Ronald Adam as Sir Montague Malthus draws the death card

Broadcast Monday 9th February 1970 as part of the ITV Playhouse Mystery and Imagination strand, The Suicide Club stars Alan Dobie as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Florizel. At heart, it’s the gothic tale of a sinister and criminal Victorian innovation in assisted suicide. But it also sees an early manifestation of the archetype we now know as The Dark Knight.

Hildegarde Neil welcomes Prince Florizel (Alan Dobie)

The Suicide Club was published in 1878 as part of a sequence called New Arabian Nights in a precariously financed journal called The London Magazine. Funds were so thin that sometimes an entire issue would be written by Stevenson and the editor William Ernest Henley (author of the poem Invictus). According to Stevenson’s widow, the story was inspired by the writer’s cousin, Robert Alan Stevenson, who imagined, “a suicide train where persons weary of life might engage compartments. There would be no depressing preparations necessary; only the choice of a route, either quick or slow.” From this notion, the cousins elaborated the notion of a secret club “combining the excitement of a gaming-table, a duel and a Roman amphitheatre” where a game of cards decides who is to be the victim and ,“who is to be death’s high priest for the night!”.

Stevenson’s heroes are introduced to The Suicide Club by a character called the Young Man with the Cream Tarts (played by David Collings in the TV version) who was based on Stevenson’s, “romantic, erratic, engaging” cousin. The heroes themselves are Prince Florizel of Bohemia (Alan Dobie) and his Master of Horse, Colonel Geraldine (Eric Woolfe). Reputedly based on rumours about the nocturnal habits of Prince Albert Edward VII, the Czechoslovakian prince seeks diversions, “more adventurous and eccentric than those to which he was destined by birth.

Colonel Geraldine and Prince Florizel undercover

Florizel disguises himself with make-up and costume to pass undetected on the streets of London, and in a West End oyster bar, he and Colonel Geraldine first learn of the Suicide Club. In Robert Muller’s adaptation they only realise the true malevolent nature of the organisation when they have become members. Because of his position, Florizel cannot involve the police, and resolves to bring the President (Bernard Archard) to justice himself.

Coming from the author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the story has enough gothic elements to justify the Mystery and Imagination title, but the show could have fitted as easily in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (allowing for the fact that Stevenson’s tale predates Sherlock Holmes). It’s also arguable that Prince Florizel is an early precursor of the Batman. The character is a wealthy aristocrat who disguises himself to walk among common men. He infiltrates a criminal organisation and determines to use his own resources to fight them. If it’s not exactly the Caped Crusader, Florizel resembles earlier characters like The Shadow and The Green Hornet who may have inspired Batman. The manner in which Florizel recruits Colonel Brackenbury Rich (Jonathan Newth) to help him is very reminiscent of The Shadow recruiting his agents in the pulp novels.

Robert Muller’s adaptation emphasised the pulp mood by inventing the character of the Woman in Black, a sinuous hostess played with malevolent allure by Hildegarde Neil. The production also ensures that what is only reported in the story is shown on TV – dramatising the murders and culminating in a protracted sword fight.