23 January 1965 - 7 April 1975
 
41 episodes, 3 seasons (ABC)
46 episodes, 4 seasons (Thames)

 


For ten years, and nearly ninety episodes, Alfred Burke played Private Enquiry Agent Frank Marker in the ABC/Thames series Public Eye. Despite its longevity, the series has been almost entirely forgotten since it ended in 1975. Thankfully, the dust was shaken off 35 of the colour episodes in 1995, when they were repeated by satellite/cable channel UK Gold, which went some way towards gaining the series a new audience. However, before these episodes, there were another four seasons in B/W, stretching right back to January 1965…

The series opens with Marker, an unmarried loner in his early forties (although Burke was actually several years older) working alone as an enquiry agent in London. He would tackle fifteen cases that year, although only two of them, 'Nobody Kills Santa Claus', and 'The Morning Wasn't So Hot' survive in the archives today, and they have never been repeated. This is because ABC, in common with almost all other television companies of the time, did not recognise the importance of maintaining their archives, and so the 405-line videotapes on which fourteen of the fifteen episodes were held were wiped. The same fate befell the next two seasons, also produced by ABC, although 16mm telerecordings of two ABC episodes, including 'Nobody Kills Santa Claus', were discovered by accident in the early 90's. This brought the total up to 5 episodes still in existence from the first 41 produced.

'Nobody Kills Santa Claus', the second episode to be transmitted ('The Morning Wasn't So Hot' had been intended to start the series, but was eventually transmitted twelfth) is interesting to watch today, as it is very different in style from how the show would develop in later seasons. The plot concerns Marker being employed as a bodyguard to protect the life of an unlikeable businessman who is being blackmailed. Marker would rarely take on this kind of job in the future, partly because of his age, and also because Burke did not look particularly 'tough'. From the outset, Burke had hoped that Marker would be different to the more 'square-jawed' private eyes who had been seen up until that point. For this reason, it was his suggestion that the character's name be changed from 'Marvin' to 'Marker'. However, even though it was written by Roger Marshall (the series' co-creator with Anthony Marriott who would go on to script many of the series' finest episodes)  'Nobody Kills Santa Claus' does still contain noticeable elements of those more conventional series. The quirkier elements of the series took longer to emerge.

For the second and third seasons, Marker moved to a new office above a timber yard in Birmingham but had the same problems there as he had in London. In particular, the nature of his work brings him into close contact with both the police and criminals, both sides tending to treat him with great suspicion, and even contempt. By this time, Marker's character was developing, in particular his sense of 'right' which would be the driving force behind many of his actions in years to come. Marker was still something of an anti-hero in these episodes (something that to a greater or lesser extent would always be true) and interviews at the time emphasised his unlikeable qualities. In the first episode of the second season, 'All The Black Dresses She Wants' he goes to great lengths to try and prove that a man confined to a wheelchair is not, in fact, paralysed. Only three episodes from the Birmingham seasons exist today, although a 7-minute extract does also exist from the otherwise missing episode 'It Must Be The Architecture - Can't Be The Climate', which was included on ABC promotion reel.
 
Marker's tenuous position on the fringes of the criminal world finally got the better of him at the end of the third season. In the (now sadly lost) episode 'Cross That Palm When We Come To It', he acts as a go-between for a solicitor and some jewel thieves who want exchange what they stole for the reward money. He takes the jewellery back to his office, where the police arrest him for handling stolen goods. It transpires that the solicitor who hired him was bogus, and has disappeared without trace leaving Marker to carry the can. He is sentenced to 2 and a half years in prison.

By the time the fourth season was produced in 1969, ABC had merged with Associated-Rediffusion to form a new production company, Thames, who were to hold their franchise until 1992. This fourth season differs from those that preceded it in several ways. It was only half as long, and primarily produced on the new higher-definition 625-line videotape, but most importantly all seven episodes still exist on D3 conversions of the original videotape. Sadly however, since they did not feature in the UK Gold repeat run, they remain forgotten by the general public. This is a great shame since the evidence suggests that this fourth season was the pinnacle of the series.

