This article first appeared in Kaleidoscope's Raiders of the Lost Archives 2 event brochure, published in 1994, and now out of print. It had a considerable impact at the time, and ultimately led to a spectacularly successful thirtieth anniversary Public Eye tribute at the 1995 Kaleidoscope event. Joining us for a retrospective panel were series star Alfred Burke, co-creator Roger Marshall and prolific director Jonathan Alwyn, who impressed us all with their enthusiasm and courtesy. The sight of Alfred Burke watching a younger version of himself in vintage Public Eye episodes throughout the day was strange to say the least. We hope to release highlights of the panel on video in the future. Only four weeks after our Public Eye tribute, the series made an unexpected return to British screens on satellite repeats channel UK Gold, much to everyone's surprise, not least Alfred Burke and Roger Marshall, neither of whom were aware of any plans for a re-run. The story doesn't end there either; To follow up his contributions to the 1995 event brochure, Roger Marshall plans to write a new story about Frank Marker, set in the present day, for a future Kaleidoscope event magazine.
Public Eye assessed by Adrian E.C. Petford.
Next year will see the thirtieth anniversary of the arrival on our screens of Public Eye, the detective series with a difference that topped the ratings in its heyday and secured a lasting place in the consciousness of the viewing public throughout its ten year run. The everyday adventures of Frank Marker, a disillusioned and footsore enquiry agent who walked the streets of a twilight world inhabited by innumerable victims of society and the low-life of the criminal underworld, struck a chord with the public for its realistic and uncompromising approach to the subject matter. In its day, it was an appealing alternative to the gloss and escapism of the ITC film series or imported detective fodder. Yet today the series remains largely forgotten save for among the ranks of vintage television enthusiasts where it can still command a large and loyal audience, as has been witnessed at Kaleidoscope screenings over the last few years. These have clearly shown that Public Eye stands up every bit as well as its contemporaries and puts much of today's television to shame, which makes its neglect all the more difficult to understand. It has as much appeal today as it had three decades ago, and deserves a place of reverence in the annals of TV history, such as that occupied by its stablemate Callan.
Public Eye aimed to overturn all the established cliches of television detective series and present the world of the enquiry agent as it really was. Frank Marker did not operate from a plush office or have a bottomless expense account; his base was a dingy top floor room or under the pavements in the corner of a basement, sparsely furnished with the essentials of his trade: a desk, two chairs, a filing cabinet, battered typewriter, telephone and gas ring, to provide meagre hospitality to his clients in the form of tea or coffee drunk from battered mugs. Marker lived under the constant threat of bankruptcy and eviction, struggling to secure enough regular cases to pay the rent and scrape a lacklustre existence. Unable to afford a secretary, he had to handle the clerical side of the business by himself as well as undertake all the enquiries; a recurring image in the series is of Marker in his office in the small hours of the morning, typing out a report with two fingers after a hard day tramping the streets. His fees - £6 per day plus expenses - were modest and he was not fussy in selecting assignments; anyone who walked into his office with any problem could hire him. This was one of the great strengths of the series in that the format was potentially limitless. One week Marker might be hired to trace a missing person; the next, he could be gathering evidence for a divorce or trying to foil the activities of a blackmailer. His work could range from the unbelievably mundane (such as in "Works With Chess, Not With Life" when Marker is employed by a solicitor to trick a "malingering" woman into giving herself away after she has tried to sue a hotel for allegedly causing her case of food poisoning) to the downright bizarre (as in "And When You've Paid the Bill, You're None the Wiser", in which Marker has to investigate the reasons for a young student's suicide and uncovers a seething hotbed of family rivalries and resentment in the process). The success of this format was based on the fact that the viewer, like Marker himself, had no idea where the next case was coming from, or indeed what it would entail.
As equally compelling as this broad format was the hero of the piece, Frank Marker himself, unforgettably played by Alfred Burke. Although RADA-trained Burke had been acting professionally since 1939, and had already notched up a distinguished career in British films and on television, guesting in series such as Armchair Theatre and The Avengers, it took Public Eye to make him a household name. His skilled and subtle performance brought Marker's complex character plausibly to life and his swarthy, weatherbeaten appearance was perfectly suited to the image of this shabby figure dressed in an everpresent off-white raincoat. But Burke's input into his screen character was not merely restricted to this compelling portrayal - he often had ideas which found their way into the programme. The hero of Public Eye was originally to be called Frank Marvin, a name that smacked too heavily of square-jawed American screen heroes, until Burke suggested the altogether stronger and more inspiring name Marker, which was adopted without hesitation. He also could show a unique insight into Marker's personality and lifestyle; in a 1969 TV Times interview, he summed up his alter ego perfectly in one sentence: "Marker doesn't want anything, except to be left alone".
