The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – A Message From The Deep Sea

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John Neville as Dr Thorndyke in A Message from the Deep Sea by R. Austin Freeman
Adapted by Philip Mackie.  Directed by James Goddard

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was a Thames programme which ran for two series during the early 1970’s.  As the title suggests, its aim was to highlight some of Sherlock Holmes’ contemporaries.  A huge amount of crime fiction was published during the Victorian and Edwardian era, but Holmes apart, the popularity of the majority of these detectives didn’t endure.

The Rivals not only showcased some decent stories by largely forgotten authors, it also starred some of the best British actors of the time.  As with any anthology programme, some episodes are better than others – but overall The Rivals is a very strong series.

The first episode was A Message from the Deep Sea, adapted from the story by R. Austin Freeman.  Dr Thorndyke had a lengthy career – with Freeman penning novels and short stories featuring him between 1907 and 1942.  The original short story, together with a selection of others, can be read here.

Dr Hart, one of Dr Thorndyke’s (John Neville) old students asks for his help. Hart is the assistant to the local police surgeon and has just been called to his first case.  Thorndyke is reluctant at first, but when he learns it’s murder he perks up considerably.

Thorndyke and his assistant Dr Jervis (James Cossins) examine the body with Hart.  She’s a young woman, who’s been stabbed through the neck and clutched tightly in her hand are some strands of red hair.  A clue to the murderer maybe?  Thorndyke isn’t convinced, but when Hart’s superior Dr Davidson (Bernard Archard) and Detective Sergeant Bates (Terence Rigby) turn up, they consider it to be an open-and-shut case.

Thorndyke tries to give them a few gentle hints but they aren’t interested.  He claims he’ll walk away and let them make fools of themselves – but he continues to take an interest in the case and it’s his evidence that will be responsible for unmasking the murderer.

A Message from the Deep Sea is something of a joy, thanks to the first-rate cast.  For anybody who loves old British television, there’s a host of familiar faces here.  Apart from Neville and Cossins, we have an impossibly young, fresh-faced Paul Darrow as Dr Hart, who makes the most of his part despite being saddled with some very florid dialogue.  “Good god. Some infernal cowardly beast has done this. He shall hang. My god he shall hang”.

Elsewhere, Ray Lonnen (complete with a very fake moustache), Morris Perry, Nicholas Smith and Stanley Lebor are not a bad supporting cast at all.  Bernard Archard as a police surgeon icily sure of his facts and Terence Rigby as a rather stupid policeman are two more quality actors who find themselves outsmarted by Thorndyke.

And what of John Neville?  Dr Thorndyke is a man with a very high opinion of himself and Neville manages to capture his smug superiority very well. Thankfully though, Cossins’ Dr Jervis is able to direct a few barbs at him, which means he isn’t completely insufferable.  Like Sherlock Holmes, Thorndyke is sometimes exasperated when others can’t see things that are perfectly clear to him.  “My dear Jervis, pray don’t indulge in mental indolence. You have the essential facts as I have them. Consider them separately, collectively and in relation to the circumstances”.

The solution of the mystery is interesting enough but undoubtedly the chief pleasure of the story is watching a fine group of actors at work.  Dr Thorndyke was one of several detectives who would make more than one appearance in The Rivals, although in his series two appearance a new actor – Barrie Ingham – took over the mantle.

Next episode – The Missing Witness Sensation

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Missing Witness Sensation

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Robert Stephens as Max Carrados in The Missing Witness Sensation by Ernest Bramah
Adapted by Philip Mackie.  Directed by Jonathan Alwyn

Dennis Rank (Dave Carter) has been committed to trial, accused of attacking Lizzie Baxter at the Ayr Street post office.  The case intrigues Max Carrados (Robert Stephens) who sees it as more than just a simple robbery gone wrong.  His friend Inspector Beedel (George A. Cooper) agrees and is able to fill in some of the blanks.  Rank is a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and although Beedel isn’t sure exactly what he was up to, he’s convinced that they’ve got the right man.

The defence’s case is strengthened by a convincing character witness called Thaxted (John Wentworth).  Thaxted claims that at the time of the robbery he encountered Rank at Richmond Park.  However, Carrados knows that Thaxted is lying since he met him at Richmond Park at exactly the same time Thaxted claims to have met Rank.

Carrados is happy to appear for the prosecution, but Beedel’s one concern is whether the jury will believe him (since Carrados is blind).  But whilst he may lack vision, he makes up for it with his other senses and he’s able to provide a very good portrait of Thaxted.  “The man I sat and walked with is an ardent Carnation grower, smokes Algerian cigars, bites his fingernails, has varicose veins in his left leg and wears an elastic stocking”.

