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The Persuaders! - A Death In The Family (1971)

Review by: Darrel Buxton

Perhaps the finest of all those fondly-remembered glossy ITC adventure series of its era, The Persuaders! may have been the most lavish and expensive-looking of the Lew Grade-backed shows circa 1970.
Devised and produced by Robert S. Baker, a familiar name to Brit horror buffs from his profitable and productive partnership with Monty Berman, The Persuaders! also employed many of our favourite directors (Roy Ward Baker, Val Guest, Basil Dearden, Leslie Norman and Peter Medak all helmed episodes) and frequently featured glamorous actresses with whom the fright flick fan ought to be well-acquainted. Not surprisingly, then, macabre subject matter occasionally filtered into the plots, especially when writer Terry Nation moved the action away from flashy Riviera/continental settings and brought the stories closer to home - notably in 'A Home Of One's Own', in which oil billionaire Danny Wilde (Tony Curtis) purchases a remote country cottage, on which a fake satanic cult appear to have their own designs.
With The Abominable Dr. Phibes hitting cinema screens around the same time, an all-out campy horror episode seemed a perfect choice, and so Nation penned 'A Death In The Family'. This took both Phibes and Ealing classic Kind Hearts And Coronets as its model, with the aristocratic family of Lord Brett Sinclair (Roger Moore) being bumped off one by one, their killer presumably having an eye on climbing the ladder of succession to the Sinclair dukedom.
'A Death In The Family' was directed by Sidney Hayers, who was bang in the middle of his 'horror period' with titles such as Assault and Revenge to his credit a year or two either side of his work on The Persuaders!. Considering the grim tone of his contemporary cinema outings, Hayers brings a surprisingly light and deft touch to this delightful piece of fluff, keeping it fast-moving and humorous, and permitting a handful of broad comedy performances - much more in keeping with Robert Fuest's work on Phibes than his own gritty urban shockers.
Roger Moore revels in the opportunity to play a quartet of fun roles, donning tweeds and false whiskers as victim number one, Sir Randolph Sinclair (a.k.a. 'The General'); clad in sailor's suit and thick beard as another doomed family member 'The Admiral'; and even appearing in outrageously unconvincing drag as 'Lady Agatha', in addition to his regular portrayal of man-about-town Brett.
A creepy, be-hatted and clown-masked murderer skulks around the various family estates, doing relatives in via a series of elaborate and deadly methods - the General, for instance, is blown to bits by an exploding toy tank which trundles across his lawn, while the Admiral falls victim to a remote-controlled battleship operated from a distance by our disguised mystery fiend. Cousin Onslow (Christopher Sandford) is the next to go - plummy-voiced he may be, but Onslow is an aspiring long-haired rocker who resides in a wild 70s pad writing weird psych-blues numbers, until the killer breaks into his downstairs apartment and wires his amp directly to the mains, giving a whole new meaning to the words 'electric guitar'…
Wine expert, home brewer and professional alcoholic Lance soon follows - a wonderful comic turn from the great Willie Rushton, this, pottering about in his cellar and enjoying some neat interplay with Curtis. Indicating the enormous vat containing several dozen gallons of his current concoction, Lance advises that "this has got to mellow - to age. I shan't be touching a drop of that until, ooh, tomorrow night!"
Naturally, he winds up being dumped head-first into the liquid, but what a way to go (and yes, Curtis does deliver the expected "I said that wine needed a little more body" pay-off!). Moultrie Kelsall's fate, as Scottish 'Uncle Angus', is one of the cruellest of the lot, squashed, bagpipes and all, when the hefty oak door at his castle gate is taken off its hinges by the crafty murderer. Cue another Curtis one-liner, "imagine - all that money, and he died flat".
Denholm Elliott's 'cousin Roland', recently arrived from Australia, has already been set up as a twitching, sweaty red herring, whose home is filled with African weaponry, tribal masks, and other exotic artefacts, but our suspicions are turned elsewhere when Curtis and Diane Cilento (playing 'Kate', one of the female Sinclairs) discover him poisoned on his living room floor. This all turns out to be a ruse, however - Roland is indeed the perpetrator of the evil crimes, and has feigned his own death in order to isolate Brett and the Duke himself (Roland Culver), shooting both men in the back as they relax on a leather sofa in the Duke's country house and claiming the Sinclair crown for his own. All is not what it seems, however, and Brett has a few surprises up his sleeve, leading to an action-packed and literally explosive finale.
'A Death In The Family' is one of the very best shows from the 24-episode run of The Persuaders!, a lovely mixture of fun, action, adventure and murder, with Moore in particular enjoying himself enormously - his turn as Lady Agatha, draped in shawl, twin set, pearls, blue rinse, and granny glasses, is a total joy. All the familiar trappings of this type of story are present - the bizarre methods of despatch, the disguised assassin lurking around in bushes or alleyways, the crossing off of names on a list, even Moore using chess pieces to represent the clan members living or dead - and any fan of the Phibes films or Theatre Of Blood would find much to their liking here.
In an hilarious coda, Culver is set up on a blind date with one 'Mrs. Schwartz', a native of the Bronx - if you thought the sight of a dragged-up Moore was unsightly, wait until you see his partner's efforts!

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