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DVD Review: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Set Two

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British television has always produced far more literary adaptations than its American counterpart. Many of these eventually found their way to U.S. broadcasts, especially after the premiere of WGBH Boston's flagship program, Masterpiece Theatre (now simply Masterpiece) in 1971. Among the quirkier of these literary BBC series is The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Based on a quartet of anthologies edited by former BBC Director-General Hugh Greene (elder brother of author Graham Greene), two 13-episode seasons of this series were produced, in 1971 and 1973. They have now been released in simple but handsomely packaged DVD sets by Acorn Media.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is burdened with a somewhat misleading title. The stories fall into a wide spectrum of types. All they really have in common is a publication date roughly within the time span of the entire Holmes canon (1888 through 1927) and the fact that they are all mysteries of some kind. Only some of them involve a "detective" like Holmes, although almost all contain a crime (or alleged crime) to be solved. The stories are intriguing, however, for the way they illuminate popular fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian era—a vast body of prose which is rarely read or remembered in modern times. Common assumptions, attitudes, and paranoias of the day are framed by the characters, and some of the details would surprise the average reader of 2010. Almost all of these stories are in the public domain and available online through Project Gutenberg or other web archives (Greene's anthologies are out of print).

The television series' production values demonstrate skilled and canny resourcefulness with a limited budget. The episodes are very obviously videotaped on studio sets. Exteriors and establishing shots are supplied by stock footage, vintage film clips, and in several cases, still photos. Great attention to period detail in the interior settings and costumes enriches the simplicity of the locations and the somewhat stagy blocking. Careful and creative camerawork increases the illusion of space and movement beyond the cramped shooting conditions. The costumes, including women's gowns, men's formal wear, and uniforms of numerous types, are superbly crafted. Fight scenes and other "action" are the weakest elements, as they are clearly choreographed and simulated, and are seldom convincing.

The acting ranges from competent to excellent. The series cast consists of British character actors, most of them with long television résumés rather than film work. A few of the performers later became well-known to American audiences. The dialects and accents are sometimes difficult to follow, in part because the soundtrack, even with careful remastering, was never very high fidelity to begin with. Acorn Media has provided English subtitles and most American viewers will find them helpful.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes Set Two comprises the second season, originally broadcast in 1973. Many of the stories are set outside of England and were republished in Greene's anthology, Cosmopolitan Crime: The Foreign Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971). While the tales themselves tend to be lightweight entertainment, originally published in pulp magazines or collections, the "back stories" about their authors and cultural context is often fascinating and surprising.

"The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway" is based on the story by Baroness Emma Orczy, a spectacularly successful Hungarian-born woman writer who is most famous for authoring the Scarlet Pimpernel novels. Published in Orczy's 1909 collection The Old Man in the Corner, this tale features spunky female journalist Polly Burton (Judy Geeson), who assists her uncle, a barrister, and constantly agitates for an opportunity to cover "serious" stories. A woman is found dead on a train. Polly becomes involved in the mystery as the woman is identified by a seemingly grief-struck husband and sister, and Polly's uncle prosecutes a male friend for her murder. Polly is no detective, however—another character solves the crime while Polly somewhat breathlessly follows along in hope of a scoop. Judy Geeson also appears as Caroline Penvenen Enys in the 1977 BBC series Poldark (also just released on DVD by Acorn Media).

One of the most fascinating background details of this episode involves the eatery where several long scenes take place: a recreation of one of the Aerated Bread Company "tea shops" that were established in the 1860s. These "tea shops" were among the few places where an unescorted Victorian woman could enjoy a public meal with safety and propriety, and the ABC was involved in several issues related to women's rights and health.

"Five Hundred Carats" is based on a story by George Griffith, a very popular science fiction author whose writing pioneered the style currently known as steampunk. Griffith wrote from a deeply felt socialist-utopian philosophy, which may be why he never became as popular in the United States as some of his contemporaries. This outlook shows strongly in the character of Inspector Lipinsky (Barry Keegan) of South Africa, a "former laborer" who has risen through the ranks by his own integrity and dedication and who suffers the disdain of the "gentlemen" of the colonial elite. A luxurious private club even complains when one of the De Beers diamond magnates invites Lipinsky into the club as a guest. The episode is structured as a flashback from the grisly murder that opens it. Inspector Lipinsky has to figure out how the largest perfect diamond ever discovered disappears from its secure and guarded storage room at the De Beers headquarters. A supporting role is played by Richard Morant, who appears as Dr. Dwight Enys in the series Poldark.

Two episodes feature Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, "the Thinking Machine," a character created by Jacques Futrelle. Futrelle, an American who lived in Scituate, Massachusetts, is perhaps best known for having perished with the Titanic in 1912 after nobly giving up his place in a lifeboat to his wife. Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer), an insufferably superior hyper-genius, uses the power of pure logic to solve problems and make fools out of the mere mortals he outright calls, "stupid people."

