Sexton Blake

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For the musical group, see Sexton Blake (band).
Sexton Blake
Publication information
Publisher IPC Media
First appearance Halfpenny Marvel #6
(December 1893)

Sexton Blake is a fictional detective who appeared in many British comic strips and novels throughout the 20th century. He was described by Professor Jeffrey Richards on the BBC in The Radio Detectives in 2003 as "the poor man's Sherlock Holmes". Sexton Blake adventures appeared in a wide variety of British and international publications (in many languages) from 1893 to 1978, running to over 4,000 stories by some 200 different authors.

Blake was also the hero of numerous silent and sound films, radio serials and a 1960s ITV television series. Originally owned and published by Alfred Harmsworth, Blake's copyright transferred to the Harmsworth-owned Amalgamated Press and on to Fleetway Publications before residing with current owner IPC Media.

Publication history[edit]

The first Sexton Blake story was "The Missing Millionaire". Written by Harry Blyth (under the pen-name Hal Meredeth) it appeared in the story paper The Halfpenny Marvel number 6, on 20 December 1893.[1] He appeared in a few more stories by Meredeth.

His adventures subsequently appeared in a variety of publications, primarily Union Jack, launched in April 1894. Blake appeared in Issue 2 of Union Jack (under the title Sexton Blake, Detective) and in 1904 the character went on to become the star of the title until Union Jack became Detective Weekly in 1933. Blake continued as the lead feature until Detective Weekly folded in 1940.

Blake also appeared in a number of serials in The Boys' Friend beginning in 1905 and in Penny Pictorial from 1907 to 1913 (when that magazine folded). The Boys' Friend introduced the first truly lengthy stories (of up to 60,000 words), allowing for greater plot and character development.

In 1907, a story entitled "Sexton Blake's Honour" dealt with Blake's pursuit of a criminal who turned out to be his brother, Henry Blake. Another bad brother, Nigel, was revealed in 1933 in the first issue of Detective Weekly, in a story titled "Sexton Blake's Secret".

With the popularity of school stories during this era, Blake's assistant Tinker had his schooldays chronicled in issues 229 and 232. Perhaps most famously, Blake starred in his own long-running title, The Sexton Blake Library, from 1915 to 1968 which was published in five "series". Publication was constant at 2–4 issues per month until the end of series 4 in 1964. Series 5, starting in 1965, was a sporadic series of paperbacks.

The first issue of The Sexton Blake Library appeared on 20 September 1915, entitled "The Yellow Tiger" and written by G.H. Teed. This issue introduced villains Wu Ling and Baron de Beauremon in an eleven chapter story, costing 3d (1.25p). The story is 107 pages; a second story, "The Great Cup-Tie!" (not featuring Blake) fills out the remainder of the issue's 120 pages. The second issue, "Ill Gotten Gains (The Secret of Salcoth Island)", saw Blake fight Count Carlac and Professor Kew. Issue three was entitled "The Shadow of his Crime" and issue four "The Rajah's Revenge". The last edition, "Down Among The Ad Men" written by W.A Ballinger (Wilfred McNeilly), was published in October 1968. Some additional Sexton Blake books were published in 1968 and 1969 that were not explicitly labelled as part of the Sexton Blake Library.

The majority of Sexton Blake Library covers (prior to editor William Howard Baker's 1956 revamp of the character) were painted by master Sexton Blake illustrator Eric Parker.

Writers who worked on Blake's appearances throughout this 53-year span included John Creasey, Jack Trevor Story and Michael Moorcock.

After Fleetway ceased publishing the Sexton Blake Library series at the end of its fourth volume in 1963, Blake editor William Howard Baker licensed the character from IPC and published a fifth volume independently, via Mayflower-Dell Books, that ran until 1968. He then published a final series of four Sexton Blake novels, under his Howard Baker Books imprint, in 1969.

A series of 160-page Sexton Blake annuals, featuring old stories and new material, began in 1938 and lasted till 1941.

Blake comic strips appeared in The Knock-Out Comic (later Knock-Out Comic & Magnet and, finally, simply Knockout) from 1939 to 1960. The Blake strip was originally illustrated by artist Jos Walker and then taken over by Alfred Taylor, who illustrated Blake's adventures for ten years. The undoubted highlight of Blake's 21-year run in Knockout was a 14-part 1949 strip drawn by Blake's greatest illustrator Eric Parker, entitled "The Secret of Monte Cristo". This was Parker's only contribution to Blake's comic strip adventures.

There was one Super Detective Library appearance for Blake: issue 68 (published November 1955), featuring a comic strip entitled "Sexton Blake's Diamond Hunt".

