From 1971 to 1973 The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was a British television series which dramatized non-Holmes mystery stories by Victorian and Edwardian authors. For Balladeer’s Blog’s review of the first episode click HERE
Episode: MADAME SARA (November 1st, 1971)
Detective: Dixon Druce, created by L.T. Meade (Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith) and Robert Eustace.
Villainess: Madame Sara, by the same creators. The first story featuring Dixon Druce and Madame Sara was published in 1902.
Review: Years before the insidious Doctor Fu Manchu and his dogged adversary Sir Denis Nayland-Smith came this detective and the female criminal genius he clashed with. In the case of Dixon Druce and Madame Sara, there was always an air of attraction and sexual tension between them.
The pair’s duels of wits sprinkled with flirtation are enjoyable and, combined with the fact that a woman co-created the characters and co-wrote their six mysteries, I’m genuinely puzzled why they aren’t more well known and more widely dramatized.
Madame Sara was the story which introduced Dixon Druce (John Fraser), investigative manager for the Werner’s Solvency Inquiry Agency. That firm can be hired by potential investors to probe the financial and legal bona fides of domestic or international businesses.
As the episode opens, Druce is in his laboratory engaging in a game of forensic one-upmanship with his Scotland Yard friend Inspector Vandeleur (George Murcell). Their verbal fencing over poisons is interrupted by Dixon’s old school friend Jack Selby (William Corderoy).
Selby has recently married the well-to-do and beautiful Beatrice Dallas (Jasmina Hilton), whom he met while at a government post in Brazil. Jack is seeking Druce’s help in unravelling certain complications left over from the will of his wife’s late parents.
Their fortune of 2 million Pounds will be left to whichever of their children is ultimately left alive among Beatrice, her unmarried sister Edith (Caroline John of Doctor Who fame) and their elusive, enigmatic half-brother Henry Joachim Silva (THE Roger Delgado for another Doctor Who connection).
Obviously, this state of affairs subtly encourages the heirs to ponder bumping each other off in order to be the sole survivor. Dixon’s investigation into the globe-trotting mystery man Silva leads to him spending more and more time with Jack Selby, Beatrice and Edith, especially after they start receiving threatening letters.
When Edith is murdered in a seemingly impossible act of poisoning, Jack, Beatrice and Silva instantly become suspects along with their servants and assorted members of their hoity-toity social circle. The most prominent member of that circle is Madame Sara (Marianne Benet), a beautiful blonde scientist with multiple degrees INCLUDING an MD and a DDS.
Dixon Druce is deeply smitten with this daughter of an Italian father and a mother from India and they engage in an odd courtship as the murder investigation proceeds. Sara is a wealthy world traveler whose fortune springs from the cosmetic treatments and surgeries which she performs on rich men and women seeking to preserve their physical appeal.
Madame Doctor’s vast knowledge of chemical, pharmaceutical, medical and dental esoterica makes the lovesick Dixon realize she might be behind Edith’s inexplicable poisoning. Her long association with Beatrice, Jack and Silva from their Brazilian days also makes her a suspect.
Sara is a source of fascination to the women of High Society, many of whom owe her their medical and cosmetic well-being. Ladies also idolize her for her cleverness, her iconoclastic nature and her way of mesmerizing and breaking the hearts of assorted high-level lotharios around the world.
There are also hints of lesbian attraction – couched in the expectedly vague Edwardian euphemisms, of course. The late Edith in particular seemed infatuated with Madame Sara.
Obviously, given the title, this mystery isn’t so much a Whodunnit as a How’d They Do It? Needless to say Dixon Druce eventually solves the murder even though doing so establishes an enmity between him and the alluring villainess.
The original Madame Sara story in The Strand ended with the accused murderess successfully evading prosecution by way of a male fall-guy, thus setting up additional cerebral and libidinous encounters between her and Druce in the future. This television episode hints at that result, but leaves it open enough that viewers could conclude she was actually found guilty if they want closure.
Marianne Benet is pretty good as Madame Sara, but let’s face it – that’s an IMPOSSIBLE role for any actress to truly live up to. She seems to have done her own singing, too. However, among contemporary British thespians it would have taken a woman who combined the danger of Billie Whitelaw with the physical beauty of Caroline Munro to bring all of the villainess’ qualities to life.
John Fraser does well as Dixon Druce, though it’s tough to avoid thinking of him as a poor man’s Richard Chamberlain. He convincingly plays a man falling in love with – yet suspicious of – a beautiful, dangerous woman.
Madame Sara is one of the great overlooked Femmes Fatale in literature. The six stories pitting her and Dixon Druce against each other were later collected under the title The Sorceress of the Strand.
Unfortunately there was no other adaptation of those mysteries during the run of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.
I’ll review the next episode soon. Keep checking back.
FOR MORE FORGOTTEN TELEVISION CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/category/forgotten-television/