The series depicted the investigations and cases handled by the unglamorous enquiry agent (i.e., a Private Eye - hence the twist in the title) Frank Marker, an unmarried loner who is in his early forties when the series begins. In the words of an ABC trailer for the third series: "Marker isn't a glamorous detective and he doesn't get glamorous cases - he doesn't even get glamorous girls! What he does get is people who are in trouble - the sort of trouble you can't go to the police about, even if you are innocent."
The series was created by writers Roger Marshall and Anthony Marriott with the aim of getting away from "square-jawed" heroes of the type featured in Hollywood movies, an aim shared by the actor chosen to play Marker - Alfred Burke. This decision was a stroke of genius because it allowed for massive flexibility in the structure and plot lines of the episodes (each individual episode usually dealt with an individual case for Marker, but story arcs spanning several episodes, or in one case an entire series, were produced during the life of the programme). The breadth of Marker's work - from routine matters such as gathering evidence for divorces (at a time when British law required evidence of infidelity or other compelling reason for annulling a marriage) or creditworthiness enquiries, to more exotic investigations such as tracing missing people (or in one case, a prize-winning whippet) - meant that he had little idea what a person walking into his office at the start of an episode would be wanting of him. Of course, this variety also meant that the viewer was kept entertained and continually interested in the series. Many of ths situations portrayed in the series conclude imperfectly, often with Marker leaving the status quo as it is, for instance in the episode "The Man Who Didn't Eat Sweets" he fails to tell his client that she is one of her husband's three wives!
The first episode of the series was broadcast (in black and white) in January 1965 and was set in London, although very little (if any) location work was actually performed and the episodes were mostly confined to the TV studio. Of the 41 episodes produced by ABC, only five are currently known to exist in television-broadcastable format (and of these two were found by accident by researchers checking the archive status of fellow ABC series The Avengers in the early 1990s) - the rest being victims of the common television company policy of wiping. Two episodes from the first series do however exist and provide a revealing insight into the early style of the show.
Nobody Kills Santa Claus, the second episode of the first series (transmitted 30 January 1965), is very different from the programme's later style - for instance the character of Marker still retains some of the "tough guy" heroism that Burke was keen to move away from. He also plays comparatively little part in the plot: indeed, with minor redrafting the episode would still work without Marker. The episode does establish key aspects of Marker's character: his modest lifestyle arising from his modest fees for his work - the oft-quoted "6 guineas a day plus expenses" (which became £6.30 a day in the later Thames-produced episodes, once Britain converted to decimal currency), his shabby office and the fact that he is often compelled to take on almost any offer of work just to earn his living. The plot concerns Marker being hired to protect a rather unlikeable businessman, Carson, who is receiving death threats. In keeping with the series' ethos of downplaying physical strength and violence Marker insists on being employed as a chauffeur rather than a bodyguard. He ends up taking a physical beating for his unlikeable client - a beating that is mostly off-screen and one that the viewer only sees the results of. The episode ends with Marker refusing an offer of permanent employment by Carson and returning to his freelance ways.
Whilst full of variety and, from the two samples available for viewing, original and entertaining the programme had one further surprise for its viewers. Marker's work of necessity often involved him with the police and the criminal underworld - both factions dislike him but, although they have some need for him, make his life difficult. The other surviving series 1 episode The Morning Wasn't So Hot sees Marker cross paths with an organised criminal gang and he is thrown into the River Thames by underworld figures as "persuasion" to drop his enquiries into the whereabouts of a missing girl he has been hired to trace - she has been forced into a life of professional vice at the behest of the gang. Partly as a result of this, the beginning of the second series he decides to leave London and moves to England's second city of Birmingham. Things do not improve and he continues to be mixed up in a world of shadowy figures.
The ABC episodes ended with Cross That Palm When We Come To It (broadcast on 13 April 1968) as Marker acts for a solicitor over some stolen jewels, as a go-between with the gang who stole them and want the reward money. Taking the recovered jewels back to his office, Marker receives a visit from the police and is convicted of receiving stolen property - the solicitor that hired him was crooked and has disappeared. Marker pleads guilty to the charge and is sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Cross That Palm is unfortunately not one of the five surviving ABC episodes. Contemporary audiences must have wondered if they would ever see Marker or his cases again, and for over a year they didn't.
