Callan – Rules of the Game

rules of the game

Written by Ray Jenkins. Directed by Voytek

Bishop orders the Section to harass a Russian cultural attache called Medov (Mike Pratt).  Callan is told that a British diplomat was recently expelled from Moscow, so this is in the nature of a tit-for-tat exercise.  Cross is assigned to wage psychological warfare on him and ultimately engineer a situation that will force him to be recalled.  But Bishop hasn’t been entirely honest with Callan and when Cross decides to involve Medov’s family it has dire consequences …..

Rules of the Game could be seen as the first of a two-parter which concludes the story of James Cross (the repercussions from the events here are a major factor in the following episode).  Ever since Cross was introduced at the start of series three – Where Else Could I Go? – he’s been something of a loose cannon.  But since the Section is such a dehumanising place it’s not surprising that it breeds a certain type of very dysfunctional person.

Rules of the Game offers us a close examination of exactly how he operates.  Medov seems to be a blameless figure, but that’s of little concern to Cross since he’s got his orders and is happy to carry them out.  He therefore stands in complete contrast to Callan – a man who never stops questioning.  As Callan later tells Bishop.  “I was trained never to take anyone or anything on trust. You start off with one simple premise – everything smells. Yourself, the job you’re doing and the man who tells you to do it. You’re told something, you test the opposite.”

Any available resource is fair game for Cross, so Medov’s wife Alevtina (Virginia Stride) and daughter Danera (Verna Harvey) are simply there to be used (Callan tells him at the start that they aren’t his concern, but he reluctantly agrees later they can be used as leverage).  Nuisance phone calls help to ramp up the pressure, but it’s not enough to force Medov’s hand – so more extreme measures have to be taken.

As might be expected, it’s a messy ending.  Medov’s daughter is critically injured by Cross and Medov surprises Callan by asking to defect.  The brief meeting between Callan and Medov is a powerful ending to the story.  Medov’s life has been destroyed – but who was ultimately to blame?  Was it Cross for lashing out at Danera or was Bishop, the man who gave the orders, more culpable?

Patrick Mower is excellent in this episode.  It’s a pity that he didn’t stay on for the remainder of series four as the Callan/Cross/Meres triangle would have been an interesting one.  Presumably it was felt that now Anthony Valentine had returned the character of Cross was somewhat surplus to requirements.

But it’s also just as much Mike Pratt’s episode as it is Patrick Mower’s.  Although Pratt will always be best known for Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) he packed a great deal into a relatively short career (he died in 1976, aged just 45).  Apart from many other film and television credits, he also was a skilled musician and turned his hand to script-writing, penning episodes for several television series, including Randall and Hopkirk.

With the battle of wills between Medov and Cross taking centre stage, it does mean that Callan is rather pushed to the sidelines.  But on the plus side Woodward shares some nice scenes with James Cossins (who plays the effete spy Neville Dennis).  Cossins was always such a reliable supporting actor (and if you don’t know the name, you’re certain to recognise his face and voice).  His byplay with Woodward provides some light relief in an otherwise dark episode.

One slight script flaw is that Bishop tells Callan this will be his first job as Hunter (which rather ignores the previous episode).  But on the plus side this scene gives us a chance to see Bishop’s office – which is very large and very sparsely furnished (it certainly impresses Callan).

A character-heavy piece with little action, Rules of the Game is another quality installment of a very consistent series.

Callan – First Refusal

first refusal

Written by Bill Craig. Directed by Jim Goddard

Kitzlinger (Martin Wyldeck) is a middle-man with no political or ideological convictions.  He’s been authorised to sell a list and has offered it to the British SIS on first refusal.  Kitzlinger tells Callan and Bishop that it contains the names of ten British agents based in Eastern Europe.  If they aren’t interested in paying his price of one hundred thousand pounds then he’ll offer it to the KGB.

Now that Callan is in charge of the Section he reports to Bishop (Geoffrey Chater).  Bishop and Callan are very different characters which means there’s an entertaining combative nature to their relationship (and both Woodward and Chater seem to relish the numerous two-handed scenes they share).

First Refusal opens with Callan stating his case for a taxi – or as he calls it a MCF (mobile communications facility).  It’s ironic that whilst Bishop couldn’t see the need for buying a taxi, once Callan explains that it’s a mobile communications facility he’s much more sympathetic!

His need for such a vehicle does help to date the programme somewhat – he tells Bishop that too often his agents are out in the street unable to find a phone – but even allowing for the fact this was made some forty years ago it does some strange that walkie-talkies couldn’t have been installed in all Section cars.  There’s just something gloriously amateurish about the Section having only one vehicle with radio facilities.

Now they have a taxi they need a driver – and Callan proposes Lonely.  Bishop reacts with horror, but Callan sees it as the ideal solution, particularly since Lonely knows far too much about Section business (“we either take him in or we take him out. And that means right out. But you’ll have to take me first”).

It’s no surprise that Lonely isn’t too keen about becoming a taxi driver – as he has to pass an incredibly difficult test.  This leads to a couple of classic Woodward/Hunter scenes in which Callan tests Lonely’s very limited knowledge of London streets.  Lovely stuff.

Possibly the most noteworthy part of the episode is the return of Toby Meres, although if his name hadn’t featured in the opening credits his sudden appearance at the end of part one might have come as more of a surprise.  He’s been stationed in Washington since the start of series three (whilst Valentine was engaged on other projects) and there was no hint prior to this episode that he was coming back.

Callan tells him that he’s been recalled because he has room for a good man but Meres counters that he was coming back anyway.  Their first meeting is an excellent reminder of the uneasy relationship they’ve always enjoyed.  Meres wants to be the next Hunter and he’s totally upfront in telling Callan that it won’t be long before he gets a chance.

Meres is convinced that Callan is bound to fail eventually (Callan isn’t made of the “right stuff” for command) and proposes to step in when there’s an opportunity.  Callan tells him he’s welcome to it, but that doesn’t resolve the tension that now exists between them.  Meres spends the episode waiting for Callan to fail and gently mocks him at every turn, although by the end it’s Meres who’s blundered.

The list turns out to be a fake and Kitzlinger is picked up by Callan and Meres.  When Kitzlinger makes a sudden movement, Meres thinks he’s going for a gun and shoots him dead.  Callan bitterly informs him that the dead man was simply reaching for his heartburn pills (“you’re a bloody psychopath.  You haven’t changed have you Toby?”)

Although the list of British agents is the main plot-line, it’s the character dynamics between the various members of the Section that’s the most memorable part of the episode.  Another interesting clash occurs between Meres and Cross.  Although they never shared a great deal of screen-time (Patrick Mower leaves the series shortly) there’s still some needle.  Meres tells him that if things change like he hopes then the junior man might be “a Cross I wouldn’t have to bear”.

Nobody comes out of First Refusal with much credit, especially the British who have paid over the money and received a worthless list.  It’s a sharp reminder to Callan (if he needed one) that the hazards of command are numerous.

Callan – Call Me Sir!

call me sir!

Written by Bill Craig. Directed by Mike Vardy

Callan is tired of being a field operative and wants a desk job – he tells Hunter that he’ll do anything.  But he’s not expecting to be offered Hunter’s own job ….

