February 16 2013
– What a juicy period drama this is, and oh-so British too. It has murder, intrigue, class conflict, varnished teak in the first-class train carriages and the sort of hats you only see these days at posh weddings or courtesy of the BBC costume department.
It’s a story about a wealthy banker – one Thomas Briggs – who is flung (or did he fall?) from a train carriage, leaving his walking stick, his bag, his hat and smears of blood on the windows.
In the hunt for his killer, the police first go scrabbling in the underbelly of Dickensian London then – with a deft change of pace – the trail goes transatlantic.
Murder On The Victorian Railway, the latest period offering from the BBC, certainly seems to tick all the boxes about what we want from our historical dramas
The whole of Britain follows the action, and the final scenes feature baying crowds at the scaffold as justice is served. Or is it?
Murder On The Victorian Railway, the latest period offering from the BBC, certainly seems to tick all the boxes about what we want from our historical dramas.
There’s a rather delicious twist, though – it isn’t a work of fiction. The entire story, told in documentary format with a little dramatisation thrown in, is all too real.
Thomas Briggs is not a scriptwriter’s invention but a real Londoner, a father-of-six who died on 9 July 1864 while travelling home from his job in the City of London to Hackney. Spotted dying beside the railway line by the driver of another train, he was taken to a local pub but could not be saved.
One of the earliest commuters, he had the misfortune to be the first person to be fatally attacked on a train – then a very new, and often mistrusted, way of travel.
The murder of Thomas Briggs captured the attention of Victorian Britain in a way that few crimes had before. The introduction of the railway system in the UK had gone hand-in-hand with the rise of newspapers and, for the first time, the gruesome details of the case could be made available to everyone on a daily basis.
Thomas Briggs is not a scriptwriter’s invention but a real Londoner, a father-of-six who died on 9 July 1864 while travelling home from his job in the City of London to Hackney
Reporters and social commentators flocked to examine the case at the time, and offer their tuppence-worth on what such a murder – in a first-class carriage, no less! – said about the country and the way it was heading. It was scandalous, sensational and shocking.
In a way it’s hardly surprising the story is now being revisited.
The tale of Thomas Briggs was first retold at length by author Kate Colquhoun, whose book, Mr Briggs’ Hat, pieced the story together in meticulous detail.
Her book, published last year, became the springboard for a very unusual TV project, which aimed to retell the story in the manner of a modern documentary, using eye-witness reports and reconstructions to examine the facts.
Having spent years researching what had happened, Kate admits she had reservations about the adaptation.
‘When it was explained that it was going to be a documentary format, but with dramatic elements, my heart sank a little,’ she admits. ‘Those types of hybrids rarely work because they end up being neither one thing nor the other.’
She was reassured, however, when she met the director Chris Durlacher, whose documentary about the life of George Orwell (which followed a similar style) won an Emmy.
‘He won me over,’ she admits. ‘His vision about how to tell this story, juxtaposing real-life testimony against a Victorian backdrop – but letting little bits of modern-day London in too – seemed a little bit mad, but it worked. It’s a bit Alice In Wonderland, which sounds cheesy but isn’t.
‘I’m delighted with what he’s done and I’m hoping a whole new audience will fall in love with the story too, because it really is gripping.’
Chris thinks the format allows for authenticity. Although this is a proper whodunnit, there are no neat plot resolutions.
He says, ‘With a fictionalised account, even of a real-life drama, you do tend to need resolution. Here it’s different. Someone did go to the gallows for this crime, but there is very much a question over whether the investigation was flawed. We certainly found out that people lied. It’s just up to us to present the facts of the story to the audience and let them decide.’
As in all the best historical drama, setting is everything and this documentary presents myriad worlds: the back streets of London with their poverty and brothels, the chichi addresses where gentlemen like Mr Briggs (who we never see in the show) lived, and the steamship to New York on which the investigating police officer, Detective Dick Tanner (played by Robert Whitelock), travelled to apprehend the prime suspect – a German tailor called Franz Müller (David Marken).
He was shopped to police by a London cabbie seeking to claim the £300 reward, but had already fled Britain in the aftermath of the murder.
The real star, though, is the railway system itself. The first passenger trains had run in Britain as early as 1807, but the first generation of commuters – personified by Mr Briggs – were deeply sceptical of the new mode of travel. Were these machines, suddenly snaking all over the country, engines of progress or tyrannical industrial monsters?
No one had made up their minds – and the murder of Mr Briggs did little to settle the argument. ‘You have to remember the Victorians were struggling to make sense of all the changes around them,’ explains Kate Colquhoun.
The real star, though, is the railway system itself
‘There was already this mistrust of the new, coupled with the obvious excitement. In a way, the murder brought all these concerns to the fore, and everything built up to fever pitch.’
Müller was indeed arrested and brought back to Britain but no one who has retraced the police steps in modern times seems convinced he had a fair trial. ‘Müller was a German living in London at a time when Germany had just invaded Denmark, and there was a lot of anti-German feeling.
‘Was he a victim of discrimination?’ asks Kate. ‘I personally feel he did do it – but the crime wasn’t accurately presented in court. Did he mean to do it? Was it a robbery gone wrong? Did he even know he’d killed Mr Briggs? All these things are valid questions.’
Once you do know about the story, though, it’s hard to travel on a train through some of the stations involved without sparing a thought for the unfortunate Mr Briggs.
‘It makes you appreciate that history lies all around us,’ concludes Chris Durlacher. ‘Thomas Briggs’s body was taken to a pub after he was found on the tracks, and there’s a plaque on the wall commemorating this. We went to film there and found that even the pub regulars had never noticed it, or had any clue about what had happened on that very spot.’
Poor Mr Briggs, however long forgotten, did leave a lasting legacy though. After his death, first-class train carriages – which were then inaccessible from the rest of the train – were redesigned to incorporate linking doors and corridors. He was also responsible, indirectly, for that indispensable piece of modern-day safety equipment – the communication cord.
– Jenny Johnston