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.