Penny Gold: Rare Treat or Curate’s Egg?

In this 1973 mystery thriller from Fanfare Films, two policemen investigate the connection between the disappearance of a rare Victorian stamp and the murder of a boutique owner in her flat. The victim’s twin sister and her guardian are soon in danger as the hunt leads the police to a rival collector in Amsterdam. Where do the murdered woman’s American PA and fashion photographer boyfriend fit into the picture?

Penny Gold is a genuinely weird film. Not in a ‘Corridor People-wilfully-odd’ way, but in a ‘not sure what it wants to be’ kind of way. It’s not unenjoyable, just that its switches in tone are unexpected. Part cop show, part psychological drama with a slightly sitcom interlude, Penny Gold plays like a ‘mash-up’ of The Sweeney and Hammer House of Horror as dependable police types James Booth and Nicky Henson tackle a mystery rooted in the disparate lives of twins Delphi and Diane (pronounced by various characters in several weird and wonderful ways!), played by Francesca Annis. Dolls get smashed and burned and there’s a meltdown in a creepy cobwebbed nursery. The film’s curio status is underlined further in that it’s a rare directorial outing for Jack Cardiff, the legendary cinematographer (The Red Shoes, Girl on a Motorcycle and, erm, Conan the Destroyer), which accounts for some of the visual flourishes on shows, notably the shots down the cigarette smoked by the then-unseen assailant. There’s also a wonderfully barking sequence where Diane and boyfriend Claude (Richard Heffer) take a shower with an enormous prop bar of soap. Told you it was odd.

The cast is full of recognisable faces from film and TV of the time. As Inspector Matthews, James Booth pretty much reprises his role from Buckshot Brogue Library favourite Robbery. Nicky Henson is the cocky DS he appears to live with, along with Henson’s partner, played by Una Stubbs. There’s a domestic set-up to conjure with. As mentioned, Francesca Annis plays the twins and- spoiler alert- the ‘PA’, while Joss Ackland pops up to ruminate on the scenery as Matthews’ boss. Sue Lloyd plays a model that fancies Claude and there’s an early appearance by Penelope Keith.

There are worse ways to spend an hour or so than watching Penny Gold. The location filming in and around Windsor is interesting in a time-capsule way but, tonally, there is no disputing that it’s a bit all over the place. In the space of its short running time, there’s an expertly staged car chase, a bizarre sequence involving spurting champagne bottles and a ‘wrong twin’ plot straight out of a ‘golden age’ crime novel, all overlaid onto a police procedural.

So, back to the original question: is Penny Gold a rare treat or a curate’s egg? That arguably depends who’s in the metaphorical room. In any case, big thanks to Talking Pictures TV and Renown Pictures for unearthing this interesting cinematic oddment.