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

missing

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

beads

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

specie

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

foxhunter

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

cypher

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

letters

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

finger

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

holst

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

 

absent

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.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Secret of the Magnifique

secret

Bernard Hepton as Mr J.T. Laxworthy in The Secret of the Magnifique by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Adapted by Gerald Kelsey. Directed by Derek Bennett

Sydney Wing (Christopher Neame) and Anderson (Neil McCarthy) have both recently been released from prison, but that’s where the similarity ends.  Wing has the sort of casual, upper-class air which ensures he can easily mix with the highest in the land whilst Anderson hails from a much lower rung of society.

But whilst they’re very different people, both are selected by the mysterious Mr Laxworthy (Bernard Hepton).  Laxworthy has a proposition – he wants Wing to pose as a rich man-about-town whilst Anderson takes the role of his valet.  And since both Wing and Anderson are penniless they readily agree (especially when Laxworthy tells them there’s a fortune to be made).

The three later travel to the South of France, where the French warship Magnifique lies in port.  It possesses an innovate new torpedo and Laxworthy sees an opportunity to make a great deal of money …

Edward Phillips Oppenheim was a highly prolific author, penning more than a hundred novels between 1887 and 1941 as well as numerous short story collections.  Dubbed “the prince of storytellers” he was a pioneer of the spy-fiction genre – although like many of the authors featured in The Rivals he slipped into obscurity following his death.  The Secret of the Magnifique was one of a number of short stories collected in the volume Mr Laxworthy’s Adventures, which was published in 1913.  It can be read here.

Bernard Hepton is a great, albeit rather underrated, British actor.  His fairly low profile, despite his impressive list of credits, may be partly due to the type of characters he usually plays.  They don’t tend to be flamboyant or demonstrative – Hepton specialises in self-contained, internal performances.  So he’s never going to be an actor that commands the screen, he’s much more subtle than that.

The 1970’s were something of a golden period for him.  He took the lead in two WW2 series produced by Gerard Glaister – Colditz, in which he played the Kommandant and Secret Army, which saw him switch sides to take the role of Albert Foriet, a member of the Belgian underground network “Lifeline” (which was dedicated to returning Allied airman to the UK).  Other notable series, such as I Claudius and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy were also graced by his presence and there were numerous one-off appearances, such as this one.

Our first sight of Hepton is as the cabby who picks up both Wing and Anderson.  Had there not be a caption-card at the start, proclaiming Hepton as the star of the episode, then this slight misdirection might have worked a bit better.  As it is, when Laxworthy takes off his cabby’s overcoat and removes a fake moustache it doesn’t really come as any sort of surprise.  But it does give us an early indication that he’s a man who likes to be in control and also enjoys manipulating people.

Christopher Neame had also starred in Colditz (and would appear in the first series of Secret Army too).  His trademark charm is on display here, making it obvious why Laxworthy selected him.  Neil McCarthy is present for a spot of comic relief – Anderson is a rough, gruff sort of chap who’s inclined to blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong time.

The Secret of the Magnifique offers something of a change in pace for The Rivals, as there’s no detective (Laxworthy loosely fulfills this role though).  But whilst Mr Laxworthy might not be an honest man he’s not a totally dishonourable one either.  He makes a handsome profit from the secret of the Magnifique’s torpedo, but it’s maybe not in the way one might have expected.

Elsewhere in the cast, the likes of Gary Watson and John Nettleton adopt French accents of varying accuracy whilst Canadian-born Bruce Boa plays an American, Freeling Poignton.  Boa was one of a handful of Canadian actors resident in the UK during this time (Shane Rimmer was another) and this small band of ex-pat Canadians were able to earn a very good living by playing Americans.  And at least their accents always sounded convincing!

The Secret of the Magnifique is one of those episodes that leaves you wanting more.  Hepton, Neame and McCarthy make an entertaining team and a run of further adventures would have been very welcome.  As mentioned previously, it’s strange that The Rivals was never used as a series of pilot programmes since a few episodes, including this one, could have spawned their own series.   Unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – Cell 13

cell 13

Douglas Wilmer as Professor Van Dusen in Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle
Adapted by Julian Bond. Directed by Reginald Colin

Professor Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer) doesn’t believe Fielding’s (Donald Pickering) claim that the prison he’s designed is escape proof and says so to his face (Van Dusen states he could escape from any cell in any prison within seven days).

Fielding, slighted by this attack on his professional abilities, agrees to the challenge and so shortly afterwards Van Dusen finds himself at the imposing Grangemoor prison.  The governor (Michael Gough) and the chief warder (Ray Smith) are certain that escape is impossible and the odds certainly seem stacked against the Professor.  Seven locked doors lie between Cell 13 and freedom.  Can Van Dusen really just “think” himself out of the prison?