As the Inspector says “you see more with no eyesight than most people with”.  Carrados is in danger though, as he’s kidnapped by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who plan to keep him out of circulation until the trial is over.  And since there’s no guarantee that he’ll get out alive afterwards, Carrados will have to use all of his wits to extricate himself from this dangerous situation.

Max Carrados was created by Ernest Bramah and appeared in a series of stories originally published in The Strand Magazine.  This made him a direct contemporary of Sherlock Holmes and his adventures were as popular, if not more so, than Holmes at the time – although like many of the detectives featured in The Rivals, he quickly faded from the public consciousness.  The original short story can be read here.

Robert Stephens is delightful as the rather fey detective genius who has managed to overcome the handicap of his blindness by developing his other senses to an impressive degree, as he demonstrates to one of his captors.  “Did you know that each man’s footstep is individual and unmistakable?”.  This example gives something of an insight into how Carrados is able to make his series of amazing pronouncements.

I recently enjoyed Stephens’ performance in The Box of Delights and Carrados is an equally good turn, although a totally different character.  He’s something of a dandy but also shows his steel when facing down the Irish Nationalists.  Elsewhere in the cast, George A. Cooper is a suitably bluff policeman whilst Christopher Cazenove is a member of Irish Republican Brotherhood who’s afflicted with a conscience.

Thanks to Robert Stephens, The Missing Witness Sensation is an entertaining fifty minutes and it’s a shame that it was Stephens’ only outing as Carrados.

Next Episode – The Affair of the Avalanche Bicycle & Tyre Co. Ltd

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Affair of the Avalanche Bicycle & Tyre Co. Ltd

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Peter Vaughan as Horace Dorrington in
The Affair of the Avalanche Bicycle & Tyre Co. Ltd by Arthur Morrison
Adapted by Julian Bond.  Directed by James Goddard

Horace Dorrington (Peter Vaughan) is a private detective who always puts his own interests first.  The information he’s gleaned about a new bicycle company should provide him with a good payday, provided he can outwit an opponent who’s just as double-dealing as he is.

Series one of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes leant heavily on stories from Arthur Morrison.  There’s another one with Horace Dorrington to look forward to (The Case of the Mirror of Portugal) as well as three stories which Morrison wrote for his other sleuth, Martin Hewitt (Peter Barkworth).  Although not all of those adaptations actually featured Hewitt, which we’ll discuss when we get to to them.

Morrison only wrote seven stories featuring Dorrington and they were published in magazine form in 1897 and were also collected into a book the same year entitled The Dorrington Deed Box.  It can be downloaded here.

Whilst Morrison’s earlier detective, Martin Hewitt, was a fairly conventional sleuth, Horace Dorrington is a much more interesting character.  He’s unrepentantly amoral and is happy to stoop to any means necessary (be it blackmail, murder or theft) in order to achieve his ends.  Such a character gives plenty of scope for a good actor and Peter Vaughan is perfect casting.  Vaughan is a master of sinister charm (for example, his brief, but career-defining appearances in Porridge) and this comes over very well here.  Dorrington is able to appear affable when it suits him, but his true nature shows through from time to time.

There’s a good example of Dorrington’s unscrupulous nature early in the story.   He’s been able to recover a series of incriminating letters stolen from the lovely Mrs Chalmers (Sheila Gish) but he sorrowfully informs her that he had to pay the blackmailer two hundred guineas to get them back.  When she tells him that she would have happily paid double for their recovery, we see a momentarily spasm of pain on his face.  Which is understandable after we learn that he stole them from the blackmailer, so he’s made a tidy profit! This is typical of Dorrington, he’s happy to do the right thing if there’s a decent profit in it for him.

Dorrington is debating whether to invest in the Avalanche bicycle company.  Bicycles are the coming thing and large profits can be made, but he wants to know more.  He cultivates the friendship of Stedman (John Carlisle) who works for a rival company, the Indestructible Bicycle company.  Stedman tells him that he wouldn’t invest in Avalanche himself, although if an Avalanche bike wins the big race on the weekend things would be different.

Gillet (Paul Angelis) is the favourite for the race and since he races for Indestructible, Stedman invites Dorrington to see him train.  As they watch, there’s a nasty crash and Gillet is carried off injured.  It clearly wasn’t an accident, so who was to blame? The boss of Indestructible, Mallows (John Stratton), offers a reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator, but Dorrington has his eyes on a bigger prize.

The Affair of the Avalanche Bicycle & Tyre Co. Ltd
is an enjoyable fifty minutes, mainly thanks to the slimy performance of Peter Vaughan.  Also worth watching are Kenneth Colley and Petronella Barker as his very much put-upon employees, Farrish and Miss Parrott.