Plot-wise, the fourth season also differs from the first three. Marker leaves prison on probation, and moves to Brighton where he lodges with Mrs Helen Mortimer (Pauline Delany - who had previously guest-starred in one of the existing second season episodes, 'Don't Forget You're Mine'). These episodes, all written by series co-creator Roger Marshall, focused more on Marker himself, who had been the only regular character in the series up until this point. This change of emphasis was in response to viewer demand, and played up one of the series' greatest strengths - its characterisation.

Burke's subtle performance as Marker was consistently excellent throughout the seven seasons, and the limited number of other regular characters gave him plenty of room for development. The character of Marker, well catered for by the uniformly high quality of the scripts, is the main linchpin of the series. Neither hero nor anti-hero, the viewer identifies with Marker, sympathises with him, and above all is always interested in him, and Alfred Burke's portrayal can never be faulted.

Such was the quality of the fourth season, it was chosen in 1974 to form the basis of the first (and to my knowledge, only) Public Eye novelisation, 'Cross That Palm When I Come To It' by Audley Southcott.. The story begins with the case which sends Marker to prison, and goes on to cover four of the episodes of the fourth season (all in less than 200 pages), ending with Marker leaving for Windsor, his next home. It would appear to be very accurate, with only a few changes made, as explained in the dedication at the beginning:

"To Glenda Mortimer

DISCLAIMER: MR MARKER WISHES IT TO BE KNOWN THAT AS HE IS NEXT DOOR TO BEING SKINT, IT'S NO GOOD SUEING HIM FOR LIBEL. Also, because he doesn't want to spend any more time in prison, all the names are changed. And the times. And the addresses. And the phone numbers. Except Mrs Mortimer, who said she'd be proud. This book is therefore dedicated to her."

Unfortunately one of the few mistakes in the book is actually Mrs Mortimer's name - stated explicitly on screen several times as 'Helen'. Also, she is not a widow in the programme, but separated with her husband Denis returning in 'A Fixed Address'. Despite these small points, the book remains entertaining and it seems a shame that "Public Eye no.1" appears to be the only one.

At the end of the fourth season, Marker sets up in business again in Brighton in 'A Fixed Address', which effectively draws together all the threads of the preceding season and resolves the relationships between the principal characters. Interestingly, it was made in colour, although the rest of the season was not and the consecutive VTR numbers of the later episodes imply that they were made at similar times. It is also doubly surprising since it was transmitted some six weeks before the official launch of ITV colour transmissions in November 1969. The episode's low profile has meant that this fact has gone largely unrecorded with even the Kaleidoscope Drama Guide listing it as existing only on monochrome videotape. This error would possibly imply a mistake in the records at Thames (now part of Pearson Television).

Several theories could explain it having been made in colour. Possibly it was done as a test of the new colour equipment (the titles and Thames ident are the same as on the other episodes of the season), or perhaps it was originally scheduled for a date after the official launch of colour. Equally, it could simply have been an attempt by Thames to build up a back catalogue of colour programming. Since little of the paperwork from this time remains, we may never know.

Between the fourth and fifth seasons came an interesting one-off: an Armchair Theatre entitled 'Wednesday's Child' which took the character of Shirley Marlowe (originally played by Stephanie Beacham) from the fourth season episode 'My Life's My Own' and explored her immediate past and the reasons behind her attempted suicide. Although Marker does not appear in the play, and Shirley was recast (she was played by Prunella Ransome), it's Public Eye credentials are helped by it having been written by series co-creator Roger Marshall, and directed by Kim Mills, who also directed 'My Life's My Own'. Alfred Burke had appeared in an earlier Armchair Theatre, ('Edward the Confessor' with Beryl Reid and Ian Holm) in February 1969, some five months before the start of the fourth season of Public Eye. He also had a major role around the time 'Wednesday's Child' was transmitted, starring as Edgar Lloyd with Hannah Gordon in "The Exiles", made by Yorkshire Television. This was a critically-acclaimed trilogy of consecutive Saturday Night Theatre's concerning the life of a 'normal Oxford family'.