The Problem of Cell 13 was written by the American author Jacques Futrelle and was originally published in 1905.  It was the first of a number of stories written by Futrelle about Professor Van Dusen, nicknamed “the thinking machine” and was later included in a volume of short stories which can be read here.

Futrelle’s promising career was cut short following his decision to travel aboard the Titanic. He refused to board a lifeboat, insisting that his wife take his place.  This ensured that whilst she lived, he didn’t.  His last book, My Lady’s Garter, was published posthumously in 1912, with his wife May adding the following inscription.  “To the heroes of the Titanic, I dedicate this my husband’s book.”

The peerless Douglas Wilmer is excellent as Van Dusen.  The Professor appears to be somewhat dreamy and remote, but it later becomes clear that he’s a man of rare intellect.  And Wilmer’s comic timing is used to good effect in the early part of the story, when he finds himself subjected to the attentions of the chief warder.

But as the days wear on, Van Dusen doesn’t seem to be any closer to escaping and his various attempts (a note thrown out the window, attempting to file the bars) seem to be both painfully obvious and terribly half-hearted.  Of course, he does manage to escape in the end – but for maximum impact this doesn’t happen until virtually the last minute of his seven days

In terms of the episode’s running time, this occurs at the end of part two – so part three allows Van Dusen to explain in detail just how he did it.  He also gets the opportunity to throw a few, well-deserved insults at the chief warder such as “it’s a pity you don’t exercise your wits as often as you exercise your tongue.”

With no actual crime, it’s much more of an intellectual exercise as well as an early example of the locked-room mystery, which would be a staple of the golden age of detective fiction.  And although it’s very much a vehicle for Wilmer, there’s some decent performances from the supporting cast. Michael Gough, Ray Smith, Clifford Rose and Donald Pickering are all worth watching (although Smith’s very fake beard and overly gruff voice are a little distracting).

It’s also nice to see Nicholas Courtney pop up in a small role and Derek Ware (a well-known stuntman) is the star of the pre-credits sequence (he plays a convict who attempts to escape, but is recaptured).  This sequence is notable since it’s shot on film (a rarity for The Rivals) and also at night, which gives it a glossy, expensive feeling – making a brief change from the usual, studio-bound nature of the series.

This is good stuff, thanks to Wilmer, and there’s another appearance from the Professor, later in the series, to look forward to.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – Five Hundred Carats

carats

Barry Keegan as Inspector Lipinzki in Five Hundred Carats by George Griffith
Adapted by Alexander Baron. Directed by Jonathan Alwyn

When a diamond worth millions is stolen from the small mining town of Kimberley, South Africa, Inspector Lipinzki (Barry Keegan) is quickly on the trail.  The security, organised by Mr Arundel (Patrick Barr), was impressive – so how was it stolen?

But even if he doesn’t know how, the dogged Inspector is convinced he knows who – Philip Marsden (Martin Jarvis).  Marsden, along with his colleague Charlie Lomas (Richard Morant) were tasked with guarding the diamond and therefore both must be considered prime suspects.  But Marsden is a powerful man and Lipinzki will have to tread carefully, otherwise he may find himself out of a job.

Five Hundred Carats was written by George Griffith and was originally published in 1893.  It can be read here.

The second series of The Rivals saw a greater international cast of detectives and this story, set in South Africa, is the first example.  But despite the foreign setting it’s still very much a studio bound production (although there is some location work later on – with a sandpit doubling for the South African outback).

Barry Keegan gives Lipinzki a lovely world-weary air.  Unlike some of the other detectives featured in the series, he’s not analytical or given to flights of fancy – Lipinzki is just a hard-working, methodical policeman who uncovers the truth by effectively waging a war of nerves with his suspects.  And after suffering a brief moment of doubt when he realises he’s no idea how the robbery occurred, the Inspector is on much firmer ground once he’s found a suspect he can pressurise.

He admits he doesn’t possess any evidence but he’s prepared to press Marsden hard and see what happens.  This isn’t easy though, since Marsden is a gentleman and Lipinzki isn’t.  The point is brought up early on after the affable Arundel mentions to Marsden that he’s been politely asked not to invite the Inspector to the club quite so often.  It’s a sentiment that Marsden agrees with (he views Lipinzki as being uncouth in the extreme) but Arundel is a great respecter of the Inspector’s abilities and isn’t concerned with issues of class.

But Marsden is and he wastes no time in letting Lipinzki know exactly how little he thinks of him.  The confrontation between Keegan (softly-spoken Irish) and Jarvis (upper-cut English) is one of the highlights of the episode.  And although Marsden is a character whose actions and dialogue verge on the melodramatic at times, Jarvis is a good enough actor to still make him a believable and rounded figure.

