This 'anthology of mystery, suspense and crime stories' is a celebration of obscure pulp fiction from the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. It was first produced in 1971 by Thames TV (the first series is already available from Network), returning in 1973 for a second series when this collection of 13 fifty-minute episodes — like the first, based on short stories originally gathered by former BBC Director General, Hugh Green, in several book anthologies published under the same title as the series — was screened across the ITV network.
All the pieces were written and first published during a period when the detective genre flourished in the wake of the success of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's many tales featuring his celebrated amateur sleuth Sherlock Holmes, which had appeared monthly in the pages of The Strand Magazine since the late 1880s. Many of them are clearly attempts by contemporary authors at producing a similar style of story, often headed also by an eccentric amateur detective with a penchant for making great leaps in deductive reasoning. Others are merely outlandish, sometimes surprising, pulpy tales — on occasion prefiguring the work of later writers in the mystery or suspense genres, such as Agatha Christie or John Buchan; sometimes reprising, by then, familiar tropes of mid-Victorian sensation fiction popularised in the 1860s by the work of Wilkie Collins, among others; and often unintentionally revealing plenty about the mores and prejudices of the times in which these popular fictions were written and consumed by their public.
All thirteen episodes of this second series of dramatisations give a fairly good flavour of the genre, the screenplays often deliberately emphasising the clichés and narrative anachronisms of the original stories, and, what may have seemed to a 20th (and now 21st Century) audience, to be a fairly strange obsession with class and the threat of foreign invasion. Not that we still don't have such interests, but here they are often nakedly exposed in a half-respectful and half-mocking manner. For a present-day viewer, the experience of watching this series again is even more abstracted by the outdated presentation of the shot-on-video period drama of the 1970s, giving it yet another level of nostalgia value beyond that originally intended by the content of the stories themselves. We can separate the tales broadly into two groups: those that, consciously or unconsciously, seek to recreate, or are derivative of, the style and/or structure of a typical Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes adventure; and those which were merely written during the same time-frame, and so present us with a flavour of the other kinds of pulp fiction then being published; showing that it often seems to anticipate the work of one or two famous authors who came later — although these tales themselves have now been largely forgotten except in anthologies such as Green's.
Of all the stories included here, Richard Austin Freeman's "The Moabite Cypher" is perhaps the one that most resembles the form and layout of a typical Holmes tale. The 'detective' in this adventure is actually a forensic expert, Dr. John Thorndyke (played here by Barrie Ingham), ably assisted by his less astute but most definitely Watsonian colleague, Dr Jervis (Peter Sallis). Freeman is still regarded as a worthy literary rival to Doyle in the detective genre, although his work is not now too well known by the general public. He's still in print though, and if you've worked your way through the Holmes cannon, the Thorndyke series seems like an adequate replacement. Here, the gentleman expert uses Holmesian deductive techniques and a large amount of scientific experimentation to get to the bottom of how an unusual-looking cypher, written in an ancient variant of Hebrew, is connected to an anarchist plot to assassinate a visiting Russian Grand Duke.
In this dramatisation at least, the character of Thorndyke, and the tone of his relationship with Jervis, is virtually indistinguishable from that of Holmes and Watson; and, as if to illustrate this fact, the episode even ends with Thorndyke uttering the immortal words "it's almost elementary, my dear Jervis"! An element of the story which soon establishes itself as being fairly constant among the other tales in the series, no matter how otherwise diverse they may be, is the portrayal of the police force in this kind of fiction: inspectors, sergeants, superintendents and/or 'bobbies' alike, are invariably shown as being coarse, unintelligent and a rather uncouth bunch of fellows. They, of course, are usually from the 'lower orders' and are consequently rather drunk on their power; needing, it seems, a sober, 'educated' and aristocratic eye cast over their negligent attempts at crime solving in order to keep them on the right path — or at least that's the subtext that often comes across. Perhaps that's how Thorndyke is able to inveigle himself into a criminal investigation so easily, merely by virtue of reciting his credentials in an authoritative tone of voice. Distinguished though they are, they hardly qualify him to take charge of an investigation into a terrorist conspiracy! This even extends to his being allowed to handle a possible explosive package at a suspected crime scene with impunity (and a great deal of roughness), although it soon transpires that the package is, in actual fact, merely a pork pie!