Marker as a character held a unique fascination for the audience; an intense, unmarried loner, he had no known family and found it difficult to forge friendships, but was nonetheless extremely compassionate and a fierce champion of the underdog. His strong moral sense of right distinguished him from most of his fellow enquiry agents, morally bankrupt individuals raking over other people's misery for cash. This fact was highlighted in "Don't Forget You're Mine", when one character incredulously asks Marker if he is "a private detective with honour?, as if the two were mutually exclusive. But this sympathetic nature had its drawbacks - Marker had a tendency to get too personally involved, and his genuine concern for a client's interests could often be exploited for unscrupulous ends. In "The Beater and the Game", Marker's client, using a false name, asks him to trace her missing husband in order to secure maintenance from him. Although suspicious of her motives from the start, he proceeds with the investigation, only to discover later that she is in fact Maureen Gorman, wife of a violent criminal who has just died in prison, and whose brother, an Irish-American mobster, is out for vengeance against the CID officer who corruptly prepared the case. Marker has unwittingly led the gang to their quarry, who is living in seclusion under a false name. In this instance he was not taken in for long, but all to often the usually astute Marker completely misjudged a client. In "Well - There Was This Girl, You See...", Marker's reluctance to act on his client Mary Freeman's insistence that her ex-boyfriend has stolen a valuable necklace - he suspects she is doing it to satisfy a grudge - leads to the thief getting away with it, taking Mary, who was his accomplice all along, with him, and leaving an embarrassed Marker to explain what has happened to the police. The episode "Don't Forget You're Mine" saw Marker's sympathy for a woman whose husband has deserted her have disastrous repercussions. When the man was located, it transpired that he divorced Marker's client three years previously and she has been victimising him ever since, so much so that he has had to assume a false name and move house regularly to keep ahead of her. A horrified Marker, the fourth enquiry agent to follow the same trail, then acts for the husband and his new wife in trying to keep his former client at bay. Even later in his screen career, Marker, who himself confessed to "live and learn... the hard way", could still be taken in occasionally. In "The Trouble with Jenny" he fails to realise for a considerable time that the outwardly sympathetic Jenny is in fact the totally depraved blackmailer that he has been hired to investigate.
Marker was an appealing, albeit flawed hero and this is probably the major factor in the series' longevity. Alfred Burke was quick to pinpoint why Marker had such a hold on audiences: "People are concerned about Marker because there are certain problems in the character relevant to us all. He's real as opposed to fantasy". This realistic portrayal of a character as fallible and exhibiting a full range of human weaknesses served to enhance the overall realism of Public Eye. Marker very rarely failed in any task to which he was assigned, but in satisfying a client's brief he often made things worse for the people involved. In "The Man Who Didn't Eat Sweets" he is hired to investigate whether a woman's husband is having an affair, only to discover after following him that he is a bigamist with two other wives and many illegitimate children. Unable to face telling his client the truth, Marker has to lie and in doing so, covers the bigamist's crime. And in "Ward of Court" Marker's actions result in a child who is the subject of a custody battle having to live with his mother when in fact he prefers to continue living with his father.
The twilight world inhabited by the enquiry agent, constantly walking a tightrope to avoid the attentions of both the police and the criminal fraternity, was expertly realised throughout the series. The first three series of Public Eye were produced by ABC Television, a company that already had a proud record for realistic drama based on the excellent Armchair Theatre series, and Public Eye followed in this tradition. Marker's world was harsh and uncompromising, a place where pimps, blackmailers and profiteers could flourish and organised crime was king. This deeply depressing picture of society was underlined by the use, initially at least, of distinctly unglamorous settings. In the first series Marker tramped the streets of London trying to avert or put right the many evils that beset the capital city. In "The Morning Wasn't So Hot" he tries to provide an escape for a young runaway who has been lured into the world of vice, urging her that if she gets in too far, there will be no escape. She is unmoved by his advice, and ends up in the clutches of a crime syndicate destined for a life of sex slavery. Even when Marker was taken off the streets to undertake tasks for clients in the world of big business, he often was no better off. Witness "Nobody Kills Santa Claus", in which he takes a beating for a client whom he does not even like. A recurring motif for the series was introduced at the start of the second series, namely the fact that Marker did not like to stay in any one place too long. Whenever he thought business was exhausted or circumstances made it necessary he would move on, and in "All the Black Dresses She Wants", Marker left his old life behind for a new place in which to employ his talents - the second city, Birmingham. The move northwards saw no improvement in Marker's lifestyle and he quickly discovered that Birmingham was as beset by problems as London had been. Criminals were just as ready and able to exploit him, as he would discover to his cost less than two years later. Whilst acting for insurers over some stolen jewellery, Marker inadvertently took the goods back to his office, was visited by the police and thereupon arrested for receiving stolen property. After pleading guilty to the charge, he was sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment and committed to Winson Green prison. This episode, "Cross that Palm When We Come to It" showed that, after three series, Marker had finally fallen foul of his own twilight world. After so many close scrapes, it was inevitable that Marker would eventually make a mistake, and the irony of someone who had always refused to knowingly break the law being left to carry the can was a fitting end to the first phase of the programme.
