1947: The Merchant of Death

It was 1947 when the murders began in Tudor Close. Anthony had planned them on long, tedious afternoons at the Birmingham armaments factory where he was working to help win the war. He hadn’t meant to be a serial killer on this scale. His first love was the piano and he had toured the world and some of its great country houses accompanying a Norwegian soprano called Kirsten Flagstad. But that was in a former life before he became the Merchant of Death. 

He had a number of accomplices lined up to help him including an ex-soldier, a nurse, a shapely femme fatale and a slightly greasy looking priest he called Reverend Green, whose speciality was death by lead piping. Anthony Pratt was the creator of Cluedo (or Clue as it known in the USA) the great board game of find-the-murderer set in an English country House.

Cluedo was one a series of great board game brands for the masses that appeared in the middle of the Twentieth Century, each taking a well-known ‘world’ and designing addictive gameplay around it, all made possible by advances in cheap colour printing and packaging. Escalado (1928) featured the excitement of horseracing and betting; Monopoly (1935) the pursuit of property and capitalist zero sum fun; and Buccaneer(1937) mixed piracy with Yo Ho Ho and treasure.

Pratt was convinced that murder could be a huge business based on the sales of whodunits (the word was coined by Donald Gordon in 1939) and the popularity of writers like Agatha Christie whose The Body in the Library was a big hit in 1942. Having designed a prototype called Murder, he was introduced to Norman Watson, the Managing Director of Waddingtons who held the UK licence for Monopoly. Watson loved it but changed the name to Cluedo (a classic worger of clue and ludo, the latin word for I play) and made a one or two other changes to Pratt’s original designs which included rebranding Colonel Yellow and Nurse White to the more familiar Colonel Mustard and cook, Mrs White.

The launch of the game coincided with the re-opening of Chatsworth and Longleat after the Second World War, and as the crowds came back to the great houses, amateur gumshoes returned to the billiard room and conservatory in search of the murderer most foul.

I think I played my first game of Cluedo in the early 1960s but to be honest I don’t think I was ever too successful at the pen-and-paper deductive stuff. But many years later I found the game and Anthony’s wonderful characters a superb way of teaching people about the human quality of great brands.

I wonder how many young brand managers on Unilever’s Business Education Programme I have asked to name their favourite Cluedo character? And when Miss Scarlett or perhaps Colonel Mustard were suggested, I asked for a description of their favourite character’s features and personality – this was always an easy task for them to do, and the perfect segue for me to point out that they are in fact describing a red plastic counter.

Music to Sleuth by:

Annie Get Your Gun Irving Berlin

Tristan and Isolde Richard Wagner ( for Kirsten)

1 thought on “1947: The Merchant of Death

  1. ITV 3 has, it seems, Agatha Christie’s stories on a permanent loop.

    Any time of the day or night we see Poirot or Miss Marple in action and every time I watch, just before the reveal, I say to myself under my breath: “it was Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a lead pipe “.

    Cluedo is a continuum of the Christie who dunnit phenomenon and the makers tapped into something that we love.

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