Richard Morant is effective as Lomas, whilst Aideen O’Kelly takes the only main female role as Bridie Sullavan.  Bridie is a widower who runs the local bar and finds herself an object of attention from both Lomas and Marsden.  She views Lomas with the indulgence of an elder sister but has little time for the icy-cold and superior Marsden.

Patrick Barr, always such a dependable actor, doesn’t have a terribly interesting part as the upright, honest Arundel, but manages to make him watchable anyway.  Another very good character actor, Alan Tilvern, has a more meaty role as Mr Cornelius.  Cornelius is visiting from America and is most interested in both the diamond and Arundel’s security procedures.  This makes him a suspect (and Tilvern specialised in playing shifty characters anyway) but Cornelius turns out to be nothing more than a diverting red-herring.

There’s also a murder (it occurs in the pre-credits sequence although events then flashback so it doesn’t actually happen until towards the end of the story)  Another death occurs shortly afterwards and this does tend to reinforce the point that diamonds might be beautiful but they’re also deadly.

Although the culprit is caught, the exact place where he buried the diamond isn’t known.  Lipinzki isn’t concerned, as the diamond is back in the soil of South Africa – where it should be.

Apart from some slightly over-melodramatic incidental music this is an effective episode.  The battle between Keegan and Jarvis is excellently done and this ensures that the pace never flags.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway

mysterious 01

Judy Geeson as Polly Burton in The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway
by the Baroness Orczy
Adapted by Alan Cooke. Directed by Graham Evans

A beautiful young woman, Beatrice Hazeldene (Lois Baxter) is poisoned on a subway train.  Later, her husband, William Hazeldene (Anthony Corlan) and sister, Laura Stanley (Cyd Hayman) arrive at the mortuary to make the identification.

Also present is rising young reporter Polly Burton (Judy Geeson) who is keen to solve the mystery.  Together with her friend on the police-force, Frobisher (Richard Beckinsale), they find a prime suspect, one Frank Errington (Tom McCarthy).  The evidence against him seems overwhelming, but later both her uncle, Sir Arthur Inglewood (John Savident) and Polly herself start to have doubts …..

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway was written by the Baroness Orczy, best-known today for creating the Scarlet Pimpernel, who first appeared in a successful play written by herself and her husband in 1903.  Equally popular was Orczy’s novelisation, which spawned a number of follow-up books (the final one was published in 1940).

But prior to this, Orczy had dabbled with crime fiction and had written a series of thirteen short-stories which had been published in 1901 and 1902.  A dozen of them were re-written and collected in book form as The Old Man in the Corner in 1910.  This book, which includes The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway can be read here.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Sherlock Holmes still cast a long shadow over many writers of crime fiction and this spurred Orczy to create something different.  The Old Man in the Corner was very much a thinking detective – a prototype for a generation of “armchair detectives” who solve mysteries without ever visiting the scene of the crime.  Instead, he spends his time at the A.B.C. tea-shop where he is frequently visited by Polly Burton who recounts various baffling mysteries.  And after listening to her accounts, he considers the facts and delivers a solution.

Later authors would also use this device, most famously in The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie but it does seem that when adapting this short-story Alan Cooke found there were dramatic limitations.  The most obvious being that the Old Man never interacts with the protagonists and his solutions are rarely provable in a court of law.  So Cooke chose to excise the Old Man from the adaptation and move Polly into the centre of the narrative.

This is something of a pity, since it means that the whole point of the Old Man stories (how he is able, without moving from the tea-shop, to come up with a plausible solution which may or may not be true) is lost. But having to tell the whole story in flashback wouldn’t have been very satisfying, so it’s understandable why this happened.

Judy Geeson is very appealing as the bright young reporter Polly Burton.  Because she’s written as a rather single-minded, humourless individual, it’s Geeson herself who manages to turn her into a more rounded, less cold character.  Richard Beckinsale is rather wooden as Frobisher, which is surprising since there was some comic mileage to be mined in his relationship with Polly (Frobisher’s in love with her but she’s ruthless in exploiting this, as she’ll do anything to aid her investigations).

The studio-bound nature of the episode does become apparent at the start as tight camera-angles, sound effects and shaky camera-work are all employed to create the illusion of a moving train.  Later, captions are used to signify locations (for example, a picture of the Old Bailey).  These do tend to highlight the limitations of the production, but they’re only fleeting moments so aren’t too damaging.  Elsewhere, director Graham Evans produces some interesting shots – particularly in the scenes set in the coroner’s court, some of which are shot from very high-up.  This does help to make what would otherwise be a rather static section of the story more visually interesting.

There’s also the usual high-quality supporting cast, including Michael Sheard, Christopher Timothy and Simon Lack whilst George Tovey has a lovely scene-stealing moment as a porter.  John Savident seems to be enjoying himself as Sir Arthur Inglewood whilst Cyd Hayman is as luminously beautiful as ever.

