Sep 1, 2009

DVD Review: The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1 (Acorn)

DVD Review: The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1 (Acorn)

No, you’re not experiencing deja vu... This is a brand new review!

No doubt there were lots of jealous Americans reading when I reviewed Network’s Region 2 DVD set of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes earlier this summer. Well, good news, fellow countrymen: the first season of this excellent show is now available on Region 1 DVD courtesy of Acorn Media! And they’ve done a really excellent job with it, too. As I explained when I reviewed the British version, 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 famous 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. Most of these rivals owe a very obvious debt to Doyle’s creation, but the best ones tend to also offer some sort of twist on the formula. The Baroness Orzcy’s Lady Molly of the Yard, for example, is a woman; William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki (Donald Pleasence) hunts ghosts; etc. Every single example is an entertaining variation on the Victorian detective. For a full overview of the premise, please check out my review of the Network set (here), in which I focused largely on one of this season’s most espionage-heavy episodes, "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo." Rather than re-treading ground already covered, I will discuss entirely different episodes in my review of the American DVDs. Rest assured, however, that both sets feature every episode from the first season of the show.

While it would be hard to give a Victorian detective a bigger handicap than Lady Molly’s gender (given the era and its prevailing attitudes), writer Ernest Bramah gave it a shot by making his Holmsian hero blind. "The Missing Witness Sensation" showcases future Sherlock Holmes (in Billy Wilder’s espionage-oriented The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) Robert Stephens (father of Bond villain Toby Stephens) as sightless sleuth Max Carrados in the season’s second spy-themed story. Carrados functions like a nineteenth century version of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil: a blind man who has developed his other senses so acutely as to almost fully make up for his lack of vision. Carrados is so proud of overcoming his handicap that he’s constantly showing off–even moreso than Sherlock Holmes. This incurable vanity gets him into trouble more than once, and even gets him captured by a local cell of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

While writer Phillip Mackie occasionally resorts to voiceover describing what Carrados "sees" with his ears and his nose, Stephens does a great job of conveying his character’s handicap without ever making it seem like anything more than a mild inconvenience. Stephens plays the detective very flamboyantly, foreshadowing the way he will play Holmes. Even in the face of death, he can’t resist demonstrating his superior mental powers to those around him. Carrados spends a good part of the episode as a prisoner of the Irish nationalists (though curiously doesn’t grow any facial hair over his lengthy period of imprisonment) and becomes close to the woman in their ranks who lured him into this trap by pretending to be blind herself. His predicament is somewhat similar to Jacques Futrelle’s classic story "The Problem of Cell 13" (itself adapted in the second season of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes), in that Carrados must think his way out of prison. While the entire plot depends a little too much on a complete coincidence, everything comes together in an extremely satisfying manner. It’s great to see how Carrados has managed to remain several steps ahead of everyone else (including, of course, the police, in the form of his friend Inspector Beedle) despite his incarceration.

The Network set offered no bonus features. Acorn’s set doesn’t offer many, but the one that it does offer is an extremely welcome one, however low-tech. In a section called "The Rivals & Their Creators," there are text biographies on each detective and the writer or writers behind him (or her). This simple inclusion proves essential for students of the genre who would like to learn more about the characters. While watching the UK discs I frequently turned to my paperbacks to read Greene’s introductions, but this is far more convenient and concise. And, in some cases, even more informative! Without the text features, I probably wouldn’t have figured out that detectives Jonathan Pryde and Martin Hewitt were actually one and the same. In the TV series, they’re presented as partners. Each one gets a solo case (name-checking his absent partner) and they both appear in "The Case of Laker, Absconded." However, according to "Rivals & Creators," Jonathan Pryde does not appear in author Arthur Morrison’s short stories. Presumably he was created for TV because the producers didn’t want their anthology series to rely too heavily on Peter Barkworth’s Martin Hewitt. That information came as a bit of a shock to me as Pryde (Ronald Hynes) was probably my favorite detective in the batch! (He is the star of "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo," reviewed earlier.) Barkworth, however, is quite good as well, playing the real Martin Hewitt in "The Affair of the Tortoise."

Hewitt is in many ways the anti-Holmes. Whereas Sherlock is a cold fish all around, Hewitt is warm and sociable. Unlike Holmes (and some of his rivals, especially John Neville’s Dr. Thorndyke), Hewitt is never rude or petulant. He goes out of his way to be nice to everyone. Both of them are good detectives, although Hewitt relies a bit more on doggedly following down every possible lead than on making brilliant deductions in his head. If you were a client and you had to consult with one of them, you would probably prefer the company of Hewitt.

In "The Affair of the Tortoise," Hewitt stumbles upon his latest case while concluding another. He’s just tracked down a young woman to tell her she’s come into a large fortune thanks to a forgotten relative, recently deceased, and he’s clearly attracted to her. (Another stark contrast to Holmes!) Therefore, he’s quick to help her when she complains about her obnoxious, drunken neighbor, Monsieur Rameau (Stefan Kalipha, whose guest appearance on Callan I singled out and is equally impressive here). Rameau terrorizes the building with his drunken caterwauling and mean-spirited practical jokes. He’s soon murdered, and his body vanishes. The kindly caretaker (and brunt of most of Rameau’s jokes) is the chief suspect, and the young woman hires Hewitt to prove him innocent.