From the fourth season onwards, and particularly in the fifth, a small number of other actors joined Burke on the programme as regular or semi-regular characters. In addition to Pauline Delany, the fourth season also featured John Grieve as Marker's probation officer Jim Hull, while the fifth season saw the introduction of one of the series most prominent characters: Detective Inspector Percy Firbank (Ray Smith). By this time, Marker had moved to new premises on Eton High Street in Windsor and this meant that Firbank was very interested to know about such a potentially 'dodgy' character setting up shop in his area. After overcoming his initial distrust, Firbank would become good friends with Marker - a relationship which occasionally proved helpful to them both professionally, although the ethics of such an alliance sometimes troubled Marker. This became a focus for one of the key themes of the series, Marker's battle to reconcile his own sense of integrity with the decidedly shady world in which he was often forced to operate. By the time Marker leaves Windsor in the final season, Firbank clearly considers him to be a good friend. This feeling was not entirely mutual, but Marker rarely allowed anyone to get close to him, not even Helen Mortimer, who re-appeared several times in later seasons, and clearly cared deeply about him.

Another semi-regular, albeit a slightly less well developed one was Nell Holdsworth (Brenda Cavendish). She worked at an antique shop on the same road as Marker's office, and the two got quite friendly. This also provided openings for Marker to investigate several cases of theft and forgery involving the antiques from the shop, primarily in the fifth season.

From the fifth season onwards, the series was predominantly produced in colour, although the first five episodes recorded for the fifth season (some of which were eventually spread throughout it) were still black and white, due to a strike. One notable episode from this season is 'I Always Wanted A Swimming Pool', in which Marker investigates the possibility that Charles Luss (Cyril Luckham) is selling forged artwork to foreign businessmen. This episode is a fine example of one of Public Eye's most appealing traits, which is that it does not spoon-feed the viewer all the answers by the end of the episode. In this case, it is left up to the viewer to decide whether Luss's incredible explanation for his activities is true, or whether the paintings were in fact forged after all. Sometimes, of course, the story is better served by an unambiguous explanation, and Public Eye does provide them where necessary. In 'John VII, Verse 24', (written by Peter Hill, a former detective in Scotland Yard's Murder Squad) a young policeman hires Marker to look into the possibility of corruption in the local police force, with Firbank coming under suspicion. The evidence seems overwhelming…

Because ABC had a weekend franchise at this time, the early seasons went out on Saturday nights, in the same slot filled by Redcap during its run, but from season four onwards, Public Eye regularly played in the 'Wednesday Night Drama Slot' at 9pm. The Brighton season followed repeats of Man in A Suitcase, while from 'Transatlantic Cousins' onwards, the fifth season followed the first episodes of Jason King. Season 7, in early 1975, moved to Monday nights, in weeks overlapping with the Thursday night showing of the first season of another, more well-known Thames production: The Sweeney.

The 1972 season continued in a similar vein to the previous one, with Marker working on a wide variety of cases, from investigating the suspicious bankruptcy of an apparently rich local businessman to looking after a lady's cat while she visits a health farm. Of course, in the latter case all does not go according to plan! The cases he took on were always varied and his work gave the series plenty of scope. One week he could uncover a bigamist, while the next week he tried to recover a debt and another week he would be ensuring no one tampered with some rare orchids! However, the plots were rarely the point of the series, which concentrated more on its detailed and interesting characters. They were made all the more interesting by the fact they clearly lived in 'the real world'. Public Eye is one of only a few series to consistently find a middle ground between the glamour and fantasy of ITC film series such as The Saint, and the brutal 'grittiness' of the later crime dramas such as The Sweeney. By doing this, it creates a world which the majority of the viewers can identify with.

The sixth season also saw some experimentation with the format of the series. 'The Man Who Said Sorry' has only three characters: Marker, his client and in the last few minutes, Firbank. Almost the whole episode consists of a long conversation between Marker and the man who has come to find him, and what starts off looking like a simple case becomes more and more complicated as the episode goes on. A cynical viewer might suggest that such an episode was done for budgetary reasons, using only the regular sets and so few actors, and yet it has some location filming in Windsor (something almost all episodes had at this time) and a large number of extras in the pub scene at the end. While the overall success of the episode is doubtful, it remains an interesting attempt to do something different, as was the following episode, 'Horse and Carriage'. Transmitted just before Christmas 1972, this episode took a break from the more serious subjects usually tackled by the series and was instead a light-hearted farce centring on a couple who both suspect each other of infidelity, and hire someone to investigate. By the end, the episode verges on the pantomime and the end credits were accompanied by a medley of Christmas carols instead of the usual theme. Whilst a huge contrast to the more highly-regarded episodes of the series, 'Horse and Carriage' is never less than entertaining, and very suitable for the festive period.