Another decidedly Holmesian cogitater is the self-styled 'Thinking Machine', Professor Augustus Van Dusen, the creation of American journalist-turned-mystery writer Jaques Futrelle, an author probably more famous these days for perishing aboard the RMS Titanic in 1912 than he is for the short fictions starring his decidedly unsympathetic logico-detective. The character takes Holmes's attachment to rigorous thinking to an almost parodical extreme, and is so relentless in refusing to engage in any human attachment or friendship whatsoever — remaining cold and aloof in his pursuit of logic at all times — that he seems almost an autistic caricature of Conan Doyle's sleuth. In this particular series there are two tales featuring the character, and in both he is played by Douglas Wilmer, who had, of course, once famously played Holmes in what many still consider to be the definitive BBC TV portrayal of the great detective in the 1960s.
The first story, "Cell 13" is not a traditional detective story at all. It sees Van Dusen taking part in a challenge to escape from an 'impregnable' new prison, recently kited out with all sorts of newfangled electric arc lights and prison alarms, and all sorts of stuff designed to impress the average Edwardian mind. After he claims that he can escape from any prison in the land within two weeks, the security commissioners responsible for the new regime at Grange Moore Prison decide it would be good publicity for them if Van Dusen's claims could be seen publicly to be defeated; and so the great thinker agrees to be shut up in a dank cell with only fourteen days to secure his escape. Of course, he manages said feat with minutes to spare before the deadline, with the last act of the tale then taken up with the professor's explanation as to just how the escape was planned, and then achieved with the aid of strips of shirt linen, boot polish and a hidden rat hole. Once again, the villain of the piece is made one of the lower class prison guards, who, understandably resentful that this abstract intellectual game between aristocratic gentlemen risks his very livelihood and pension if Van Dusen's escape plot is successful, tries to make the Professor's life in the cells a living hell.
The second tale is closer to being a more typical Holmes story, and features similar macabre elements to adventures such as "The Engineer's Thumb" and "The Cardboard Box" both of which feature unnatural amputations of one sort or another ("The Cardboard Box" was excised from the first of the Holmes short story collections for being too bloody!). In "The Superfluous Finger" Van Dusen is contacted by the renowned surgeon Mr Prescott after he is visited at his private practice by a beautiful young lady who requires him to amputate a perfectly healthy finger from one of her hands. When he refuses, she contrives to have the offending digit slammed in the front door by his housekeeper as she's leaving, thus forcing the issue! This tale ends up revolving around the familiar Sensation Literature motifs of disinheritance, doublegangers and an eccentric, possibly murderous, aristocrat — and is an entertaining copy of the Conan Doyle mystery formula with another gruff and belligerent police inspector at its core, who ends up erroneously arresting Van Dusen's assistant, Varley (Mark Eden) for a murder!
The adventures of Glasgow-born Robert Barr's London-based French exile, the private detective Eugene Valmont (played by Charles Gray) are brilliant semi parodies of the Sherlock Holmes style of detective fiction, and this tale, "The Absent-Minded Coterie", is a clever and amusing imitation, involving a plot to defraud rich but absent-minded old dodderers in an insurance scam that only comes to light when Valmont aids a police investigation into a coin counterfeiting gang. Full of all the elements that go to make a typical Holmes tale, this story shows that even in the early 1900s, the Holmes formula was well enough established to be parodied fairly accurately. In fact, Robert Barr also published several direct Holmes parodies: "The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs" and "The Adventure of the Second Swag". Despite this kind of thing, apparently Doyle and Barr were quite friendly. This Valmont tale even includes an Irene Adlere-esque adventuress who ends up getting the better of the French sleuth even more comprehensively than did Holmes's female nemesis.
