In The Passenger businessman David Walker returns home from the office early to discover his wife in bed with local driving instructor Roy Norton. Walker decides to spend a few days in Cumberland visiting his Uncle whilst he decides what to do. En route he picks up pretty hitch-hiker Judy Clayton. When she then turns up murdered Police Inspector Denson investigates and Walker is chief suspect. Things get even murkier for Walker when Denson and Det Sgt Kennedy discover a camera and snaps of him at Clayton’s flat.
Denson learns that Norton also knew Judy Clayton and was giving her driving lessons but before the investigation can get too much further Walker is discovered dead having apparently committed suicide – claiming in a suicide note that he was having an affair with Judy and that he murdered.
With two deaths on his hands Denson is convinced that Walker’s suicide was in fact murder and that the real killer is still at large.
Typically brilliant Durbridge thriller with complexity piled on complexity. What starts out as a seemingly straight forward murder investigation very quickly becomes much more than that and you are never quite sure who is telling the truth.
Peter Barkworth makes for a nicely sympathetic Detective Inspector and he was clearly something of a Durbridge favourite going on to appear in the superb Melissa a couple of years later.
There was an expansive review by Patrick Campbell in The Stage (Thurs 28 Oct 1971): THERE is a small hotel about half way between Leeds and Harrogate where they make perfect Yorkshire pudding. However many times you may call, the standard never varies. The secret? The landlady uses precisely the same ingredients… in exactly the same quantities and mixes them with a skill acquired over many, many years. The same is true of a Francis Durbridge thriller. The prototype was established in sound radio a very long time ago, almost 30 years in fact. Since then the production models have rolled off the conveyor belt with a regularity that has delighted millions inside and outside these islands. The only snag is that not everyone is a devotee of Yorkshire pudding. As though to atone for The World of Tim Frazer, the one model which dared to depart radically from the recipe, The Passenger is true to type. Its characters are solidly middle class. Where they are involved in trade, its nature – toy making – is eminently respectable. They live in delightful manor houses in Oxfordshire. Their marital relations are dodgy: even the detective-hero is estranged from his wife who just happens to be secretary to the man suspected of the murder, himself planning to divorce his far from better half. Detective Inspector Martin Denson, played with suavity and more than a hint of hidden depths by that splendid actor Peter Barkworth, knows his place in this society, finishing every sentence with the inevitable sir,” and actually perpetrating the line “Thank you, Mr Norton, you’ve been very helpful.” He apparently conducts his official business in a flat that hints at a private income. His foil, Detective- Sergeant Kennedy (Paul Grist) is suitably gullible and prepared to have his every theory shot down in flames. The murdered girl, it seems, is no better than she should be and really ought to have had more nous than to thumb a lift from a business executive in a sports Rolls. The driving in structor is both lady killer and liar. Financier Jack Steen is clearly making a takeover bid for more than the toy factory. Evelyn Walker, the naughty wife, is a… But why go on? The familiar pattern must be obvious by now, a pattern which precludes any sort of belief in the characters as other than puppets manipulated with uncanny cleverness by Mr. Durbridge, but which allows total involvement in an intellectual exercise of armchair detection to those who like that sort of thing. Perhaps on this occasion the author has allowed his enthusiasm to run away with him just a little. So many false clues, such a shoal of red herrings, such a web of intrigue crammed into one episode. But obviously, with only two more to come, there’s no time for leisurely development of either character or plot. And if you were hooked on part one, you’ll be on the line to the death, so to speak. Meanwhile it remains only to record that Joanna Dunham, David Knight, Melissa Stribling, Beth Morris and half a dozen more helped Peter Barkworth to jolly the proceedings along, although two of them at least will not be seen again Such is the mortality rate of television thrillers.
In a short interview by Kenneth Baily in The Sunday People (Sun 24 Oct 1971) Peter Barkworth spoke about his first time playing a policeman: Last night, for the first time in his career, he became the newest of thriller writer Francis Durbridge’s detectives in The Passenger. “In all my TV work I’ve never been involved with the police you might say” Mr Barkworth said. “This part appealed because the man I play has marriage trouble, and the mystery gets all tangled up with his problem at home. I like emotionally troubled characters.” Yet Peter has kept clear of marriage problems himself. At 41 he is still a bachelor, with his own house in Hampstead. He’s frank about his single state: “I think if I’d married it would probably have been awful. You see I’m a loner – I really am. I like to be quiet. Oh yes I’ve been near marriage twice. But now – well I do envy the idle chat between man and wife about domestic nothings. And I wonder if I’m going to be lonely later on. But I press on, really rather liking my life, and living, I suppose, for my work.” His mother, a concert pianist, introduced him to show business when she took him around as she played ENSA concerts during the war.
Series: Francis Durbridge Presents Season 7 Episodes 1 – 3
UK | BBC One | 3×50 minutes |Broadcast 23 October – 6 November 1971
Writer: Francis Durbridge / Production Design: Peter Kindred / Producers: Gerard Glaister, Michael Ferguson
Cast: Peter Barkworth (Detective Inspector Martin Denson), Joanna Dunham (Sue Denson), Arthur Pentelow (Arthur Eastwood), Melissa Stribling (Evelyn Walker), Michael McStay (Andy Mason), Paul Grist (Detective Sergeant Harry Kennedy), Christine Shaw (Olive), Mona Bruce (Christine Bodley)