Stephen McGinty: Murder by big numbers
AFTER more than 60 years, 150 million sets sold and a modern makeover, the story of Cluedo and its inventor still speaks to a very British way of making a killing, writes Stephen McGinty.
There was a great line in the final episode of The Thick Of It where an adviser, pondering the irritating uselessness of his colleague, said it was a great surprise that the chap “remained unmurdered”. There was something grimly comic about pointing out the individual’s ability, on a daily basis, to avoid the inevitability of violent death. For 63 years, Dr Black, or, as he is known in Spanish-speaking America, Señor Caddaver, has enjoyed no such luck. Each and every day since 1949, he has spent being resolutely murdered. While the location of the dark deed may switch from library to drawing room and the instrument of his bloody demise change from a single shot from a revolver to a violent bludgeoning with a length of lead pipe, poor Dr Black is destined to forever lie prone, a curious case to be solved by each successive generation of amateur detectives and players of Cluedo.
So, which of the six guests at Tudor Hall, that mysterious country house, could be the culprit? The old duffer Colonel Mustard, who, over the years we have learned, is deep in debt, having spent the advance for a memoir of the heroic deeds about which he has so long lied, or Mrs Peacock, the former actress who worked her way through three husbands and now seeks a fourth?
Perhaps it is Professor Plum, an expert on Middle Eastern archeology, sacked from the British Museum for plagiarising the work of a colleague found dead in suspicious circumstances, or Mrs White, the once loyal cook now bitter after long years in neglected service?
Surely you can’t be casting a finger at the good Reverend Green? He may lack a theology degree but he’s been preaching at revivalist meetings since he was 12 and as for the recent police investigation for fraud, the money was just resting in his account. A good long rest.
No. If there is a prime suspect it must surely be Miss Scarlet, the daughter of Mrs Peacock (rumour has it by Sir Hugh, the late father of the now late Dr Black). A seasoned seductress, she is, by all accounts, well named.
When Anthony E Pratt, a solicitor’s clerk in Birmingham, first had the idea, in 1943, of turning a popular parlour game into a children’s board game, he was on fire patrol for the Home Guard.
“Between the wars, all the bright young things would congregate in each other’s homes for parties at weekends. We’d play a stupid game called ‘Murder’, where guests crept up on each other in corridors and the victim would shriek and fall on the floor.”
Mr Pratt was a fan of the detective novels of Edgar Wallace and Raymond Chandler and set about designing the game with his wife, Elva, who sketched out the floor plan of Tudor Hall, while he developed the characters and weapons.
He registered the patent in 1945 then approached Waddingtons, the board game manufacturer based in Leeds, which though keen, lacked the physical resources to put the game into production so soon after the end of the war, so it was 1949 before ‘Murder’ emerged on to the shelves of toy stores as Cluedo.
Today it has sold more than 150 million sets across 40 countries with annual sales steady at three million, and remains one of the most popular board games in the world.
The question is: for how much longer? For disturbing news emerged this week that the latest edition of Cluedo had dispensed with the country house and switched the scene of the crime to London. Instead of the grimly claustrophobic surroundings of the parlour and kitchen, the white tape around the body might be in the Houses of Parliament, Covent Garden, Canary Wharf or Soho, and the man within the white outline is no longer a reclusive millionaire, Dr Black, but a high-profile media mogul.
The horror does not end there for, pray tell, what has become of poor Colonel Mustard? Why, the old dog has been shorn of his moustache and taught a set of new tricks to become Malcolm Mustard the Mayor. Still, at least Miss Scarlett is still around to flash a bit of thigh and the murder weapons remain – a candlestick, dagger, pipe, revolver, rope and spanner – but the urban setting will, I believe, make for a grimmer, more disturbing game.
The British public have always been fascinated by murder. George Orwell wrote of how reading about a grisly killing was what the ordinary Englishman enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon while digesting lunch. Yet in the 30s and 40s, at the time of Cluedo’s genesis, crime novels such as those by Agatha Christie were largely set in the drawing rooms of English manor homes. Authors kept the crime at a safe distance, despite the reality of people’s lives.
It was Raymond Chandler, who, in his essay, The Simple Art of Murder pointed out that it was Dashiell Hammett who pricked the bubble and let real life flood in: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley: it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to get as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing.”
As a child, I loved playing Cluedo, especially fingering the little weapons – and yes, the lead pipe, was once made of actual lead, before the manufacturers wisely switched materials – but part of the appeal was the old elegance of the setting, a chance to step back in time. Would my enjoyment have been as great had it been set, instead of in a grand house, in a grim housing estate in Easterhouse? Probably not, and that is where the game’s manufacturer has to be careful. They do admit that a game about murder has to stay on the right side of public sensibility.
For instance, in the past the choice of weapons once included a bomb and a syringe of poison, but today this would be unacceptable (let’s set aside the fact that rubble and a body in bits would surely be a clue as to the weapon used). Since the early 1970s and the first wave of IRA attacks a bomb speaks too clearly to the terrorism of the modern world, while a syringe makes us think of drug deaths. Strangely, we seem to have no problem with a knife, one of the most popular instruments of violent death, so long as we refer to it as a dagger.
In a neat tartan twist, there is the chance that Edinburgh may soon be the scene of Cluedo’s next crime. Next year, the public will get to vote on whether Cardiff, Birmingham or Scotland’s capital is most deserving of the setting of the latest edition (Birmingham has no chance: there is a reason why every major city in Britain now has a TV cop, except Birmingham: the accent. ‘There’s been a moordoor’).
The city of the Burke and Hare, Deacon Brodie, Mr Hyde and John Rebus would certainly make a strong case, but if so I’d prefer to see the game once again behind imposing stone walls with the Castle taking place of the old country pile.
In the research for this column I learned that, sadly, Cluedo’s creator did not make a killing. Unlike Charles Darrow, who created Monopoly, or Alfred Butts, who scrambled the alphabet to create Scrabble, Mr Pratt failed to become a multi- millionaire.
In May, 1953, with then only average sales in Britain, he agreed to sell all royalty rights from overseas sales for £5,000, enough to buy a house and provide a modest nest egg that allowed him to quit work as a clerk and return to his first love, the piano.
However inflation in the 1960s cracked the egg and soon Mr Pratt was back working in an office.
He died at the age of 90, having spent his final years in a care home with Alzheimer’s. Two years later, when sales of the game approached 150 million, the manufacturers, who had long since lost touch, issued a nationwide call for information on Mr Pratt whom they hoped might still be alive.
They were directed to a graveyard in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where stands a stone that reads: “A Very Dear Father. Anthony E Pratt Born 10 August, 1903. Died 9 April, 1994. Inventor of Cluedo. Sadly missed.”
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