'Have you ou ever murdered anyone?’ Edgar Lustgarten would ask his audience, which consisted of the millions who flocked to cinemas in postwar Britain. ‘Perhaps you’d rather not say.’
For many filmgoers, his short Scotland Yard B movies were a regular part of the evening’s entertainment throughout the 1950s.
It is easy to forget now, when rarely a day passes without a blood-soaked ‘true crime’ documentary on television, that there was a time when such fare barely existed. It was Lustgarten who changed this, bringing the genre to the airwaves through his radio programme Prisoner at the Bar, and to the big screen through those laid-back, black-and-white Scotland Yard films.
Born in Manchester in 1907, the son of a Latvian-born Jewish barrister, he went to Manchester Grammar School followed by St John’s College, Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford Union. Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, was a contemporary and admirer, and in the 1930s Lustgarten had a promising career as a young barrister. Turned down on health grounds for active service in the war, he broadcast counter-propaganda, aimed at challenging Lord Haw-Haw, under the pseudonym Brent Wood -– his name changed to conceal his Jewish identity.
After the war, he wrote crime fiction, notably A Case to Answer and the memorably titled Blondie Iscariot. He found his true calling in 1952, when the BBC hired him to present Prisoner at the Bar, in which he recounted the details of major trials.
He was a hit. Listening figures surged from two million to six million in a month, and Time magazine described him as a ‘top writer in the true crime field’. As a guest on Desert Island Discs in 1957, he told Roy Plomley his luxury item would be a woman’s evening gown.
But it was his films and his barristerial presentational style – lofty and reassuring – that established his national reputation in the cinema, through first the Scotland Yard series and then The Scales of Justice, which ran until 1967.
His style was easy to mock and many did. Stanley Baxter lampooned him on television and so, later, with a character called Edgar Dustcarten, did Robbie Coltrane. By the 1960s and ’70s, he was out of step with the public mood, championing the whip, the birch and the noose on Question Time and denouncing Britain as ‘degenerate’.
His last days were sad and strange. A young woman who had become besotted with him and moved into his London flat died in his bath in mysterious circumstances. This attracted attention, not least because he had narrated, in a Famous Trials series, the Brides in the Bath case, in which George Joseph Smith was hanged in 1915 for drowning three of his wives in the bath.
Lustgarten died of a heart attack in 1978 in Marylebone Public Library, while reading a copy of the Spectator. In his will, he left some of his estate to a rest home for donkeys. As to what he would have made of the constant revisiting of serial murders on television today, perhaps he’d rather not say.