that moment Guy’s world disintegrates as he’s under suspicion for his wife’s murder. A baffling series of events seem to show that he’s been expertly framed as he struggles to find the truth before he’s arrested. The plot is full of the dazzling twists and cliff-hangers that were Francis Durbridge’s trademark. Guy starts to wonder just how well he knew his wife and who is out to destroy him?

Peter Barkworth was superb in a role that’s akin to Hitchcock with its innocent-in-peril theme. He was always one of my favourite actors, effortlessly natural and completely believable. He taught many distinguished actors at R.A.D.A and wrote several books about acting.

The supporting cast are also very good, including Moira Redmond, Joan Benham, Ronald Fraser and Ray Lonnen. Philip Voss is quietly compelling as the enigmatic police inspector.

Much of the drama takes place in the Fosters’ London flat which gives the feeling of watching a stage play and adds to the tense atmosphere. Melissa feels like a masterclass in acting and the scriptwriting of suspense. And it’s a great pleasure to see actors from television’s golden age of drama.

This was the second version of Melissa, the first was televised in 1964. Francis Durbridge then adapted his script into a novel – something he often did -published as My Wife Melissa three years later. In a prolific career Durbridge (1912-98) wrote forty-three novels, some in collaboration, seven stage plays and umpteen radio, film and television scripts. His most famous character was of course Paul Temple, closely followed by Tim Frazer.

Melissa is highly recommended and we’re looking forward to getting more of Francis Durbridge’s surviving dramas. It’s a sad loss that so many tapes were wiped by the BBC in the Sixties.


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