Like some of the other stories adapted for the series, this is a who-dunnit with very few suspects – so the identity of the murderer shouldn’t be terribly hard to guess.  But the paucity of the story isn’t that important since it’s the performances that drive it along.  And even if Alan Cooke’s adaptation does take liberties with the original source material, thanks to Judy Geeson’s engaging performance this isn’t too much of an issue.

mysterious 02

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Case of Laker, Absconded

laker

Peter Barkworth as Martin Hewett in The Case of Laker, Absconded by Arthur Morrison
Adapted by Philip Mackie.  Directed by Jonathan Alwyn

Martin Hewitt (Peter Barkworth) and Jonathan Pryde (Ronald Hines) have a new contract.  They’ve been retained by the City Guarantee Society, an insurance company who guarantee the integrity of bank employees.  So in the case of fraud or theft, the City Guarantee Society are naturally keen for the culprit to be apprehended as quickly as possible.  And so are Hewitt and Pryde (they earn no fee, but collect a percentage of the monies recovered).

The case of a junior bank clerk called Laker seems to be open and shut.  Laker is a walk-clerk, responsible for collecting money from various banks during his round and then returning it to his own bank – Messrs Liddle, Neal & Liddle.  But after collecting fifteen thousand pounds, he disappears.

His fiance, Emily Shaw (Jane Lapotaire), remains convinced of his innocence and she begs Hewitt to help her.  When the evidence of his guilt starts to pile up, even she starts to doubt him.  But Hewitt wonders if some of the trail is just a little obvious – it’s almost as if he wanted to be tracked.  Emily tells Hewitt that Laker is a clever man, so why has he acted in such a careless way, throwing clues about?

The Case of Laker, Absconded was the third and final Martin Hewitt story by Arthur Morrison to be adapted for the first series of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.  The original story appeared in The Chronicles of Martin Hewitt, published in 1895, and it can be read here.

Jonathan Pryde, the Hewitt substitute from The Case of the Dixon Torpedo appears briefly, but this is very much Hewitt’s case.  He spends the majority of the episode in the company of Emily Shaw and together they attempt to prove or disprove Laker’s guilt.  Barkworth is his usual solid self and Jane Lapotaire impresses as a woman who remains unswervingly devoted to her finance – even though all the evidence suggests that’s he’s jilted her and run away to the continent with a horde of stolen money.

There’s two possible solutions to the story and it quickly becomes clear which is the more likely.  So this isn’t a complex or surprising tale – instead the enjoyment comes from the lead performances of Barkworth and Lapotaire, as well as some of the supporting cast.

Chief amongst these are Leslie Dwyer and Toke Townley as two lost property men at the local railway station.  Laker’s lost umbrella (which Hewitt recovers) is a minor plot point, but the main pleasure in these scenes is the comic timing of Dwyer and Townley.

Toke Townley isn’t the only connection to Emmerdale (he played Sam Pearson from 1972 to 1984) as Mr Wilks himself, Arthur Pentelow, appears as Inspector Plummer.  Like many of the other policemen in the series, he’s always a couple of steps behind the private detective but Plummer doesn’t seem to mind – especially since with Hewitt’s help he manages to round up a dangerous gang of crooks.

The Case of Laker, Absconded brought the first series of The Rivals to a close.  Overall, it was a very consistent run of episodes with some strong central performances from the various detectives.  The series would return for a second, and final, series – which promised new detectives and more baffling cases for them to solve.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Ripening Rubies

rubies

Robert Lang as Bernard Sutton in The Ripening Rubies by Max Pemberton
Adapted by Anthony Skene.  Directed by Alan Cooke

When an ex-con called Jaffe (Ron Pember) attempts to sell a valuable ruby necklace, he makes the mistake of taking it to Bernard Sutton (Robert Lang).  Sutton was the jeweler who made the necklace in the first place and he’s well aware that it was recently stolen from Lady Faber (Lally Bowers).

Jaffe insists he didn’t steal the necklace – he bought it from a Dutch sea captain with a wooden leg.  It seems an implausible story, but that’s only part of the problem.  London society has been gripped by a wave of jewel robberies recently – and this is the first piece to have been recovered.

Sutton returns it to Lady Faber and she insists that he attend the grand ball she’s throwing that evening.  Everybody who is is anybody in polite society will be there – and it seems certain that the thief will strike again.  Sutton tries to demur, insisting that he’s a jeweler and not a detective, but Lady Faber is used to having her own way and reluctantly Sutton agrees.

The Ripening Rubies was written by Max Pemberton and was one of ten short stories featuring Bernard Sutton that were published in the book Jewel Mysteries: From a Dealer’s Notebook in 1894. It can be read here.

As Sutton says, he’s not a detective and can’t claim to have any special knowledge of crime or criminals.  However, in Pemberton’s short story of The Ripening Rubies he does explain a little about what motivates him.

