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Super Sleuths: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes on DVD

  Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, dominated the Victorian and Edwardian landscape of crime fiction so completely that anyone thinking of a detective from that era will immediately find their mind going to that character, and it will be surprising if you can name any of his contemporaries unless you are an aficionado of crime fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Back in 1971, there was a series of television adaptations of these stories instigated by former BBC Director General Hugh Carleton Greene, an expert in this field who unearthed a selection of overlooked and undervalued yarns and saw to it they were given the prestige treatment by Thames Television, to great acclaim critically and with the general audience.

First up was A Message from the Deep Sea, not a nautical tale but one of Austin Freeman's novels, detailing the keen medical mind of Dr Thorndyke, played by John Neville who had starred in a Sherlock Holmes movie around ten years before with A Study in Terror, where he was pitted against Jack the Ripper. Here he was called to investigate a woman found in bed with her throat slashed, an apparent open and shut case when the deceased was clutching strands of red hair and there was only one redheaded person in the boarding house where she stayed. Ah, but that was too obvious, and this built up to a courtroom drama where Thorndyke's facts overwhelmed the prosecution's conjecture, and made the police look dull-witted as a result (a feature always welcomed back then).

The second instalment starred another actor who took the mantle of Holmes, Robert Stephens, who led Billy Wilder's fanciful rendering The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes the year previous to this series. Here he played a blind amateur detective in The Missing Witness Sensation, not exactly Daredevil but with an interest in the legal profession nonetheless. The premise saw Max Carrados get into hot water with Irish Republicans who were enraged when he scuppered an alibi at a trial he attended; to get their own back, they become aware he likes to take walks on the common, and contrive to kidnap him there, locking him up in a cellar room. The question was, how does a blind man escape from this situation? The answer was fairly satisfying for an uncelebrated story.

Peter Vaughan was on sterling form as an investigator far more crooked than Holmes would ever dream of being in The Affair of the Avalanche Bicycle & Tyre Co. Ltd., a showcase for the esteemed character actor as he played Dorrington, a private detective who is happy to exploit his clients for a little profit, or indeed seek out clients to exploit for that financial gain. A cigar-puffing, devious and cunning operator, his scheme is to expose the corruption involved with the then-novel sport of cycling, which had attracted the attention of the gambling world; Dorrington believes he can take down the bicycle company of the title and when he is witness to a deliberate act of sabotage, it is to nobody's advantage but his own. Also notable for the amount of perspiring in the climactic scene.

Roy Dotrice had his chance to shine in an adaptation of the Australian author Guy Boothby's The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds. This one was a bit of a cheat in comparison with the series' other detectives, as the writer specialised in accounts of the habits of rogues, and this ostensible sleuth was nothing of the sort. He is living a double life, partly as Simon Carne, a hunchbacked man about town who fascinates women (!), and partly as Klimo, a new in town private eye who solves the rash of burglaries that are happening across high society in London, but doesn't actually catch any of the culprits, much to the chagrin of the police. Barbara Murray was the Duchess whose gemstones Carne has his eye on, and the amusement stemmed from seeing if he got away with his crimes.

William Hope Hodgson was a purveyor of the supernatural in his novels and short stories, The House on the Borderland being his most celebrated book, but he also had his own detective character, Carnacki, who would investigate hauntings in a manner not unlike what Scooby-Doo and his gang would do over sixty years later. Donald Pleasence at his most mild-mannered was well cast as him here, delving into a classic mansion apparition in The Horse of the Invisible, an account of a, yes, invisible equine that portents death to the daughter of the house should she marry. The scenes of reactions to horsey sound effects were absurd, but in its curious way quite effective in simply how bizarre it was able to get, and the eventual explanation had its cake and ate it too.

One of the pleasing aspects of this series was its variety, with a different detective (or equivalent) every week, but Greene was not above returning to characters that had been featured before, thus Peter Vaughan made a welcome reappearance as Dorrington, not quite as perspiring this time, in another of Arthur Morrison's tales of his reprobate investigator, more keen to line his pockets than help his clients. The Case of the Mirror of Portugal displayed him at his most cunning, and though he did not get it all his own way, the satisfaction derived from the manner in which he ran rings around the police and the crooks alike. Star spotters would be happy to notice Paul Eddington as one of the thieves of the titular diamond, and Jeremy Irons in a tiny role as a typical "silly ass" nephew.

