May 29, 2010
Ah, the marvels of DVD! Just two years ago, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was lost to the world, an intriguing entry on the IMDB with little information available about the production. I’d long cherished Hugh Greene’s collections of short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle’s contemporaries, and was intrigued to see that some of them had been adapted for television. But I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to see them. Today, thanks to Acorn here in the US and Network in the UK, both seasons of Thames Television’s The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes are now available in their entirety–and what a discovery they are. The first season (which I reviewed twice–the American release here and the British release here) contained some real treasures, and the second is just as good. And, happily for spy fans, the second season contains far more espionage adventures–nearly half of them, in fact! This season draws largely from Greene’s later collection Cosmopolitan Crimes: Foreign Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and consequently the constantly-shifting alliances among the European powers in the decades leading up to WWI and a rising fear of anarchists (the Edwardian equivalent of terrorists) factor heavily in many of the plots. We’re also treated to the only modern film or TV adaptations of two of the founding fathers of the modern spy genre: William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim.
The Le Queux story, “The Secret of the Fox Hunter,” was the one I was most looking forward to (as his hero Duckworth Drew is widely considered the template for the modern secret service hero), but sadly it turns out to be one of the weaker episodes of the season.
“I confess,” admits Drew, “it goes against the grain, but we had no choice.”
Using a female operative may go against the grain, but so does the whole business of spying to these very proper gentlemen. The setting may be Edwardian, but they are very Victorian in their outlook. “It’s a beastly underhanded business, Drew,” remarks his oh-so-English boss.
“Uh, quite so,” agrees Drew before heading off himself to the country house where the Prussian is staying, ostensibly for a fox hunt. Also in attendance is a Russian secret agent named Davidoff and a very pretty young woman named Miss Graham who might be a traitor. Drew proves not to be a very good agent runner. After taking the rather extreme precaution before of posing as a wax figure to meet his asset, he now meets with her in open, at a pre-hunt party at the house, risking blowing her cover to everyone in attendance. Miss Baines herself is a bit more progressive in her techniques, and reveals that she has listened to a conversation through a door and discovered a potential Russo-German treaty being discussed. While treaties of this nature were big enough news to be the prevailing MacGuffin of their day, Drew seems more appalled by her behavior. “Miss Baines!” he exclaims. “Was that discreet?”
“I share your abhorrence of such a course, my lord,” acquiesces Drew, “but if Miss Graham is a traitor, we may yet prevent her from dragging [her fiancé] Bellingham down into disgrace with her.”
“You’re right. For his sake and for the sake of our country we must dispense with scruples.”
The real treasure of this collection has to be “The Secret of the Magnifique,” possibly the only post-war adaptation of an E. Phillips Oppenheim story. Oppenheim was the father of the modern spy story as we know it and the Robert Ludlum of his day, an incredibly prolific thriller writer (dubbed “The Prince of Storytellers” by TIME Magazine). According to “The Rivals and their Creators” text blurb (a low-tech but very welcome DVD extra), “Oppenheim is recognized for popularizing espionage in fiction, paving the way for iconic characters like James Bond. His works were escapist fantasies, featuring luxurious, exotic settings and wealthy protagonists.” He was very popular in the early 20th century and is now–unfairly–relegated to relative obscurity. His works were adapted into more than forty films between 1915 and 1942 (most famously The Great Impersonation, which was filmed three times), and then not at all except for this 1973 television adaptation. And judging from this one, they stand the test of time flawlessly.
Mission: Impossible. It begins with a mastermind (a private adventurer rather than government employee, out for personal gain but adhering to a certain moral code–and protecting France from Germany in the process) named J.T. Laxworthy (Bernard Hepton) gathering a group of specialists to aid him in his mission. Well, actually there are only two specialists, but they fill in nicely for Rollin Hand and Willy Armitage. Both are ex-cons, surprised to be met by a coachman upon their release from prison and taken directly to a luxurious apartment. Their mysterious benefactor reveals little about his plan for them, but makes an offer neither can refuse. The ex-cons are the dapper, well-bred Sydney Wing (Licence To Kill’s Christopher Neame) and a working-class safecracker named Anderson. Laxworthy gives them six months to get into their roles as a young society gentleman and his valet, respectively. After that time, they’re to meet him at an upscale resort hotel on the French Riviera.
