The Beiderbecke Tapes

The Beiderbecke Tapes (DVD Cover)

Cast: Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam), Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn), John the Barman (David Battley), Sylvia (Beryl Reid), Mr. Carter (Dudley Sutton), Mr. Peterson (Malcolm Storry), Mr. Wheeler (Keith Smith)

Director: Brian Parker

Original air date(s): 12/13/1987
DVD Date: 09/15/2009

Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 154 minutes

Note(s): Screenplay adapted by Alan Plater from his novel The Beiderbecke Tapes.

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The Beiderbecke Tapes

Review: The Beiderbecke Tapes is the second in what is collectively known as "The Beiderbecke Trilogy", a series that aired on ITV from 1984 through 1988.

This is the first of the trilogy I've watched, not having seen either The Beiderbecke Affair (which preceded it, and is available on DVD) or The Beiderbecke Connection (which followed, but is not yet available on DVD). But this episode (as it were, since it's divided into 2 parts) seems to stand alone, not obviously depending in any way on the previous one.

The story opens with Trevor Chaplin, a school-teacher at San Quentin High, being evicted from his home in Yorkshire. He's offered "temporary cohabitation" arrangements with another teacher from the same school, one Jill Swinburne, with whom he has a romantic relationship. About the only thing he salvages from his previous residence is a vast collection of jazz records and cassette tapes.

One evening at a local pub they meet John, the barman, a 1960s-era radical, who also expresses an interest in jazz and offers to send over to Trevor some audio tapes of American jazz great Bix Beiderbecke. The tapes arrive, but much to Trevor's surprise, one of them contains what seems to be a plot to illegally dispose of some toxic nuclear waste. Jill, who leans strongly towards liberal causes, decides to do something about it. What, though, she isn't quite sure. Trevor doesn't want to get involved until someone breaks into their home, apparently looking for the tape. Now it's personal, and he agrees with Jill that something must be done about it. What, though, they're not quite sure.

Soon thereafter, John the Barman is reported missing, then dead. Jill and Trevor conclude, not unreasonably, that his death is connected to the tape he sent to Trevor. What isn't clear is if John intended for Trevor to have the tape, or if it was accidentally included with the others. And if Trevor was meant to have it, what did John want him to do with it?

Meanwhile, San Quentin High is planning a school trip to Holland and then on to Greece, and the headmaster wants Jill and Trevor to go along as chaperones. They agree, thinking it's a good excuse to get out of town and presumably consider what they're going to do about the tape. But they're followed by a mysterious group of men to Holland, from whom they escape, not on to Greece as expected, but to Scotland.

Jill and Trevor eventually return home, only to be confronted by the authorities once again, at which time they learn of the origin of the tape and its true meaning.The Beiderbecke Tapes is a comedy/mystery series that's not too comedic nor too mysterious. There are funny scenes to be sure, with the laughs coming from the witty dialog and the situations Jill and Trevor find themselves in. The mystery element is just convoluted enough to be credible, but is somewhat diluted by everything else that's going on.

For me, the secondary characters were far more interesting and entertaining than Trevor and Jill. Trevor, in particular, seems miscast, and his relationship with Jill is just a little too detached. Jill is clearly the strong, smart one here, but Trevor comes across as drab and a little too wimpish. They're presumably supposed to be in their 30s (though they look much older), but I wonder, given the storyline, if it might have worked better had they been in their 20s or 60s instead. Or if the story were set in the 1970s rather than the 1980s. Something's just a bit off in this regard.

The production values are fairly high, being filmed on location in Yorkshire, the Netherlands, and Scotland. The soundtrack is almost exclusively jazz-oriented, which adds an interesting flair but does get a bit repetitive, especially during the second part of the episode. Finally, it isn't clear if the scenes were intentionally filmed with a washed-out appearance or if the DVD was made from a poor master, but everything has a grayish tint to it.

Despite being over 20 years old, much of the plot remains relevant today. Yes, there are some dated references, and as it typical with British television, there is always something lost in the translation for American audiences, but The Beiderbecke Tapes is surprisingly topical. At well over 2 hours, though, it's far too long, with several scenes that have little to do with moving the story forward that could easily been shortened or deleted. Still, it's an enjoyable viewing experience, and one probably better suited for fans of comedy rather than those of mystery.


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