London in the 1890’s; gas lamps flickering hansom cabs trotting by; fog. What better setting for a series of programmes devoted to the history of crime detection, in which the specialist investigator tries to prove that his methods — dismissed then as modern, but accepted nowadays as the basis from which any CID man operates — could work?
From the ATV Television Show Book for 1963
The man who sets out to prove that they would work, despite all the obstructions of officialdom and the scoffers – is Sergeant Cork, detective.
The stories of Sergeant Cork have as their aim the accurate capturing of the flavour and atmosphere of the time. This was a period of tremendous change in British history. There were great extremes of wealth and poverty. London was a home for political exiles from all over the world, a hotbed of argument and debate.
Much of the action of the cases which Cork investigates show him in his office, set high in the attic of a Whitehall building; in his lodgings; in the public bar of a pub.
What of Cork himself? He is a man of about 42, a sergeant in the newly formed CID. He is unmarried, and lives in comfortable lodgings in the Bayswater Road district of London. He comes from lower middle-class parents, so that he is familiar with both sides of Victorian society. He started as a probationer P.C. on the beat, and joined the original Detective Department. His sympathy is with the underdog, but he does not tolerate fools gladly whether they are above or below him in rank, and his outspokenness has probably cost him promotion.
He is a well-known figure in London — and even elsewhere — mainly because the Press of the period gave considerable publicity to detectives. But beyond this he has a host of friends and acquaintances, as well as contacts in the meanest pub in Limehouse and in the houses of the great.
He is a passionate believer in scientific aids and wages a one-man war with H.Q. to achieve proper status and facilities for the CID. He is neat and clean, but often careless of his appearance as he gets worked up over a case. He is not worried about personal comfort or food and will spend the night on a chair in his office if pressed by work, and he will be as happy with an apple, bread and cheese, and pickles as with an elaborate meal. He doesn’t like violence or cruelty, but is able to defend himself and restrain a violent customer if necessary.
He has no close girl-friend, but there is a rumour that the girl he was engaged to, years before, died of injuries received when she was knocked down by a coach belonging to a merchant. The merchant was absolved, and the story goes that it was his wealth that enabled him to get off.
Who works with Cork? Well, there is Bob Marriott. He is about 25, a public school and university product who got into the CID through “back-stairs” influence. Bob went to these lengths because, as a young man, he developed a great interest in detection, much to the despair of his family, who regarded the police with complete disgust. He is tough and mentally alert. Inexperience and over-enthusiasm lead him into mistakes, and Cork often has to take him to task. But he is a pleasant chap and his enthusiasm and willingness to work encourages Cork to be patient with him.
To Bob, Cork is someone from a different world. His knowledge and experience of all sides of life fascinate him. He has no regular girl-friend — but a whole assortment of girls. He likes a pretty face and won’t miss an opportunity to improve an acquaintance if it occurs. Women find him attractive.
Like his chief, he is interested in scientific aids to detection.
Detective Joseph Bird is a different kettle of fish. A man of about 50, he is mainly interested in administration. He represents every thing that Cork dislikes: he is servile to superiors, bureaucratic and narrow in outlook. He is a family man, strongly religious, and a strict disciplinarian.
Cork and Bird are constantly at loggerheads, mostly over Cork’s attitude and activities. The sergeant is polite and respectful on the surface, but his manner conceals his contempt of Bird — and Bird knows this.
To his friends, Superintendent Billy Nelson is known as a handsome man, who is always stylishly dressed. A former Army officer, now in his 50’s, he retains something of the military bearing. Though there is a certain impish humour in his eyes, he is a man who can be tough, although he is fair.
Nelson admires and respects Cork, even though he doesn’t always understand what he is up to; but even then he is prepared to back him to the hilt, and he is the one who defends and protects him from outside attacks — and from Inspector Bird — though Cork does not always make it easy for him to do so.
Outside his work, who has an influence on Cork? Mrs. Fielding, his landlady, might be said to exert some influence — but not much. She is a neat, attractive, well-shaped woman in her 30’s, with a husband who is a clerk. Cork’s rent is valuable in supplementing the family income. He has the first-floor front room, which is cosy but not sumptuous. The house — in a terrace of lower-middle-class houses — is not as distinguished as, say, Sherlock Holmes’ rooms in Baker Street. This is a more humble background for Cork, whose salary is around the not princely figure of £200 a year.
Mrs. Fielding’s two children are constantly being hushed to silence when Cork is in the house, but without any great need, really, for they hold the famous detective in something like awe.
To play the role of Sergeant Cork, actor John Barrie was wooed from the grocery business which he runs in his native Yorkshire. With his curly bowler set jauntily, though not foppishly, his stout cane at the ready and his sidewhiskers bristling, he looks and plays the part to perfection. For when he strides the streets of old London, artificial though the cobblestones may be beneath his feet, he has transported himself back seventy-odd years… to the days when at least one policeman with ideas which many said were before their time proved that with determination and imagination the side of the law’ on which it was best to be was undoubtedly the right side.
Such a man is Sergeant Cork — detective.