Barrie Ingham as Dr John Thorndyke in The Moabite Cypher by R. Austen Freeman
Adapted and Directed by Reginald Collin
Dr John Thorndyke (Barrie Ingham) and his faithful assistant Dr Jervis (Peter Sallis) come to the aid of a man kicked by a police horse. The man never regains consciousness and after talking to the police they learn that it’s possible he was an anarchist plotting to assassinate a visiting Russian archduke. Thorndyke is intrigued by a strange letter recovered from the man’s body – written in some sort of code – and turns his energies to deciphering it.
Created by R. Austen Freeman, Dr John Thorndyke appeared in around sixty novels as well as numerous short stories. The Moabite Cypher formed part of the short-story collection John Thorndyke’s Cases (as did A Message from the Deep Sea adapted for series one) and can be read here.
What makes The Moabite Cypher so enjoyable is the relationship between Thorndyke and Jervis. Ingham’s Dr Thorndyke is an intellectual tyrant – always convinced that he’s right about everything – whilst Dr Jervis plods along several paces behind, acting as his loyal Watson. Whilst he contributes little to the story, it’s amusing to see Peter Sallis steal scene after scene.
Possibly the best moment comes when the pair are travelling back to London. They accompanied Alfred Barton (Julian Glover) out of town – apparently to visit his sick brother, although Thorndyke was well aware that Barton wasn’t all he claimed to be. Barton’s plan was to strand them in the middle of the countryside and then return to Thorndyke’s London rooms to ransack them. As Thorndyke wearily tells Jervis how obvious it was that Barton was a wrong ‘un, it’s hard to take your eyes off Sallis. He doesn’t have much dialogue, but his facial expressions make it plain exactly how he feels. Lovely stuff.
Thorndyke is a fairly insufferable character, which is highlighted when he later confronts Barton. Barton pulls a gun and threatens to shoot – but Thorndyke seems not to even consider for a moment that he’ll pull the trigger. He does, of course, and Thorndyke is lucky to escape with just a graze.
Apart from Ingham and Sallis, Julian Glover is excellent as usual. It’s not the largest or most interesting of roles, but Glover’s just so good with villainous roles. Derek Smith gives an unforgettable turn as Professor Popplebaum. He plays it with such gusto that I can’t make my mind up whether it’s one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen or one of the best. If you’re familiar with Lewis Fiander’s appearance as Professor Tryst in the Doctor Who story Nightmare of Eden then it certainly hits those giddy heights.
Obviously fake facial hair is another aspect of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes that it’s sometimes difficult to ignore and there’s a breathtaking example here – George Innes as Adolph Schonberg. Schonberg sports a bushy red beard and a similar amount of red hair. It looked so fake that I was half wondering if it was actually a disguise – but no, it seemed to be genuine (in the story at least).
Reginald Collin, who both adapted and directed the story, throws the odd little flourish in. We open with some sepia-toned archive footage, which is followed by a studio shot, also in sepia (which then becomes colour after a few seconds).
Barry Ingham is very clipped and precise as Thorndyke. There’s more than a touch of Sherlock Holmes about his performance (he finishes by saying the problem was elementary) and it’s clear he would have made a very good Holmes. He never did alas, but he did voice Basil The Great Mouse Detective, which was close.