Four hardbacks designed for the younger market were published by Dean & Son Ltd in 1968 (the third of these, "Raffles' Crime in Gibraltar", portrayed Blake going up against Raffles, E.W. Hornung's amateur cracksman).

A final Sexton Blake comic strip (launched to tie in with the 1967–1971 TV show) appeared in IPC's weekly boys' anthology Valiant from January 1968 to May 1970.

A seven part Blake comic strip appeared in IPC's Tornado comic from March 1979 to May 1979. A contract dispute (subsequently resolved in IPC's favour) led the Tornado editorial team to rename Blake as "Victor Drago" (and Tinker & Pedro as "Spencer & Brutus") for the duration of this strip.

In 2009, IPC's information manager, David Abbott, signed licenses to publish two Blake omnibus archive editions: The Casebook of Sexton Blake, published by Wordsworth Editions Ltd., and Sexton Blake, Detective published by Snowbooks.

In 2013, Obverse Books licensed the character for a proposed series of novellas, as part of a sixth series of the Sexton Blake Library,[2][3] commencing with 'The Silent Thunder Caper' by Mark Hodder. The imprint had previously published a collection of short stories featuring Blake villain Zenith the Albino.[4]

Blake's evolution[edit]

As the years passed, Blake's character underwent various permutations. Originally, he was created in the vein of earlier 19th century detectives but in the late 1890s, Blake's authors consciously modeled him on Sherlock Holmes. It was not until 1919 that Blake took on a more distinctive personality. The golden age of the story papers coincided with Blake's golden age, as he became far more action-orientated than Holmes and duelled with a variety of memorable enemies.

Many of Blake's writers had been men of adventure, men who had travelled the world and seen the seamier side of life. When World War II started, they enlisted, leaving just a small group of writers behind (with the addition of the occasional guest writer). Consequently, the standard of Blake's stories suffered.

In November 1955, William Howard Baker took over as editor of the Sexton Blake Library and, in 1956, introduced a successful update of the Blake formula. The Sexton Blake Library found new popularity with faster-moving, more contemporary stories (often influenced by American pulp fiction).

Blake, who had moved a number of times over the years, moved to a suite of plush offices in Berkeley Square (while retaining lodgings at Baker Street) and acquired a secretary, Paula Dane, who became a not-quite-love interest for Blake. Tinker was given a real name, Edward Carter, and Blake's office receptionist Marion Lang was introduced as his female counterpart.

Covers, which had become rather staid in the early 1950s, became far more dynamic and a new group of authors were commissioned.

Baker remained as editor until 1963 (his last story being "The Last Tiger") before becoming Blake's licensor/publisher and continuing to oversee Blake's print adventures until 1969.

Blake's associates[edit]

In Union Jack number 53, in a story titled "Cunning Against Skill", Blake picked up a wiry street-wise orphan as an assistant who was known only as "Tinker" until the 1950s. Over the years, Tinker changed from a bright-eyed boy with a hard right hook to a rugged and capable young man. As well as assisting the "guv'nor", as he called Blake, Tinker kept Blake's crime files up to date with clippings from the daily newspapers, in addition to assisting Blake in his fully equipped crime lab.

Other associates included Derek "Splash" Page of the Daily Radio; Ruff Hanson, a tough American investigator (both created by Gwyn Evans) and Blake's friends at Scotland Yard: Chief Detective Inspector Lennard, Detective Inspector Coutts and Superintendent Venner.

In 1905, Blake's bustling housekeeper Mrs Bardell (created by William Murray Graydon, who also created Pedro the bloodhound), turned up and remained until the end. Her misuse of the English language was legendary in stories — she was a gifted cook and would always be on hand if a client needed food or a cup of tea. Mrs Bardell even featured as the main character in stories such as: "The Mystery Of Mrs Bardell's Xmas Pudding" in 1925 and "Mrs Bardell's Xmas Eve" in 1926.

In Union Jack number 100 (9 September 1905), a story entitled "The Dog Detective" introduced Blake's faithful, wise and ferocious bloodhound, Pedro. Pedro was originally owned by Rafael Calderon, ex-president of a South American State, but after performing various services for Calderon Blake was given Pedro by Calderon, under the guise of "Mr. Nemo." Pedro tracked many villains to their lairs in subsequent stories.

Another notable non-human associate (and almost a character in itself) was Blake's bullet-proof Rolls-Royce, named The Grey Panther (introduced at a time when most other sleuths were still taking cabs). For a short while, Blake also flew a Moth monoplane (also called The Grey Panther and designed by Blake himself).