Call Me Sir! certainly shakes up Callan‘s format and has the potential to move the series into new and interesting areas.  Although it might seem strange that the position of Hunter was offered to the anti-authority, anti-establishment Callan, on the other hand it makes perfect sense – poacher turned gamekeeper, as it were.

The moment when Hunter offers Callan the job is electrifying.  Hunter invites Callan into his office and asks him to sit down.  Callan looks around in confusion as the only free chair is Hunter’s own, but after a few beats he understands.  It takes some coaxing to get him into the chair though, as it’s much more to Callan than just a piece of furniture – it’s an object that (along with its occupants, of course) has dominated his adult life.

But eventually Callan takes the job and it’s instructive to see how he then interacts with the other members of the Section.  In many ways it’s no different from anybody who’s suddenly promoted – the reaction he gets is a mixture of awkwardness and resentment.

The awkwardness is highlighted by his relationship with Liz.  In That’ll Be The Day Liz was tearful at Callan’s mock funeral and later warmly welcomed him back from the dead.  Here, things start promisingly enough as she decorates his office with fresh flowers, but Callan oversteps the mark by asking her to call him David, rather than Hunter, when they’re alone.  It’s plain from the expression on her face that this upsets the ultra-professional Liz and is responsible for a temporary chill in their relationship – highlighted by the fact that when the flowers die they aren’t replaced.

But if there’s faint unease between Callan and Liz, it’s nothing compared to how Cross takes the news of Callan’s elevation.  During the first two series, Callan and Meres were presented as equals – in age and ability (the only difference being that Meres lacked any sort of conscience).  When Anthony Valentine was unavailable for series three, Patrick Mower was introduced as Cross.

As previously touched upon, Cross is younger and much more inexperienced than Callan – so they’ve never been on the same level (this was highlighted by the fact that during the later part of the previous series Callan would regularly use Cross’ first-name whilst Cross still referred to Callan as Mr Callan).  Callan’s sudden and unexpected promotion has simply widened the gulf between them and the older man wastes no time in establishing his authority.

When Cross meets Callan as Hunter for the first time, he immediately sits down only to be told by Callan that he hasn’t been given permission!  There then follows a brief battle of wills which Callan naturally wins – forcing the younger man to accept the situation and show the necessary respect (including calling him Sir, which Cross does through gritted teeth).

With Callan now promoted, he’s in an ideal position to protect his friend Lonely.  But there are various forces moving against the smelly little man and in a rather convoluted part of the story Callan elects to furnish him with a new identity and send him out of the country as a merchant seaman.  Lonely’s far from keen, but Callan tells him it’s for his own safety.  Lonely’s being hunted by the Section because he was put in a Red File during the previous episode (as he didn’t believe that Callan was dead).  Now that Callan’s back (and he’s got the position of Hunter) it would seem logical for Callan to take Lonely out of the Red File.  He could do it – he has the authority – so why didn’t he?  It’s a part of the story that doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

As so often, the interaction between Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter is highly entertaining.  Lonely is now convinced that Callan’s a spy – but he believes he’s working for the Russians!  The scenes between the pair of them at the doss house (where Lonely is hiding out) are first rate.

Earlier, we see that Lonely has made the acquaintance of Flo Mayhew (Sarah Lawson) who tells him that there’s something fascinating about his face and elects to paint him (with his clothes on, thankfully).  Her painting perfectly captures him in all his glory and Callan’s expression when he sees it is priceless.

But it turns out that Flo is a member of the opposition and has ensnared Lonely in order to draw Callan out.  This is another part of the story that feels a little contrived and over-complicated.  Flo is captured and led away and it’s assumed that, like Richmond, we’ll never see her again.  But as with Richmond, she does return much later in the series to haunt Callan …..

Bill Craig’s first script for the series had been The Same Trick Twice back in series three and this clearly impressed since he ended up penning four stories during the fourth series.  He was always a very dependable writer, and although I have a few quibbles with parts of the plot, Call Me Sir! is a very strong episode.

Callan – That’ll Be The Day

that'll be the day

Written by James Mitchell. Directed by Mike Vardy

That’ll Be The Day certainly has a strong opening – we begin at David Callan’s funeral.  The mourners include Hunter, Bishop, Colonel Leslie, Cross and a clearly distraught Liz.  A late arrival is Lonely, who comes complete with an impressive floral display (which he’s naturally pinched).

One of the few moments of levity in the episode occurs when a disbelieving Lonely hears the vicar’s fulsome tribute.  He describes Callan as a humble man of peace – a far cry from the person that Lonely knew.  So Lonely comes to the conclusion that they’re burying the wrong man!

Arresting as this is, it’s not very logical.  If Callan had been a public figure (a politician, say, or a civil servant) it would have made sense to stage a mock funeral.  But as he’s not, the only thing the funeral does is to make Lonely convinced that Callan isn’t dead after all.

In Mitchell’s original draft script, Callan and his Russian counterpart (originally called Lonsdale, later renamed Richmond) were apprehended at the same time – both sides then agree on a publicity blackout so they could be exchanged.  This makes the reason for the mock funeral slightly more plausible, but it’s still a problem.

Also present at the funeral in Mitchell’s draft script was Toby Meres.  He didn’t feature in the final program, but he is mentioned (and will return later in the series).  Somebody who does make an appearance is a previous Hunter, Colonel Leslie (Ronald Radd).  Since he doesn’t speak a word, for anybody not familiar with the first two series he could be taken for just another extra.  But for those who’ve seen the black and white episodes it’s a lovely touch.

Callan isn’t dead of course, he’s a prisoner of the Russians and currently undergoing interrogation at the Lubyanka.  The first time I saw this episode I assumed it was the second part of an existing story – mainly because of the cold open.  We’re told that Callan was on assignment in East Germany, that the girl he was with was killed and that he was then taken to the Lubyanka.  It’s very jarring that this is all tell, not show.  A modern series would have no doubt set this plot-line up at the end of the previous series, closing on a cliffhanger of Callan’s abduction.

He’s clearly in a bad way – his head is shaven and he’s been pumped full of drugs.  In many ways he’s in a similar state to how he appeared in Death of a Hunter, although it’s true that here he’s more aware of what’s happening – in Death of a Hunter his moments of lucidity were few and far between.

Karsky (Julian Glover) is given the task of interrogating Callan.  Just as Callan has his counterpoint in Richmond, Karsky has an obvious opposite number in Snell (Clifford Rose).  Whilst Karsky is using drugs to interrogate Callan, Snell is doing the same to Richmond.  And Karsky and Snell are very similar character types – neither are cackling villains, instead they view their subjects with detachment and, especially in Karsky’s case, seeming compassion.

Karsky knows that Callan will eventually tell them everything – the drugs will ensure that.  But if Callan cooperates then the drugs won’t destroy him.  So why fight?  Naturally Callan replies in the negative, but it doesn’t shake Karsky’s composure at all.  As might be expected, Julian Glover is excellent in these scenes, as is Woodward, and these two-handed moments are the highlight of the episode.

T.P, McKenna’s Richmond is an interesting character.  At this point he seems to have been created simply to solve the problem about how to extract Callan from the clutches of the Russians.  But he makes an unexpected return towards the end of the series in several key episodes.  He doesn’t have a great deal of screen-time here, but he still manages to make an impression.