I have said often, in jotting down from my book a few of the most interesting cases which have come to my notice, that I am no detective, nor do I pretend to the smallest gift of foresight above my fellow man. Whenever I have busied myself about some trouble it has been from a personal motive which drove me on, or in the hope of serving some one who henceforth should serve me. And never have I brought to my aid other weapon than a certain measure of common sense. In many instances the purest good chance has given to me my only clue; the merest accident has set me straight when a hundred roads lay before me.

Robert Lang gives a steadfast performance as Sutton.  He’s quite prepared to pull a gun on Jaffe to stop him leaving his shop and at the end of the story he confronts the gang with steely determination.  It’s interesting that Inspector Illingworth (Windsor Davies) seems to suspect that Sutton himself has a hand in the robberies.  Given some of the corrupt detectives we’ve seen in the series, that wouldn’t have come as a surprise – but Sutton proves to be totally honest.

Since the identity of the villains isn’t much of a shock, it’s fair to say that the majority of the pleasure in this one comes from the journey, rather than the destination.  Lally Bowers is good fun as the autocratic Lady Faber and Richard Hurndall is his usual dependable self as Lord Faber.

Moira Redmond as the charming Mrs Kavanagh catches Sutton’s eye at the party.  She has an impressive collection of jewels, which Sutton takes a keen interest in, and her witty byplay helps to keep up the momentum in the middle of the story.  She’s not all she seems though – and events come to a head to provide a suitably dramatic finale.

There’s a terrible use of CSO right at the start (the background behind Sutton’s shop is CSO, but it stays static as the camera zooms in on the real shopfront – it’s astonishingly inept) but that apart, this is a pretty decent story with Robert Lang and Moria Redmond both on top form.

Next Episode – The Case of Laker, Absconded

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Assyrian Rejuvenator

sinden

Donald Sinden as Romney Pringle in The Assyrian Rejuvenator by Clifford Ashdown
Adapted by Julian Bond. Directed by Jonathan Alwyn

Sergeant Hawkins (Victor Platt) calls on Romney Pringle (Donald Sinden) to ask for his help – a conman called Henry Jacobs (Derek Smith) is selling a potion called the Assyrian Rejuvenator.  He claims it’s a remarkable tonic that will restore their lost youth, but it obviously does no such thing.  Hawkins can’t proceed until somebody makes a complaint and he concludes that nobody will – since they’re all too embarrassed to admit they’ve been conned.

When Pringle asks why Hawkins has come to him, the policeman’s answer is straightforward – “set a thief to catch a thief”.  Pringle’s office door might declare him to be a private detective, but it’s clear that he’s more than happy to break the law when it serves his best interests – and he quickly sees how to turn the affair of the Assyrian Rejuvenator to his own benefit,

Romney Pringle was created by R. Austin Freeman and John Pitcarn (writing as Clifford Ashdown) and the character appeared in a series of stories written at the turn of the twentieth century. The Assyrian Rejuvenator was included in the book The Adventures of Romney Pringle and it can be read here.

Pringle is a rogue, very much in the mould of Horace Dorrington, and he’s quickly able to deal with Jacobs (by scaring him out of town).  He then proceeds to take over Jacobs’ operation, which also means inheriting Doris (Alethea Charlton).  Pringle’s an arch manipulator and he quickly has poor Doris hanging on his every word.

Donald Sinden gives a typically ripe performance as Pringle, although he never manages to make the character even remotely likeable. Peter Vaughan’s Dorrington was similarly unscrupulous, but he had a certain charm, thanks to Vaughan.  Also, whilst Dorrington never quite managed to pull of the big con in either of the two stories adapted for The Rivals, here we see Pringle make a tidy profit from Jacob’s operation – and he shows little remorse when both Jacobs and Doris are caught by the police and charged with running the whole operation.  Which isn’t, when you consider how he manipulated Doris to serve his own interests, a very admirable trait.

Jo Rowbottom
Jo Rowbottom

It also doesn’t help that the story is a little mundane, although there are a few compensations such as Jo Rowbottom as Suzy Shepherd, Music Hall artiste, and Michael Bates as Colonel Sandstream, an elderly duffer who’s somewhat smitten with her and will try anything (including the Assyrian Rejuvenator) to improve his chances to, as it were, satisfy her.  Rowbottom is rather alluring and Bates (star of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum and Last of the Summer Wine) has a nice line in comic bluster.

They both help to compensate for an episode which is one of the less engaging from the first series.

Next Episode – The Ripening Rubies

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Affair of the Tortoise

peter

Peter Barkworth as Martin Hewitt in The Affair of the Tortoise by Arthur Morrison
Adapted by Bill Craig. Directed by Bill Bain

Martin Hewitt (Peter Barkworth) visits Miss Chapman (Cyd Hayman) to inform her that she stands to inherit a considerable fortune, following the death of a distant relative.  As Miss Chapman lives in genteel poverty, this is very welcome news.

