John Thaw as Lieutenant Holst in The Sensible Action of Lieutenant Holst by Palle Rosenkrantz
Adapted by Michael Meyer. Directed by Jonathan Alwyn
Copenhagen, 1905. A Russian countess, Maria Wolkinski (Catherine Schell), claims that her brother-in-law has travelled to Copenhagen to kill her. Dimitri Wolkinski (Philip Madoc) is a hunted man in Russia, due to his revolutionary views (which were shared by his late brother, Maria’s husband).
Maria is placed in the care of Lt Holst (John Thaw) and after he leaves her with his wife Ulla (Virgninia Stride) he interviews Dimitri. But although Maria seemed convincing, so does Dimitri (who tells Holst that his sister-in-law is hysterical). Who is telling the truth and who is lying? And will the mild-mannered Holst be able to negotiate the tricky tangle of political intrigue without losing his job?
Baron Palle Adam Vilhelm Rosenkrantz was a Danish writer who wrote several crime stories. The majority of his works don’t appear to have been translated into English and there doesn’t appear to be an online version of this story.
John Thaw would spend a large part of his career playing policeman, although his two most famous roles (Jack Regan and Morse) were still in the future when this was made. At first glance, Holst seems to be a world away from the rough-and-tumble Regan – he has a settled home-life and gives every impression of being someone who doesn’t plan to rock the boat. He reminds his wife that those who do tend to find their careers cut short (something he claims he has no desire to do).
But as the case wears on he finds himself coming under great pressure from various quarters. After listening to Maria’s story, his wife is convinced that she’s telling the truth and angrily wonders why Holst doesn’t either arrest or kill Dimitri. Holst replies that Dimitri hasn’t committed any crime and therefore there’s nothing he can do.
When Dimitri is later in Holst’s custody (arrested on a technicality) the Russian embassy make it plain they want him back (Dimitri has told them that if he returns to Russia he’ll be executed). Holst refuses to let a representative from the embassy visit Dimitri in his cell since he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want any visitors and Holst respects his wishes.
This brings him into direct conflict with his superior who tells him that “in this job one has to be a diplomat, not a saint.” Dimitri’s eventual fate doesn’t come as a surprise and nor does Holst’s reaction – although it’s an excellent scene for John Thaw. One of the joys of The Sensible Action of Lieutenant Holst is watching Thaw’s performance over the course of the episode – from the conformist dutiful officer he is at the start, to the wiser and cynical individual he becomes by the end.
Philip Madoc and Catherine Schell both help to enhance this production. Madoc invests Dimitri with the sort of brooding presence he always did so well and Schell is also in her element – Maria is an icy, remote figure who may, or may not, be in fear of her life, a role Schell plays to perfection.
In the end, the question of whether Dimitri did plan to kill Maria is never resolved for certain. If it was true there would appear to have been just case – Dimitri claimed she was a Tsarist agent responsible for many deaths (including, presumably her own husband). Holst challenges her about this at the end and whilst she doesn’t confirm it, her silence implies that it’s true.
Whilst Ulla’s sympathies remain with the countess, Holst isn’t so sure. It’s a suitably intriguing point to close on as Thaw is once again able to give us an insight into the conflicted psyche of Holst. Dimitri might have been an anarchist but Holst admits that if he had to choose, he’s not sure which side he’d be on.
With strong performances from Thaw, Madoc and Schell, this is one of the most dramatically satisfying episodes from series two. It’s low on crime and mystery as it’s much more of a character piece. And whilst The Rivals was never a series – thanks to being mostly studio-bound – that had a great deal of directorial flair, there was one moment that did make me smile. After the credits we see a picture of Copenhagen, complete with a caption. A few seconds later the camera pans out to reveal that this was merely a postcard in the hotel lobby. Considering that similar pictures have been used, with no such irony, in previous episodes this is a sly wink to the series’ low-budget!