Sunday 6 November 2016

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, the Dr Thorndyke episodes

I’ve written before about Thames Television’s superb 1971-73 series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes which comprises adaptations of some great stories written in late Victorian and Edwardian times by authors who were contemporaries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At the moment I want to talk about the two episodes adapted from R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke stories. Freeman wrote countless novels and stories featuring this character including masterpieces such as The Mystery of 31 New Inn and The Eye of Osiris

The first truly scientific detective in crime fiction, Dr John Thorndyke is a Professor of Medical Jurisprudence. He is not a detective as such. He does however take an interest in criminal cases that call for his particular talents. He does not interview suspects nor does he take the slightest interest in motives. He concerns himself purely with forensic evidence, usually but not always of a medical nature.

The first of the Dr Thorndyke episodes is the first episode of the first season, A Message from the Deep Sea. John Neville stars as Dr Thorndyke. One of Thorndyke’s former students, Dr Hart, has obtained a position as assistant to the Police Surgeon. The Police Surgeon not being immediately available Dr Hart finds himself called to the scene of a murder and being overwhelmed by the responsibility prevails upon Dr Thorndyke to accompany him. A prostitute has been murdered and to the police it appears to be an open-and-shut case. A fellow prostitute, May O’Brien, seems destined to face the hangman.

John Neville as Dr Thorndyke in A Message from the Deep Sea
It is fortunate indeed that Dr Hart had managed to persuade Dr Thorndyke to become involved as both the investigating police officer, Detective Sergeant Bates, and the Police Surgeon, Dr Davidson, are the kinds of bumbling fools who jump to conclusions and are very likely to end up sending innocent people to the gallows. Dr Thorndyke spots some vital clues that they have overlooked, the types of clues that would be meaningless to anyone without a rigorous scientific training. Dr Thorndyke reveals the identity of the real killer in a dramatic courtroom finale.

This episode captures the spirit of Freeman’s stories very well. The police have found a suspect with an obvious motive but Dr Thorndyke demonstrates that the actual physical evidence tells a very different story. It is fortunate that Thorndyke has a good working knowledge of the minute marine organisms of the eastern Mediterranean (Freeman liked to throw in some obscure and esoteric elements such as this) and it is equally fortunate that Thorndyke and his assistants understand the crucial importance of noting every piece of evidence even if its significance is not immediately apparent.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes has the very studio-bound feel you expect in a British TV series from 1971 but this is more than compensated for by a superb cast and Philip Mackie’s entertaining and intelligent script. John Neville captures both the arrogance and the amiability of Thorndyke. James Cossins is excellent as Thorndyke’s junior partner Jervis, who displays an uncanny ability to spot all the vital evidence without being able to make the slightest bit of sense out of any of it. Paul Darrow, who would later find fame in Blake’s 7, is the keen but hopelessly out-of-his-depth Dr Hart. Terence Rigby makes a fine bumptious policeman as Sergeant Bates and Bernard Archard is wonderful as the arrogant but obtuse Police Surgeon.

Barrie Ingham (left) as Dr Thorndyke in The Moabite Cypher
The second of the Dr Thorndyke episodes, The Moabite Cypher, came towards the end of the second and final season. This time Dr Thorndyke is played by Barrie Ingham while Peter Sallis steps into the role of Jervis. Having totally different actors and a different writer and director (this time Reginald Collin fulfills both roles) from A Message from the Deep Sea means that we can expect a rather different treatment.

A suspected anarchist bomber is found dead and in his coat pocket is a very strange letter. It is written in an ancient variant of Hebrew and in a cypher of some description. Scotland Yard can make nothing of this puzzle and they have high hopes that Dr Thorndyke can help. While the puzzle yet remains unsolved Thorndyke and his partner Dr Jervis receive a desperate plea for assistance from a man who is convinced that his brother is being poisoned by his young wife.

Dr Thorndyke does of course crack the cypher, in a rather unexpected way, and unravel the mystery which is both more and less than it originally appeared to be.

Barrie Ingham is very good although I think he seems just a little young to be convincing as such an eminent man. Peter Sallis on the other hand is much too old, in fact two decades too old, for the role of Jervis who is after all supposed to be one of Thorndyke’s  ex-students. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, he’s just too old. Some of the supporting players are just a bit too hammy and there are some perfectly outrageous accents on display. On the other hand it’s a fine story with plenty of twists.

A Message from the Deep Sea is I think closer in spirit to Freeman’s stories. Both John Neville and Barrie Ingham give interesting interpretations of Dr Thorndyke although it’s John Neville who strikes me as being closer to the character as described in the books. Both episodes are however very entertaining and well worth seeing if you’re a fan of Freeman’s stories, and of course The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes as a whole is a must-see series.

1 comment:

  1. When I got the box set of this series, I watched them in order. Halfway through this episode, I knew I was going to love the series!