When Hewitt is talking to her, he hears a dreadful din coming from elsewhere in the house.  Miss Chapman explains that the noise is made by one of the other residents – Rameau (Stephan Kalipha).  He’s a very strange fellow, he favours sliding down the bannisters, is frequently drunk and makes the life of Goujon (Timothy Bateson) a misery by playing practical jokes on him.

When Rameau’s latest practical joke results in the death of Goujon’s beloved tortoise, Goujon declares that he’ll kill him.  And shortly afterwards, the maid Millie (Cheryl Hall) discovers Rameau on the floor of his rooms, covered in blood, with an axe beside him.

It’s a clear case of murder – but when the police enter the room, Rameau’s body is gone.  Goujon has also left and he’s obviously the prime suspect – but Miss Chapman isn’t convinced and she commissions Hewitt to investigate.  Another resident, Captain Cutler (Esmond Knight), tells Hewitt that he’s seen a man hanging around for a while, watching for Rameau.  The discovery of a voodoo doll in Rameau’s rooms and the knowledge that the man lived in fear of strangers are enough to convince Hewitt that there’s more to this case than meets the eye.

Like The Case of the Dixon Torpedo, this was written by Arthur Morrison and appeared in the collection of stories entitled Martin Hewitt, Investigator which was published in 1894.  The book can be read here.

But unlike the Dixon Torpedo, Martin Hewitt appears in this adaptation and he’s expertly played by Peter Barkworth.  One of the pleasures of watching archive television on a regular basis is that you tend to see the same faces appear again and again.  Recently I’ve seen Barkworth in an episode of Out of the UnknownTo Lay a Ghost as well as an early edition of Public EyeNobody Kills Santa Claus.  Any performance by Peter Barkworth is worth treasuring since he was such a meticulous, tidy actor and he fits the role of Martin Hewitt (modest, undemonstrative but forthright) perfectly.

Not only was he a first class actor, but he taught at RADA during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Simon Ward and Diana Rigg were amongst his pupils. He later remarked that “of all the jobs I have ever had, teaching at RADA is the one I should least like to have missed”.

With Barkworth providing a solid foundation as Hewitt, he was supported by a very decent cast of fellow actors.  The gorgeous Cyd Hayman had appeared alongside him the year previously in the WW2 drama Manhunt, whilst Timothy Bateson makes a decent attempt at a French accent and Stefan Kalipha is suitably unhinged as Rameau.  As neither Bateson or Kalipha have a great deal of screen-time, they have to make a strong impression early on, which they both do.

Cyd Hayman
Cyd Hayman

Inspector Nettings (Dan Meaden) naturally favours Goujan as the murderer, but when it’s proved that he’s innocent, the policeman is in a bit of a quandary.  It’s a staple of detective fiction to have the police baffled whilst the private detective runs rings around them, but even allowing for this, Nettings is exceptionally dim.  As Hewitt says “I have heard the opinion expressed that Inspector Nettings couldn’t find an omnibus in Oxford Street. But I don’t share that opinion. On the other hand I’m not convinced he could find the one he was looking for”.

Much as I love Barkworth, I’m never quite sure if the scene where he questions a cabman (and adopts a rough approximation of a lower-class accent) is deliberately meant to be unconvincing (to indicate that Hewitt didn’t really go in for that sort of thing) or whether Peter Barkworth just wasn’t very good at accents.

Whilst the solution to the mystery seems clear fairly early on, nothing’s quite as it seems and there’s a number of twists and turns in the story – which could quite easily sit alongside many of Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales.  With Holmes having apparently faced his Final Problem in 1893, Martin Hewitt proved to be a very acceptable substitute and his stories (prior to being collected in book form) were published in various magazines, including The Strand (which had been the home of Sherlock Holmes).  Sidney Paget’s illustrations (like they did for Holmes) also added a touch of class.

hewitt

It does seem remarkable no series were spun out of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes as many of the stories we’ve seen so far have demonstrated that there was definite mileage in taking the characters further.  So a series with Barkworth as Hewitt wasn’t to be, unfortunately, but he’ll return in one more tale – The Case of Laker, Absconded.

Next Episode – The Assyrian Rejuvenator

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Woman in the Big Hat

hat

Elvi Hale as Lady Molly in The Woman in the Big Hat by the Baroness Orczy
Adapted and Directed by Alan Cooke

When a customer is found dead at a tea shop, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Elvi Hale) and her faithful assistant Mary Grandard (Ann Beach) are on hand to investigate.  As a female detective in a predominately male environment, Lady Molly is something of a pioneer – and certainly she’s the right person to uncover the tangled threads of this baffling murder.

