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Our review of The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1, published August 28th, 2009, is also available.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It's also a proven method to make a quick buck.
In the wake of A. Conan Doyle's unprecedented success with super sleuth Sherlock Holmes, pretty much everyone and his brother started cranking out detective stories, creating a literary crime wave. In the early 1970s, Hugh Greene (older brother of Graham Greene and the head of the BBC during the 1960s) edited a series of anthologies of these sleuths. Shortly afterwards, the BBC brought many of these characters to the small screen. The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 2 is the second (and final) series.
This is a perplexing set. There is a lot of talent on display, from up and comers like Judy Geeson (To Sir, With Love) to established stars such as Charles Grey (Diamonds are Forever) and Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius). The acting talent is supported by standout production design. You never really forget that you're looking at a set, but the attention to detail is impressive. In most cases, the directors create strong atmospheres. Sadly, most of those strengths are in service to fundamentally weak stories.
The biggest problem is that Rivals is a product of its times. In the early 1970s, BBC productions were dialogue-heavy, making it hard to establish any momentum (to be fair, today's ADD-based pacing makes the problem seem worse than it probably is). Another major problem is that many of the stories simply aren't very good, at least in terms of detective stories. In "Five Hundred Carats," for instance, Inspector Lipinzki (Barry Keegan) identifies the culprit, but the reasoning seems sloppy—he needs money, ergo, he's guilty. Furthermore, he never figures out how the culprit pulls off the crime, even though he has sufficient evidence to explain how, if not who. Instead, he simply dogs the suspect's every move until he cracks under the pressure and confesses. Even more problematic is "The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway," featuring Judy Geeson as reporter Polly Burton. She is the nominal star of the episode, but she spends the bulk of the time on the periphery while her uncle and a police sergeant solve the case—doing almost all of the work off-screen. It's interesting, perhaps, as an illustration of a woman's attempt to make her mark in a man's profession back in the Victorian era (particularly given the appalling denouement), but as a drama, it falls somewhat flat. (Trivia: Polly Burton was created by Baroness Orczy, who also created The Scarlet Pimpernel.) "The Absent-Minded Coterie," starring Charles Gray as French sleuth Eugene Valmont, features a strong performance by Gray and a well-crafted plot, but pedestrian direction drags it into tedium.
Some of the episodes fare better. "The Moabite Cypher," with Barrie Ingram as Dr. John Thorndyke, works fairly well; perhaps not coincidentally, it is structured almost exactly like a Sherlock Holmes story, complete with a Watson stand-in. "The Secret of the Fox Hunter," with Derek Jacobi as embassy agent William Drew, features intrigue between England and Germany that uncannily echoes Cold War tensions. Only one character gets two episodes: Professor Van Husen (Douglas Wilmer, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother). Van Husen, created by American journalist Jacques Futrell, was styled as "The Thinking Machine," a man driven purely by logic. Van Husen's first tale, "Cell 13," is interesting, as he makes a bet that he can escape from a maximum security prison in two weeks; however, his means of escape doesn't bear close scrutiny. The second episode, "The Superfluous Finger," is a more traditional detective story, and works better. (Yet more trivia: Futrell died on the Titanic). The episode that really stands out, though, is "The Mystery of the Amber Beads," featuring Hagar (Sara Kestelman), a young gypsy woman who runs a pawn shop. Unlike most of the other sleuths, Hagar is reluctant about the whole thing; she gets caught up in a crime when the property of a murder victim ends up in her shop. As a gypsy, she is by nature mistrustful of the authorities, and ends up looking into the matter simply to get the police to leave her alone. Between Kestelman's strong performance and a story that nicely balances the mystery with Hagar's personal problems, it's perhaps the strongest episode in the set.
Video quality varies considerably between episodes, but for the most part is good—provided that you keep in mind that you're watching forty-year-old video. In most cases the images are clear, but flaring of light sources is pronounced. That's mainly a function of the old video, and there's not much to be done about it. The mono sound track is solid; the dialogue is easy to follow. The only extra is a set of text introductions to the sleuths and their creators.
The set works as a cultural artifact of sorts, but when it comes to entertainment…let's just say these aren't so much rivals as pretenders.
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