"The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway" by the Baroness Orczy (creator of The Scarlet Pimpernel) starts off, as you'd expect from the title, with a lurid murder on a train (committed while an oblivious old fellow sits reading his newspaper in the same carriage!), but then quickly turns into a static courtroom drama for most of the rest of its running time. But it is notable for the fact that its main character is a woman — a rather atypical sleuth to be found inhabiting late-Victorian fiction. Polly Burton, though (here played beautifully by Judy Geeson), isn't allowed to shine quite as brightly as the boys in this series: it's almost as though Orczy can't quite believe in her own character and while the prim Miss Burton and her devoted friend, Inspector Frobisher (Richard Beckinsale), initiate an investigation into the case (plenty of interesting Victorian detail here, when the unidentified corpse is displayed publicly at the police mortuary for identification purposes), the case is actually cleared up by the sharp mind of Polly's eccentric uncle — the monkey-nut-and-treacle-toffee-munching defence lawyer, Sir Arthur Inglewood (John Savident), for whom Polly works as secretary. Once he enters the narrative, this larger than life character dominates the proceedings, and ends up simply using Polly as bate to trap the killer. The dramatisation knowingly highlights the story's gender stereotyping with the final scene placing Polly comfortably in the arms of Inspector Frobisher, being soothed after her monstrous ordeal, and, no doubt, now thankfully saved from the looming threat of female independence: becoming one of those dreadful, bicycle-riding 'New Woman' of the 1890s who were considered such a great public horror by many vocal commentators of this period.
"The Mystery of the Amber Beads" illustrates a slightly more forward-looking treatment of both women and the working classes in the era's fiction, in that its protagonist is a woman and a member of a gypsy tribe, struggling to make a living among the lowlifes in the rookeries of London, where she runs a pawnshop unexpectedly left to her in a benefactor's Will. This tale was written by Fergus Hume, an accomplished novelist whose 1886 novel "The Mystery of a Hansom Cab" is said to have been an early inspiration for the debut Holmes novel "A Study in Scarlet". Hager is a colourful, unusual addition to detective mystery fiction, and probably the most likeable of the detectives in this series, too. Half the intrigue in the tale derives not so much from the mystery itself as it does from the heroine's (Sara Kestleman) struggle to be taken seriously in a rough, unforgiving, male-dominated world, which includes having constantly to fend off the unwanted, slimy advances of the pallid forger, Grubber (Joss Ackland): an appropriately named past-associate of the previous owner of the pawnshop who is determined to get his hands on her business — and on Hager as well!
After a mute, hooded figure comes to her shop late one night in mysterious circumstances, to pawn a necklace of amber beads, Hager is called on the next morning by the gruff Sergeant Finch (Jonathan Adams). It transpires that a woman — Mrs Arryford — has been murdered the night before, strangled by the very amber necklace that adorned her neck, the item then stolen from the corpse and pawned to Hager that very night. After hearing from the gypsy that the figure who left her the necklace was a mute, Finch becomes fixated on arresting Mrs Arryford's mute maidservant Rose (Sarah Craze). The girl has absconded from the house and her responsibility for the crime seems to Finch to be assured. But after Sarah secretly comes to Hager pleading innocence, the gypsy detective realises that she must be telling the truth, because the figure who visited her had a scar across one of her palms while Rose's hands are smooth! Finch still won't listen though and continues the hunt for the maid, whom a sympathetic Hager is now secretly harbouring. Meanwhile, Hager has to put up with Grubber's persistent blackmail attempts and the courtship of Charlie (Frederick Radley), the dandy nephew of Mrs Arryford's daughter! These two strands eventually come together to bring an unexpected solution to the mystery.
Hager is a rare example in this kind of fiction of both a woman and a lower class protagonist being given a totally sympathetic treatment. But a few of the other tales in the series, which also deal with less aristocratic detectives, paint a slightly more equivocal picture. No more so than "The Hundred Carats". Set in Kimberley, South Africa in the 1890s, the story is a variant on the' locked room mystery'. A 500 carat diamond is awaiting transportation to London by the de Beers Company. A convoluted security regime and a locked safe guarded twenty-four hours a day, prove inadequate safeguards in its protection, and before long the safe is unlocked and the box that once housed the diamond is found to be empty!