Another indication that Callan and Richmond are two sides of the same coin is demonstrated when it’s decided to exchange them (much to Hunter’s displeasure – he considers swapping Richmond for Callan is a bad bargain).  Both Callan and Richmond are holed up in adjoining hotel rooms in Helskini – and they each offer their handlers a drink (which are refused).

Callan’s miraculous return from the dead comes as a shock to some, especially Cross.  You get the sense that he’s just started to enjoy being the top man in the Section and now that’s cruelly taken away from him.  Patrick Mower would leave the series after episode five, so Cross only has a limited character arc in series four, but it’s still quite effective.

In series three, Cross was several rungs below Callan – the older man was quicker, sharper and always more capable.  He’s maybe slightly closer in ability now, but he also possesses character flaws which will prove to be his undoing.  He’s always had a certain sadistic attitude – witness how he plays Russian Roulette with Lonely (admittedly with blanks) – and over the course of the next few episodes we’ll see how he gradually steps further and further over the mark.

Hunter’s meeting with Callan is a rather frosty affair.  He admits that if it was his choice he wouldn’t have had him back.  But Callan is back and since Richmond was a top man it’s a matter of prestige for the Section that they can’t be seen to have swapped him for a lesser prize.  But how can they prove to the Russians that Callan is Richmond’s equal?

Promotion is the obvious course …..

Return of the Saint – The Debt Collectors

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After Simon comes to the aid of a runaway horse ridden by Jeri Hanson (Mary Tamm), he finds himself embroiled in the murky world of espionage.  Jeri’s sister Christine (Diane Keen) was convicted of passing military secrets and is six years into a prison sentence.  But just one day before she’s due to be released on parole she escapes.

This was engineered by Sir Charles Medley (Geoffrey Keen) of the Ministry of Defence.  Jeri tells Simon she’s convinced her sister is innocent and it appears that Sir Charles arranged Christine’s prison-break in order to flush out a traitor in MI5.  But who can be trusted?  In the world of intelligence, things are not always as they appear to be …..

The Debt Collectors was written by George Markstein.  Given his background (script-editor/writer on series such as The Prisoner, Callan and Mr Palfrey of Westminster) it’s no surprise that he delivered a dense story set in the world of British Intelligence.

And after finding some of the previous episodes to be rather linear and straightforward, it’s a pleasure to have one where people’s motivations aren’t immediately obvious.  Things appear to open normally enough, with Simon coming to the rescue of an attractive young woman.  But she’s under surveillance and when Simon is later told not to speak to her again this only strengthens his interest.

By the time this aired, in December 1978, Mary Tamm was already more than half-way through her single season as Romana in Doctor Who.  Here, she seems to be the archetypal ROTS heroine – her function in the plot being little more than providing a decorative presence and also the excuse for the Saint to become involved in the story – but there’s a twist in the tale later.

Of more immediate interest is Diane Keen as Christine.  An actress who hardly seemed to be off the television screens in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, her first scene (behind prison bars) sees her playing a hard-bitten old lag.  This is rather a stretch for Keen and it’s no surprise that once she goes over the wall Christine becomes much more of a vulnerable character.

With the revelation that there could be a traitor in MI5, several possibilities present themselves.  There’s Sir Charles and also Simon’s MI5 contact Geoffrey Connaught (Anton Rodgers).  Geoffrey Keen, best known today for playing the Minster in the James Bond films, is perfect casting and Rodgers, later to carve a niche as a sit-com performer, shares some decent scenes with Ogilvy.

The story does have a few niggling plot-holes.  Why was Christine stuck in prison for six years before Sir Charles elected to use her to flush out the mole?  And since she was due to be released the following day why engineer a prison break?  If she’s on the run then presumably that makes her more of a target for the mole.  But since she doesn’t know his identity, Christine is ultimately something of a red-herring.

Whilst the looseness of the plot (which is a little surprising given Markstein’s background as a script-editor) is a slight irritation, there’s more than enough happening to negate these quibbles.  Apart from the already mentioned performers, the likes of Neil McCarthy (a familiar television face) and Bob Shearman (best-known for his regular role in The Sandbaggers) help to bolster an already impressive cast.

The Debt Collectors is a cut above the average ROTS script and rates four halos out of five.

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Return of the Saint – Tower Bridge is Falling Down

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Jenny Stewart (Fiona Curzon) is concerned about her father Charlie (Sam Kydd), so she turns to the Saint for help.  Charlie has been having disagreements with his business partner Ray Dennis (John Woodvine).  The two of them built up a thriving building firm but Charlie is convinced that Dennis has conned him out of a substantial sum of money.

Dennis is a highly amoral figure and after a brief fight with Charlie he has no compunction in leaving him in a building scheduled for demolition.  And when Charlie’s lifeless body is recovered from the rubble Simon vows to exact the maximum amount of revenge on Dennis.  So he puts his plan into action – an elaborate con involving transporting Tower Bridge to America ……

Written by the creator of Minder, Leon Griffiths, Tower Bridge is Falling Down was his sole contribution to the series.  It’s basically Hustle, thirty years early, and it sees Simon posing as Sir Malcom Street, a top government official.  In order to hook Dennis effectively, first Simon contrives to lose ten thousand pounds to him at a rigged poker game.

And when the man he believes to be Sir Malcolm proves unable to settle his debt Dennis is slowly reeled into the con.  This involves his company being awarded the contract to demolish Tower Bridge (provided he can sweeten the deal by paying Sir Malcolm off).

All the familiar tricks from a normal episode of Hustle are present and correct.  For example, Sir Malcolm is a real person and the Saint brazenly takes over his office in order to meet with Dennis.  And as so often happens, the real Sir Malcolm returns just as the Saint is leaving (the two pass each other in the corridor).  Dennis is easy to con because, as seen in Hustle every week, he’s a greedy man.  Had he been honest then he wouldn’t have fallen for Simon’s ploy, but he sees the chance to make a quick and illegal profit and jumps at it.

It’s a pity that Leon Griffiths didn’t contribute any further scripts (although he would have been busy at the time setting up Minder).  John Woodvine is excellent as Ray Dennis.  Dennis’ lack of morality is clear right from the pre-credits sequence when he casually disposes of Charlie Stewart and although he isn’t the most complex of characters, Woodvine still manages to dominate proceedings whenever he’s on the screen.  A chilling moment occurs when he threatens to permanently disfigure Jenny if she doesn’t reveal Simon’s whereabouts.  It’s obvious from the parameters of the series that this is a threat which won’t be carried out, but Woodvine is intense enough to make you believe for just a few seconds that it might.

Alfie Bass, as Sammy, has a nice role as a con-man who works with Simon to rope Dennis in (he’s the sort of character that could easily have cropped up in Minder or indeed Hustle).  And although Simon’s involvement is down to Jenny, for once this is a very male-dominated episode and she only takes a minor role in proceedings.

It”s a pity that the con doesn’t play out to the end, since Dennis learns about Simon’s true identity.  This means there’s a more traditional conclusion (a punch up) followed by Ray Dennis’ arrest for murder.  Whether his confession about Charlie’s murder (secretly taped by Simon) would actually have stood up in court is a moot point, so it would have been more dramatically satisfying for him to have been conned.

