New `Mystery!' miniseries trails quaint upper-class sleuths

British upper-class snobbery can be hilarious middle-class fun -- in the framework of public television imported drama, that is. Charters and Caldicott (PBS, Thursday, March 20, 9-10 p.m., and for five additional Thursdays; check local listings) is a six-hour caper full of mumbling, bumbling, and stiff-upper-lip fussing mixed with just a modicum of mystery and a dab of social satire.

Presented on the Mobil-funded ``Mystery!'' series, ``Charters and Caldicott'' revives two characters who first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 film ``The Lady Vanishes'' -- the two Englishmen who didn't want to get involved because it might interfere with a cricket game.

Now, after retirement from official government service, they are rediscovered living a life of vestigial leisure and mild decadence, centered on the club and monthly visits to ``the legitimate cinema: Agatha Christie films only.''

``There's a body'' -- or did he say party? -- ``in there,'' mumbles Charters to Caldicott. (It's difficult to remember which is which.) And, it turns out there is a body of a young woman in the bedroom.

From there on in, it is one bungling contact after another with mystery women, corrupt businessmen, inefficient inspectors, international intrigue, and, of course, a cricket match.

The viewer learns as much about the life style of these quaint heroes as about the major characters and crimes unfolding in this superbly photographed miniseries co-produced by BBC/Arts and Entertainment.

Charters and Caldicott live in a world of constant ingenuous discovery of the realities of contemporary life, from which they seem to have withdrawn on the basis of it being less than top-drawer. On their faces is a look of perpetual petulance and perplexity -- what they consider to be upper-class sophistication.

For instance, in one early sequence in a fast-food restaurant they are perturbed to discover that not only is there no service, but that coffee comes in paper cups with ``unopenable'' packets of milk. The final indignity for these three-piece-suited gentlemen is the realization that they are expected to vacate their booth for other customers when the meal is finished. Ah, the troubles for those with delicate sensibilities in our fast-food, fast-lane society!

There is much snobbish chitchat and genteel intolerance of such ``interlopers'' in British society as Spanish and Pakistani servants. What makes all of this focus on superficiality and fuddy-duddiness bearable is the obvious fact that neither actors Robin Bailey and Michael Aldridge, writer Keith Waterhouse, nor director Julian Amyes take any of it seriously. It is all just stylish, campy foppery. In its own peculiarly charming way, it is an hommage to a bygone life style which (if it ever existed) was probably enjoyed by only a chosen few.

But the ``Charters and Caldicott'' miniseries makes this life style available to television viewers. In fact, the series is so delightfully rarefied that it has become what Charters and Caldicott themselves might snobbishly regard as ``legitimate television.''

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