February 16, 2012

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: "A Message from the Deep Sea" (1971)

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is a fantastic anthology series. Produced by Thames Television from 1971 to 1973, it adapted late 19th century detective stories - more specifically, it adapted stories published at the same time as Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventures but which had long been overshadowed by Doyle's vastly more famous literary sleuth. The series was loosely adapted from Hugh Greene's published anthologies of the same name. Each week a different leading actor would portray a different Victorian detective. The series managed to assemble a very prestigious cast of performers, making it one of those wonderful old British TV series where you spend almost as much time pointing at the screen exclaiming "Hey, that's..." as you do watching the episode.

"A Message from the Deep Sea" was the premiere episode of the series, which ran for two 13 episode seasons. In this first instalment John Neville (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The X Files) portrays R. August Freeman's Dr Thorndyke. Neville only died a few months ago, so it was a slightly bittersweet experience watching him here. He's predictably marvellous, and one drawback of the anthology format of the series is that we never get to see him play Thorndyke again.

Other actors to watch out for include James Cossins (Fawlty Towers), Bernard Archard (Village of the Damned, Doctor Who), Terence Rigby (Get Carter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and a remarkably young and naive-looking Paul Darrow (Blake's 7).

One advantage of Dr Thorndyke as a character is that he hasn't dated as badly as most literary detectives of the time. When originally published, he was cutting edge stuff: a medical doctor who used science to develop a set of facts, and then - and only then - developed theories about who and why someone had been murdered. At the time forensic science was a new field, and Freeman used his own extensive experience to ensure the science was as realistic as possible. The Thorndyke stories are often widely credited with introducing the concept of the "inverted" detective story, popularised by TV's Columbo in the 1970s and 1980s; the reader was sometimes informed at the story's outset who the murderer was, and the suspense and intrigue came from the "how" and "why" rather than the "who". This inverted style isn't in evidence in the TV episode, but it's worth reading the original stories - all available via Project Gutenberg - to see Freeman in action.

Other episodes of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes feature the likes of Donald Pleasance (as ghost hunter Carnacki), Donald Sinden, Jean Marsh, Peter Barkworth and others. For fans of detective stories and classic British TV drama, it's well worth a look.

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