Inspector Lipinzki (Barry Keegan) is put on the case and, for a long time (unlike most detectives in these stories) is completely at a loss. Lipinzki is an ex-labourer who has worked his way up to his current rank in the South African Police Force, but he is still forced to deal with niggling humiliations such as, for instance, not being allowed into the aristocratic clubs where the de Beers' top brass go to smoke their cigars in the humid evenings. But after a sudden burst of inspiration leads him to figure out that one of the de Beers 'quality' must have been responsible for an inside job, the impetuous Lipinzki is forced to make a humiliating, grovelling apology to the man (played with a haughty abandon by Martin Jarvis) after foolishly naming him publicly as a suspect without any evidence. The rest of the tale hinges on a dogged battle of mental endurance and wits played out between the two men. Lipinzki knows who did it (although not exactly how) and his quarry knows that he knows. As long as he's being unofficially watched by Lipinzki, he cannot retrieve the diamond, and Lipinzki is not about to give up the quest! Unusually, this story puts its detective protagonist almost as much through the wringer as the villain; he's far from being the cool, detached authority of a Holmes, a Van Dusen or a Doctor Thorndyke.
The same fate falls upon ship's purser Mr Horrocks (Ronald Fraser) in C. J. Cutliffe Hyne's "The Looting of the Specie Room". The mild-mannered purser is placed in charge of a hoard of gold that is being kept in the strong-room of the RMS Oceanic, even as the ship secretly makes a run to break a transatlantic speed record! When the gold goes missing despite Horrocks having the only key to the room (kept on a piece of string around his neck), he soon cops all the blame from the Captain, and so is forced to pit his wits against the unknown thief in order to save his job. During the course of this tale, poor old Horrocks is both violently assaulted and threatened with legal action (after he dutifully reports that the ship's second purser had previously promised he would steal the hoard himself just to spite Horracks, with whom he has something of a feud!), and even when he finally clears up the mystery, is still punished for 'allowing' the theft to occur in the first place by being demoted and packed off to a smaller, less illustrious vessel.
Another much put-upon sleuth in the series is played by a young John Thaw in an adaptation of an obscure Danish tale called "The Sensible Action of Lieutenant Holst" by Baron Palle Rosenkrantz. Holst is a middle ranking, unadventurous but reliable officer, who is quite happy to be passed over for promotion, taking few risks in his career but enjoying a quiet, uneventful but secure life in Copenhagen. He soon finds himself in an impossible situation though when a young lady, a Russian countess called Maria Wolkonski (Catherine Schell), comes to him asking for protection from her brother-in-law, who she claims is out to kill her. The brother-in-law though, claims that she is an undercover Tsarist agent who has betrayed her husband, a communist sympathiser, to the Russian security forces, and who has now arrived in Copenhagen in order to trap him also! With no way of telling who is telling the truth, Holst realises that if he makes a wrong move, it could result in the death of an innocent person. The more he tries to take the most 'sensible' course of action, the more he ends up unwittingly courting disaster for whomever actually is the wronged party in this confounding web of intrigue.
This is one of several tales in the series that deals with the complex international politics of the period — with Holst forced to abandon his orderly principles by superiors more concerned with pleasing interested Royal parties who have a dynastic interest in the case, than in following the letter of the law. There are other tales here that deal with such issues, usually with a more intrigue-and-adventure-based approach, where the good guys (the British Empire) and the bad guys (all other rival Empires) are clearly defined. "The Secret of the Magnifique" by Edward Phillips Oppenheim is characteristic of early spy fiction, although it starts out as a mystery in which the mysterious gentleman Mr Laxworthy (Bernard Hepton) entices two recently released former criminals into entering with him into a secret plot, with the intention of securing the safety of plans for a newly developed French torpedo.
Laxworthy is himself a reformed criminal, now working 'off the record' for British interests, but William Tufnell Le Quenx's character, Duckworth Drew of the British Foreign Office, is a more orthodox secret agent. Le Quenx was writing his paranoid tales of espionage in the late Edwardian era during the run up to the First World War; they invariably involved foreign powers plotting invasion of the British Isles, often with the help of a network of spies who had infiltrated the highest levels of the Government. "The Secret of the Fox Hunter" stars Derek Jacobi as the upstanding, stiff-upper-lipped Duckworth who uncovers a complex plot involving a Franco-Russo treaty, treachery among foreign ambassadors and murder involving a lethal poisoned pin prick from a lady's broach. Denise Coffey plays Drew's matronly but comically officious assistant Mrs Baines. The episode is a rip-roaring adaptation that nicely sends up this style of period pulp fiction while also surprising this viewer with an unexpectedly pointed ending.