Blake's enemies[edit]

George Marsden Plummer (created by Ernest Semphill), a crooked Detective Sergeant at Scotland Yard, went after Blake when Blake stood between Plummer and a fortune — but like many others, Plummer ended up in a police cell. Unlike many before him, he repeatedly escaped and became Blake's arch-enemy.

Another memorable character was Waldo the Wonderman (created by Edwy Searles Brooks), who started out as a villain and ended up in later stories as a friend of Blake's, helping him in a number of cases. This 1918 superman had tremendous strength, could contort his body like a rubber man and was insensitive to pain. Even after his reformation, he continued to steal money (but his victims were now blackmailers, swindlers and other no-good members of the underworld).

Other notable villains included the Byronic master thief Zenith the Albino (who had crimson eyes), Dr Huxton Rymer, and Leon Kestrel, the Master Mummer.

The type of villain Blake faced changed with the times (as did Blake himself). After World War II, his opponents became more down-to-earth, their personalities and motives less fantastic. Veteran writers John Hunter and Walter Tyrer excelled at this type of writing, but others failed to maintain their standards.

Adaptations[edit]

Stage[edit]

There were several Sexton Blake stage plays, the earliest one produced in 1907: The Case of the Coiners. Percy Holmshaw produced "Sexton Blake - a detective story in four acts" in 1931.[5]

Film[edit]

The first twelve-minute Blake movie short appeared in 1909, entitled simply Sexton Blake. It was written by Charles Douglas Carlile, who also directed and starred. This was followed by Sexton Blake Vs Baron Kettler a few years later. There were thirteen more half-hour Blake features produced throughout the silent era (from 1914 onwards), the first being The Clue of the Wax Vesta followed by The Mystery of the Diamond Belt. Another was titled Sexton Blake Versus Mademoiselle Yvonne.

A second series of six silent films were released in 1928 with Langhorne Burton as Blake and Mickey Brantford as Tinker. The first was entitled Silken Threads and another was called The Clue of the Second Goblet.

Sexton Blake and the Bearded Doctor was the first of three Blake talkies produced in the 1930s. Based on a novel by Rex Hardinge, this movie featured George Curzon as Sexton Blake and Tony Sympson as Tinker. Sexton Blake and the Mademoiselle (featuring Mlle. Roxanne as the female villain from the books), from a story by G H Teed, followed shortly afterwards and the third production was Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror with Tod Slaughter playing the villain.

The Echo Murders is a 1945 film scripted and directed by John Harlow and starring David Farrar, who played a small role in Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror as Sexton Blake. A series of murders are linked to a German operation in Cornwall.

A 1958 Hammer film Murder at Site 3 featuring Geoffrey Toone did not launch a series.

Radio[edit]

On 26 January 1939 BBC Radio broadcast a serial called Enter Sexton Blake with George Curzon again starring as Blake and Brian Lawrence appearing as Tinker, followed on 30 March 1940 by A Case for Sexton Blake which was adapted for radio by Francis Durbridge (creator of Paul Temple).

In 1967, BBC Radio 4 aired a popular series of Sexton Blake radio adventures starring William Franklyn as Blake, David Gregory as Tinker and Heather Chasen as Blake's secretary, Paula Dane. Aired on Thursday nights at 7.00pm, this series was scripted by Donald Stuart, devised for radio by Philip Ridgeway and produced by veteran BBC radio producer Alastair Scott-Johnston.

On 6 March 2006, following discussions between noted British radio producer Dirk Maggs and IPC publishing director Andrew Sumner, Maggs recorded a half-hour Adventures of Sexton Blake pilot for his newly formed Perfectly Normal Productions. This humorous take on Blake's two-fisted adventures starred Simon Jones as Blake, Wayne Forester as Tinker and a returning William Franklyn, in one of his final performances, as the elderly Blake (who narrates the adventure).

As a result of the success of this pilot, Maggs directed a new series of Blake audio adventures for BBC Radio 2. The Adventures of Sexton Blake again starred Jones and Forester, joined by June Whitfield as Mrs Bardell. The series was written by Jonathan Nash and Mil Millington and aired, in six weekly 15 minute instalments, in late summer 2009. An extended version of the complete series was released on CD by BBC Audiobooks on 10 September 2009.

David Quantick's accompanying Blake documentary, The Hunt For Sexton Blake (also produced by Perfectly Normal Productions) aired on BBC Radio 2 before the series started.

Television[edit]

Sexton Blake (1967–1971)[edit]

ITV aired Thames Television's Sexton Blake starring Laurence Payne as Blake and Roger Foss as Tinker from Monday 25 September 1967 to Wednesday 13 January 1971. In keeping with Sexton Blake's classic print adventures, Payne's Blake drove a white Rolls-Royce named "The Grey Panther" and owned a bloodhound named Pedro. The show was originally produced by Ronald Marriott for Associated Rediffusion, with Thames Television taking over production in 1968.

