Sunday, February 2, 2014

Masterpiece Mystery! Titles

Like millions of other viewers, I am a devoted fan of Sherlock, the hit BBC mystery-drama. Currently, I'm enjoying the third season as it airs in the US and loving every minute of it. And who else airs such a fine British drama but PBS? As a longtime proponent for public broadcasting, this could not make me happier. Quality Entertainment! No Commercials!! But, more importantly, as part of the long-running, name-changing, Masterpiece Mystery! series, I get that incredible title sequence!!! Which is, of course, the point of this post. Why praise the sharp drama of Sherlock when so many have gone before me? Instead, I'll share my admiration for the title sequence- not even of the show (too cliche)- but of the American public broadcasting channel which airs it. How's that for unique?
Mystery! (as it was originally known), first aired in 1980. It's had a long and fruitful history, claiming some of the top British dramas as its fare, and even having the rare honor of having the esteemed Vincent Price as its host. Many thing have changed over the years (most recently, the name itself), but one thing has remained a semi-constant: the titles.
When Mystery! was first being produced, its creator, Joan Wilson, wanted a decidedly eerie and appropriate title sequence to bring the audience into an atmosphere of, what I consider, vintage "high murder." You know what I mean: Victorian locked room murders, victimized tragic women, looming, sinister villains. An atmosphere that would chill the average 19th century soul but was welcome to the likes of Poirot or Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes. So, when Joan Wilson consulted her animator, Derek Lamb, they both jumped on the idea of Edward Gorey.
Gorey's name is not exactly appropriate for his art. While indeed, his art was macabre and dark (to say the least), it did not have blatant, bloody content... you know...gore. Instead, his characteristic drawings had stylized, almost pseudo-Edwardian, elegance. The kind of style that originally charms but upon closer observation causes a slight gasp. The closest comparison is obviously Charles Addams (of Addams Family fame) (though Gorey would disagree). Gorey had a long illustration and cartoon (New Yorker-type cartoons, not Looney Toons) career. His work was black humor at its darkest. As Lamb said, "His work seemed inspired by the worst of human nature and of the highest forms of art." Gorey was witty and articulate, a true artist with a unique vision. 

Anyone, in a story which seems so typical of an artist, Gorey put together a title sequence that, according to Lamb, timed in at around... 20 minutes. So basically, about a third of the show. As is the case with so many artists, pragmatism sometimes comes in second to brilliance. But I digress. In the nicest possible way, Lamb and Wilson told Gorey that they were looking for something a little... different and he gave them consent to design the scene themselves based on his iconic style. Paired with the wonderful music of Normand Roger, the end result has become the stuff of legends. 

The sequence has changed slightly over the years. Different scenes and different presentation have been added. But the essence has remained the same: darkly elegant scenes which insinuated foul play. They invite the viewer into a beautiful, but dark world. It sets the mood just right with the right amounts of mystery and elegance that is so present in so many of the shows they have presented over the years. But, at the same time, the suspense is all slightly and intentionally contrived. It is dramatic entertainment at its best- wonderfully well done but... just entertainment. 
Which is exactly what Edward Gorey's work is all about. It is dark. It is elegant. But it has a certain level of facetiousness, so you know that he is joking (darkly joking, but joking nonetheless) about a very serious topic. The epitome of this style appears in the title sequence when the famous Mystery skull on the gravestone sends the viewer a sweet little wink. Dark, suggestive, and wonderful. 

Sources
"The Mystery of Edward Gorey" by Derek Lamb
http://www.awn.com/mag/issue5.04/5.04pages/lambgorey.php3 

PBS: Mystery Title Sequence
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/mystery/gorey.html

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