Murder mystery weekends in Surrey

PUBLISHED: 20:19 11 April 2012 | UPDATED: 14:50 20 February 2013

The murder scene is cordoned off

The murder scene is cordoned off

Keen to enjoy a mini-break with a difference, Nick Channer played amateur detective on a murder mystery weekend at Savill Court near Egham. Welcome to the world of Cluedo for adults...

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2007

Keen to enjoy a mini-break with a difference, Nick Channer played amateur detective on a murder mystery weekend at Savill Court near Egham. Welcome to the world of Cluedo for adults...

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It's Friday, and ITV 3 schedulers are devoting a whole day to film and television adaptations of detective novels written by Agatha Christie, the legendary 'Queen of Crime Writers'. Meanwhile, I just happen to be setting off for a Murder Weekend at Savill Court Hotel and Spa in Englefield Green near Egham. The coincidence is slightly unsettling.

I have read the marketing blurb and glanced at the brochures but this is my first time at amateur sleuthing so I can only imagine what the weekend will be like. As Savill Court looms into view at the end of a long, stately drive, I am once again reminded of Agatha Christie and those classic country house hotels she writes about, littered with corpses, shady suspects and shoals of red herrings. The hotel looks and feels as if it could belong quite comfortably in one of her much-loved detective stories. All part of the illusion in this make-believe world of murder and mayhem I am about to enter.

I am here on the pretext that I am attending an awards dinner, as are all my fellow Murder Weekend participants. We gather at eight o'clock for a welcome cocktail reception, everyone wearing that polite, somewhat formal look. We mingle and indulge in the usual small talk, surreptitiously eyeing each other up and anticipating - but what?

There is a distinct edge to the proceedings. Nothing is quite what it seems and even though there isn't a corpse in sight - yet - a tangible air of mystery descends over Savill Court. I glance at the dinner menu and instantly lose my appetite. There is broccoli soup LACED with Stilton and DEATH by chocolate! Is it part of the deception or just my over active imagination at work?

As the evening unfolds, the drink flows and the guests - almost 50 of us - begin to relax and chat amiably. Then it begins. A body is discovered within the hotel and immediately the room goes quiet before everyone dashes off to survey the crime scene. The Murder Weekend has started in earnest.

In the time-honoured tradition of The Mousetrap, I won't reveal any further plot details and I couldn't possibly disclose the identity of the killer or killers. That would spoil the fun. And fun it most certainly is - most of the time. While there are plenty of laughs, a fancy dress evening and a host of puzzles, quizzes and treasure hunt-style games to keep everyone entertained between bouts of sleuthing, the Murder Weekends are renowned for their gritty realism and contemporary issues. A minimum age of 16 is therefore recommended.

The setting might be pure Agatha Christie but the plots are far darker and racier, more akin to Taggart or Morse. This is Cluedo for adults and in many ways the style suggests a stage play in which the audience participates, wandering about the place in search of clues and interrogating the characters.

After the 'police' arrive, an 'incident room' is set up within the hotel and here I jostle with fellow sleuths in an effort to solve the riddle. Many of the clues are cryptic or are included simply to put you off the scent but some of it helps - especially if you are used to this mode of puzzle solving. My tired old brain struggles with what I find and then, amazingly, there is a glimmer of hope. Suddenly, everything seems to fall into place and I foolishly proclaim that I know who is responsible for what happened and why. But my triumph is short-lived. Just when I think I've solved the weekend mystery, a new, unexpected development leaves my theory flawed and my pride in tatters.

Finally, around 12noon on Sunday, and with everyone present in the 'incident room', the mystery is unravelled. I manage to guess whodunit but I can't crack the motive. Still, I am announced as one of the runners-up, though as I clearly struggle in my role as sleuth, I think it is more by luck than judgement. The game over, we all adjourn to the bar to meet the cast of characters and find out what they do in the real world. They are not actors in the normal sense, but they are adept at improvisation and thinking on their feet. They work within the framework of characterisation but they don't follow a script.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of the Murder Weekend is getting to know your fellow sleuths, and, in particular, witnessing them at work. Some of them have attended these weekends up to a dozen times, and watching them rush round the hotel looking for clues, notepads at the ready, it is clear to me they relish the challenge of a new plot. Many of them stay up until the early hours on the last night - some in the bar - desperately trying to find the answers. The clock ticks, reminding them - as if they needed reminding - that the denouement deadline fast approaches. In reality, of course, they know it's only a game. Or do they...

Murder in a Surrey hotel
The Savill Court Hotel and Spa at Englefield Green, near Egham, is just the place for a game of murder. Set in 22 acres of parkland adjoining Windsor Great Park, this magnificent Jacobean-style mansion has recently been transformed into an elegant hotel following a 12 million refurbishment programme. The original house dates back to the early 19th century and was later extended to include an inner courtyard, 50 bedrooms, a billiard room, a picture gallery and servants' quarters. Now owned by Macdonald Hotels & Resorts, Savill Court offers 141 bedrooms, conference and banqueting facilities, five function suites, and a theatre-style Great Hall with domed ceiling and moveable floor. One of the hotel's most popular features is the new Savill Spa with heated indoor swimming pool, jacuzzi, steam room and beauty suite.

The Joy Of Murder
So what is the key to the enduring appeal of murder mystery weekends? I discover their success over the years is largely down to one woman - Joy Swift. It is more than a quarter of a century since she invented the concept of assembling performers and sleuths to play an intriguing game of murder, and in that time, she has penned more than 90 plots. Nowadays, her successful company, Original Murder Weekends, runs events all over the county - including those at Savill Court.

"I'm always looking for new ideas," Joy tells me. "I have a filing cabinet full of notepad jottings and newspaper cuttings I've hoarded over the years. I lurch from one possible idea to the next but eventually all the jigsaw pieces fit together."

But what about research and the technicalities of criminology? Doesn't she need to be meticulous?

"I do my homework," she laughs. "But, these days, I find Google provides most of the answers I need. We are talking about a game after all. I don't have to be too in-depth."
Joy, who was awarded the MBE in 2001 for services to tourism, is closely involved in every aspect of her Murder Weekends. She even plays characters. "Over the years, I've had 152 affairs, 12 illegitimate children, shot 237 people and stabbed more than 500 others. I've also died 724 times. Not a bad record, is it?"

Having written more plots than Agatha Christie, Joy has also come up with a new way of entertaining her regulars, which has parallels with the great crime novelist. "We are now doing Murder Weekends as part of a cruise on the Nile," explains Joy. "There are four this year and it's a fantastic setting for a murder mystery. If Agatha Christie can do Death on the Nile, why can't I have a go?"

It was while working in hotel PR and management that Joy got the idea for her Murder Weekends. "There had been a shooting in a New York hotel where I was working," she explains, "and I immediately pictured the guests making statements, all of them confined to the hotel in the time-honoured way. This scenario led me to think up my first plot way back in 1981."

They say the simplest ideas are often the best, though there is nothing simple about Joy's Murder Weekends. Decades after it started, her company goes from strength to strength and her loyal fans demand new and even more complex plots. "I'm not giving up just yet," she tells me. "After all, murder is my business..."

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