Unfortunately for Dorrington, things don’t work out quite the way he’d hoped for.  But he lives to fight and scheme another day and as the episode ends we see him consoling another young woman who’s lost some incriminating letters.  He tells her not to worry, as he’s had plenty of experience in this field ….

Next Episode – The Duchess of Wiltshire’s Diamonds

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Duchess of Wiltshire’s Diamonds

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Roy Dotrice as Simon Carne in The Duchess of Wiltshire’s Diamonds by Guy Boothby
Adapted by Anthony Steven.  Directed by Kim Mills

Simon Carne (Roy Dotrice) is a charming socialite who is totally at ease mixing with the highest in the land.  He’s recently returned to England after a period abroad and is met by his friend, Lord Amberley.  On the journey to Carne’s new flat, Amberley mentions that over the last month all of London has been following the exploits of a detective called Klimo.  Carne professes disinterest in the detective’s exploits and is further dismayed when Amberley tells him that his new flat is next to Klimo’s.

After Carne has heard a little more about the detective, he seems to have slightly amended his views and suggests that the Duke of Wiltshire calls in Klimo to advise on how best to protect the Duchess of Wiltshire’s diamonds.  But nobody realises Carne is living a double life – he’s also Klimo.

Simon Carne and his alter-ego Klimo first appeared in A Prince of Swindlers by Guy Boothby, which was published in 1897.  The concept of the gentlemen thief, able to remain undetected due to his exalted position in society, is a concept that remains familiar today – thanks to A.J. Raffles.  But Carne got there first, as Raffles didn’t appear in print until the following year.  A Prince of Swindlers can be downloaded here.

The opening paragraph of Boothby’s story is interesting, since he dares to compare Klimo to Sherlock Holmes –

To the reflective mind the rapidity with which the inhabitants of the world’s greatest city seize upon a new name or idea and familiarise themselves with it, can scarcely prove otherwise than astonishing. As an illustration of my meaning let me take the case of Klimo – the now famous private detective, who has won for himself the right to be considered as great as Lecocq, or even the late lamented Sherlock Holmes.

Klimo might be a great detective, but he never catches the criminal – understandable since the crimes are carried out by Simon Carne.  In print, the notion of the criminal and detective being the same person works perfectly well, but on television the conceit stands or falls based on how convincing Roy Dotrice is as the two separate characters.

Carne sports a false hunchback which he naturally removes when playing Klimo, which helps to put people off the scent.  How can the youngish, slightly deformed Carne possibly be confused for the older Klimo?  And was the use of disguises another nod from Boothby to Sherlock Holmes?

There are some nice touches in the story, such as the handy idea that Carne and Klimo have adjoining apartments, with a different servant in each (both of whom are aware of the con).  He also has a rotating desk which moves between the two flats, so he can switch disguises and apartments as required!

Carne might be a rogue (like Dorrington) but unlike Dorrington, he’s a charmer who’s very much in the Raffles mode, and it’s easy to cheer him on.  Early on, it’s revealed that he’s taken to crime in order to restore the family fortunes and he admits that it’s particularly satisfying “when it’s done at the expense of those so-called friends who could well have offered to help, when help was needed.  But never lifted a finger”.

Dotrice clearly has some fun playing the aged Klimo, complete with Irish accent and there’s the usual high-quality cast, including Peter Cellier and Barbara Murray as the Duke and Duchess of Wiltshire, John Standing and Felicity Gibson as Lord and Lady Amberley and the always dependable John Nettleton as Belton.

It’s a fairly complicated story, although everything becomes clear at the end (especially the reason why Carne gave his servant, Belton, such detailed instructions).  And if you can suspend your disbelief that nobody guesses that Carne and Klimo are one and the same, there’s plenty to enjoy in this one.

Next Episode – The Horse of the Invisible

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Horse of the Invisible

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Donald Pleasence as Carnacki in The Horse of the Invisible by William Hope Hodgson
Adapted by Philip Mackie.  Directed by Alan Cooke

Captain Hisgins (Tony Steedman) is a worried man.  According to family tradition, if the first-born is a female then she will be haunted and ultimately killed by an invisible horse during her engagement.  And for the first time in several generations, there is a first-born female.  Mary (Michele Dotrice) has heard the horse and her fiance Charles Beaumont (Michael Johnson) injured his arm when he tried to protect her from the apparition.

Hisgins doesn’t want his daughter to die, so he calls on Carnacki (Donald Pleasence).  Most detectives would raise an eyebrow at this story, but Carnacki is a ghost detective.  He doesn’t discount the supernatural possibility, although he also concedes that it could all be achieved by trickery.  But as he spends some time at the Hisgins home, the strange events come thick and fast ….