"Cell 13" is based on the very first Van Dusen story and features one of biggest "stars" to appear on the series: Michael Gough, one of the actors who lent their class to Hammer Films' horror movies, and who played Alfred in the 1980s Batman films. Here he is the governor of Grangemoor Prison, a "modern" facility claimed to be inescapable. Van Dusen volunteers to be locked into the prison's most secure cell, promising that he'll be free in a week, despite the blank incredulity of the complacent governor and the hostility of the prison guards.

Van Dusen appears again in the episode, "The Superfluous Finger." A surgeon is visited by a woman who demands that he amputate part of her healthy forefinger. When he refuses, she deliberately injures herself so badly that he has no choice but to perform the operation. The surgeon asks Van Dusen to find out what's going on, but the plot thickens when the mystery lady is found murdered—or is she? It's not hard to guess the outcome of this story, which uses a trick more recently seen in the movie The Prestige (2006). Douglas Wilmer played Sherlock Holmes in a 1960s television series and the movie The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975).

"The Secret of the Magnifique" is based on a story by E. Phillips Oppenheim. Oppenheim styled himself "The Prince of Storytellers" and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1927. He was a very successful early genre fiction author credited with inventing the modern "spy" style of mystery-thriller and laying the foundations for characters like James Bond. His novels and stories were adapted into dozens of movies, of which the best known, The Great Impersonation (1920), was filmed three times. "The Secret of the Magnifique" presents Oppenheim's character J.T. Laxworthy (Bernard Hepton), a reformed criminal who uses his expertise to skirt the law for beneficial motives. Two convicts who have completed their prison sentences and been released with a bundle of clothes and a few shillings are met by a cabbie and taken to a plush apartment, where they're made an offer they can't refuse. If they help Laxworthy in an elaborate scheme, he won't tell the police about the crimes they committed that weren't found out during their previous trials. Six months later, they're all at a classy resort hotel in France. Laxworthy won't tell his associates exactly what they're after, but a French Admiral, his mistress and a American multi-millionaire pacifist are involved somehow. Bernard Hepton appears in the extremely popular BBC series I, Claudius (1976). Also featured is Christopher Neame, a deep-voiced young actor who at the time was being groomed by Hammer Films as a possible successor to horror stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, a vision he failed to realize. (Several actors in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes appeared in Hammer Films productions.)

Robert Barr, the author of "The Absent-Minded Coterie," was a good friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in spite of the fact that he wrote the very first blatant Holmes spoof ("The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs," 1892). His character Eugene Valmont (Charles Gray) is a self-described "amateur detective" and homesick Frenchman living in the foggiest version of London ever depicted onscreen. The tale has a tongue-in-cheek style as Valmont whips up frogs' legs for an unsuspecting (and horrified) police inspector and parries wits with an unflappable female opponent in the mold of Doyle's Irene Adler. The involved plot about a gang of scam artists is a little tricky to follow. Gray is beloved by fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) as "The Criminologist" who dances the Time Warp on top of his desk. He also played Mycroft Holmes several times, including in the movie The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).

"The Looting of the Specie Room" presents a different type of crime-solving protagonist: Mr. Horrocks (Ronald Fraser), a ship's purser. As purser, he is responsible for the ship's valuables and the comfort of the passengers, supervising the stewards who attend directly to their needs. He therefore has a very ego-battering job, with entitled passengers' complaints in one ear and unsympathetic criticisms and demands from the captain, officers, company owners and his coworkers in the other. The ship is carrying a large cargo of gold bullion, and when it arrives in Liverpool with half the bullion impossibly missing, Horrocks is in deep doo-doo. He dedicates himself to figuring out how the theft was accomplished. The original story was penned by Charles John Cutcliffe Wright Hyne, best known for The Lost Continent: the Story of Atlantis, the seminal 1900 fantasy novel that established the fictional Atlantis trope. Hyne was constantly on the move and spent a lot of time at sea, and wrote a series of stories about a character named Captain Kettle, so his depiction of the travails of a ship's purser comes from direct experience. "The Looting of the Specie Room" features Jean Marsh (soon to achieve fame as a star of the 1971-75 BBC series Upstairs, Downstairs) as a supposed widow who crams her stateroom with a suspicious number of trunks and luggage.

Most of the stories from this time period have one thing in common: a deficiency of strong female characters. If women appear at all, they tend to be frivolous, helpless, or seductive manipulators. "The Mystery of the Amber Beads" by Fergus Hume is among the rare exceptions, one of a collection of stories showcasing "Hagar of the Pawn Shop, the Gypsy Detective." Hagar Stanley (Sara Kestleman), an earthy, worldly-wise, and very no-nonsense businesswoman, runs a pawn shop in London and solves crimes related to items brought to her shop—in this case, an amber necklace which is left by a hooded woman who refuses to speak. The necklace soon is identified as stolen from a recently murdered dowager.

Hume is not so much a "rival" of Sherlock Holmes as an ancestor. In 1886, Hume self-published a novel, The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, which is credited with inspiring Doyle to write the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887). The Mystery of the Hansom Cab eventually became the best-selling mystery novel of the 19th century, but Hume sold his rights for a pittance and realized very little profit. His work is filled with gritty details about urban street life of the day, drawn from his personal experience.