Lady Molly was created by the Baroness Orczy, best known for writing The Scarlet PimpernelLady Molly of Scotland Yard was published in 1910 and contains twelve adventures, of which The Woman in the Big Hat was the tenth.  The book can be read here.

Her precise rank in the police force is something of a mystery as she’s only ever referred to as Lady Molly – but since she speaks to Inspector Saunders (Peter Bowles) as an equal, presumably she’s on a similar level.  Saunders appears to be on hand to be someone who’s essentially well-meaning but lacks the subtle approach of Lady Molly (for example, he picks up the teacup which held the poison, much to the dismay of Lady Molly, who chides him about fingerprints).

The murdered man was Mark Culledon, a member of a very good family – and it appears someone beyond reproach.  Considering Lady Molly’s rarefied status and the fact that the members of the working class we see (such as Katie Harris, played by Una Stubbs) are portrayed as untrustworthy at best and criminal at worst, it does appear at first to be a story that’s sympathetic to the struggles of the upper classes.

But things aren’t so cut and dried and it becomes clear that even behind the most genteel of drawing room doors, passions can run high.  However, the first thing Lady Molly needs to to do is to track down the woman in the big hat.  Mark Culledon was seen having tea with a woman wearing a rather large hat and after she left, he was found dead.  It therefore seems obvious that Culledon was poisoned by the woman.

A prime-suspect is found, Elizabeth Löwenthal (Elizabeth Weaver).  She admits that she had a relationship with Culledon in the past and that she visited him after he was married – and she certainly possesses a big hat, but is she the one?  Saunders is convinced, but Lady Molly isn’t so sure.

Elvi Hale plays Lady Molly with great gusto.  She’s clearly somebody who has to work in rather makeshift surroundings (the sign on her office says “stores”, over which has been hung another sign saying “female department”) but she makes the best of things.  She shoots a gun as well as any man and is dismissive when Grandard tells her that Saunders is a great believer in her intuition.  Lady Molly counters that he has to call it intuition, he simply can’t believe that a woman can think for herself.

Peter Bowles is on hand to do the leg-work whilst Ann Beach as Grandard is there to take notes, swoon over Molly’s deductions and effectively act as Watson to her Holmes (Grandard was the narrator of the Lady Molly stories).

Elsewhere, Catherine Lacey gives a rather individual performance as Culledon’s aunt, Mrs Steinberg.  Catherine Lacey was by this time a veteran actress and had appeared in many notable films, including Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Whisky Galore.  She gives a rather stagey, unrealistic turn, which might possibly have been what director Alan Cooke (who also dramatised the story) was aiming for – but for me, it’s a little jarring.  Francis White is more composed as Culledon’s widow and there’s a nice demonstration of low-cunning from Una Stubbs as Culldeon’s ex-maid, Katie Harris.

Since Mark Culledon is dead when we see him for the first time, the story never gives us a chance to understand what he was like as a character, first hand.  Instead, as the story progresses, more layers are lifted away as more people are questioned about him – until finally we see exactly what sort of a man he was and when we know that, the reason for the murder becomes quite clear.

In terms of a whodunnit, it’s probably one of the most interesting yet seen in the series, and this helps to make The Woman in the Big Hat one of the more memorable episodes of The Rivals.

Next Episode – The Affair of the Tortoise

The Rivals of Sherlock Homes – The Case of the Dixon Torpedo

dixon

Ronald Hines as Jonathan Pryde in The Case of the Dixon Torpedo by Arthur Morrison
Adapted by Stuart Hood.  Directed by James Goddard

Jonathan Pryde (Ronald Hines) has been hired by the British Admiralty to keep an eye on a curmudgeonly, but brilliant, inventor called Dixon (Derek Francis).  Dixon is working to develop a new torpedo and the Admiralty are worried that it could be acquired by an unfriendly power.  And when the unthinkable happens – the plans are stolen – Pryde will need to use all of his ingenuity to solve the mystery.

Arthur Morrison wrote three volumes of stories featuring private detective Martin Hewitt.  They were Martin Hewitt, Investigator (1894), The Chronicles of Martin Hewitt (1895) and The Adventures of Martin Hewitt (1896).  The Case of the Dixon Torpedo was featured in Martin Hewitt, Investigator and it can be read here.

Series one of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes adapted three Martin Hewitt adventures – this one, The Affair of the Tortoise and The Case of Laker, Absconded.  Rather oddly, Hewitt didn’t feature in this adaptation – instead a new detective (Jonathan Pryde) was created.  Maybe it was felt that having three stories with the same detective would have been a slight case of overkill.

