‘This is Orson Welles speaking’ – but when Great Mysteries first aired in 1973 very few viewers could have confused that cigar-smoking figure with anyone else. The DVD box-set is a reminder of the joys of the British anthology drama, whose stars included Eli Wallach, Donald Pleasance, Christopher Lee, Joan Collins, Ian Holm and Peter Cushing. The often eclectic casts are a further attraction; A Terribly Strange Bed features the unforgettable combination of Rupert “Maigret” Davies and Colin “The Sixth Doctor” Baker. Above all, Great Mysteries is an opportunity to witness the figure once described by Kenneth Tynan as ‘A fair bravura actor, a good bravura director, but an incomparable bravura personality’.
That Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries was made under the auspices of Anglia Television was not entirely surprising as the ITV franchisee for the East of England had a world-wide reputation for programmes of quality. Some readers may principally associate the “knight” logo with a certain game show in which you could win a Vauxhall Viva and/or a new toaster but ‘And now – from Norwich! It’s the quiz of the week!’ was just one aspect of their output. Their Survival documentaries sold to 112 countries, with narrators including David Niven, Peter Ustinov, James Mason – and Orson Welles.
It is sometimes forgotten that Touch of Evil, Welles’ last major US studio-backed picture, was made as long ago as 1958. By the early 1970s he was the precise opposite of ‘Bankable’ as far as Hollywood was concerned and so Welles spent much of the decade shooting the autobiographical film The Other Side of the Wind. This was made in a piecemeal fashion until 1976 and to raise funds he undertook an almost surreal variety of commissions, including a notorious voiceover extolling the virtues of frozen food. The Welles delivery of the line ‘We know a remote farm in Lincolnshire, where Mrs. Buckley lives; every July, peas grow there’ truly merits its place in the Hall of Great Out-Takes.
Welles further proclaimed that he was no great enthusiast of TV – ‘I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts’ – but from the 1950s onwards he often graced the small screen. Great Mysteries, which at one point was to be known as The Clock, is a more fitting tribute to late period Welles. His distinctive outfits reflected how a dislike of his appearance frequently resulted in the elaborate use of make-up and props; that hat and cape must have inspired Michael Palin’s “Storyteller” in Ripping Yarns.
Each episode was self-contained, and the opening scenes were shot in France in mid-1973. Welles devised his own introductions, and throughout the series, there was the disquieting impression that the host was also its puppet master, controlling the various characters over the next 25 minutes. Anglia produced 26 editions of Great Mysteries, and their next offering in this vein was Tales of the Unexpected, which was fronted by Roald Dahl. The boxset provides indispensable viewing for those who appreciate the lost gems of 1970s television – and for devotees of the man who once stated, ‘Everything about me is a contradiction’.