Even allowing for this, thanks to John Woodvine and the unusual plot, Tower Bridge is Falling Down rates four halos out of five.

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Return of the Saint – The Roman Touch

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Michelle (Kim Goody) is deeply unhappy.  She may be an international singing star, with a string of hit records to her name, but she’s also worn out thanks to a grinding schedule of tours and recording sessions.  Michelle doesn’t even have the satisfaction of having made any money, due to the repressive contract she signed with her manager Bruno (Laurence Luckinbill).

Simon’s known her since she was a teenager and is anxious to help.  So he kidnaps her …..

The Roman Touch sees the return of the old-style Saint.  Although he kidnaps her with the best of intentions (he demands a ransom from Bruno of a million dollars, which is enough to pay Michelle the money she’s owed and also cover his expenses) it’s still an example of him operating on the wrong side of the law.  This is something of a rarity in ROTS, where he tended to be allied with the authorities more often than not.

Kim Goody, an actress with some musical talent, is perfect casting as Michelle.  Whilst her career in the music business is painted with broad brushstrokes (complete with a grasping manager) she still manages to give some solidity to her character.  Linda Thorson plays Diamond, her personal assistant.  At first she seems to be yet another person who is interested only in exploiting Michelle, but over time it becomes clear that she has her best interests at heart.

Simon’s attempts to help Michelle are hindered by the local Mafia, headed by Capo (Danielle Vargas).  The script is obviously written to present them as the villains of the piece – which is negated when Capo reveals that Michelle is his daughter and he’s been secretly keeping watch over her.  This is quite a neat reversal – as is the fact the somebody kidnaps Michelle again (with Simon unable to stop them).

Another foreign episode, the sunny visuals help the episode no end (had it taken place in rainy London it may not have been so effective).  But the basic problem is that there’s no particular tension since it’s obvious that Simon will rescue Michelle.  The question isn’t if he’ll do it, but how.  For a formula series like ROTS, predictability of events can be an issue and after an interesting setup things plays out pretty much as you might expect.

Nothing earth-shattering then, but solid enough.  The Roman Touch rates three halos out of five.

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Return of the Saint – Signal Stop

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Simon Templar and Janie Lennox (Ciaran Madden) are both passengers on a train bound for London.  When the train stops at a signal, Janie sees what she believes to be a murder taking place in a nearby warehouse.  Simon, who moments earlier was wishing that something would happen to break the monotony, is naturally intrigued.

The next day, Simon, Janie and the police travel to the building – but the body that Simon and Janie found earlier in the day is no longer there.  Inspector Grant (Frederick Jaeger) later tells Simon that since Janie has a history of psychiatric illness it’s probable her story was nothing more than a delusion.

Following on from the picture-postcard stylings of The Imprudent Professor, Signal Stop has a very different feel.  Most of the story takes place in dirty or run-down locations – an abandoned warehouse, a scrap-yard, etc which gives it something of a Sweeney/Professionals feel.

Just as The Arrangement owed more than a little to the novel Strangers on a Train, Signal Stop also seems to have been inspired by a crime classic.  In 4:50 From Paddington by Agatha Christie, a character witness a murder from her vantage point on a train – but with no body she finds it impossible to convince the authorities and only her friend Miss Marple takes her seriously.

The notion of observing a murder from a train (and therefore being helpless to intervene) is a decent one – although it’s fair to say that this story is a little flawed.  The major problem is that it’s baffling why the body was simply not taken away before Simon and Janie turned up the next day to find it.  No body = no crime.

Instead, the murdered man is left on site for them to find.  Simon then drives Janie all the way back to his house before phoning the police and driving back.  Naturally enough, by the time he returns the body has vanished.  Since he has a phone in his car, why didn’t he call the police and wait for them at the warehouse?

But despite these rather serious plotholes, there’s still a very decent, and unusual, story here.  Ciaran Madden impresses as the vulnerable Janie.  Unlike most of the other Saint heroines, she’s a flawed and damaged individual – although Simon’s faith in her never wavers.  It’s possible to argue that the script missed a trick by allowing the viewer to see the attack take place though.  Had this not happened, and we only had Janie’s word, it would have allowed the viewers to wonder if it maybe was just a figment of her imagination.

Ian Cullen is hardly stretched as one of the police officers, especially since he’d had a been a regular in Z Cars and could presumably have played this sort of part in his sleep.  Brian Glover, George Sweeney, Ralph Arliss, Heather Wright and Sabina Franklyn help to round out the cast.  Franklyn has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as a uniformed police officer who Simon effortlessly charms whilst Arliss makes a brief appearance as a hells-angel sort of biker.  Although as so often with ROTS, the biker gang never really exudes any sort of menace.

Frederick Jaeger’s rather good as Inspector Grant.  It’s the sort of part that seems at first to be fairly routine but by the conclusion of the episode he’s moved more into the forefront of the action.

Despite some flaws, Signal Stop rates a healthy three halos out of five.

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Return of the Saint – The Imprudent Professor

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Professor Edmund Bartlett (Bill Simpson) is a philanthropic scientist who wishes to share his new invention (synthetic petrol) with the world.  But his daughter Emma (Susan Penhaligon) is concerned for his safety.  She’s well aware that certain countries and interest groups would be very interested in her father’s discovery and could be inclined to use force to extract the information from him.

Emma hires Simon to keep an eye on him, much to the disgust of Boothroyd (Anthony Steel), the local representative of the British government.  Posing as a disgruntled ex-colleague of the Professor, Simon strikes up a friendship with the alluring, but deadly, Samantha (Catherine Schell).  Samantha works for Genius Inc, an organisation who sells geniuses to the highest bidders.

When the Professor disappears, Simon faces a race against the time before Bartlett is spirited out of the country and lost forever.

After a couple of London-based episodes, The Imprudent Professor is literally a breath of fresh air.  Filmed in and around Nice, it certainly uses the location to its maximum advantage.  And as well as the gorgeous visuals, there’s a sparkle about Terence Feeley’s teleplay that means it’s a definite cut above the norm.

Unlike Feeley’s previous script, The Armageddon Alternative, there’s an intriguing hook in the pre-credits sequence.  Simon interrupts a speech from the Professor by claiming that Bartlett is a fraud and he – Simon – is the true inventor of the synthetic petrol.  Since ROTS normally has fairly straightforward narratives, this is something of a jolt.

It doesn’t take long before the truth emerges though.  Simon’s decided that the best way to keep the Professor safe is to act as a judas goat and lure any people interested in his invention out into the open.  His tactics don’t meet with whole-hearted approval by everyone though, especially the Professor – who’s incredibly stubborn and unwilling to believe he’s in any danger.  Bill Simpson, best known for Dr Finlay’s Casebook, is (as might be expected) very Scottish.  He’s also quite an imposing figure and certainly makes an impression, even with his limited screen-time.

Susan Penhaligon (not even remotely Scottish) is suitably winsome as his daughter Emma.  Like many of the female roles in the series she’s only lightly sketched – but whenever she and Samantha meet there’s a nice tension between the pair of them.  This is because she clearly believes Samantha has designs on Simon (you can feel the waves of jealousy emanating from her!)

