John Neville as Dr Thorndyke in A Message from the Deep Sea by R. Austin Freeman
Adapted by Philip Mackie. Directed by James Goddard
The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was a Thames programme which ran for two series during the early 1970’s. As the title suggests, its aim was to highlight some of Sherlock Holmes’ contemporaries. A huge amount of crime fiction was published during the Victorian and Edwardian era, but Holmes apart, the popularity of the majority of these detectives didn’t endure.
The Rivals not only showcased some decent stories by largely forgotten authors, it also starred some of the best British actors of the time. As with any anthology programme, some episodes are better than others – but overall The Rivals is a very strong series.
The first episode was A Message from the Deep Sea, adapted from the story by R. Austin Freeman. Dr Thorndyke had a lengthy career – with Freeman penning novels and short stories featuring him between 1907 and 1942. The original short story, together with a selection of others, can be read here.
Dr Hart, one of Dr Thorndyke’s (John Neville) old students asks for his help. Hart is the assistant to the local police surgeon and has just been called to his first case. Thorndyke is reluctant at first, but when he learns it’s murder he perks up considerably.
Thorndyke and his assistant Dr Jervis (James Cossins) examine the body with Hart. She’s a young woman, who’s been stabbed through the neck and clutched tightly in her hand are some strands of red hair. A clue to the murderer maybe? Thorndyke isn’t convinced, but when Hart’s superior Dr Davidson (Bernard Archard) and Detective Sergeant Bates (Terence Rigby) turn up, they consider it to be an open-and-shut case.
Thorndyke tries to give them a few gentle hints but they aren’t interested. He claims he’ll walk away and let them make fools of themselves – but he continues to take an interest in the case and it’s his evidence that will be responsible for unmasking the murderer.
A Message from the Deep Sea is something of a joy, thanks to the first-rate cast. For anybody who loves old British television, there’s a host of familiar faces here. Apart from Neville and Cossins, we have an impossibly young, fresh-faced Paul Darrow as Dr Hart, who makes the most of his part despite being saddled with some very florid dialogue. “Good god. Some infernal cowardly beast has done this. He shall hang. My god he shall hang”.
Elsewhere, Ray Lonnen (complete with a very fake moustache), Morris Perry, Nicholas Smith and Stanley Lebor are not a bad supporting cast at all. Bernard Archard as a police surgeon icily sure of his facts and Terence Rigby as a rather stupid policeman are two more quality actors who find themselves outsmarted by Thorndyke.
And what of John Neville? Dr Thorndyke is a man with a very high opinion of himself and Neville manages to capture his smug superiority very well. Thankfully though, Cossins’ Dr Jervis is able to direct a few barbs at him, which means he isn’t completely insufferable. Like Sherlock Holmes, Thorndyke is sometimes exasperated when others can’t see things that are perfectly clear to him. “My dear Jervis, pray don’t indulge in mental indolence. You have the essential facts as I have them. Consider them separately, collectively and in relation to the circumstances”.
The solution of the mystery is interesting enough but undoubtedly the chief pleasure of the story is watching a fine group of actors at work. Dr Thorndyke was one of several detectives who would make more than one appearance in The Rivals, although in his series two appearance a new actor – Barrie Ingham – took over the mantle.
Next episode – The Missing Witness Sensation