When it comes to late Victorian detectives (fictitious or otherwise), one name frequently pops up: a guy named Sherlock Holmes. But, as it turns out, Holmes wasn’t the only literary sleuth to ever match wits against the would-be criminal masterminds of London. Names such as Dr. Throndyke, Horace Dorrington, Eugene Valmont and many more may not so much as earn an earnest “Who?” from most modern-day mystery readers, but they all share a special place in the field of crime solving.
In 1971, Britain’s Thames Television co-produced a series entitled The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes. An anthology series, The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes presented a new and often original adaptation taken from the works of such once-popular crime fiction writers as R. Austin Freeman, William Hope Hodgson, and Guy Boothby to name a few — most of whom have been all-but forgotten today. Each week presented a new story starring a different character (only a few characters were ever seen more than once). Each character possessed their very own quirk that made them (and their brain) tick.
Sherlock Holmes was a good guy, plain and simple. Sure, he had a bit of a cocaine problem, but it was legal at the time. Many of his rivals, however, were not so good. Take, for example, Simon Carne (portrayed by Roy Dotrice): a sophisticated member of the upper-class whom everyone perceives to be a charming (if hunchbacked) individual. It just so happens he’s a thief, preying on the snooty upper-class along with his faithful valet and a box full of disguises. Then there’s Horace Dorrington (Peter Vaughn), one of the most crooked detectives you’re likely to come across (which is saying a lot). Some of the other The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes include a sharp but irrepressibly pompous forensics teacher (John Neville as Dr. Thorndyke), a ghost chaser (Donald Pleasance as Carnacki), and even an ambiguously gay blind detective (Robert Stephens as Max Carrados).
Although it is labeled as The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1, this is really the entire first season of the British TV series (the second and final season aired in ‘73). All 13 episodes are housed over 4 discs in chronological order (not that it matters in a series such as this). While some of the episodes are quite memorable and well made, other entries are downright awful. I particularly enjoyed the first and last episodes of Disc One — “A Message From The Deep Sea” and “The Duchess Of Wiltshire’s Diamonds,” respectively — while I had a devil of a time making it through the two episodes in-between.
Rescued from further obscurity and released on DVD in the UK by Network (with better artwork), Acorn Media has picked up the distribution rights for the US and presents the first season of The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes in its original standard 1.33:1 television ratio. Since a majority of the footage was shot with live video cameras, you can’t expect much (it’s early ‘70s British TV, kids — come on!), but the end result is quite acceptable. Accompanying each episode is a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. The mix is also very adequate given the technical limits of the time in which the show was made. English (SDH) subtitles are included. Rounding up the set are some text-only biographies on the titular Rivals themselves, as well as their creators.
There is no choppy and flashy MTV-style editing to be found here. No excessive gore to appeal to granny’s morbid curiosity or junior’s love of blood. No soundtracks blatantly featuring the latest recording artists. No paint-by-number supermodel stars that fail to remember the definition of “emote.” For me, that’s a blessing. And, while some episodes are practically unwatchable, The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes is still a charming reminder of how crime fiction on TV used to be.