"The Moabite Cipher" is based on a story by by R. Austin Freeman. Freeman invented the "inverted detective story" in which the crime and perpetrator are described at the beginning and the story then shows how the detective figures it out—a style made iconic by the Lt. Columbo mystery series. "The Moabite Cipher" is not structured in this way, but does highlight Freeman's theme of crime-solving through forensic analysis, as his protagonist Dr. Thorndyke (Barrie Ingham) unravels the mystery of an encrypted message found on a man killed in a street accident.

"The Secret of the Fox Hunter," based on a story by William Le Queux, features another actor who went on to become a major star, Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius). Among this episode's unusual features is Miss Baines (Denise Coffey), an older female secret agent with an impeccable professionalism and gonads of steel. Small and dumpy, she disguises herself as a governness or other unnoticeable figure to eavesdrop on conversations and pass secret messages, and lectures her male companions on the right way to handle their job. The plot, involving international treaties, has a rather grim ending.

"The Sensible Action of Lieutenant Holst" is the most mysterious of the stories in this collection, because original author Palle Rosenkrantz is a Dane almost unknown to the English speaking public. Lieutenant Holst (John Thaw) is a Copenhagen police officer worrying about balancing a narrow professional line: he's bored, but taking risks could cost him his job if he missteps. Despite his caution he finds himself juggling a political hot potato when a stunning woman claiming to be Countess Maria Wolkinski (Catherine Schell), a Russian widow, demands his help. She claims that her brother-in-law is an anarchist who killed her son and now is trying to murder her, but the brother-in-law tells a very different story. Unlike the typical pulp adventure tale, this one grapples with sticky dilemmas that lack pat solutions. Schell is known to science-fiction fans as the exotic alien Maya in the 70s series Space: 1999.

"Anonymous Letters" adapts a story by another little-known writer, Baldwin (or Balduin) Groller, a pen name for Adalbert Goldscheider. His self-described "hedonist" private detective, Dagobert Trostler (Ronald Lewis), is somewhat reminiscent of G. B. Shaw's Prof. Higgins, although he's a bit more likeable. Trostler is called in when the newly married Viennese Comtessa Nadja (Nicola Pagett) and her closest friend, the widowed Countess Tildi (Carolyn Jones), are receiving anonymous obscene letters accusing them of immoral behavior. Nadja is a former actress and panicked that her huband, the archduke Othmar (Michael Aldridge), will find out about the accusations and believe them. Somewhat unprofessionally, Trostler is seduced by Tildi, in a scene with some slight nudity (bare breast and buttocks).

Undoubtedly the weirdest of the 13 episodes is "The Missing Q.C.s," based on a story by journalist, novelist, and poet John Oxenham (a pseudonym of William Arthur Dunkerley, who also wrote as Julian Ross). There are people who will buy Set 2 of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes just for this episode, however, because it stars Robin Ellis, who became a massively popular matinee idol as the eponymous hero of the series Poldark. Here he plays Charles Dallas, a junior defense barrister who is baffled when both the Queen's Counsels—prosecutor and defense—in his current case vanish. One of them is the father of Charles' wannabe fiancée (hands down the most annoying of all the female characters in this entire series), who rushes off after receiving a note from "a well-wisher" promising to help her find the missing barristers. Charles follows his girlfriend, and lands in a situation so outrageously gothic I have trouble believing that Oxenham meant us to take it seriously. This concludes the second season of the series.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes Set Two provides a colorful and varied selection of pop culture from a past era. For those who enjoy the current steampunk trend, these stories demonstrate the diversity of the literature being produced and eagerly consumed at the cusp of the 20th century. What we now call genre fiction—mystery, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, and horror—was born and bred during this supposedly staid and repressed period. The dramatizations are well crafted at every step, from writing to final cut, and prove that entertainment doesn't require CGI, 3-D glasses or quadraphonic sound. Just like the Victorians, we know a ripping good tale when we see one.

The DVD is presented in the original television aspect ratio of 4:3 full screen, in color. Set includes four disks containing 13 episodes of approximately 50 minutes each. Extras: English (SDH) subtitles, text profiles of the main characters and the authors of the original stories ("The Rivals and their Creators"), trailers for other Acorn Media features. Released on March 30, 2010.

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About Vyrdolak

Inanna Arthen (Vyrdolak) is an artist, speaker and author of The Vampires of New England Series (http://vampiresofnewengland.com): Mortal Touch (2007), The Longer the Fall (2010), and All the Shadows of the Rainbow (2013). Book 4 is currently in progress. Inanna is a lifelong scholar of vampire folklore, fiction and fact, and runs By Light Unseen Media (http://bylightunseenmedia.com), an independent press dedicated to publishing vampire fiction and nonfiction. She is a member of Broad Universe, New England Horror Writers, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE). She holds an M.Div degree from Harvard and is an outspoken advocate for the Pagan and LGBT communities. She is minister of the Unitarian-Unitarian Church of Winchendon, MA.