Jul 29, 2009

DVD Review: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Complete First Series

DVD Review: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Complete First Series

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was an anthology series produced by Thames Television in the early Seventies based upon the short story anthologies of the same name compiled by Hugh Greene (co-author, with his brother Graham, of The Spy’s Bedside Book). Like the books, the show features the adventures of other Victorian and Edwardian detectives written by Arthur Conan Doyle’s contemporaries. In some ways, all of the detectives follow the Holmes model so precisely that it isn’t like an anthology show at all; it follows a rigid formula, week after week, beginning with a private detective sparring with his friend in the police force who’s not quite as sharp as he is. Each detective is generally assisted in his investigation by a very Watson-like sidekick. The detectives just happen to be played by different actors each week. In other ways, however, it’s very much an anthology, as each detective offers some sort of twist on the Sherlock Holmes model: he hunts ghosts, he’s blind, she’s a woman, etc. I’m frankly surprised that none of these detectives were spun off into their own series, as they’re mostly quite entertaining characters. John Neville’s Dr. Thorndyke, in particular, would have lent himself wonderfully to his own show. Only a few detectives return in another episode in the first season: Peter Vaughn’s Horace Dorrington, Peter Barkworth's Martin Hewitt and Ronald Hines' Jonathan Pryde, who feature in two stories each. There is some overlap there, though, as Pryde and Hewitt team up in "The Case of Laker, Absconded." The entire series appears to have had a surprisingly high budget, much moreso, apparently, than the BBC’s Sixties Holmes series. It’s in color and, though shot on video, looks quite good, with excellent period sets and costumes. In fact, Network's DVD presentation looks much better than many other shot-on-video series of the era.

Of most interest to spy fans will be "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo" starring Ronald Hines as "enquiry agent" Jonathan Pryde. On The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Pryde is presented as Martin Hewitt's partner. Hewitt, absent from this tale, gets a solo tale as well, and the two appear together in the aforementioned "team-up" episode. Oddly, Pryde himself did not appear in author Arthur Morrison's short stories. He is an original creation for TV, presumably because the producers didn't want their anthology series to feature too much of any one character. Even if he's based on the literary Hewitt, I will refer to the detective by his screen name here. Pryde (ie Hewitt) is more of a "working stiff" sort of private detective, the sort who would become popular in the following century. He has more in common with Philip Marlowe (or, even more fittingly, Harry Palmer) than Sherlock Holmes. Pryde is hired by representatives of the Admiralty and the Foreign Office to keep their Naval secrets safe. Particularly, they want him to keep an eye on a cantankerous old inventor named Dixon and the fantastic new prototype torpedo he’s working on. They’re particularly worried that the Russians might be after the designs. "Curious work for an investigator," Pryde comments.

"But who else is there to do it, my dear fellow?" asks the Admiralty man with no small degree of class condescension. "Gentlemen don’t spy on each other!" And so Jonathan Pryde becomes surely one of the first private detectives hired–or pressed–into the service of his government against his better judgement if not quite against his will. And the British government isn’t the only government with the idea of hiring him. A Russian diplomat bursts into his office and hires him to track down some counterfeit rubles.

"Why not leave this to the Okra," asks Pryde suspiciously, referring to the Tsarist secret police. The diplomat–a prince, actually–explains that he’d like to avoid a diplomatic incident at all costs since they’re operating in London. Of course, as tends to happen in this sort of story, the two cases turn out to be connected, and soon Pryde has the Okra after him as well in the form of the hulking assassin Ivanov.

The story is surprisingly risque for early Seventies television–not to mention Victorian literature! Dixon (who’s a great semi-comical character in the hands of veteran character actor Derek Francis) turns out to have a pretty big vice: prostitutes. This seemingly respectable gentleman likes to entertain them–"two at a time!"–in his special "private sitting room." Needless to say, it is through this vice that the Russians manage to get at him, although I will not reveal exactly how.

Besides the sexpionage angle and the proto-Cold War Russia/Great Britain rivalry, there are other antecedents of popular spy fiction on display, including rudimentary gadgets. Pryde uses a telescope to spy on Dixon testing his torpedo, but also spies another spy–spying with binoculars. One shady character uses a hollowed-out cane with a screw-top knob to hide something. No, they’re not Aston Martins with ejector seats, but they’re all pretty cool little gimmicks and used well.

Ultimately, Pryde’s instincts as a detective clash with his duties as a hired spy. He’s horrified to learn that the British and Russian "diplomats" both operate in the same ways, eager to explain away inconvenient bodies as "suicide" or "unsolved murder." Like Harry Palmer, his sense of civic duty is left unfulfilled by his involvement with spooks. The spymasters hope to persuade him to "act for us again in the future" and Pryde declines.