Ronald Hines gives a low-key performance as Pryde.  Unlike some of the other detectives we’ve seen in The Rivals, Pryde doesn’t possess any particular quirks or interesting character traits – he’s simply a dogged, thorough investigator

If Pryde is a bit of a dull fellow, then there’s compensation elsewhere.  Derek Francis is full of bluster as the bluff Dixon, whilst James Bolam and Bill Wallis form a decent double-act as Dixon’s employees.  Jacqueline Pearce (forever Servalan from Blake’s Seven) has a small part as Pryde’s wife and it’s always a pleasure to see Cyril Shaps (the voice of Mr Kipling).

The Case of the Dixon Torpedo is also notable for featuring a wide array of facial hair (much of it fairly false-looking, it must be said) whilst Dixon’s achilles heel are prostitutes (“two at a time!”).  It’s this particular vice that proves to be his undoing and enables the plans to fall into Russian hands (although Pryde is on hand to sort out the mess).

But though the plans are recovered, Pryde is appalled by the way that both the British and Russian governments are prepared to cover up the various deaths that have occurred along the way.  When he’s asked if he’d like to take on further cases for Admiralty, he replies “no, I don’t think so. I prefer crime. It’s more honest”.  Many future detectives will express similar sentiments.

This story of missing plans may have been influenced by the Sherlock Holmes story The Naval Treaty and it’s interesting to wonder if Morrison’s story was an influence on Conan-Doyle when he wrote the later Holmes tale The Bruce-Partington Plans.

It’s not a particularly complicated story and whilst I’d have preferred to have had Peter Barkworth’s Hewitt in the main role, the quality supporting cast are a major point in this episode’s favour.

Next Episode – The Woman In The Big Hat

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – Madame Sara

dixon

John Fraser as Dixon Druce in Madame Sara by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace
Adapted by Philip Mackie.  Directed by Piers Haggard

Jack Selby (William Corderoy) approaches private detective Dixon Druce (John Fraser) with a strange story.  His new wife Beatrice (Jasmina Hilton) is one of three people who have a chance of inheriting their family fortune (which stands at two million pounds).  The other two are Beatrice’s sister Edith (Caroline John) and their step-brother Silva (Roger Delgado).

The capital is held in trust and will go to the last surviving family member.  Dixon quickly sees the danger that the sisters may be in – and this seems to be confirmed when Edith dies, poisoned in a most mysterious manner.  Silva would seem to be the prime suspect, although Inspector Vandeleur (George Murcell) favours Dixon’s client, Jack Selby.  If Selby disposes of the other two, then he (through his wife) will have access to the money.

But what part does the mysterious Madame Sara (Marianne Benet) play in this devilish affair?  She’s a friend of both Beatrice and Edith (although Edith seemed to live in fear of her).  According to Selby, she’s “a professional beautifier. She claims the privilege of restoring youth to those who consult her. She also declares that she can make quite ugly people handsome”.  She captivates Dixon Druce with her beauty and he confesses that he’s somewhat in love with her.  But Madame Sara is a complex creature, who isn’t quite all that she seems ….

Dixon Druce tangled with Madame Sara over the course of six short stories which were published as The Sorceress of the Strand in 1902.  The tales were written by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace.  Although there had been female criminals before (such as “the woman” Irene Adler) Madame Sara is of particular interest since she’s very much in the super-criminal mode, which is much rarer.  During the six stories, she appears each time with an outlandish scheme, Dixon Druce gets to hear about it and stops her – but always she lives to fight another day.  For those who want to sample the original tale, Madame Sara can be downloaded here.

As Madame Sara was the first story in The Sorceress of The Strand, it made sense to adapt it for The Rivals, since it sees Dixon and Sara meet for the first time.  Sara is a strange figure, seemingly ageless (thanks to her many mysterious potions) and there’s no doubt that she captures Dixon’s heart, which makes the fact that he has to hand her over to the authorities something of a wrench for him.

John Fraser is forthright and upstanding as Dixon Druce.  To be honest, he’s not the most interesting or charismatic detective we’ve seen so far, so Fraser does sometimes struggle to make an impression (and the somewhat florid dialogue is also a problem at times).  Marianne Benet doesn’t act evil, which is a good thing – her Madame Sara is a businesswoman, rather than a cackling villain.

For any Doctor Who fans, there’s two good reasons to watch this one.  Caroline John is Edith (a subdued performance) and Roger Delgado, even though he’s confined to a wheelchair, dominates the scenes he’s in (playing the apparently invalided Silva).

delgado

Whilst Dixon appears to be more of a thinker than a man of action, he can still make the odd surprising move – such as when he wrenches a tooth from the unfortunate Beatrice with a pair of pliers (it makes sense when you’ve watched the story).

Not the strongest story, but it’s entertaining enough and the further adventures of Dixon Druce and Madame Sara would have made a decent (if short) series.

Next Episode – The Case of the Dixon Torpedo