The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway

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Judy Geeson as Polly Burton in The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway
by the Baroness Orczy
Adapted by Alan Cooke. Directed by Graham Evans

A beautiful young woman, Beatrice Hazeldene (Lois Baxter) is poisoned on a subway train.  Later, her husband, William Hazeldene (Anthony Corlan) and sister, Laura Stanley (Cyd Hayman) arrive at the mortuary to make the identification.

Also present is rising young reporter Polly Burton (Judy Geeson) who is keen to solve the mystery.  Together with her friend on the police-force, Frobisher (Richard Beckinsale), they find a prime suspect, one Frank Errington (Tom McCarthy).  The evidence against him seems overwhelming, but later both her uncle, Sir Arthur Inglewood (John Savident) and Polly herself start to have doubts …..

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway was written by the Baroness Orczy, best-known today for creating the Scarlet Pimpernel, who first appeared in a successful play written by herself and her husband in 1903.  Equally popular was Orczy’s novelisation, which spawned a number of follow-up books (the final one was published in 1940).

But prior to this, Orczy had dabbled with crime fiction and had written a series of thirteen short-stories which had been published in 1901 and 1902.  A dozen of them were re-written and collected in book form as The Old Man in the Corner in 1910.  This book, which includes The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway can be read here.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Sherlock Holmes still cast a long shadow over many writers of crime fiction and this spurred Orczy to create something different.  The Old Man in the Corner was very much a thinking detective – a prototype for a generation of “armchair detectives” who solve mysteries without ever visiting the scene of the crime.  Instead, he spends his time at the A.B.C. tea-shop where he is frequently visited by Polly Burton who recounts various baffling mysteries.  And after listening to her accounts, he considers the facts and delivers a solution.

Later authors would also use this device, most famously in The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie but it does seem that when adapting this short-story Alan Cooke found there were dramatic limitations.  The most obvious being that the Old Man never interacts with the protagonists and his solutions are rarely provable in a court of law.  So Cooke chose to excise the Old Man from the adaptation and move Polly into the centre of the narrative.

This is something of a pity, since it means that the whole point of the Old Man stories (how he is able, without moving from the tea-shop, to come up with a plausible solution which may or may not be true) is lost. But having to tell the whole story in flashback wouldn’t have been very satisfying, so it’s understandable why this happened.

Judy Geeson is very appealing as the bright young reporter Polly Burton.  Because she’s written as a rather single-minded, humourless individual, it’s Geeson herself who manages to turn her into a more rounded, less cold character.  Richard Beckinsale is rather wooden as Frobisher, which is surprising since there was some comic mileage to be mined in his relationship with Polly (Frobisher’s in love with her but she’s ruthless in exploiting this, as she’ll do anything to aid her investigations).

The studio-bound nature of the episode does become apparent at the start as tight camera-angles, sound effects and shaky camera-work are all employed to create the illusion of a moving train.  Later, captions are used to signify locations (for example, a picture of the Old Bailey).  These do tend to highlight the limitations of the production, but they’re only fleeting moments so aren’t too damaging.  Elsewhere, director Graham Evans produces some interesting shots – particularly in the scenes set in the coroner’s court, some of which are shot from very high-up.  This does help to make what would otherwise be a rather static section of the story more visually interesting.

There’s also the usual high-quality supporting cast, including Michael Sheard, Christopher Timothy and Simon Lack whilst George Tovey has a lovely scene-stealing moment as a porter.  John Savident seems to be enjoying himself as Sir Arthur Inglewood whilst Cyd Hayman is as luminously beautiful as ever.

Like some of the other stories adapted for the series, this is a who-dunnit with very few suspects – so the identity of the murderer shouldn’t be terribly hard to guess.  But the paucity of the story isn’t that important since it’s the performances that drive it along.  And even if Alan Cooke’s adaptation does take liberties with the original source material, thanks to Judy Geeson’s engaging performance this isn’t too much of an issue.

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