B&W, 1964-65, 650m.
Starring Douglas Wilmer, Nigel Stock
BFI (DVD) (UK R0 PAL), BBC (US R1 NTSC)
B&W, 1964-65, 650m.
One of the most enduring and frequently depicting fictional characters in the history of both film and television is Sherlock Holmes, the English sleuth created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His screen exploits date back to the silent era, and each generation tends to have its favorite with oft-cited candidates including Basil Rathbone (in a string of popular but often highly revisionist films from the late '30s through the 1940s), Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett (in a long-running popular TV series), and a modern-day incarnation played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Standing tall among them and often cited as one of the best is Douglas Wilmer, who played Holmes in a short-lived but memorable series for the BBC mounted with the sometimes problematic collaboration of the Conan Doyle estate. As was customary at the time, some of the episodes haven't been preserved in their entirety due to BBC tape preservation practices at the time, but fortunately what we have is more than enough evidence to make the show an essential one for Holmes buffs.
Originally produced as an episode of the series Detective, "The Speckled Band" kicks off disc one and is a fine, spooky adaptation of one of the creepiest tales in the canon as a young woman's dying words about the title object are the clue to unraveling a locked room mystery on a dark and stormy night. Wilmer and Stock have fairly limited screen time in the first half, but once they get down to business it's great fun with a lively rendition of the famous finale, which won't be spoiled here. This is the roughest-looking of the bunch since it was output with fewer lines of video resolution to preserve on film than its successors, but it looks quite watchable all the same here, about on par with what you'd expect from early episodes of, say, Dark Shadows. Next up is "The Illustrious Client," helmed by future Hammer veteran Peter Sasdy (Countess Dracula) with Holmes and Watson accepting a nameless client's request to untangle the twisted relationship between Violet (Women in Love's Jennie Linden), a young woman of some social standing, and the nefarious Baron Gruner (Burn, Witch, Burn's Peter Wyngarde), who may have murdered his first wife and has a jilted mistress (Rosemary Leach) with an axe to grind. No one can play a debauched cad better than Wyngarde, and he's in fine form here matching wits with the famed detective. Then it's off to Cornwall for "The Devil's Foot," a return to semi-horror territory as a man named Mortimer Tregennis (Patrick Troughton) enlists Holmes's aid when his brothers apparently gone mad at some nocturnal event that also left his sister dead at the scene. What did they all see at the window, and how could it lead to murder? Also on this disc are an alternate Spanish audio version of "The Speckled Band" (with optional English subtitles, which are included for all other episodes as well) and alternate opening titles for "Client" (crediting Wyngarde more prominently for international sales). Best of all, you get a pair of audio commentaries moderated by Toby Hadoke (who performs duties on the rest of the discs) joined by Sasdy for "The Illustrious Client" and Wilmer for "The Devil's Foot," covering topics like the last-minute rewrites done on episodes that veered too far off from the source material, the BBC's production methods at the time, and the tricks of getting into character of Holmes after so many notable previous incarnations.
Disc two commences with one of the most famous of the Holmes short stories, "The Copper Beeches," in which a young woman (Suzanne Neve) consults Holmes about a peculiar job position she's been offered as a governess at the home of Jephro Rucastle (a scene-stealing Patrick Wymark), where she's asked to wear a blue dress and sit with her back to the window night after night while something sinister goes on outside. A ravenous dog and a strange wig also figure in the puzzle, which resolves on an ironic and satisfying note. Then there's "The Red-Headed League," another favorite, in which a newspaper want ad for red-headed male employees sets off a mystery in which a recruited Watson is baffled by some inexplicable events hiding a dastardly criminal plot. This one also has a fine commentary with two of the actors, David Andrews and Trevor Martin (who play Vincent and Duncan in the episode), who go into the details of the performing style of the time and the advantages of using experienced theater actors for television. The second disc rounds out with a partial reconstruction of "The Abbey Grange," of which only the second half still survives; the tale of a home invasion turns out to be the cover up for a far more intricate murder plot, it's filled out here with a nice touch: newly-shot black and white video of Wilmer reading the original story up to the point the footage from the episode itself resumes (around the 20-minute mark). There's also an audio commentary for the last 20 minutes with director Peter Cregeen, a BBC veteran who shares some of his experiences working for them at the time and mounting this particular adaptation.
On disc three is another all-time classic, "The Six Napoleons," with Inspector Lestrade finally entering the fray in the form of Peter Madden. Holmes's frequent Scotland Yard collaborator has a unique mystery to solve involving a young man running around smashing busts of Napoleon, which leads to a murder and the involvement of the Mafia. There's more humor here than usual, and it's a solid rendition of the action-packed original story. In "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson is called in to solve a friend's marital problems by infiltrating an opium den where he finds Holmes in disguise, just the first of many peculiar developments involving a missing businessman and the titular character, a beggar who seems to be closely tied to the disappearance. In "The Beryl Coronet," the title object, a valuable crown, is left behind as collateral for a banker (Leonard Sachs) but damaged by his son, whose motives are not quite what they appear to be. The mystery is fairly low stakes in this case, but the finale is atmospheric with Wilmer offering one of his best performances in the series. Another partial reconstruction can be found for "The Bruce-Partington Plans," with Derek Francis (from To the Devil a Daughter, Tomb of Ligeia and several Carry On films) climbing aboard as Mycroft Holmes, who's searching for missing submarine plans tied to the discovery of a dead body along the Underground tracks. In this case, the first 40 minutes have survived, with the remainder existing as an audio recording with photos and script excerpts handling the visual component.
Finally on disc four you get "Charles Augustus Milverton," which expands one of the slimmest Holmes tales about London's most prolific blackmailer, whose habit of extorting obscene amounts for scandalous letters spurs Holmes to go undercover as a plumber. There actually isn't much deduction to be found here, but the ironic turn of events is unusual for a Holmes story and is pulled off here successfully. Wilmer also returns for another solid commentary covering the series' waning days and the difficulties of keeping the series going without US broadcast support, a situation created by the decision to output the film on video rather than film and make it essentially impossible to export outside of Europe. Interestingly, "The Retired Colourman" remains the only adaptation of this particular story with Holmes sending Watson off to track down a missing wife and her neighbor, who have apparently pilfered a huge stash of money. Soon a number of clues accumulate that don't add up, leading both the detective and his companion to unravel a murderous scheme that may be afoot. It's actually a solid little story, which makes one wonder why the '80s series at least didn't take a stab at it later. Finally we have "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," in which a very young Joss Ackland (The Apple, A Zed and Two Noughts) appears for the unusual story of Watson trotting off from Switzerland to Germany when a prominent lady of means disappears without a trace. He retraces her steps and stumbles on some sinister elements like a bearded brute also hunting her down and, once again, Holmes in disguise where he's least expected. The macabre solution is a fairly surprising one, making this a fine way to close out the superior series.
The fully surviving eleven episodes of Sherlock Holmes were originally released on DVD in the U.S. directly from the BBC in 2010, featuring no extras and zero attempt at restoring or reconstructing any of the damaged or missing material. The BFI set is a vastly superior in every respect, with far better video presentations including a massive amount of damage clean up removing the huge black spots and specks that made the U.S. release a chore to sit through. Then there are the extras, which are generous and make the package far more enjoyable with the addition of the missing episode reconstructions serving as the main attractions. There's also a great liner notes booklet including an essay about Conan Doyle and Holmes by Nicholas Utechin, a fun Wilmer bio written by Elaine McCafferty, a written appreciation of Wilmer's depiction of Holmes by Jonathan McCafferty, and an extensive episode guide and restoration notes.
Reviewed on April 6, 2015.