Dixon Druce was the next sleuth, the creation of Robert Eustace, a doctor in his day job who liked to include medical elements to his mysteries. Druce was played by Scottish actor John Fraser, a private eye who is enchanted by oddly ageless guru "Madame Sara" when he is called in to help with finding a man who may have murder on his mind. There is a lot of money to be inherited by one out of three candidates, depending on who is left alive after the others have died, a certain opportunity for subterfuge, and it is two sisters Druce tries to protect. Interest here lay not merely in the method of murder, which was certainly ingenious, but also for Doctor Who fans, in that Jon Pertwee's first assistant Caroline John was one of the sisters, and The Master himself Roger Delgado was a suspect.

Greene evidently liked Arthur Morrison, for he recommended another of his heroes for adaptation, Jonathan Pryde. What do you mean, Morrison never created a character called Jonathan Pryde? Well, in this episode, The Case of the Dixon Torpedo, Ronald Hines played Pryde, who was a renamed version of Morrison's Martin Hewitt (for some reason), though the plot played out pretty much the same as on the page. Unfortunately, Hines was not as charismatic as Vaughan when he had played Dorrington, and his more moral reading of a more moral man was a little too polite and diffident. The mystery brought him into contact with the Russian Embassy and the British Navy as he tried to work out who had stolen the plans to the torpedo; James Bolam had a large-ish role, too.

Something different in gender terms at least, was The Woman in the Big Hat, one of the first lady detectives adapted from a Lady Molly short story by Baroness Emma Orczy, best known for The Scarlet Pimpernel. Molly was played by Elvi Hale as a policewoman who can notice the clues that her male counterparts do not, so when a man is found dead in a tea shop, poisoned by his cup of hot chocolate, she is quickly on the trail of the murderer, putting her associate (Peter Bowles) to shame with her keen intellect. This was among the more satisfying mysteries, and not just because Hale made a nice change from all those males, and also worth pointing out was Una Stubbs as a flighty witness, some forty years before she supported Benedict Cumberbatch in TV's Sherlock.

Then we discovered why Martin Hewitt had been turned into a different persona earlier on: it was because four of Morrison's stories had been adapted, and the series did not want one actor to dominate. Peter Barkworth was the actual Hewitt this time around in The Affair of the Tortoise, though again the mystery was more intriguing than the plodder who solved it, Barkworth not able to make much more of the material than Hines had been. Nevertheless, it was an entertaining yarn revolving around a voodoo curse that has apparently been landed on the West Indian (Stephan Kalifa) who killed a pet tortoise - was its owner sufficiently offended to have exacted revenge on the maniacal when drunk man from the Caribbean? A voodoo doll and occult emporium also featured.

The Assyrian Rejuvenator referred to a wondrous balm that claimed to take years off all who used it, snake oil essentially, as much an issue in the era of author Austin Freeman (here writing as Clifford Ashdown) as it is today. Not every law officer seeking to take down these charlatans would resort to hiring Donald Sinden to combat the problem, however, but that was precisely what happened in this episode, the theatrical luvvie with the strangulated vowels here long before his knighthood, and indeed his ribbing on satire show Spitting Image about lusting after a knighthood. Nevertheless, there was a more comedic tone to this, not fall about hilarious, but a sense of spoofery missing in the others, including trips to the musical hall and a disguise for the star who looked just the same.

On a comedy tip, Sinden's co-star in eighties sitcom behemoth Never the Twain was Windsor Davies, and he showed up in the next instalment, The Ripening Rubies, as a police inspector. He wasn't the lead, however, as that responsibility went to Robert Lang, another of those Shakespearean thesps this series liked to cast as its heroes, in this adaptation of a Max Pemberton tale. Much of the action took place in a high society dinner party where Lang's jeweller has been alerted there may be trouble afoot when he discovers a ruby necklace of his own manufacture in the hands of a common thief, and so an tense evening of missing gemstones and jewellery ensues as he ties to track down the culprit. Also notable in the cast was Moira Redmond, essaying one of her umpteen titled ladies.

Peter Barkworth returned as Martin Hewitt in The Case of Laker, Absconded, but curiously Ronald Hines was back as well, playing Pryde as his associate at the inquiry agency, but only in three or four scenes. This was the best of the adaptations of Morrison's Hewitt as it featured the best mystery, and the fact that a delicate flower of a lady (Jane Lapotaire) had her faith in her husband at stake made it all the more imperative that he should work out why that partner should have run off to France with thousands of stolen pounds, leaving a traceable trail in the process. The solution was a clever one and the investigation entertaining to watch unfold, the fact it was set at Christmas lending it a Dickensian mood the other episodes did not have, no matter the Victorian setting.