Thomas Carnacki was created by William Hope Hodgson and appeared in a number of short stories published between 1910 and 1912. These were collected together as Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and they can be read here.

The Horse of the Invisible is certainly different, that’s for sure.  It’s pitched at such a level of melodrama (with suitably dramatic music) that it’s difficult to take it entirely seriously.  The major saving grace is Donald Pleasence.  He plays Carnacki in a slightly absent-minded, self-effacing way that’s very effective.  When everyone around him is descending into hysteria, he’s very much the still point.

It’s fair to say that it’s a story that tries to have its cake and eat it – since it’s revealed that some of the hauntings were faked, but at the end we do witness a real ghost horse as well.  And Carnacki is quite honest in admitting that whilst he can explain some of the events, others are a mystery to him.

The last five or ten minutes, when we discover the identity of the faker (and for good measure he’s dressed as a horse!) might be the point when many people lose patience with the tale.  Quite why he went through all this rigmarole is something that’s never made that clear – surely there were easier ways for him to achieve his ends?

Michele Dotrice is suitably winsome as Mary, although Tony Steedman is slightly odd casting as her father.  At the time he was only in his early forties and he’s obviously made up to be much older – complete with a false moustache and a white wig.  This is a little distracting, and it begs the question as to why an older actor wasn’t cast.

The Horse of the Invisible is very watchable, thanks to Donald Pleasence, although it’s probably not a story that will appeal to all.

Next Episode – The Case of the Mirror of Portugal

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Case of the Mirror of Portugal

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Peter Vaughan as Horace Dorrington in
The Case of the Mirror of Portugal by Arthur Morrison
Adapted by Julian Bond.  Directed by Mike Vardy

A penniless Frenchman called Jacques Bouvier (Michael Forrest) spins Dorrington a strange tale. During the French Revolution his family acquired one of the French Crown Jewels – known as The Mirror of Portugal. The diamond is worth one hundred thousand pounds and Jacques feels that it should be his by right – although at present it’s in the possession of his cousin Leon (Oscar Quitak).

It’s a tale that intrigues Dorrington, although he ejects Jacques from his office and tells him that he wants nothing to do with the case. Afterwards, he explains to Farrish and Miss Parrot that “he wanted me to steal that diamond. He wanted me to do it for nothing and give him three quarters of the proceeds”. Naturally, Dorrington plans to steal the diamond and keep one hundred per cent of the proceeds. But someone beats him to it – and it wasn’t Jacques ….

The Case of the Mirror of Portugal was the second Dorrington tale adapted for the series.  It, along with Arthur Morrison’s other Dorrington stories, can be read here.

There’s some, interesting, French accents in this story.  Clearly French actors were thin on the ground, so the Welshman Michael Forrest essays the sort of accent that Inspector Clouseau would have been proud of.  It certainly helps to liven up the beginning of the story.

A young Jeremy Irons pops up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role as a silly young ass (“What larks eh?”).  There’s a more substantial part for Paul Eddington later on in the story as Hamer and Ingrid Hafner is also very good as Hamer’s wife, Maria.

It turns out that Hamer stole the diamond and it’s currently in Maria’s possession.  Dorrington attempt to force them to hand it over, but she throws it into the Thames, rather than give it to Dorrington.  If she can’t have it, then she’d sooner that nobody did.

As might be expected, this doesn’t please Dorrington, but he quickly recovers his equanimity.  And after Jacques and Leon visit his office and tell him they’ve decided to join forces to recover the diamond, he’s happy to tell them exactly where it is (once they’ve paid him eighty guineas for the privilege, of course).

“At the bottom of the Thames. Approximately in the middle, I’d say, where the steps lead down to the towpath at Richmond lock. How do you get it back? Well, you could buy a boat and try fishing for it.  But if that doesn’t appeal, you could wait for some future age until the bed of the Thames is rediscovered as a diamond field, I suppose”

As with The Affair of the Avalanche Bicycle & Tyre Co. Ltd, Dorrington doesn’t get the ultimate prize – although he doesn’t come too badly out of it.  Peter Vaughan is, once again, smoothly ruthless as Dorrington.  Given that he’s a crook and a swindler, you don’t really want to see him finish on top – but Vaughan is just so entertaining in the role and it’s his charisma that drives this (it must be said, fairly slight) story along.

Next Episode – Madame Sara

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – Madame Sara

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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).

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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

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

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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 – The Woman in the Big Hat

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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 Holmes – The Affair of the Tortoise

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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.

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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 Assyrian Rejuvenator

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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 Ripening Rubies

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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 Case of Laker, Absconded

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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 Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway

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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.

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The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – Five Hundred Carats

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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 – Cell 13

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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 – The Secret of the Magnifique

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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 – 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.

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 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.