Big changes had occurred in the ITV franchises in Britain in 1968, and ABC had been forced to merge with a rival company to create what became one of the powerhouses of UK television production - Thames Television. Thames picked up the series again in 1969 and produced 46 more episodes; unlike their ABC precursors all 46 remain safely in the archives, although 11 of these were still produced and broadcast in black and white. One other was made in colour (but broadcast in black and white) as a test of Thames' new colour equipment, which was first used for broadcasting from November 1969 - two months after the fourth series of Public Eye finished its on-air run.
ABC's audience research had shown that many viewers found the character of Marker as interesting as his cases - if not more so. For this reason, the first Thames series is quite different in style to the other three and was written entirely by Public Eye co-creator Roger Marshall. Commonly referred to as "the Brighton series" the collection of seven episodes links together to tell the story of Marker's release from prison and his gradual rehabilitation into everyday life, culminating in him renting a new office and starting up again as an enquiry agent. This series also introduces regular characters such as Marker's probation officer Mr Hull and his landlady Mrs Mortimer - the first such characters in the series apart from Marker himself.
The first episode of the fourth series, Welcome To Brighton? (broadcast 30 July 1969; the question mark is used in the on-screen title) starts with a custom title sequence giving a brief recap of Marker's offence and his prison career: a useful introduction for both old and new viewers. The first shot is of Marker lying awake in bed with the judge's voice going through his head, passing sentence on him. It is about a year since the events of Cross That Palm When We Come To It and Marker has been transferred to an open prison before being released on parole to complete his sentence. He is determined not to fall into a life of crime, despite what his fellow prisoners tell him ("You've crossed over the line now mate - you're not one of them, you're one of us!"). In the first half of the episode, Marker is released from prison and heads for Brighton where the parole system has arranged accommodation for him with a Mrs Mortimer (Pauline Delaney). Through an extensive location-shot sequence on the sea front at Brighton, the viewer experiences Marker's disorientation at a world which appears to have changed considerably since he was sent to prison. He immediately encounters the very same sort of people with whom he dealt every day in his pre-prison life - a semi-drunken encounter with a woman who tries to steal his money and using his detective skills to trace the wife of a fellow inmate from the prison he has just been released from. Marker meets his parole officer Mr Hull (played by John Grieve) and gets a job with a local builder, Mr Kendrick.
In the third episode of the series, Paid In Full, a colleague at Kendrick's yard has his pay packet stolen (workers in Britain were still paid in cash, rather than by cheque or bank transfer, in the late 1960s). Although completely innocent of any wrongdoing (as he points out, he would be stupid to steal the money as it would immediately end his parole and send him back to prison) Marker is placed under immense pressure by Kendrick's other employees once they find out he is an ex-prisoner. The episode ends with Marker reluctantly agreeing to give up the job at Kendrick's and graphically illustrates the problems faced by ex-convicts as they try to reintegrate themselves with society. Paid In Full also contains a charming scene where Marker visits an antiques shop in Brighton to enjoy his newfound freedom to purchase something with the money he is earning. A beautifully written conversation with the old lady proprietor of the shop ensues where Marker explains some of his family history.
The Brighton series sees Marker establish a real (platonic) friendship with Mrs Mortimer. Although he is told that she is a widow, she later confides in him that she has a husband who left her, and who she presumes is still alive. She tells the probation service she is a widow because she feels it would be more socially acceptable for a widow to be seen to take in ex-prisoners as lodgers - an interesting comment on the social attitudes of late-1960s England. Towards the end of the series, Marker works briefly for another enquiry agent, Rylands - in The Comedian's Graveyard he is hired to trace a young girl who has run away from her home and is now appearing in a run-down end-of-pier theatre act. Unthinkable for the character during the ABC episodes, he invites Mrs Mortimer out for an evening at the theatre, together with the girl's aunt who has hired him. The partnership with Rylands soon splits up as Marker finds his working methods intolerable and makes it clear he thinks Rylands is less than honest with his clients.