The series was successful enough to be commissioned for a second run, and so another thirteen stories were brought to the screen by Thames, starting with another solid effort by Baroness Orczy, The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway. In the original the main character was not the one who was the lead in the episode, as he was replaced by a beefed up supporting character, a journalist played by Judy Geeson whose uncle, Sir Arthur (John Savident of Coronation Street fame) is involved in the court case resulting from that titular death. As we see in a pre-credits sequence, a young lady has collapsed and died in a railway carriage and the police suspect murder, with good reason as it turns out. Also appearing was Richard Beckinsale as Geeson's policeman paramour.

Despite what the initial opening narration says, not every story was set in Victorian London, as Five Hundred Carats was set in South Africa, in a small diamond-mining town with sorts of subterfuge occurring thanks to a missing diamond. It seems like the perfect crime, but the police inspector in charge (Barry Keegan) has one suspect in mind, and it was one of the series' best baddies as essayed by Martin Jarvis as a cruelly imperious executive in the mining company. Did he do it? The inspector seems convinced, and as this was based on a work by George Griffith, the socialist science fiction author, you can bet there's a class issue here where Keegan's protagonist, who graduated from a labourer to a lawman we are told, must get the upper hand over the upper class.

What's more Victorian than a locked room mystery? Cell 13 was a variation on that, one of the stories centred around Professor Van Dusen, the self-styled "Thinking Machine" of the writings of Jacques Futrelle, who nowadays is more famous for being a celebrity who died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. His legacy was a number of shorts, and this is considered his best, therefore ideal for this series, casting Douglas Wilmer a clever move given his ease with displaying intellect - he had also played Sherlock Holmes, in a well-regarded sixties television show, and indeed his last ever appearance was in the Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss Sherlock series. Here the fun derived from seeing how he escaped from the cell, supposedly an impossible feat. Michael Gough was warden.

The Secret of the Magnifique was one of those entries that had you lightly questioning the theme of the series, or at least the choice with regard to that theme, as Bernard Hepton in the role of a puppet master and self-styled agent of espionage was not exactly what could be termed a rival of Sherlock Holmes. This was drawn from a short story by one of the most prolific writers of his age, E. Phillips Oppenheim, a man with over a hundred novels to his name, never mind the shorter fiction, and had Hepton recruit two men recently released from prison, fallen toff Christopher Neame and petty crook Neil McCarthy, to whip them into shape over the space of six months. At the end of that period, they are pressed into service to rescue the plans to a top secret torpedo - another one.

Something curious was next with Robert Barr's The Absent-Minded Coterie, a version of his Holmes spoofing character Eugene Valmont. There were indications this was a comedy, with the French amateur detective serving up a meal of "frog fritters" to the Scotland Yard detective (Barry Linehan) who has recruited him to expose a gang of counterfeiters. Naturally, Valmont is most admiring of these criminals, which is just as well considering what happens at the end: the point of these stories by Barr was to send up Doyle's style something rotten, so pretty much all of them concluded with Valmont looking like a complete idiot and at a greater disadvantage at the denouement than he was at the beginning. Charles Gray was, however, fine casting, and made this more enjoyable.

The Sensible Action of Lieutenant Holst cast its net even wider to snag Danish writer Palle Rosenkrantz, the opening by now telling us these were Edwardian stories too and mention of London dropped. Set in Copenhagen during 1905, where to the East the Russian Revolution is brewing, a Countess (Catherine Schell) from the region shows up demanding action be taken against her anti-Tsarist brother (Philip Madoc, the Welsh Herbert Lom) who she insists means to murder her, and the police are baffled. This was a very decent conspiracy yarn, boosted by John Thaw as the "rival", a few years before he gained national fame as Regan in cop show The Sweeney, and one of Britain’s best-loved actors. His character's frustration at unjust European politics was strong.

Futrelle's Van Dusen was back for a second time with The Superfluous Finger, where again he started from an impossible situation and worked backwards to find out what on Earth was going on. The situation in question was a good one, and if this sort of story risks disappointment in the eventual resolution when all is revealed, despite certain convolutions to get there in this instance you would have to admit this was a perfectly fair twist to an improbable tale. This saw a young woman (Veronica Strong) visit a surgeon and demand he cut off her finger, which he naturally refuses to do. When she jams said finger in the door to force the issue, he has to comply and calls in Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer again on excellent form) to get to the heart of the conundrum.