Ian Ogilvy looks like he’s having great fun and is certainly given plenty of good material.  When acting the part of the Professor’s disgruntled ex-employee he affects a Scottish accent (badly!) and wears a pair of glasses (obviously he thinks they make him look much more studious).  It’s also a nice touch that he uses the alias of Sebastian Tombs (a favourite of the literary Saint).

Simon gets to tangle with Samantha (some lovely comic moments between Ogilvy and Schell) and also crosses swords with Boothroyd of DI6.  His initial meeting with Boothroyd (the always classy Anthony Steel) is pure James Bond – we see Boothroyd relaxing by the poolside of a impressive looking house surrounded by a bevvy of gorgeous girls in bikinis.

Simon quips his way out the situation and at the same time is easily able to outwit some of DI6’s less able operatives, like Cartwright as played by Peter Childs.  If there was ever an episode of ROTS that could have been designed to showcase Ogilvy as a potential James Bond, then this was the one.

The plot may be a little routine (there’s a slight twist, although it’s not difficult to guess), but the location-work, guest-cast and the sheer spirit of the production help to make this one of the most enjoyable episodes of the series.  Four and a half halos out of five.

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Return of the Saint – The Armageddon Alternative

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Simon is abducted by a masked man and driven to an unknown location.  He’s shown an atomic bomb and the man tells him (via pre-recorded taped messages) that unless his demands are met the bomb will be detonated in the heart of London.

The mystery man’s demands are quite simple – he wants Lynn Jackson (Anouska Hempel) to be guillotined in public.  He gives Simon and the authorities until early evening to accede to his request – and in order to prove he’s serious, a conventional explosion will be set off every hour, on the hour ….

The Armageddon Alternative is a somewhat flawed story and the flaws are apparent from the pre-credits sequence.  Why does the masked man never speak?  The logical answer is that he’s a member of a team and the taped messages were recorded by somebody else.  Alas, logic has rather taken a holiday in this episode.

Simon later explains that the voice was recorded in order to disguise it (otherwise he would have instantly known who it was).  But that makes no sense – as soon as we hear the tape it’s obviously George Cole putting a funny voice on.  And when we see Fred (George Cole) a few minutes later it hardly takes a nuclear scientist to put two and two together.

Fred looks after the cars in Simon’s block of flats and is clearly the last person in the world you’d assume would be in possession of an atom bomb or have the skill to use it.  The mid episode reveal that he’s responsible should be a shocking twist – but it’s no surprise at all.  This possibly isn’t the fault of Terence Feeley’s teleplay though.  He would no doubt have assumed that director Leslie Norman (father of Barry) would be able to effectively disguise Cole’s voice.

What is a mystery is why Fred should want a gorgeous young woman like Lynn executed.  Although when it’s revealed that her father, Professor Loder (Frank Gatliff), is the Government’s chief psychiatric vetting officer, things begin to fall into place.  It seems obvious that someone who Loder filed a negative report against has decided to take the most drastic of revenge.

A likely suspect is Parkinson (Gordon Gostelow).  He turns out to be innocent, but takes a perverse delight in stringing Simon and the police along.  It’s a nice cameo from Gostelow who plays unhinged very well.  Indeed, the cast here is very strong – George Cole is his usual dependable self, whilst Anouska Hempel is also very watchable.  True, she’s not the strongest-drawn female character that ROTS has ever offered us, but Hempel manages to make something out of nothing.

Although laughs are thin on the ground, there was one (although I’m not sure whether it was intentional).  When Simon is kidnapped, he asks the man a question and amazingly the next thing on the tape is an answer to the question!  This is either an incredibly sloppy piece of scripting or a good joke.  It does rather bring to mind the Monty Python sketch featuring Michael Palin as a barber who has an uncontrollable fear of cutting hair though.

Great cast, but as the identity of the bomber is blown before we see the opening credits I can only give it two and a half halos out of five.

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Return of the Saint – The Arrangement

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When Lady Greer Stevens (Carolyn Seymour) and Sheila Northcott (Sarah Douglas) share a drink on a flight back to the UK they discover they have something in common.  Both are trapped in unhappy marriages and Greer suggests that each of them should kill the others husband.  Sheila idly agrees, not realising that Greer is quite serious and also quite mad.

Greer fulfills her side of the bargain by killing Guy Northcott (Michael Medwin) and now expects Sheila to murder Sir Trevor Stevens (Donald Pickering).  Fortunately for Sheila, she has the Saint on her side …..

The Arrangement is essentially a rewrite of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train (later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock).  Strangers on a Plane, as it were.  Carolyn Seymour is mesermerising as the completely unhinged Lady Greer Stevens.  We get an early example of her disregard for others when she trips up a rather loud American at the airport (he’d been annoying her on the plane).  Simon’s there to tend to him, although given that the man had just fallen a long way down an escalator it seems rather reckless for the Saint to roughly drag him away!

Sir Trevor Stevens is an influential politician, but it’s clear that he’s not satisfying his wife’s needs, despite her (somewhat half-hearted) claims to the contrary.  An interesting moment occurs when their servant Nina (Vikki Richards) announces that Greer’s bath is ready.  Greer mentions suggestively that Nina might like to scrub her back and this – together with a zoom into Nina’s expectant face and a shot of Sir Trevor looking disgusted – broadly hints that there’s more to this mistress/servant relationship than meets the eye.  Given that ROTS was a pre-watershed series it’s not surprising this is never explicitly spelt out – but the inference is clear enough.

Seymour’s mad-as-a-hatter turn is highly entertaining and by far the best thing about the story.  The second best thing is the Survivors mini-reunion, as Ian McCullough has a small role as Inspector Stone.  Seymour and McCullough only exchange a few words but it’s nice to see them together again.

As Greer Stevens is such a vivid character, Sarah Douglas’ Sheila Northcott can’t help but seem rather pallid when the two are put side by side.  Sheila is the typical sort of Saint heroine, utterly dependent on Simon to get her out of trouble.  And she’s not the only one in danger, as later on Greer kidnaps Sheila’s sister Aileen (Jane Hayden).

Aileen is younger than Sheila and quite a different sort of character.  Nina drugs Aileen’s drink when the pair of them are at a new-wave/punk club.  It’s not the first time that ROTS has dabbled with the underbelly of modern Britain and like the previous examples it doesn’t feel totally convincing.  Although the band are vaguely shouty, the club still seems rather sedate and well-behaved.  Later, we see Aileen kept captive and docile (she’s been pumped full of drugs).  Again, this is something that sits somewhat uneasily alongside the series’ more usual escapist atmosphere.

The ending might be a little predictable (and obviously shot in the studio) but The Arrangement easily rates four halos out of five.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Missing Q.C.s

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Robin Ellis as Charles Dallas in The Missing QCs by John Oxenham
Adapted by John Hawkesworth. Directed by Jonathan Alwyn

When two leading barristers who are conducting an important murder case (one for the prosecution, the other for the defence), vanish without trace, it falls to junior barrister Charles Dallas (Robin Ellis) to investigate.  The trail leads him to a lunatic asylum run by Professor Dyne (John Phillips) where events take a very unexpected turn ….

The Missing K.C.s was written by William Arthur Dunkerley, using the pen-name of John Oxenham.  Dunkerley was a prolific writer – crafting novels as well as poetry and hymns.  The character of Charles Dallas only appeared in this one story, published in the late nineteenth century.

