Produced by Thames in the early Seventies, each individual episode of ‘The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’ showcased one of the less celebrated fictional detectives of the late Victorian and Edwardian era and whilst the series was primarily composed of mysteries of a corporeal nature, it was perhaps inevitable that it should include one of the more interesting examples of that milieu, William Hope Hodgson’s psychic investigator, Thomas Carnacki. The title of the series suggests that the emphasis was on the sleuths themselves and indeed, a number of celebrated names filled the central roles, including Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi and Charles Gray. Here, in something of a premonition of his association with John Carpenter, we are treated to Donald Pleasance’s take on Carnacki, the ‘Ghost Finder.’
It’s difficult to assess his portrayal in terms of how faithful it is to the original source as Hodgson writes the character as a cipher, little more than a vehicle for the stories he seeks to tell. However, taken on its own terms it’s certainly an interesting performance, emphasising an almost diffident introspection which often appears otherworldly. He also exhibits a certain melancholy which furnishes the drama with its emotional heart. If there is a complaint to be made, it’s that his presence is perhaps insufficient to succeed as a leading man. Yet I suspect that is more of a problem if, through experience of the original stories, you are predisposed to regard Carnacki as a serial protagonist as opposed to the isolated context of this adaptation.
Ultimately though you have to ask whether ‘The Horse of the Invisible’ was really the best Carnacki story to adapt. From a certain perspective, it is possible to see the logic. It certainly shows off Hodgson’s pseudo-scientific embellishments to full effect, with psychic photography, poltergeist phenomena and even Carnacki’s infamous electrical pentacle, whilst the denouement presents an interesting twist. Unfortunately, however, when translated to the visual medium there is something unavoidably Pythonesque about a phantom horse. The director achieves a couple of effective shots with very limited resources but he is fighting a losing battle. The ideas of the story do not simply fail to translate to screen, the very operation of translation actively undermines them.
Thus ‘The Horse of the Invisible’ is conspicuously lacking in the atmosphere of dread essential to good supernatural television. It might be argued that we cannot expect an adaptation from 1971 to truly achieve this anyway but some of the best Ghost Stories for Christmas date from the same period. The programme’s principle excuse is that in the context of the series the focus was on the detection methods of Carnacki rather than the paranormal phenomena per se and it this respect it does perhaps succeed. However, it is impossible not to feel that a more potent drama could’ve been manufactured had they but chosen the story more carefully and as a consequence, this stands merely as an interesting curio rather than a substantial addition to the canon.
Originally transmitted on 18th October 1971
Produced by Thames Television