THE RIVALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1971-1973) – The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was not just a collection of stories by mystery writers who were contemporaries of Arthur Conan Doyle but also a television series which adapted such mysteries. Just as Holmes’ tales were set during the Victorian and Edwardian Eras so, too, were the stories of these detectives. The series lasted two seasons of 13 episodes each and presented the best non-Holmes London-by-Gaslight Detectives.
Episode One: A MESSAGE FROM THE DEEP SEA (September 20th, 1971)
Detective: Doctor John Evelyn Thorndyke, created by R Austin Freeman. The first Doctor Thorndyke story was published in 1907.
Review: In my opinion this is the best episode of Season One. Thorndyke, like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, was miles ahead of the contemporary police in terms of Crime Scene Investigation. In both the Holmes AND Thorndyke mysteries there is a quasi-science fiction feel as those great fictional detectives use scientific methods disdained at the time but which are now commonplace in the solving of crimes.
The episode introduces us to Dr John Evelyn Thorndyke (John Neville), a forensic physician/ Police Surgeon of the era, as he is teaching a classroom of students. (Kind of a Quincy opening feel.) He is assisted by Dr Jervis (James Cossins), Thorndyke’s version of Dr Watson.
A former student of Thorndyke’s shows up requesting his former teacher’s help in his first big murder case as an Assistant Police Surgeon. Our star and his man Jervis accompany their former student to a brothel on Harrow Street, where a prostitute has been murdered in her bed by having her throat slashed.
Sadly, their journey across fog-bound London is obviously filmed on an interior set due to the low budget and, in fact, every episode of this series suffers from the same “sitcom lighting” as other BBC (but not ITV) programs of the era.
John Neville doesn’t get the credit he deserves these days for his depiction of Doctor Thorndyke, but we should remember this performance came over a decade BEFORE Jeremy Brett would finally provide a screen Sherlock Holmes who acted like the character did in the original stories.
Neville’s performance is sometimes dismissed as “Sherlock Holmes Lite” but that’s more a fault of the character Thorndyke’s derivative nature as an imitation Holmes, not any shortcoming on Neville’s part.
Just as Jervis is Thorndyke’s Watson stand-in, the good doctor also has a stand-in Sam from Quincy in the form of Polton (Frank Mills). Polton is our hero’s live-in lab assistant (don’t go there) whose abilities he respects far more than those of the long-suffering Jervis.
Thorndyke’s rivals from Scotland Yard are the officious and snooty Dr Davidson (Bernard Archard) and the intellectually lazy Detective-Sergeant Bates (Terence Rigby). Our main character also has an ally at the Yard in the form of Superintendent Miller (Edward Dentith).
The writing, the chemistry between Neville and Cossins, plus the painstaking period detail – including a Coroner’s Inquest under procedures very different than our own – all manage to elevate this episode. Without this triumph of execution over premise A Message From The Deep Sea would be annoyingly unoriginal. Just remind yourself this was PRE-Brett.
Fans of Sandbaggers will enjoy seeing Ray Lonnen in a supporting role as one of the many suspects in the woman’s murder. +++
I’ll review the next episode soon. Keep checking back.
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