Pedro was played by one or more bloodhounds (bitches), which doubled as 'Henry', for Chunky dog food adverts with Clement Freud, and were owned by the then secretary of the Bloodhound Club, Mrs Bobbie Edwards.

During rehearsals for the show in 1968, Laurence Payne was blinded in his left eye by a rapier.

Typical of the TV show's sometimes-fantastic storylines (all of which lasted 2–6 episodes) was 1968's "The Invicta Ray" in which a villain dressed in a costume & hood of sackcloth-like material and, under the rays of The Invicta Ray, became invisible so that he could commit crimes without being seen.

Of 50 episodes, only the first episode is thought to still exist.

  • Season One: The Find-The-Lady Affair. 4 episodes. Monday 25 September 1967 to Monday 16 October 1967.
  • Season One: Knave of Diamonds. 5 episodes. Monday 23 October 1967 to Monday 20 November.
  • Season One: The Great Tong Mystery. 4 episodes. Monday 27 November 1967 to Monday 18 December 1967.
  • Season One: The Vanishing Snowman. Christmas Special. Monday 25 December 1967.
  • Season One: House of Masks. 4 episodes. Monday 1 January 1968 to Monday 22 January 1968.
  • Season One: The Invicta Ray. 4 episodes. Monday 29 January 1968 to Monday 19 February 1968.
  • Season Two: The Case of the Gasping Goldfish. 2 episodes. Thursday 14 November 1968 to Thursday 21 November 1968.
  • Season Two: Return of the Scorpion. 2 episodes. Thursday 28 November 1968 to Thursday 5 December 1968.
  • Season Two: The Great Train Robbery. 2 episodes. Thurs 16 January 1969 to Thurs 23 January 1969.
  • Season Two: The Great Soccer Mystery. 3 episodes. Thurs 30 January 1969 to Thurs 13 Feb 1969.
  • Season Three: Sexton Blake and Captain Nemesis. 3 episodes. Wed 8 Oct 1969 to Wed 22 Oct 1969.
  • Season Three: Sexton Blake verses The Gangsters. 3 episodes. Wed 29 Oct 1969 to Wed 12 Nov 1969.
  • Season Three: Sexton Blake and the Frightened Man. 2 eps. Wed 19 Nov 1969 to Wed 26 Nov 1969.
  • Season Three: Sexton Blake and the Undertaker. 3 episodes. Wed 3 Dec 1969 to Wed 17 Dec 1969.
  • Season Three: Sexton Blake and the Toy Family. 2 episodes. Wed 23 Dec 1969 to Wed 30 Dec 1969.
  • Season Four: Sexton Blake and the Puff Adder. 6 episodes. Wed 9 Dec 1970 to Wed 13 January 1971.

The cast:

Sexton Blake and the Demon God (1978)[edit]

Simon Raven's Sexton Blake and the Demon God was a six-part television serial produced by Barry Letts for the BBC in 1978. The serial ran on BBC One at tea-time from Sunday 10 September 1978 until Sunday 15 October 1978 and was directed by Roger Tucker.

Jeremy Clyde played Blake, with Philip Davis appearing as Tinker and Barbara Lott playing Mrs Bardell.[6]

Other Blake appearances[edit]

Blake even made it onto records: a seven-minute 78 rpm record called "Murder on the Portsmouth Road" was written by Donald Stuart and starred Arthur Wontner (who also starred as Sherlock Holmes in early British talkies) as Blake.

A set of poorly drawn Sexton Blake playing cards were produced around 1940.

Michael Moorcock used Blake as the basis for his "metatemporal detective" Seaton Begg. Moorcock also borrowed the character of Zenith the Albino, both as partial inspiration for Elric of Melniboné and as an actual character (who was implied to be an avatar of Elric). Both Begg and Zenith make appearances in Obverse Books 2012 collection 'Zenith Lives!, which includes a new Begg/Zenith novella from Moorcock.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Turner, E.S., Boys Will Be Boys (Penguin, 1976) p.129
  2. ^ John DeNardo (2013-05-17). "SF/F/H Link Post for 2013-05-17". SF Signal. Retrieved 2013-05-18. 
  3. ^ "Sexton Blake back in print". scotsman.com. The Scotsman. 2013-05-13. Retrieved 2013-05-18. 
  4. ^ "Zenith Lives". obversebooks.com. Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  5. ^ programme from Pavilion Theatre (Torquay)
  6. ^ Pitts, Michael R. (1979). Famous movie detectives. Scarecrow Press. p. 213. 

External links[edit]