Once again a non-Brit was chosen for adaptation with the Viennese Sherlock Holmes, Dagobert Trostler, the creation of Balduin Groller, who took a particularly Teutonic approach to his delving into the mysteries of his clients. Here he was tackling Anonymous Letters, a poison pen scheme that saw a Habsburg Countess (Nicola Pagett) so afflicted and threatened with the convent if her husband (Michael Aldredge) believes the missives and their detail of an intimate birthmark. Ronald Lewis was the detective, a deeply troubled actor in real life but impeccably suave here, and note the Carolyn Jones here was not the same one as from The Addams Family (she also appeared bare naked, fleeting nudity fans). This served as a neat introduction to a respectable character.

Barrie Ingham replaced John Neville in the role of Dr John Thorndyke in The Moabite Cypher, another Freeman adaptation of his medical expert, and like Neville had a connection to Holmes, as he would play Basil in Disney's The Great Mouse Detective in the following decade, not a big hit from The House of Mouse, but a cult favourite nonetheless. It was nice to see him not quite play Sherlock here as well, equally because we witnessed the doctor conducting forensic examinations in the course of his study, the actual object being to work out if there really was anarchist activity in London (we were back to the capital this time). Voice of Wallace Peter Sallis was his assistant, and Julian Glover was the man in need of assistance, a cypher proving the key to the enigma.

Back (or forward) to Edwardian times again, and we were served up a narrative from the days when Britain was becoming obsessed with the possibility of war with Germany, a state of affairs that was exploited by certain authors including William Le Queux, a diplomat turned writer whose speculative fictions about how terrible times were just around the corner were a major success, though look fairly jingoistic now - maybe they did then, as well. Derek Jacobi played his Foreign Office official Duckworth Drew who has to go undercover at a hunting party in The Secret of the Fox Hunter; he was aided by Denise Coffey in a fun role as a secret agent, and targeted Lisa Harrow as a society woman connected to a pact between Germany and Russia. Not The Riddle of the Sands, but similar.

Edwardian too was the shipshape The Looting of the Specie Room, based around the era's obsession with crossing the Atlantic as quickly as possible, as this takes place on an ocean liner doing just that thing. But the mystery stemmed from the loot of over a hundred thousand pounds worth of gold bullion that lay in that room, apparently impregnable, and besides there's nowhere for a thief to go after they've stolen it. Ronald Fraser was the purser who investigates when the hoard really is nicked, almost at the cost of his life in a story by C.J. Cutliffe Hyne, known for his Captain Kettle nautical series of books, and adapted by TV expert screenwriter Ian Kennedy Martin, which might explain why this is one of the most assured and entertaining instalments of the entire series.

The Mystery of the Amber Beads had one of the rare female sleuths to conjure with, the "Gypsy Detective" Hagar Stanley, who though far from horrible was definitely a woman who knew her own mind and was not one to trifle with. She was the creation of Fergus Hume, whose first mystery novel, legend has it, inspired Sir Arthur to write A Study in Scarlet, the debut for Holmes. This unfolded as a problem with a very fair solution where everyone got what was coming to them, only slightly hampered by the last act taken up with a lengthy explanation, with flashbacks. Sara Kestelman (that's right, from Zardoz) was our heroine, convincing as the capable protagonist at a time when gypsies were a minor preoccupation with British television drama (see also: Kizzy).

Finally, the series wound up with a romp of derring-do from Poldark's Robin Ellis as a barrister who finds himself in a situation you would never have guessed from the first twenty minutes. This was The Missing Q.C.s, from the pen of William Arthur Dunkerley, a popular author of Edwardian times, and started out like a courtroom drama complicated by Ellis's girlfriend (Celia Bannerman) pestering him to ask her father (John Barron, C.J. from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) for her hand in marriage. All very quaint, but then the shifty defendant at the trial appears to orchestrate both the disappearance of the lead defence and lead prosecutor - so where have they gone? To say more would spoil what was a highly amusing yarn that leaned more than any other here on horror.

That was that for The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, unless you tracked down the books Greene compiled, but both series were in the main very well-selected stories by authors who would otherwise have been forgotten. Even taking into account the limitations of early seventies television, and the difference between that era's programmes and this, there was plenty to entertain with intriguing mysteries throughout. Network has compiled both series on an eight-DVD collection, a must for fans of both vintage crime thrillers and vintage television.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018