GoldenEye-like: a bearded French Admiral in command of a battleship equipped with a special weapon (a torpedo, not a helicopter; it was always torpedoes back then) is staying at a Riviera hotel in the company of a mistress who is really in league with enemy agents. (The similarities are so strong that one wonders if one of the GoldenEye writers was familiar with this story or its TV adaptation.) Into this situation come Laxworthy and his team as well as a nefarious German spy and an easily-manipulated American Pacifist millionaire. Everybody has their own agenda, and Laxworthy’s is only revealed to us–and his employees–at the very end. As with the best episodes in Set 1 of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, I couldn’t help but wish that this had been the pilot for its own series. Oppenheim wrote a whole book of The Adventures of Mr. Laxworthy (quite recently back in print, as a quick Amazon search reveals!), and I would have loved to see this cast realize more of those stories.
“The Moabite Cypher” finds our old friend from the first season, Dr. Thorndyke, taking on an a possible anarchist conspiracy. Only now he looks a lot more like Barrie Ingham than John Neville. I definitely miss Neville’s even-beyond-Holmsian arrogance, but Ingham (who, like Neville, also played Holmes... or a very close rodent approximation as Basil of Baker Street in The Great Mouse Detective) does a perfectly serviceable job in a very entertaining role. His Thorndyke isn’t as rude as Neville’s, nor is his Dr. Jervis (Peter Sallis as Thorndyke’s Watson) as prickly to his rudeness. (Neville provoked his own Jervis to threats of violence!) Ingham does repeat Neville’s best line, though, telling his associate “don’t suck my brain, Jervis, when you have a perfectly good brain of your own,” rather than sharing the brilliant conclusions he’s reached. No brain-sucking is required to deduce that Dr. Thorndyke is the closest analogue of Sherlock Holmes in the bunch, but he’s also a fun character in his own right.
Jacques Futrelle, who perished on the Titanic) has been a favorite of mine since the 4th Grade, and this was the episode I was second-most looking forward to, after the Duckworth Drew story. And this one, unlike that, does not disappoint, even with the producers’ decision to relocate it from America to Britain, and to Anglicize Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen (better known as “The Thinking Machine,” though that nickname isn’t invoked here). In the tradition of casting once and future Holmeses as the great detective’s rivals (the first set featured both Neville and Robert Stephens), former BBC Sherlock Douglas Wilmer steps into the role and plays it well–with all the arrogance required.
The hero of “The Looting of the Specie Room,” Horrocks (Ronald Fraser), for example, is a ship’s purser. As such, he’s responsible for a record amount of gold being stored in the specie room of an ocean liner making a transatlantic crossing. The record-obsessed owner of the shipping line is aboard (attempting a new speed record as well as a gold record in the same trip), and immediately considers poor Horrocks the primary suspect when the room is (unsurprisingly, given the title) looted, and the gold stolen. How was it done? The vault was impregnable, and only Horrocks had the key. His first move is to get very drunk and remain that way for a surprising amount of time, before finally setting forth to catch the real culprit. The cool thing about Horrocks is that he’s not a detective (not even an amateur one), so he sets about his investigation–and his prior drunkenness–in more or less the same way you or I would go about it. He must not only contend with an ingenious heist plan (worthy of Jim Phelps), but also nosy, sensationalist reporters, a beautiful suspect and the contempt and derision of his upper-class masters. For his troubles, he earns a knock-out conk on the head that lands him in hospital, but still he persists in his efforts, racing against the ticking clock of port at the end of this record-breaking journey. There may not be any spying in this one, but I loved the cool setting of a luxury liner in 1910.
“Five Hundred Carats” also has a cool setting and just about the lowest-class sort of hero imaginable: turn-of-the-century Kimberly, South Africa, and the uncouth uniformed policeman Inspector Lipinzki. How often in Victorian or Edwardian mysteries do you come across a reasonably intelligent cop on the beat who actually solves the case, and doesn’t just earn the scorn of smarter amateurs? Raised on the bush, Lipinzki is as rough and tumble as they come, and it makes his job harder when the largest diamond ever unearthed by a British mining company is stolen–and murder ensues. All of the suspects are upperclass Englishmen, and for every one of them he interrogates, he must then waste valuable time making public apologies. He knows right away who the villain is, but he can’t prove it and he isn’t allowed to make any allegations or even investigate the man because of his social position. Ultimately, Lipinzki’s paychecks come from the board of directors of the mining company (who run the whole colonial town), and they’re loathe to risk the taint of scandal on any one of their own. The actual method of robbery is again thrilling, depending on the ingenuity of the thief and the very latest technology of the age.
The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 2.
Read my review of Acorn's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1 here.
Read my review of Network's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Complete First Series here.