Finally, there are a couple of oddities here to round off the series: the first, called "Anonymous Letters" originally written by Adalbert Goldscheider, is set in and around a glamorous turn-of-the-century Vienna, populated by love-stricken Arch Dukes, beautiful theatre actresses and flamboyant Counts and Countesses. Dagobert Trostler (Ronald Lewis) is the dandy private investigator who is commissioned by Comitessa Nadja (Nicola Pagett) and her sister Countess Tildi Leys (Carolyn Jones) to look into the provenance of some poison pen letters they have been receiving, which make some scurrilous accusations about the Comitessa's activities during her previous life as a theatre actress. Both sisters have received letters by the same hand, with similarly unpleasant accusations. Trosler is employed to discreetly look into the mystery without alerting the attention of Nadja's husband, the Arch Duke Othmer (Michael Aldridge). This turns out to be a quirky little tale, with sexual scandal and an unexpected smattering of nudity. Unusually, Trosler falls head over heels in love with one of the sisters and spends as much time in bed with her as he does trying to trap the culprit. Holmes would never have been so impudent!
The final episode is also the most macabre of the series. John Oxenham's "The Missing QCs" seems at first like it's going to develop along similar lines to many of the other Edwardian period stories dramatised here, but it soon spins off into a pleasingly deranged 'mad professor'-type tale that plays like an early Gothic Universal B picture. Charles Dallas (Robin Ellis) is a young, ambitious and athletic assistant to Queen's Council Sir Revel Revell (John Barron), whose sparky daughter Milly (Celia Bannerman) he is hoping one day to marry — if he can pluck up the courage to ask his eccentric boss that is! Revell and Dallas are heading the defence case in a high profile trial, but when both Sir Revell and the prosecuting QC, James Ladbrooke, disappear into thin air, the case is left in chaos!
This all sounds fairly standard stuff, but when Milly also disappears, Dallas tracks her down to the countryside manor residence of a Professor Dyne (John Phillips), a witness for the defence in the trial, who, it turns out, runs his own private insane asylum. The tale then takes a sharp turn away from standard, rational detective fiction into the outer wilds of the macabre. It turns out that Dyne has dank cells full of gibbering 'patients' in the manor's basement, and is carrying out outlandish experiments on their brains. Charles and Dallas discover that Ladbrooke and Milly's father have been kidnapped and are about to become the next subjects in the professor's mad experiments! While Milly is held captive and forced to watch the preparations for the diabolical operation, Dallas eludes professor Dyne's ape-like brute of a butler (an ex-patient Dyne has previously been experimenting on) and makes a dash for the nearest police station. Unfortunately, so bizarre is his tale, the oafish plods behind the desk think Dallas must be an escaped lunatic and so they bang him up in the station cell!
This story takes great delight in pilling on outlandish horror upon horror, although it rather wimps out in the finale moments and restores the rational status quo a little to easily to be believable: one minute Dyne seems just about to start his operation on the brains of the captive QCs, and there doesn't appear to be any conceivable way the procedure can be thwarted — but, then, even in the seeming age Dallas spends on escaping from the Manor, finding a secluded police station, being kept prisoner in the police cells, finally convincing his gaolers of his innocence and devising a plot to free the captives at the Dyne Manor, when he eventually does confront the now clearly mad professor, Dyne still hasn't got any further with the procedure than marking out the skulls of his potential subjects with blue dye!
Nevertheless, this is an entertaining episode and a fitting way to round off this diverse selection of classic pulp fiction tales. The UK 4-disc DVD set from Network, presents all thirteen episodes of series 2 spread across the four discs, and they look in surpassingly good shape considering just how old they are. Although they were mainly shot on video (with some 16mm filmed segments, as was par for the course in this period of TV production), the costume and production design is exemplary throughout all the episodes and the whole series revels in that classic, fogbound Victorian ambience that so defines the style of fiction being paid tribute to. There are lots of marvellous performances from great British actors such as John Thaw, Judy Geeson, Michael Gough, Derek Jacobi, Joss Ackland, Jean Marsh and Richard Beckinsale. All in all, Holmes aficionados and fans of Victorian era literature alike, will each find something to delight them in this entertaining set of tales.