"No, I don’t think so. I prefer crime. It’s more honest." That’s a theme that would certainly recur again and again in the spy literature of the next century!

It’s also worth noting that there’s another trait, besides his class, that sets Pryde apart from Holmes and the Holmes clones: he’s married. Furthermore, his wife turns out to be quite sharp, lending him valuable counsel on his case. "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo" is excellent all around, and I would have liked to see more of these characters in their own show. At least Pryde returned for one more episode, "The Case of Laker, Absconded," but it’s a shame there was only one more episode with Pryde and his pals.

John Neville’s hubrisitic Dr. Thorndyke is one of the many scientific detectives in this batch. Forensics were a new field in the Victorian era, and it wasn’t only Sherlock Holmes who was interested. (Though, if detective fiction is to be believed, the private sector was far more enthusiastic about the emerging science than the police!) Thorndyke is a doctor and a professor of medicine who sometimes assists the police on their cases. Although he’s probably the most direct Sherlock Holmes clone of the batch (right down to a faithful housekeeper named Mrs. Hobbes), he carries all of Holmes’s antisocial tendencies even further (if that’s possible), making him a great delight to watch. In fact, he’s got a lot in common with the Holmes-inspired Dr. House, played by Hugh Laurie. Neville (who played an excellent Sherlock in A Study in Terror) has great fun with these aspects of the character.

Thorndyke is an unrepentant intellectual snob. He sees everyone else as beneath him. "How refreshing to see someone who’s not a fool," he comments at one point, because he considers almost everyone around him to be one. Even his poor Watson, Dr. Jervis (James Cossins), suffers constant insults. Thorndyke treats him like he might treat one of his students, and when Jervis–presented with the same clues as Thorndyke–asks how he came to one of his stunning revelations, Thorndyke instructs him, "Don’t attempt to suck my brain when you have an excellent brain of your own to suck!" Like Dr. Watson, though, Jervis is about the only person to actually stand up to Thorndyke’s bullying and call him on his rude behavior. "I’m often burning to strike you dead!" Jervis snaps at his friend one point. Thorndyke seems to get satisfaction out of driving Jervis to the limit. Besides his petulance, Thorndyke also shares (and even exceeds) Holmes’s smugness. He quickly dismisses one police officer by declaring, "This fellow is a ninny." What he’s got that Holmes hasn’t, though, is his very own scientist in a labcoat (named Fulton) at his beck and call, ready to carry out whatever experiment Thorndyke asks of him!

The Thorndyke story presented here, "A Message from the Deep Sea," ends with a court scene in which Thorndyke provides a snarky running commentary on how wrong everyone else is before finally taking the stand himself to amaze and astound the collected crowd with his own deductions. He’s certainly a showoff–and that’s why he’s so much fun to watch. (That and the wonderful Victorian euphemisms he uses to avoid talking directly about such unsavory topics as whorehouses and their clients!) Although the instant familiarity I felt with these characters is probably due to their extremely close resemblance to Holmes and Watson, I certainly would have liked to see more of them as well. Spy fans may also be interested to note that The Sandbaggers' Ray Lonnen pops up in "A Message from the Deep Sea."

Former Bond villain Donald Pleasence gives an excellent, subdued performance as William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, the "ghost detective." No, he’s not a ghost detective in the sense that Marty Hopkirk is; he’s more of an occult investigator who’s earned that title for his scientific research into the spirit world. Despite having seen what he’s seen, however, Carnacki remains a skeptic. His first conclusions when called to look into a famous "invisible horse" that attacks the daughters of a certain family on the night before their weddings is that some flesh-and-blood human being is staging the occurrences. He turns out to be half right. There is a culprit to unmask, making this tale fit in with the other rivals of Sherlock Holmes, but unlike in Holmes’s own adventures, the supernatural is also at work. Carnacki is another man of science, and he uses modern gizmos as well as ancient occult rites in his attempts to protect the young woman (Michelle Dotrice) from the spectral horse.

Pleasence’s supremely understated performance is a welcome surprise. In a series that usually focuses on eccentrics, the detective with the most eccentric cases of the whole lot is the least eccentric guy here. Pleasence’s Carnacki is mild-mannered and even self-effacing, in stark contrast to Neville’s Thorndyke! In trying to reassure the young lady that he will be able to protect her and she will live to see her nuptials, Carnacki promises, "I shall break the habits of a lifetime and dance at your wedding."

"I hope so," she musters, unconvinced.

"You haven’t seen my dancing," jokes the ego-less Carnacki. "The Horse of the Invisible" is another top-notch entry in the series.