Skilfully adapted by John Hawkesworth (Upstairs Downstairs), The Missing Q.C.s is a story that lurches in a very unexpected direction.  To begin with, it plays out like a traditional courtroom drama – with plenty of enjoyment to be derived from the performances of John Barron and Jack May as the battling barristers.  Both Barron and May were highly experienced actors, blessed with excellent comic timing, which means that their barbed insults are a joy to watch.  Charles Lloyd Pack, as the judge, also gives a fine turn as the man in the middle, attempting to keep order.

It’s expected that the story will revolve around George Wilson (Howard Goorney), on trial for the murder of his wife, and whether he’s innocent or guilty.  But the whole courtroom section is merely an excuse to introduce us to the Q.C.s and set us up for the second part of the tale.

During the courtroom portion of the story, Charles doesn’t seem that concerned about the case (where he’s acting as Sir Revel’s junior) as he spends his time trying to find the right moment to ask Sir Revel for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  Milly Revell (Ceila Bannerman) is a highly spirited young lady and the way she manipulates Charles is an early example of how he tends to be buffeted by events, rather than directing them.

The mysterious disappearance of Sir Revel Revell (John Barron), James Ladbroke (Jack May) and then later on Milly, forces him to take action.  Ellis, a few years away from his career-defining appearance in Poldark, is forced by the script to be a rather conventional leading man.  This means that the likes of Barron, May and Phillips can effortlessly steal the scenes whilst Ellis has the slightly thankless task of being the rational centre-point of the story.

What makes The Missing Q.C.s so interesting is the sudden gear-change from a conventional mystery to a Hammer-style gothic yarn.  Professor Dyne turns out to hold the key to the mystery – and his revelations are gloriously pulpy.  Dyne’s lunatic asylum – complete with a mute butler, moaning inmates and vicious dogs roaming the grounds, is certainly a far cry from the sedate courtroom setting of the first half.

As Charles breaks free into the grounds, desperately attempting to avoid the pack of dogs, Milly is still in the clutches of the evil Professor – bound and gagged just as a traditional pulp heroine should be.  Also held captive are Revell and Ladbroke, and both of them will shortly be operated on by Dyne.  Charles manages to escape and he makes his way to the local police-station, but in a glorious comic sequence he has to struggle to make himself believed.  Once the officers learn he’s come from the lunatic asylum they naturally assume he’s an escapee!

With some decent supporting performances (such as Gordon Gostelow as Inspector Mayhew) this brings the second and final series of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes to a strong conclusion.  There were still plenty of other stories that could have been adapted in future series, so it’s a little bit of a shame that it never came back – but the twenty-six episodes that were made do offer a fascinating snapshot of some of the best crime fiction of the late Victorian/early Edwardian age.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Mystery of the Amber Beads

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Sara Kestelman as Hagar in The Mystery of the Amber Beads by Fergus Hume
Adapted by Owen Holder. Directed by Don Leaver

A rich widow called Mrs Arryford (Doris Rogers) is brutally murdered and shortly afterwards her precious string of amber beads turns up at a pawnshop run by a young gypsy called Hagar (Sara Kestelman).  All the evidence suggests that Mrs Arryford’s maid Rose (Sarah Craze) killed her mistress, but Hager isn’t so certain ….

The Mystery of the Amber Beads was written by Fegus Hume and was one of a collection of short stories published in 1898 under the title of Hagar of the Pawn Shop, which can be read here.  Two years earlier he self-published a novel called The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.  It very quickly became a publishing sensation but Hume was to receive little financial benefit, since he sold the British and American rights for just fifty pounds.

Female detectives were rare in the Victorian/Edwardian era and an ethnic detective, such as Hagar, was rarer still.  Most of the other sleuths featured in these adaptations either have official standing or are gentleman amateurs who are indulged by the authorities.  Hagar clearly doesn’t fall within either of these categories.

The forces of law and order are represented by Grubber (Joss Ackland) and his relationship with Hagar is one of the key dynamics of the episode.  He’s maybe more accepting and trusting of her than you would expect, but although it’s probable that more drama could have been mined from an antagonistic relationship, their interaction is still intriguing.

Hagar proves early on that she’s no fool as she tells him the serial number of the five pound note that was handed over to the mysterious woman who pawned the beads.  Later, Hagar is able to prove that the woman wasn’t Rose – although to be fair this is done in a way that would be hard to prove in a court of law.

Joss Ackland gives a broad performance as Gruber.  He makes the policeman a very bluff, cockney figure who tends to teeter on the edge of caricature.  But Ackland is a good enough actor to be able to occasionally pull back and show that there’s more to the man that meets the eye.  Gruber is somewhat of a hypocrite though.  To begin with he’s convinced that Rose is guilty and tells a disbelieving Hagar so.  Then after Hagar has proved otherwise, he blithely tells her that he knew all along that Rose didn’t do it!

Sara Kestelman is impressive as Hagar.  She’s a dual outsider – not only a woman in a man’s world but a gypsy to boot and therefore certain to be regarded with suspicion by the majority of her fellow citizens.  Hagar does have a code of honour though and whilst she probably would have been aware the beads were stolen when she accepted them, she didn’t attempt to hide the fact that she had them when Gruber came enquiring.  And her sense of justice is clear after she champions the cause of Rose.

If it wasn’t Rose, then who might it be?  Mrs Arryford’s household is fairly small and apart from the servants there’s only her companion Miss Lyle (Kathleen Byron) and Miss Lyle’s nephew Freddy (Stephen Chase).  Freddy seems an obvious suspect – he’s very smooth and makes an instant byline for Hagar.  Kathleen Byron had a lengthy and impressive career (she had a memorable role in the classic film Black Narcissus for example) and doesn’t disappoint as Miss Lyle.  It’s a little while before she has her moment to shine, but it’s worth waiting for.

Rounding off the main cast is Philip Locke as Vark.  Vark is adamant that the pawnshop should be his and as a solicitor he’s willing to use every trick at his disposal to ensure he makes it so.  Locke is perfect as the thoroughly oily and untrustworthy Vark and it’s no surprise that Hagar despises him.  Vark either doesn’t realise this or doesn’t care as at one point he suggests marriage – which doesn’t go down very well with Hagar!

This is yet another studio-bound show, but the production design does its best to hide these limitations.  We see several horses as well as numerous extras who are all employed to create bustling street scenes whilst sound effects are also used to create the impression of busy city activity.

A strong episode, thanks to the quality cast, headed by Sara Kestelman.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Looting of the Specie Room

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Ronald Fraser as Mr Horrocks in The Looting of the Specie Room by C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne
Adapted by Ian Kennedy-Martin. Directed by Jonathan Alwyn

The RMS Oceanic is attempting to cross the Atlantic in a record time.  It’s also carrying a fortune in gold bullion, under the watchful eye of the ship’s purser Mr Horrocks (Ronald Fraser).  But when the ship docks at Liverpool, Horrocks is appalled to find that half of the gold has been stolen.  The ship’s owner, Lord Altington (Paul Hardwick), gives him a stark ultimatum – if the gold isn’t recovered by the time the Oceanic reaches Southampton, Horrocks will have to find another job …..