The final episode of the Brighton series was A Fixed Address broadcast (in monochrome) on 10 September 1969 - although it was actually made in colour, as noted above. One of the real strengths of the series was the character development it afforded to secondary characters, and in some ways Mrs Mortimer is the real star of this episode. Her estranged husband suddenly turns up on her doorstep claiming that he wants to restart their relationship. It transpires that his employers have offered him a lucrative post in an exotic overseas location - but only if he is a married man accompanied by his wife. Aside from the excellent writing and acting as Helen Mortimer resists the charms of her estranged husband Denis, the episode is notable for Marker setting up on his own again as an enquiry agent. Fittingly, the end credits are played over shots of him admiring his new (but still run-down and dingy) office. The series left no doubt that Marker would be back and, as if to emphasis the point, in the end credits we are returned to the original theme music of previous series rather than the barer, more static arrangement that had been used especially for the Brighton episodes.
Thames commissioned a further series, this time of 13 episodes, and the fifth series began on 5 July 1971. Several ITV companies in the early 1970s faced strike action as unions demanded better wages for handling the more complex colour broadcasting equipment. As a result, the first five episodes of series five were made in black and white - although they were juggled around for transmission so that all five were not shown together.
The series opened with A Mug Named Frank - some months have passed since A Fixed Address and Marker is still living with Mrs Mortimer. Mrs Mortimer comments to him that his old problems are still present in Brighton - the police all know of him and of his record of being in prison. She points out that, by his own admission, life has not been easy for Marker since he set up office on his own again and that he isn't getting much work. A chance encounter in a supermarket ultimately results in Marker making the decision to move to Windsor - to emphasise this, the opening titles to the episode are those used for the Brighton series, whereas the closing credits play over a film of Marker walking around Windsor, as used for the rest of the series. The episode also introduces the new regular character of Detective Inspector Percy Firbank (played by Ray Smith) - a local police officer whose interest is piqued by Marker. Firbank is an excellent addition to the series and the remaining 12 episodes of series 5 often explore the Marker-Firbank relationship in detail. In some ways this relationship mirrors the "Don't like him but need his help" mutual feelings that Jon Pertwee's incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who has with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart - Marker is very suspicious of authority figures, especially policemen, and Firbank initially at least considers enquiry agents to be a lower form of life. The two gradually come to like each other, even when their relationship is tested - the final episode of the series is the typically strong John VII, Verse 24 (29 September 1971) in which it appears Firbank is corrupt and is accepting money from known criminals.
Series 5 also demonstrates the great variety that the programme could offer: in Well - There Was This Girl, You See... Marker becomes involved in stolen jewels again but is exceptionally careful - too careful as it turns out, as his tactic of exerting pressure on a young man he thinks is involved backfires when he chooses to run to the police rather than Marker and wrecks Marker's chances of getting a share of the reward money. An embarrassed Marker has to explain to an amused Firbank what has gone wrong.
In Shades Of White Marker is hired to monitor the suspicious activities of an ambitious local businessman's daughter - he becomes friendly with the businessman's housekeeper but then has his trust betrayed (again) when it transpires the housekeeper is acting to receive items stolen by the daughter's friends. The episode seems even more powerful for being one of the five black and white examples.
Lighter moments in series 5 come with Transatlantic Cousins as a visiting American hires Marker to trace his English relatives, assisted by the tourist's daughter. They find out that the American family does have an English relative who has inherited a knighthood and title - but the daughter also discovers that, because of a previously unknown member of the family who was killed in a war, her father is actually the rightful inheritor of the title!
A further series of Windsor-based episodes aired from 8 November 1972 to 14 February 1973 with the series now fully in colour - albeit with Marker's world remaining one of pastel shades and dubious characters. The final series began on 6 January 1975 with another arc of related episodes. Starting off with Nobody Wants To Know Marker investigates a horse-doping racket being run by an organised criminal gang. He ignores warnings to drop the case, because he "doesn't like being bullied" - but gets a serious beating up for this.
The next episode, How About A Cup Of Tea?, recalls the Brighton era as Marker comes out of hospital and his friends (including Firbank and a returning Mrs Mortimer) attempt to rally round him and cheer him up. He tries to find a career other than enquiries but is told by an unhelpful job centre clerk that he is too old to do anything new. The episode concentrates again on Marker and how, with his friends to help him, he pulls himself out of the negative cycle of self-pity and depression.
