Virtual Murder is a now near forgotten short lived BBC television series from the summer of 1992 that can be summed up thus; A brave failure. But for me, being around 12 years old when it aired, it struck a chord somewhere and remained with me for many years, a hazy half memory of scenes, storylines and guest stars that haunted me until about five years or so ago when I managed to get my hands on the series.
The premise of the series, created by Brian Degas (a scriptwriter on 1968's Barbarella) and Harry Robertson (a film and TV soundtrack composer), was a fun one; Nicholas Clay starred as Dr John Cornelius, a lecturer in Psychology at an unnamed provincial University who stumbled into solving crimes alongside his vivacious red headed and rather gorgeous sidekick and lover Samantha Valentine played by Kim Thomson. The crimes themselves were odd ones, drawing heavily on the occult, the virtual reality and the downright strange. More, each case was people by oddballs and eccentrics, in the main played played by household names and favourites from the previous two decades of television like Jon Pertwee, Bernard Bresslaw, Hywel Bennett, Richard Todd and Peggy Mount, whilst occasionally incorporating comedic names of the day such as Helen Lederer, Tony 'Baldrick' Robinson and Julian Clary!
The inspiration was obvious; This was The Avengers for the 1990s.
So why did it fail?
Well frankly, one imagines at the time, the general viewing public weren't sure what to make of Virtual Murder. The 1980s and the 1990s were changing the landscape of TV, realism and earnestness were key, thanks to ground breaking shows at the time like The Bill, Casualty and EastEnders.
There was a clear disinterest in fantasy television, Doctor Who having been axed three years earlier after twenty six years on the BBC.
Light hearted, tongue in cheek crime solving simply left viewers baffled. Ratings for the opening episode, Meltdown To Murder, on Friday 24th July 1992 at 9:30pm were 6.53 million. However by episode four, A Torch For Silverado, 14th August the ratings were at 4.9 million and a second series was not commissioned as a result. The production itself blamed the summer evening scheduling, notorious difficult for programmes to break out in as many people are on holiday or out doing 'something less boring instead' (in the words of Why Don't You?) Oddly, such ratings today would be applauded as a success!
Looking back now, after so many years remembering the show, Virtual Murder is something of a disappointment. Unlike The Avengers which was shot gloriously on film in vivid colour and high production values thanks to co US financing, Virtual Murder was shot entirely on videotape with the atrocious in-house lighting style the BBC had back then (light everything like it's a gameshow or a snooker match) from the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham and on location around the Midlands city, Kidderminster and Milton Keynes. The incidental music was intrusive, clunky and comedic such as TV music was at the time, each scene seemed to have to have some scoring to it. The acting style is too full on in some cases and not full on enough in others; it's as if no one was entirely sure what they were working on.
It's a real shame, but you have to admire the bravery and the desire to do something oddball and eccentric in the vein of classic shows gone by.
Incidentally the series was originally due to be called Nimrod but the team were so taken with the mooted title of episode six, a thriller set in the virtual reality gaming world, Virtual Murder, that they adopted that as the overall title, changing the final episode to Dreams Imagic.
And yes, Julian Clary really was in it...
And that was it. The world of JC and Samantha came to an end of just six weeks and as I say, it's never been repeated or released officially (wink wink) Fantasy and Sci Fi was on the wane, and the Friday night 9:30pm schedule would settle down comfortably, still in the Midlands mind, with Dangerfield; a series which told the life and times of a Warwickshire GP and police surgeon (good, but a lot safer than VM) whilst the next Psychology lecturer investigating crime would be the distinctly more unflinchingly real and gritty Cracker, Granada's brilliant series which commenced a year after VM's broadcast. The BBC wouldn't try again for another two years when they brought Bugs to Saturday evenings in 1995, Jonathan Creek in the same slot two years later, Randall and Hopkirk in 2000 and finally, to great surprise Doctor Who, resurrected five years later in 2005 to great continuing success.