Public Eye was resurrected by new franchise-holders Thames in 1969 and we next encountered Marker, transferred to Ford open prison and working part-time on a building site, on the verge of release on probation after serving a year of his sentence. Once free, Marker travelled to Brighton, a distinctly more idyllic setting than the urban wastelands he had left behind, but it quickly became obvious that appearances were deceptive. After only a few hours in Brighton and still disorientated after his time in prison, Marker found himself persuaded into a casual liaison with a woman who attempted to steal his wallet once he was rather the worse for drink. Constantly under scrutiny from now on by both the police and his probation officer, Marker found that, even when he was finally allowed to set up again in his old job, clients were few and far between. The use of Brighton as a location provided an interesting visual contrast to London and Birmingham, but also successfully underlined the point that for enquiry agents, every place was essentially the same. Crime, corruption and people with all manner of problems were just as common in this seaside town as they had been in the big cities, and the same could be said of Windsor, the town to which Marker moved after recognising the fact that in Brighton he would always be dogged by the police and never have true freedom of action. The range of Marker's work still proved to be very diverse, and this helped to guarantee the continued popularity of the series.
This consistent portrayal of Marker's work and lifestyle as never-changing wherever he was based might suggest that Public Eye could have easily become stuck in a creative rut and excessively formulaic. That fate has befallen many lesser series, but Public Eye remained fresh and innovative throughout its ten years on the screen; some episodes are better than others, and some do follow an obvious formula, but there were many innovations throughout the seven series to mitigate this tendency. First of all, most importantly, were the regular changes of location. Whenever the series started to tread the same territory, Marker would move elsewhere which revamped the overall look of the series as well as necessitating different types of storylines to fit the new location. Marker's stay in prison had a major effect on the future development of Public Eye from that point onwards in that he would no longer be able to avoid the attentions of the police and had become known to elements of the criminal fraternity. In series four, when Marker is on probation and trying to re-establish himself, Public Eye became much more focused around his own story rather than those of his clients - again a clever move to satisfy viewers who found Marker himself a lot more interesting than some of his cases. The production team constantly experimented with the format both in terms of new types of storyline and changes to Marker's circumstances. Whilst on probation, the only way Marker can get back into his old line of work is to join a private enquiry agency and work with colleagues. This was interesting in that it showed how a man used to working alone and being his own boss had to accept the idea of working for someone else, and follow their rules and methods. Needless to say, the arrangement was shortlived, and Marker, disillusioned with the way the agency handled its cases, left and set up on his own again in "A Fixed Address", shortly after which he left Brighton altogether. Similarly, his partnership with Ron Gash in the seventh series quickly came to an end, and Public Eye drew to a close after 87 episodes with Marker in much the same situation as when he first appeared - working alone, in a dingy run-down office and always in need of enough regular work to pay the rent.
Another innovation was the introduction, in the Thames episodes, of semi-regular characters, that provided continued reference points for the audience aside from Marker himself. During his stay in Windsor, Marker struck up a rare friendship with Det. Insp. Firbank (played by Ray Smith) of the local CID and this was of great benefit to both of them. Each could help the other on a strictly unofficial basis, although neither completely trusted the other's motives, and any help given was strictly quid pro quo. Firbank's involvement in the series was a welcome move and he provided an interesting foil for the enigmatic Marker as well as illustrating the fact that Marker would now co-operate with the police to an extent, something that had been unthinkable ever since he had been in prison. The excellent Peter Childs played Marker's associate Ron Gash for several episodes of the final series, and his involvement was equally significant, in that it showed how another enquiry agent operated and the methods he employed, providing an interesting contrast to Marker. Other semi-regular characters, such as Marker's landlady in Brighton, Mrs. Mortimer (Pauline Delaney) were of lesser importance, but occasionally highlighted different aspects of Marker's personality.