After a Christmas break, the series returned for another seven episodes, including 'It's A Woman's Privilege', in which Helen Mortimer reappears, and asks Frank to help her son, Nick, out of trouble. Nick, an accountant, appears to be being set up as a scapegoat by his unscrupulous employers, and the plot becomes very complicated as Marker sifts through the company's complicated financial arrangements. Despite this, the episode remains very rewarding for the interplay between the main characters.

The character-driven nature of the series came to the fore again at the beginning of the final, seventh, season, which came some two years after the previous one. In the first episode, 'Nobody Wants To Know' Marker tangles with some gangsters over a horse-doping racket, and after ignoring their warnings to drop the case on the grounds that he "doesn't like being bullied", is badly beaten up. The episode is given a lot of suspense and a sense of foreboding by Douglas Camfield's superb direction. The next episode, 'How About A Cup of Tea', is entirely concerned with Marker and how he reacts to his friends, particularly Firbank and Helen Mortimer, rallying round him. This is a throwback to the '"Marker-centric" fourth season, and plays greatly on the series strengths of writing, acting and characterisation. As Marker learns about himself, the viewer too learns about him as he gets over his self-pity and depression. Burke, Delany and Smith are on top form, and make the most of a very good script, in this case the work of John Kershaw. In the following episode he reluctantly gets his own back on the people who attacked him, getting in trouble with the law once again in the process. In the course of this episode he also decides to enter into a partnership with Ron Gash (Peter Childs), a cheerful ex-policeman with some very different ideas about the job. Although a likeable man, Gash is far more profit-motivated than Marker, who has never shown a great deal of interest in money unless a large amount of it appears to be coming his way, and this causes some friction between them. Gash also gave the series some lighter moments, such as in 'They All Sound Simple At First', where he tries to tactfully suggest Marker gets some more expensive-looking clothes to impress the clients. This is typical of Gash's approach to 'the business'. However, it quickly becomes apparent that their partnership isn't working, and they part amicably in 'What's To Become Of Us?'.

For the second half of the season, Marker goes back to working alone and moves to Chertsey where he stays until the end of the season, which was also the last time we would see him. The series ended with the thirteenth episode 'Unlucky For Some', a very strong episode containing many of the ingredients which made Public Eye such a success. In it, Marker is hired by a hotel owner to investigate the strange behaviour of his wife. It turns out that her first husband is alive, and that she is being blackmailed about it. In a pleasingly unusual series ending, Marker finds her first husband, and plans to claim a large reward for finding him, only to discover that 15 minutes earlier, the blackmailer had carried out his threat and claimed the money himself. Marker gets nothing, as usual.
 

Although his financial circumstances had not changed, Marker himself underwent a number of subtle changes over the ten-year period. Going to prison changed everything for him, and its repercussions were always felt from then on. The Police never really trusted him afterwards, if they ever had, and he was never allowed to forget about it. Even after his move to Chertsey he got a visit from a police officer, gently reminding him that his misdemeanour had not been forgotten, six years after his release! He became a melancholy figure, ever more aware of his increasing age and his inability to solve his client's problems. More often than not, his intervention only seemed to cause problems, such as in 'Ward of Court', where he got involved in a custody battle which was resolved by the child going to live with his mother against his will.

Thirty years on, Public Eye has largely been forgotten. Despite its long run, and high ratings at the time, it has slipped into obscurity which seems a great shame. Perhaps it is not an immediately accessible series, where the first few viewings can often provoke bemusement at the odd episode titles and apparent lack of incident, but as the viewer gets involved with the characters, it grows on you. In fact, with the uniformly high quality of the scripts and characterisation, and Burke's astonishing performance in the lead role, Public Eye is undoubtedly one of the finest drama series ever produced.

Text: (c) C.P.Smith 1999
Images: (c) Thames Television

With Thanks to Dominic Jackson and John Bain