Saturday 5 March 2016

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes - The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds

Everyone loves a good villain. The best villains of all (for entertainment value) are either diabolical criminal masterminds or brilliant swindlers. Swindlers are fun because they’re clever and they can appeal to us on two other levels - either as glamorous rebels or as dastardly cads. Guy Boothby (1867-1905) was an Australian writer who created both a memorable diabolical criminal mastermind (Dr Nikola) and an equally memorable swindler (Simon Carne). It is Simon Carne we are concerned with at the moment, or more specifically the 1971 television adaptation of The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds which was the fourth episode of the first season of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, made by Thames Television in Britain between 1971 and 1973, included adaptations of many of the superb stories written by late Victorian and Edwardian authors who were contemporaries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds was adapted by Anthony Stevens and directed by Kim Mills, a reliable and prolific TV director during the 60s and early 70s.

Wealthy socialite Simon Carne (Roy Dotrice) has just returned to England after an extended stay in foreign climes. Simon seems to have everything a man could want - wealth, breeding, education, a ready wit and a good deal of charm. He is a charismatic and fascinating figure with an entrée into the world of fashionable high society. He does however suffer from one slight social disadvantage - he is a hunchback.

You might think that his disfigurement would make him bitter. He is bitter, but for other reasons. Simon Carne is not quite what he appears to be.

He arrives back in England to find that the latest sensation in fashionable circles is a mysterious private detective known as Klimo. There has been a disturbing rash of daring jewel robberies which have baffled all the attempts of Scotland Yard to bring the perpetrator to justice. Klimo has been enjoying great success by solving these crimes. Although he does not exactly solve them, not does he catch the criminals. What he does, for a large fee, is to explain to the wealthy victims precisely how the crimes were carried out. This has caused much humiliation for Scotland Yard since Klimo’s explanations are invariably not merely plausible but quite watertight.

There is much trepidation at the Yard at the approach of the glittering ball about to take place at the home of the Duke and Duchess of Wiltshire. The duchess will be wearing the fabulous, and enormously valuable, Wiltshire Diamonds. It seems almost certain that the daring jewel thief who has caused them so much trouble will try to steal the diamonds. The Duke has decided there is only one way to prevent such a calamity - rather than waiting until after the robbery he will hire Klimo to prevent such an eventuality. This turns out to be not such a simple thing.

What does all this have to do with Simon Carne? You’ll have to watch this episode to find that out. It’s a clever story and it’s extremely well executed.

Roy Dotrice is a fine actor and he gives a suitably mesmerising performance. THe supporting cast is exceptionally strong, with John Nettleton as Carne’s butler Belton being particularly outstanding.

The mid-70s saw a dramatic sea change in British television drama, with the old shot-in-the-studio-on-videotape style giving way to the new shot-on-location-entirely-on-film style. The emphasis was on greater realism and more action. The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was made in the older style and it does have that characteristic studio-bound feel. On the other hand the sets and costumes are generally impressive and it was made in colour and on the whole it looks rather splendid.

The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds was not the only episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes to feature a dastardly cad and unmitigated bounder and I’ll be posting a review of some of those other episodes in the near future.

Both seasons of this wonderful show are available on Region 2 DVD from Network. Great viewing and highly recommended.

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