The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Anonymous 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 Moabite 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 Secret of the 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 Looting of the Specie Room


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 Mystery of the Amber 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 Missing Q.C.s


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.