The final episode of the trilogy is How About It, Frank? - he reluctantly takes revenge on those responsible for his beating up and narrowly avoids another encounter with the wrong side of the law. He enters into a partnership with another enquiry agent Ron Gash (Peter Childs) - Gash is an ex-policeman and, although much more likeable than Rylands (of the Brighton episodes) he does have very different ideas about the job to Marker. Although Marker would show interest in money if a large quantity of it appeared to be heading his way (such as Well - There Was This Girl, You See...) he never considers raising his fees to provide himself with a more comfortable living standard. Gash is far more profit-motivated and also considers Marker's shabby appearance to be off-putting to potential clients. Yet again, Marker decides he doesn't like working with a partner and in the episode What's To Become Of Us? (10 February 1975) Gash and he part ways peacefully and amicably. For the final half-dozen episodes Marker relocates to Chertsey in Surrey, partly to avoid a clash of location with Gash's business.
The move to Chertsey sees the series return to its traditional format of a new case each week for Marker. The old themes return - in Fit of Conscience he is asked to investigate the collapse of a residential apartment block and it becomes apparent that the concrete has been incorrectly formulated. Those responsible for this, the primary cause of the collapse, leave the country and avoid being brought to British justice for their actions, apparently unscathed by the mental burden they bear. The series often produced such downbeat endings, with the villains getting away with their crimes - or at the very least, with the resolution unclear and further thought required on the part of the viewer.
Public Eye came to an end on 7 April 1975 with the episode Unlucky For Some. A hotel owner asks Marker to investigate his wife's odd behaviour - it transpires that her first husband is still alive and she is being blackmailed about this. Marker traces the first husband and plans to claim a large reward on offer for doing so - only to find that, 15 minutes before he could stake his claim, the blackmailer has carried out their threat and has therefore obtained the money. Marker is left with nothing and, ten years after he first appeared on British TV screens, Frank Marker still needs to take every case that comes his way in order to make ends meet.
Thames had not wanted to end the series at this point: the intention had been that Euston Films, Thames' film-making subsidiary, would continue the series from 1976 on to film, rather than the video format on which it had been carried. Euston had already scored major successes with Van der Valk and The Sweeney, but these were larger-scale, glossier and more 'action-packed' operations. Alfred Burke, fearing that this would mean the series would lose its particular, low-key identity, decided not to take up the option.
Public Eye was then confined to archival oblivion for almost twenty years, despite being a popular favourite and a ratings topper in its time. One episode (the rather weak Who Wants To Be Told Bad News? from series 5) was repeated in 1989 to mark Thames' 21st anniversary but nothing more happened. Thames lost their franchise in controversial circumstances in 1992. Their successors, Carlton Television, considered remaking the series in the 1990s but again nothing came of this. Long-overdue recognition came in 1995 when British satellite channel UK Gold, which was then part-owned by Thames, repeated all the colour Thames episodes from series 5 onwards. Sadly, UK Gold had a policy of not showing any black and white material and thus exceptionally strong material such as the Brighton episodes and Shades Of White remained unscreened.
A small group of British Television enthusiasts, Kaleidoscope, did much to promote the programme and negotiated the rights to rescreen, at conventions and meetings, many of the black and white Thames episodes and the remaining ABC episodes. They also unearthed a 1968 ABC promotional reel, on a long-obsolete domestic videotape format, which included a five minute extract from the otherwise-missing third series episode Must Be The Architecture, Can't Be The Climate and audio recordings of several lost ABC episodes. Most notably, Kaleidoscope organised and hosted a Public Eye: Thirtieth Anniversary convention in 1995. This was attended by Alfred Burke in person, who was clearly delighted that some of his old work was finding a new audience.
Finally, in mid-2004, the enterprising company Network Video issued the Brighton series in a three DVD box set complete with some restoration work. Bonus material included the complete ABC episode Nobody Kills Santa Claus and the above-mentioned extract from Must Be The Architecture... Sales of the box set were moderate and a follow up four disc set of Series 5, including the ABC episode Don't Forget You're Mine, was released in December 2004. Sadly, this second release didn't sell particularly well. In 2008, Network released the 1972/3 and 1975 series on DVD as exclusive releases through its website and it is hoped the remaining ABC material will follow in due course.