The Looting of the Specie Room was written by C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne.  Best known for the fantasy novel The Lost Continent: The Story of Atlantis, he also wrote a series of stories featuring Captain Kettle.  Horrocks made his first appearance as a supporting character in the Kettle tales and later featured in his own book Mr Horrocks Purser (1902).

Like most of the adaptations in the series, it stands or falls on the performance of the detective and sadly Ronald Fraser is something of a disappointment.  This is a pity, since he’s usually an actor I enjoy watching – but he’s very subdued here.  Ian Kennedy-Martin’s adaptation provides plenty of scope – Horrocks is an affable, honest and friendly man who’s skilled in dealing with the numerous demands of his well-heeled passengers.

But although he’s treated with indifference by some of them and with outright contempt by the Oceanic’s owner Lord Altrington, Fraser never manages to make anything of this.  Instead, he stumbles through the episode with hardly a flicker of emotion, only slightly coming to life when talking to the attractive young widow Mrs. Vanrenen (Jean Marsh).

If Fraser is a little off, then there’s some consolation to be had with the supporting cast.  Edward Dentith is profoundly shifty as Sir Edward Markham – could this apparently upright gentleman have something to do with the robbery?  Jean Marsh shares several nice, understated scenes with Fraser and as I’ve said it’s pretty much the only time he seems in any way animated.

Stephen Yardley (almost unrecognisable at first, thanks to sporting pretty much a full head of hair and a moustache) is another suspect.  His character, First Officer Clayton, has run up serious gambling debts and this gives him a strong motive.  Norman Bird, a veteran of film and television, is another quality addition to the cast.  He plays Inspector Trent, who joins the ship in England and teams up with Horrocks to locate the stolen gold.

The actual mechanics of the robbery aren’t terribly interesting (and do show the limitations of the studio) but Horrocks’ confrontation with the culprit do go some way to ensuring that the story closes strongly.  Although he successfully plays amateur detective, Horrocks finds himself demoted to another, smaller ship in the fleet (he accepts this slight with equanimity).  But when he learns that the captain of his new ship will be Clayton (a man he accused of robbery and therefore someone who has no love for him) he does seem to perk up a little!

An indifferent installment, but even with Fraser’s leaden performance it’s not a total write-off.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Secret of the Foxhunter

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Derek Jacobi as William Drew in The Secret of the Foxhunter by William Le Queux
Adapted by Gerald Kelsey. Directed by Graham Evans

After two European spies join a hunting party at an English country house, William Drew (Derek Jacobi) tags along as well.  As a friend of the family Drew is easily able to mingle amongst the guests – and one especially catches his attention.

Beatrice Graham (Lisa Harrow) is a luminous beauty, engaged to one of Drew’s colleagues, but she’s clearly very perturbed.  Can she, or her fiance, be a traitor?  It later turns out that Beatrice is in possession of a document that the foreign spies are extremely eager to obtain – and they’ll stop at nothing, including murder, to achieve their ends.

William Le Queux was a prolific writer, most successful in the decade or so before WW1.  The Invasion of 1910 (serialised in the Daily Mail in 1906) was a notable bestseller for him.  Le Queux tended to concentrate on the thriller, spy and mystery genres and whilst there’s a certain pulpiness about his works, he can still lay claim to being one of the founding fathers of British spy fiction.  The Secret of the Foxhunter can be read here.

Gerald Kelsey’s adaptation takes certain liberties with the source material, mainly by injecting a certain amount of humour (Le Queux’s original is lacking in this).  One major difference is the role played by Miss Baines (Denise Coffey).  Miss Baines is governess to the daughter of the German spy Count Kremplestein (Richard Warner) and takes a much more active role in the adaptation (in the original story she’s a very marginal figure).  Coffey, a noted comic performer, tackles her role with gusto and plays against Jacobi very well.

Another touch added by Kelsey is the extreme reticence of the British government, in the form of Drew’s boss The Marquess of Macclesfield (Richard Pearson), over the whole beastly business of spying.  The Marquess clearly regards spying as a deeply underhand business and not something that a British gentleman should undertake.  A good example is when Drew comes into possession of a letter written by Beatrice – it could contain a vital clue, but the Marquess really doesn’t like the idea of opening a lady’s letter (he does overcome his scruples though).

The Secret of the Foxhunter was Lisa Harrow’s television debut.  She would rack up an impressive list of television, film and theatre credits over the years (she’s probably best remembered for playing Nancy Astor in the 1982 series of the same name).  Here, she brings an excellent, doomed intensity to Beatrice – Drew is keen to help her, but it’s to no avail sadly.

Derek Jacobi (despite a fake moustache – the curse of the series, alas) gives a strong central performance as William Drew.  Equally able to play comic scenes with Denise Coffey and Richard Pearson as well as more dramatic moments with Lisa Harrow, Jacobi’s never less than first rate.  In terms of the adaptation, a major change by Kesley comes at the conclusion of the story, which provides Jacobi with another chance to shine.  It’s an unexpected moment – but all the more powerful because of this.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Moabite Cypher

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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.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Anonymous Letters

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Ronald Lewis as Dagobert Trostler in The Anonymous Letters by Balduin Groller
Adapted by Anthony Steven. Directed by Dennis Vance

Vienna, 1900.  Countess Nadja (Nicola Pagett) has received several anonymous letters of a most intimate nature.  Nadja is anxious that not a breath of scandal reaches the ear of her husband, Archduke Othmar (Michael Aldridge) and therefore consults Dagobert Trostler (Ronald Lewis),  Dagobert is a confidant of the noblest of Viennese society and therefore the ideal man for the investigation.

The Anonymous Letters was written by Adalbert Goldscheider, under the pseudonym of Balduin Groller.  Groller created Dagobert Trostler in 1890 and like so many other writers of the era he sought to create a detective somewhat in the mould of Sherlock Holmes, albeit one who was resident in Vienna.  But Dagobert is quite different from Holmes.  The London detective had little time for polite society and was never impressed by rank or title, whereas it’s clear that Dagobert relishes his influential friends and would be loath to lose them.

If I had to describe this episode in one word then “florid” seems apt.  Possibly this is due to the translation from German to English, which means there’s a somewhat melodramatic unreality to the story.  This might be why none of the main characters ever quite seem to come into sharp focus.  Dagobert is amusing enough, but his deductions are fairly routine and his affair with Countess Tildi Leys (Carolyn Jones) doesn’t quite convince.

Nicola Pagett had already appeared in Upstairs Downstairs, so the role of a pampered member of the upper-classes clearly wasn’t too much of a stretch.  And despite the difference in nationality there’s more than a touch of Elizabeth Bellamy in Nadja, but whilst Upstairs Downstairs gave us the chance, over time, to appreciate Elizabeth’s vulnerable side, we don’t have the same luxury here.  So although Nadja is completely blameless it’s hard to invest a great deal of interest in her fate.

Michael Aldridge sports an impressive beard (like much of the facial hair in the series it was clearly stuck on) and is also responsible for an unintentionally amusing moment after he storms into Dagobert’s rooms and accuses him of taking advantage of his wife.  After slapping his face, he then challenges Dagobert to a duel, but the younger man responds by knocking him out!  His servant then rushes in and mournfully tells him that he’s hit a Habsburg – which was clearly deemed to be a sufficiently dramatic point to lead into the second advert break.

