The Beiderbecke Affair (review)

No Bite

God bless ’em, Acorn Media, the American DVD company dedicated — at least in part — to bringing great British TV to the Yankee side of the pond. I love ’em even more, paradoxically, when they come along with a package that, well, turns out to be one I could have lived quite happily without. It reassures me to stumble across something British-TV that I don’t like — it means I haven’t yet succumbed to a foolish bias that predisposes me to lap up anything just because it sports a British accent.
That day may come, but it is not here yet. For I found Acorn’s new Region 1 two-disc package of the 1985 ITV miniseries The Beiderbecke Affair disappointingly dull. Oh, I know that there are people just like me — worried that they’re becoming some sort of British chauvinist television pig, or already there and not caring — who have been waiting like kiddies for Christmas morning for the American DVD release of this series, as well as its sequels, 1987’s The Beiderbecke Tapes and 1988’s The Beiderbecke Connection: they aired on PBS in the 1990s, though I must confess that I don’t recall them at all. I’m sure those people will enjoy this. (The entire trilogy is available in one set in Region 2.)

I can’t imagine why I don’t remember The Beiderbecke Affair, because surely it would have sounded as appealing to me then as it does now. Two schoolteachers in a Northern English city — it was shot in Leeds — turn amateur detectives when a set of records by jazz great Bix Beiderbecke go missing. Much witty banter, 40s style, is promised, as well as zany shenanigans and other assorted amusing whatnot.

And it’s not that these six hour-long episodes — written by Alan Plater, who was something of a legend in the U.K. but unknown in the U.S. — don’t fulfill those promises… just not in the quantity I was expecting. There’s a gentle rolling quality to the repartee of Geordie Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam: The End of the Affair) — woodworking teacher and jazz fan — and Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn: Cranford, Miss Potter) — who teaches English but really just wants to save the planet. They’re engaging in a love affair that takes place mostly offscreen, unless you include their droll verbal playfulness, which speaks to a deep affinity that few onscreen couples ever manage. (Some Anglophiles will remember Flynn from a few years later, when she would play exasperated wife to Robbie Coltrane’s police pyschologist in Cracker. She puts to good use a similar but milder pique here.)

But their charm isn’t enough — for me, at least — to carry the nonmystery mystery that they’re investigating. That the missing jazz records may never even have existed is just the beginning of the very slight intrigue that Geordie and Jill find themselves in the midst of, encompassing minor corruption in the local government, a black market in school supplies, a dimwitted cop, and other mellow machinations meant as satire on modern bureaucracy. But that satire never zings — it just softly sighs in resignation. I like my satire with a lot more bite.

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