The presence of any Hatian character in Victorian fiction generally means the presence of Voodoo, and this case is no different. The Voodoo element makes for a good, exciting story complete with Voodoo doll (always accompanied by drums on the soundtrack, of course) and an expert in the occult. This expert is the proprietor of a curio shop that stocks everything from antiques to a triceratops skull, making it a very interesting setting.

Unlike many of the detectives on this series, Hewitt gets along with well with the police inspector, Nettings, who happily lets him look around in case he finds something the police overlooked. When one character snidely remarks, "Usual story, I suppose. Police baffled? Sorry state of affairs I must say," the indignant Nettings declares "I am not baffled!" Of course he is, and at the end he concedes to Hewitt that "I seem to have made a lot of mistakes on this case."

But Hewitt, ever considerate, is understanding. "Your mind can’t be expected to work at concert pitch all the time, Inspector," he consoles him.

Hewitt returns in "The Case of Laker, Absconded," following a trail of clues leading to a bank clerk who has supposedly absconded with £15,000. Pryde is on board this time as well, and after "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo" I was looking forward to his return. Unfortunately, he has little more to do than occasionally offering his partner very competent assistance. Hewitt again gets to demonstrate how extraordinarily nice he is, forming a fast friendship with the absconded clerk’s fiancé who accompanies him in the course of his inquiries. He also gets to go undercover as a meter reader for the gas company, and even turns up the charm to seduce a maid! The solution to the case depends on Pryde’s decoding of a classified ad the audience isn’t privy to, but it’s still a very enjoyable journey. The rather unconvincing snowy exteriors, however, reveal a slightly tighter budget than I would have guessed based on the other, fairly lavish, productions.

Not all of the rivals are as kindhearted as Martin Hewitt. Horace Dorrington, for instance (played with a Steedish charm by Peter Vaughn, memorable from his guest appearances on The Persuaders!, The Avengers, The Saint and other classic spy shows) is a downright nasty piece of work. He’s by far the most unscrupulous private detective of the bunch, and really more of an outright scoundrel than a hero. It’s all about money for him, and he’s not above fencing the items that he recovers himself it that nets him a greater profit than returning them to his clients. And despite a perpetual smile, he’s not nice to anyone, including those clients–and his employees. He’s also the only one of the bunch to pull a gun on people. (Not very sporting, what?) Despite his thorough lack of morals, though, Dorrington is actually quite a good detective. He follows leads and discovers clues and even makes brilliant connections. He just uses his conclusions to further his own ends. The "Rivals & Creators" text piece has some interesting things to say about the character. "Handsome and muscular, Dorrington often uses charm to obtain trust, create a ruse and dishonestly make a profit.... Overall, Dorrington was perceived [by Victorian audiences] more as an accomplished criminal than as a trustworthy and effective detective." That sounds about right.

It’s worth noting (Acorn’s copy on the box makes a big deal of it, in fact) that a very young Jeremy Irons makes his first screen appearance in one of the Horace Dorrington episodes, "The Mirror of Portugal." It’s a very small part (credited only as "Nephew") as a Bertie Woosterish dolt who makes exclamations like, "What larks, eh?" Despite this novelty and despite Vaughn’s impressive performance, it’s actually kind of hard to watch an episode centering on such a thoroughly unlikable, downright despicable individual.

Roy Dotrice, however, proves that not every villain need be so unlikable in "The Duchess of Wiltshire’s Diamonds!" Dotrice is gentleman thief Simon Carne, who disguises himself as the aged, celebrated detective Klimo. As an upstanding member of London society, Carne sports a false humpback. While he admits that this phony deformity sometimes gets in the way of his love life, it’s very convenient in throwing any suspicion off of him. How could a humpback possibly pose as Klimo–or anyone else? The episode spends an awfully long time showing Dotrice applying his Klimo facial disguise in real time. I suppose the intent was to show that it can be done, but the scene is a little boring. Carne’s got some great gadgets, including a desk in his study that rotates from his townhouse apartment into Klimo’s adjoining one! He has a different servant in each residence, each of whom is in on the con.

Despite being a rogue, Carne is not nasty like Dorrington. It’s easy to root for him and his Jeeves-like butler to pull off their elaborate heist against high society members who can more than afford to lose their diamonds. It’s also fun to watch him bamboozle the police, intentionally making asses out of them like Diabolik. And despite the seemingly overcomplicated setup, the heist itself is a whole lot of fun, with lots of twists and misdirects.

All of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes are thoroughly entertaining, from the crooks and the cads to the earnest do-gooders to the amateur spies to the snide, petulant misanthropes. Victorian fiction was awash with all sorts of gems of this sort, and the TV series does as good a job as Greene’s original anthologies at unearthing them. I can’t believe that television this good has remained unseen for so many decades! Anyone who’s remotely into Sherlock Holmes or his period should rejoice in this release and make a point of seeking it out. Personally, I can’t wait for Set 2!

Read more about The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in my review of the British DVDs here.

1 comment:

Abe Lucas said...

Thanks for this additional review. I was intrigued when I learned of this series and your review has given me the "go ahead" to purchase this set.