Although The Anonymous Letters has the usual excellent cast, the lack of characters that can be identified with does mean that it’s difficult to fully engage with the story.  Certainly one of the lesser adaptations from series two.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Superfluous Finger

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Douglas Wilmer as Professor Van Dusen in The Superfluous Finger by Jacques Futrelle
Adapted by Julian Bond. Directed by Derek Bennett

A top surgeon, Prescott (Laurence Payne) is perturbed when a young woman (played by Veronica Strong) asks him to amputate one of her fingers.  Prescott refuses since there’s no medical reason to do so, but on her way out she deliberately traps her finger in the door – forcing Prescott to accede to her wishes.  He later calls in Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer) to untangle this strange mystery.

The Superfluous Finger was the second of two Professor Van Dusen stories to be adapted for series two of The Rivals.  The original story, by Jacques Futrelle, can be read here.

The story has a strong Sherlock Holmes influence, especially since it opens with a puzzling mystery (why should anybody wish to have a perfectly healthy finger amputated?).  Some of the other Holmesian touches were added by Julian Bond’s adaptation – such as Van Dusen being able to deduce that the woman recently travelled from America (due to her clothes) as well as his assertion that whilst he has many acquaintances he has very few friends.

Of course, having Douglas Wilmer in the lead role (a notable Sherlock Holmes himself) also helps to connect Van Dusen and Holmes.  But though there are some similarities between Wilmer’s portrayal of both characters there are also some fairly major differences.  Wilmer’s Holmes tended to be somewhat abrupt and humourless, whilst Van Dusen has a more light-hearted and ironic air.  Van Dusen seems to breeze through life in a rather detached way, rarely exhibiting strong emotions.

What connects the two is the delight they take in keeping their deductions to themselves.  Both are disinclined to share their initial thoughts with others (Holmes with Watson, Van Dusen with Prescott) for pretty much the same reason.  The others have seen what they’ve seen, so if they can’t draw the same conclusions from the evidence why should it be spelled out to them?

Van Dusen is aided in his investigation by the reporter Roderick Varley (Mark Eden).  It’s odd that Nicholas Courtney didn’t return as Hutchinson Hatch (especially since Hatch is featured in the original story) so I can only assume that filming dates for Doctor Who clashed with this recording.  But Eden is a more than adequate substitute and enjoys a decent part of the action.

This starts when he tails the mysterious woman in a film sequence which clearly had some money thrown at it.  We see hansom cabs with horses (one previous episode had a cab in the studio – but no horse – with a stage-hand clearly shaking it about to create the effect of motion!) as well as several extras walking up and down the street.  It’s a welcome moment of fresh air that does help to open out the story.

Varley later seems to find the woman murdered and is arrested by the police (in the form of Mallory, played by Charles Morgan).  Van Dusen has to go and effect his release, this he does in a wonderfully comic scene which showcases Douglas Wilmer at his best.  Charles Morgan was no stranger to playing Victorian policeman (thanks to his role in the long-running Sergeant Cork) and is just as good here.

William Mervyn (as Sir Hector Drummond) turns in the sort of eccentric performance that he possibly could have done in his sleep, but is amusing nonetheless.  And Laurence Payne is dependable as Prescott, the man who invites Van Dusen to investigate but finds it hard to hide his exasperation with the Professor’s unorthodox practices.

Although the story opens with an intriguing mystery it’s probably not too difficult to work out what the solution is long before Van Dusen tells us (the pre-credits sequence, added by Julian Bond, does tend to give the game away somewhat).  But whilst it’s not the most interesting story, Wilmer is once again good value as the eccentric Professor.

The Rivals of Shelock Holmes – The Sensible Action of Lieutenant Holst

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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!

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Absent-Minded Coterie

 

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Charles Gray as Eugine Valmont in The Absent-Minded Coterie by Robert Barr
Adapted by Alexander Baron. Directed by Peter Duguid

French amateur detective Eugine Valmont (Charles Gray) is consulted by Inspector Hale (Barry Linehan) of Scotland Yard.  Whilst Valmont easily manages to wrap up Hale’s little problem (a gang of counterfeiters) it leads him onto another case, which may be much harder to crack …..

The Absent-Minded Coterie was written by Robert Barr and was published in 1906.  Barr was responsible for the first published Sherlock Holmes parody, The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs (in 1892) and followed this up with The Adventure of the Second Swag in 1904.  Although these two stories took gentle digs at the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon they didn’t affect his friendship with Conan-Doyle.  Both of these stories, along with his tales of Eugine Valmont (including The Absent-Minded Coterie) can be read here.

Although he didn’t write many Valmont stories (only eight in total) each one was an entertaining inversion of the sort of tales which had already become cliches, thanks to the popularity of Sherlock Holmes.  And at first glance The Absent-Minded Coterie does seem to be little more than a Holmes knock-off since Valmont, like Holmes, is a private detective who finds himself constantly badgered by Scotland Yard to help them solve their cases.

In Valmont’s own words, courtesy of Robert Barr –

Myself, I like the English detective very much, and if I were to be in a mêlée tomorrow, there is no man I would rather find beside me than Spenser Hale. In any situation where a fist that can fell an ox is desirable, my friend Hale is a useful companion, but for intellectuality, mental acumen, finesse—ah, well! I am the most modest of men, and will say nothing.

Alexander Baron’s dramatisation and Peter Duguid’s direction takes Barr’s source material to craft a very familiar late Victorian/early Edwardian setting – complete with fog shrouded streets.  The case of the counterfeiters rumbles along for a while, but it seems so commonplace that it’s difficult to understand why Hale should need Valmont’s help.

At this early stage the episode is nothing special, but it changes gear once Miss Mackail (Suzanne Neve) comes fully into view and Valmont’s fallibilities are laid bare.  When you understand that Valmont lost as often as he won (making the title of Barr’s book – The Triumphs of Eugine Valmont – deeply ironic) things begin to fall into place.  Both Barr’s original, and Baron’s dramatisation, take delight in using tropes familiar from the Sherlock Holmes stories and then turning them on their head.

Valmont jubilantly confronts Miss Mackail but is perturbed to find that she’s quite calm about it and gently goes onto remind him that as the only evidence he holds was obtained illegally it’s inadmissible in a court of law.  Just prior to this there’s a lovely moment where Valmont turns all the lights off, except for one directed straight at him.  As he stands in the spotlight, he grandly reveals to Miss Mackail that his name is Eugine Valmont.  Alas, the spell is broken when she admits she’s never heard of him!

Charles Gray sports an outrageous French accent as the vainglorious Valmont.  It’s interesting to ponder whether Agatha Christie was influenced by Valmont when creating Hercule Poirot.  Certainly the two share some similarities, although Poirot’s belief in his own abilities was well founded.  Gray’s performance is somewhat stagey, but it suits the material since Valmont isn’t supposed to be a rounded, three-dimensional character.

Barry Lineham gives a rather odd turn as Hale.  I can’t quite put my finger on what the problem is, maybe it’s his slowness of speech, but there’s something about him that doesn’t quite click.  But Suzanne Neve is lovely as the cunning Miss Mackail and it’s a joy to watch her run rings around Valmont at the end.

The adaptation probably loses some of the sparkle of Barr’s stories (which are certainly worth a read) but it does have a lightness of touch which makes it something of a joy.