May 29, 2010

DVD Review: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 2

DVD Review: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 2

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.

Derek Jacobi (in a weird wig) first appears as William Drew (no mention of “Duckworth”) while posing as a wax figure in a wax museum, taking a secret report from an asset he has placed inside a household where a suspicious Prussian count is staying–a female asset, named Miss Baines. His boss has many misgivings about that.

“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?”

Drew’s boss proves equally aghast at his ensuing suggestion that they steam open a letter from the suspicious Miss Graham to her fiancé, a young British diplomat posted in St. Petersburg. Clearly, it was a very different secret service back then from the modern CIA or MI5! “Open a letter from a woman to the man she’s about to marry?!” blusters the boss. “Is there no honor left in the world today, Drew?”

“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.”

There is far more Victorian outrage in “The Secret of the Fox Hunter” than there is action. The rather slow pace is momentarily enlivened by a murder committed with a primitive but devious spy gadget, but even Drew, Baines and Bellingham’s pursuit of Davidoff to Paris lacks the urgency it requires. An alarming ending not from Le Queux’s story may be intended to shock, but the effect is more just to leave an unpleasant aftertaste. So I was disappointed by the Le Queux adaptation I had been so looking forward to, but luckily not by the Oppenheim tale!

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.

“The Secret of the Magnifique” is sort of an Edwardian episode of 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.

Here, the set-up is surprisingly 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.

This particular case involves a letter written in the dead language of Moabite on a dead man who was killed by a horse while running from police. The police had spotted a suspicious parcel clutched in his arms (the Edwardian equivalent of... a suspicious parcel) and assumed him to be an anarchist. The parcel turns out to have been harmless, but that doesn’t mean he wasn't an anarchist. Dr. Thorndyke, who happened to be on the scene, keeps a copy of the letter intending to decipher it. Soon after a newspaper intimates that Thorndyke has the letter, Julian Glover turns up at his door playing a man called Barton who wants to pay him lots of money to travel way out to Essex and prove that Barton's brother is being poisoned by his wife. Now, spy fans probably know that it’s never a good thing when Julian Glover turns up at your door (just as James Bond or Indiana Jones, among many others), and Thorndyke surmises as much himself. He quickly concludes that the poisoning story is a ruse to lure him out of his flat, but he allows it to play out, then jumps back onto the train and follows Barton back there. There, Thorndyke's arrogance causes him to get shot, but luckily he’s alright, because the adventure is only just getting started! Before it’s over it will involve anarchists, jewel thieves, hand grenades, fisticuffs, invisible ink and a solution that could be right out of Conan Doyle. “It was so simple,” explains Dr. Thorndyke, a bit too cutely, “it was almost... elementary.” Cute lines aside, this is a top-notch episode.

John Thaw plays the titular Copenhagen police detective in “The Sensible Action of Lt. Holst.” He’s caught between his duty to uphold the law and his obligation to follow orders in a spy story that’s more about the Kafkaesque frustrations of bureaucracy than action or detection. Of course, fans of The Sandbaggers or Queen & Country know well that sometimes bureaucracy can be more exciting than those things anyway. A Russian count and countess both turn up in Copenhagen with contradictory stories. One of them is a revolutionary, and the other is a counter-revolutionary agent of the Tsarist secret police... but which is which? And what will Lt. Holst do when he finds out? His own loyalties may not be in sync with those of his government, bearing in mind that the King of Denmark is a cousin to the Tsar... One of my favorite spy ladies, Catherine Schell, plays a substantial role, but I have to say I prefer her in mod Sixties and Seventies attire to conservative cold weather Edwardian garb!

“The Problem of Cell 13” (or simply “Cell 13” as it’s called here) is not a spy story in the least (nor, even, much of a detective story), but it’s definitely another highlight of this set. The short story on which it’s based (by 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.

To me, this story has one of the best premises of all time: the renowned professor boasts that no jail is perfectly secure; a smart man (like him) could “think his way out” of any cell. These boasts don’t sit well with the country’s leading prison architect and the governor of his most secure prison (Michael Gough), so they take Van Dusen up on his challenge and bet him that he can’t break out of their most secure cell (you guessed it, 13) in one week. He knows that he can, and it spoils nothing to reveal that he succeeds. (In fact, in the short story’s structure I believe that’s revealed right up front.) The fun comes in how, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! I will say that my favorite moment of the story and the TV episode comes when the warden and guard discover the inevitable fake sleeping body under the covers in his cell. It’s not made of pillows or straw; instead, the professor’s arrogance has compelled him to make it out of things no prisoner should ever have access to, including rope, knives and a gun. How he got that stuff is all part of the thoroughly compelling mystery. It’s a must-see.

Wilmer returns as Van Dusen a few episodes later in the wonderfully-titled “The Superfluous Finger,” which is more of a traditional murder mystery. It doesn’t involve spies, but it does involve Avengers-like eccentrics, lookalikes, rare guns and a castle with a trap door good for dropping uninvited guests directly into the dungeon. Wilmer is just as good at playing Van Dusen the second time around, with just as much arrogance. Besides deductive reasoning, arrogance seems to be the primary trait spread from Sherlock Holmes to his many imitators. But not all of his rivals are arrogant–or upper class.

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.

From secret agents to Holmsian detectives to talented amateurs and equally talented professionals to reporters and even (gasp!) women, all of these rivals of Sherlock Holmes are compelling characters solving crimes and thwarting treason in one of the most exciting eras of the genre. The production values don’t seem quite up to those of the first season, but they’re still very impressive for British television of the era. The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is a wonderful series–and both seasons are well worth picking up. I’m so grateful to Acorn and Network and the medium of DVD that such obscure shows are now right at our fingertips. Anyone who enjoys Sherlock Holmes, good period mysteries or the earliest incarnations of the modern spy genre should definitely check out 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.


dfordoom said...

I have set 1 of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes - now I'm definitely going to have to grab the second one. One of the forgotten treasures of British television.

Tanner said...

Definitely! You won't be sorry. It really is a forgetten treasure, and I'm so glad to have been able to rediscover it on DVD!

dfordoom said...

Volume 2 arrived in the post today!