"The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Set 1" gives us another classic British mysteries television series, this one featuring the other detectives of Victorian England. These are stories that were initially penned by writers contemporaneous with Arthur Conan Doyle, famed creator of the iconic Holmes: writers who undoubtedly thought: if he can do it, so can I. The entertainment was made by Thames Television, and premiered on the ITV (Independent Television Network) stations in 1971, when it won a BAFTA (British Oscar) for best series design. A second series aired in 1973. The first thirteen episodes now come to us in a box set of four DVDs, running approximately 654 minutes, with subtitles: although the actors so clearly speak the Queen's English, the subtitles are hardly needed.
The series bespeaks the open-handed care with which British TV made these entertainments at that time. Settings, clothing, accessories, sounds, interiors, street scenes and transport are depicted as accurately as they could be. Scenes are filmed lavishly, with many extras, a screen packed full of information. Scripts are intelligently written, and ably acted, featuring several of the stars of the day; support is provided by many contemporary favorites. Some of the episodes are, unfortunately, on the silly, and /or skimpy side - we can blame the original source material for that - but all give us an excellent view of time and place, Victorian era popular culture; the many economic ills of the day.
Among the best-known actors are John Neville (The First Churchills); northern stalwart Peter Vaughan (The Remains of the Day); theater favorite Donald Sinden (Two's Company - The Complete Series); Donald Pleasance (Blofeld in You Only Live Twice); and a very young Jeremy Irons, making his screen debut and hardly looking like himself (Brideshead Revisited ). I saw Irons in person quite a few years ago, but after he'd made this episode. He was starring on Broadway in a two-hander with Glenn Close, script by Tom Stoppard; the man was handsome, and he wasn't missing any volleys.
Some of my favorite stories were based upon the intelligent work of Arthur Morrison: No. 3, The Affair of the Avalanche Bicycle & Tyre Co, Ltd.; No.6, The Case of the Mirror of Portugal. Northern stalwart Peter Vaughan plays Horace Dorrington, bringing his great energy and sly wit to detection. No. 8, The Case of the Dixon Torpedo; No. 10, The Affair of the Tortoise; and No. 13, The Case of Laker, Absconded. These three episodes feature the detective agency of Martin Hewett and Jonathan Pryde.
And two female-oriented episodes: No. 7, Madame Sara. She's the sphinx of the Strand, in a short story originally published in the well-known contemporary magazine of that name, "The Strand."Mme. Sara is a mysterious creature who looks impossibly youthful; furthermore, she can do wonders for the female clientele of her tiny Strand shop, with her skills as trained doctor and dentist, and her many magic potions. She's the creation of"L.T. Meade," who was actually Irish writer Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith, best-known for her "girls' stories." The author, in her lifetime, published over 300 books, including a collection of stories featuring Mme. Sara and detective Dixon Druse, as "The Sorceress of the Strand." Her creation here may well have helped inspired the famous 1933 novel,Lost Horizon, that gave us Shangri-La, by Englishman James Hilton. Several movie treatments have been made of this novel; best-known, 1937's black and white Lost Horizon, starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt, directed by Frank Capra.
No. 9, The Woman in the Big Hat, gives us one of the first female detectives, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard; she moves in feminine settings, solves her cases with a woman's reasoning. She's the creation of Baroness Emma Orczy, writer, playwright, and artist, descended from Hungarian nobility, moved to London as a teenager: In 1888, when she had been married but a week, Jack the Ripper left one of his victims outside her front door. Orczy published "Lady Molly of Scotland Yard" in 1910. She is later credited with creating the first "armchair detective," a person who can solve crimes without budging from a favorite chair; an idea that has gone far. But she is best known for her most enduring creation: the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Time has proven that none of the authors upon whose work this series is based could rival Doyle in the detection department. Still, the series stands on its merits.