This 1971-73 Thames anthology series was based on the collected works of former BBC Director General Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, and each story was prefaced with the explanation: "During the years 1891 to 1914, when the Sherlock Holmes series were serialised in 'Strand Magazine', Conan Doyle's hero was not the only detective operating in London, he had rivals..."
Indeed, the gas lit, fog shrouded, streets of the Victorian world's most atmospheric and moody city was home to more detectives than just Baker Street's most famous resident, and under the expert eyes of executive producers Lloyd Shirley and Kim Mills and series producers Robert Love, Jonathan Alwyn, and Reginald Collin, viewers were presented with a satisfying stream of top-notch adaptations from the mystery and suspense works of celebrated period authors. R. Austin Freeman's masterful creation, Doctor Thorndyke, was represented by two adaptations, 'A Message from the Deep Sea' with the great John Neville essaying the title role, and 'The Moabite Cipher' with Barry Ingham taking on the mantle of Freeman's character. Others of note included Arthur Morrison's 'The Affair of the Tortoise', and 'The Case of Laker Absconded' with both Peter Barkworth and Peter Vaughan excellent as Arthur Hewitt. The under-appreciated Ronald Hines also appeared as Morrison's other successful (if little known) creation, Jonathan Pride. French mystery writer Jacques Futrelle's 'Cell Thirteen', and 'The Superfluous Finger' starred ex BBC Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Wilmer, as Professor Van Dusen and William Hope Hodgson's tale of the near supernatural, 'The Horse of the Invisible', featured the incomparable Donald Pleasance as Carnicki, the ghost hunter.
In fact, one of this now sadly neglected series' greatest claims to fame was the quite superb quality of the acting talent assembled to breath life into these often forgotten fictional characters. 'Scarlet Pimpernel' creator Baroness Orczy's female sleuth, Polly Burton, was memorably given substance by the consistently excellent Judy Geeson, while other performances of note came in the welcome forms of John Thaw as Det. Lt Holst, Sir Robert Stephens as the blind, yet insightful detective Max Carrados, Derek Jacobi portrayed William Le Queux's character, William Drew, and most unusually Sara Kestleman's appearance as Hagar, a gypsy detective. Of the other characters showcased during the series two- season run, the high profile faces on parade also included such reliable dramatic stalwarts as Roy Dotrice, Donald Sinden, Bernard Hepton, Charles Gray and Ronald Fraser.
Carefully adapted and produced, boasting top-flight performances and first class production values, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes provided quality television entertainment, and in the process it served as a welcome reminder that the detection and solving of crime in Victorian literature, whilst almost always finishing behind the door of 221B Baker Street, most certainly wasn't limited to that esteemed address.
Published on January 25th, 2019. Written by SRH (March 2001) for Television Heaven.