Other detectives are less chivalrous. Romney Pringle (Donald Sinden) is a reformed con man who lends his services to law and order, but his investigation into a scam in "The Assyrian Rejuvenator" is rather mundane. On the plus side, he actually works things out so that he ends up with a nice personal profit–and the girl–at the end of the affair. Peter Vaughn’s not entirely un-Steed-like detective Horace Dorrington is delightfully unscrupulous and thinks nothing of bilking stupid blackmail clients out of a few extra bucks if he can figure out a way to do so. The more straight-arrow sleuths are a bit less interesting, and sometimes conventional to the point of blandness. Dixon Druce, as played by John Fraser in "Madame Sara," is one such character, but luckily he’s thrust into a fairly unique scenario. He falls in love with a suspect in one of his cases, and ill-advisedly lets his emotions get the best of his logical thinking. The story is somewhat similar to "A Scandal In Bohemia," except that Druce’s attraction to the titular Madame Sara is far more overpowering and far more developed than Holmes’s grudging admiration for Irene Adler. (Many screen incarnations of Holmes exaggerate that relationship and turn it into something more akin to the one presented here.)

Druce’s classical education both aids him in his detective work and belies his literary origins. "You put [cases] together like a jigsaw puzzle," his police inspector friend comments.

"More like a play," states Druce, expounding on Aristotle’s theories of dramatics. A good murder plot, he says, requires carefully planned acts. "Madame Sara" does not let down in that respect come the conclusion. Even if Dixon Druce is a rather bland detective, though, "Madame Sara" still manages to be one of the best stories presented in this set. The murder method is quite ingenious, and worthy of Conan Doyle himself. Its solution calls for rather brutal action on Druce’s part–including performing surprise dentistry on an unsuspecting young woman he’s just assured can trust him!

"The Woman In the Big Hat," based on a story by the Baroness Orzcy, showcases this series’ only female rival to Sherlock Holmes, Lady Molly of the Yard (Elvi Hale). It’s unclear in what exact capacity Lady Molly is meant to serve Scotland Yard, but she’s quite adept at solving murders to the constant annoyance of Inspector Saunders, whose job that is. Inspector Saunders is played by wonderfully by the great Peter Bowles, a familiar face to any frequent viewer of Sixties spy television, particularly memorable for his many Avengers guest appearances. (My personal favorite is his villainous turn in "Escape In Time.") Lady Molly’s female Watson comments that Inspector Saunders speaks very highly of feminine intuition, a comment Lady Molly herself quickly dismisses. "Fiddle faddle! That man only talks about intuition because he cannot bear the idea that a woman can think!"

Lady Molly is good at thinking, but even this strong female Victorian character might not quite please contemporary feminist critics. Much of her success comes from the fact that she and her female friends think of details that the men would overlook–like fashionable hats, dress details and matters of propriety.

There’s a lot to like on display for spy fans in this set. Besides "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo," the Max Carrados case "The Missing Witness Sensation" provides a good dose of domestic intrigue as the blind Carrados tangles with a London cell of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. And beyond the stories, there are lots of familiar actors (like Pleasence and Bowles) from Sixties spy fare who it’s fun to see in Victorian garb. And for mystery fans, well, this is a must. Not just one great detective to watch, but eleven (in thirteen episodes) all played by excellent actors! If you’re looking for more Victorian mystery television to move on to after Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, then, as much as I love other actors like Peter Cushing in that role, you might be better off turning to Holmes’s rivals. All in all, this is a more eclectic offering of the same sort of deerstalker-in-the-fog stories as Conan Doyle’s. Network’s Region 2 DVD looks great, preserving the series’ high production values. There are no extra features, but the show alone is reason enough to buy this. And American viewers needn't miss out, for once! The first season of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is due out Stateside in September from Acorn, and I’ll have a full review of their set soon.

Read my review of Acorn's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1 here. (All different content!)
Read my review of Acorn's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 2 here.


buddy2blogger said...

Thanks for the info!

As an avid Sherlockian, I will definitely check this out :)

Abe Lucas said...

Tanner! Looong time, old buddy!

I'm currently revisiting the "Rivals" and have once again relied on your superb, detailed review. Among your best, I would say. (I believe I've stated before that your Mission: Impossible S7 review is your most entertaining post). You do fine work.

Just one small correction on this excellent piece, though: the Tsar's secret police was called the Okhrana, not the Okra.

Tanner said...

C.K.! Long time indeed! And even longer because this comment somehow got caught in a spam filter where I didn't notice it for six months until a recent spate of nuisance comments that DID get through had me digging through there and finally realizing that a whole bunch of comments had been caught, and that I was only receiving email alerts for about half of them and not all like I thought. I'm so sorry about that!

Anyway, it's great to hear from you again. Thanks for the praise and the correction! I will fix that. (Though it's a pretty funny mistake....)