The BBC TV adaption of The Wimbledon Poisoner, broadcast towards the end of 1994 seems very much typical of its time, the John Major-era of the early, mid 1990s: dull suburbia, sex scandals, an hankering for back to basics innocence far too late. It finds itself in a post sexual revolution, pre-internet netherland (who these days would audibly perform research on domestic poison at Wimbledon general library?).
From the start, the plot is about a couple in an hysterically antagonistic relationship. He decides to poison her. The characterisations are very exagerated and indeed hysterical (Alison Steadman initially is completely OTT, Robert Lindsay at first cynically jaded, begins to catch up).
The two parts to this are quite long, at 75 minutes each. The first is the one I preferred: Henry is set on poisoning Elinor, but unfortunately she refuses any (thalium doctored) chicken. Luckily the visiting family Doctor (quite a tit, played by Larry Lamb) very much would like some, and dies a horribly vivid death as a result. Henry’s turmoil at this unforseen turn of events is somewhat let out of the bag by the rather odd and rambling address that he gives at the Doctor’s funeral, a tour de force from Lindsay that is the funniest part for me.
Henry however, decides to have another crack at this wife by poisoning the punch at the wake. The result, when everyone samples the concoction, is a kind of Bosch-meets-Jonestown Massacre scenario (three more deaths including the local dentist). However this part concludes with a realisation from Henry that he might have gone too far, and he and Elinor have a reapproachment that endures through the second part.
Accordingly, this realisation causes the second part features Elinor less and the dull, dogged detective Russell Rush much more. We gradually realise that no, Henry indeed cannot be entirely responsible for the horrible scenes we continue to see (none of the victims are particularly sympathetic people quite the opposite in fact) and the twist: the handog face looking over Henry is a much more effective successor as the Wimbledon poisoner. Phillip Jackson is a brilliant comic actor, but Rush isn’t as good as I remembered back in 1994 – perhaps rewatching knowing the twist caused the thing to fizzle out for me. The wrap-up; guilt, confession, realisation and community pitchforks all seemed to play out undramatically.
The Wimbledon Poisoner isn’t a truly classic farce (it’s long enough to drift), but it’s a worthy one and something of a successor to the midlife crises and mental neuroses of Reginald Perrin.