The production style of Public Eye developed massively over its ten year run. The ABC episodes were largely if not entirely studiobound but they did not lose any impact given this limitation. Technology was at a stage where the cameras could move with greater fluidity and this reduced the common tendency for studiobound productions to look overly staged. The use of extreme facial close-up shots and small, confined sets enhanced the series' claustrophobic, introspective atmosphere. Extremely strong plots and characterisation helped to cover the other production limitations. When the series was granted some exterior work, such as in "Don't Forget You're Mine", when Marker is seen travelling extensively around Birmingham to emphasise Public Eye's new location, the effect was stunning. The Thames episodes contained a lot of location work as standard, but continued to innovate by the inclusion of some marvellous set-pieces, such as the excellently directed sequence conveying Marker's disorientation after his release from prison in "Welcome to Brighton?". A word of credit should go as well to the production team for constantly updating the opening and closing titles - this meant that each new series was heralded with a fresh look. Special title sequences were designed for significant episodes in the series, such as "Welcome to Brighton?", at the start of which Marker is still in prison. Cue a title sequence based around Marker's prison file, complete with mug shots, to convey this new starting point for Public Eye for the benefit of new viewers who may not have seen the ABC-produced episodes. Of course the introduction of colour had a major influence on the overall ambience of the series. The Thames strike over the use of new colour technology hampered this at first, and meant that a clutch of the fifth series' episodes were still made in monochrome, but when colour did finally arrive the team did not fall into the trap of making things look too garish - Marker's world was still one of drab, pastel shades. The one constant in the series, largely unchanged throughout, was Robert Earley's downbeat, doleful theme tune which perfectly conveyed the atmosphere of the series - a classic theme that is still widely remembered today.
Public Eye could boast some of the most highly respected and professional names in the industry among its production team and writers. Experienced ABC stalwarts Don Leaver, Richard Bates and John Bryce, fresh from their collective success on The Avengers, skilfully guided the first two series before handing over to Michael Chapman, former producer of another Kaleidoscope favourite, Undermind, and probably the biggest single creative influence on Public Eye for its remaining five series. As producer and story editor, Chapman's contribution to the series as a whole cannot be underestimated - as well as being responsible for fashioning its overall development, he oversaw the commissioning and editing of scripts, ensuring they were in keeping with Public Eye's established style. In addition to this heavy workload, Chapman somehow found time to pen several of Public Eye's most memorable episodes himself, written in his characteristically complex style. Robert Love, Lloyd Shirley and Kim Mills also deserve considerable credit for their work on Public Eye as producers and executive producers at various times; Mills was also one of the series' most prolific directors. Other directors employed on Public Eye make up an impressive roll-call: Pathfinders... helmer Guy Verney; Patrick Dromgoole, future managing director of HTV; today's guest Jonathan Alwyn, who directed six episodes for ABC and Thames, including "Unlucky for Some", Marker's last case; David Wickes, the talented producer/director who went on to bring us Marlowe - Private Eye and Euston Films' Jack the Ripper; Douglas Camfield, one of the finest directors of the television era, and future Euston Films stalwarts James Goddard and Piers Haggard are just some of the names that ensured Public Eye's overall success and continued visual excellence. The writers employed were equally impressive. As well as series co-creator (with Anthony Marriott) Roger Marshall, contributors to Public Eye included Robert Banks Stewart, Philip Broadley, Richard Harris, Brian Hayles, Robert Holmes, Trevor Preston and David Whitaker, all trusted hands who could guarantee top-drawer script quality.
With a pedigree such as this it seems a terrible waste that, save for screenings at Kaleidoscope and the BFI, Public Eye remains gathering dust on the archive shelves. Unrepeated since the late seventies, the series made a fleeting return to ITV in 1989, when an episode - the uncharacteristically weak "Who Wants to Be Told Bad News?" - was screened alongside Callan, The Sweeney and Van der Valk to commemorate Thames' 21st anniversary. The ABC-produced episodes went the same way as most of their other finest works - the furnace - and now, sadly, only five examples remain, two of which escaped the attentions of the archive barbarians by accident and now reside safely with ABC/Lumiere. The other three ABC episodes are held by the BFI. But all of the Thames productions exist in broadcastable format, and, given the advent of satellite channels devoted to archive material such as UK Gold, the time has never been better for Public Eye to make a belated and overdue return to our screens. Let us hope that the right decision is made soon. In the meantime, enjoy the episode to be screened today. "Shades of White", appropriately shot in monochrome due to the Thames strike, is a strong instalment from the fifth series, exhibiting all the qualities that made Public Eye successful such as a strong, character-driven plot and excellent performances. It also serves as a good introduction to Frank Marker himself, and to the series as a whole.
Copyright © Adrian E.C. Petford 1994. All Rights Reserved.
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