I’ve been a huge fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes ever since I first encountered the character one school holiday when the BBC very kindly stripped the classic series of films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce during the weekday mornings. Since then I’ve sampled just about every incarnation of the character I could get my hands on, from Carleton Hobbs and Clive Merrison on radio to Peter Cushing, John Neville and Christopher Plummer on film and Tom Baker, Ian Richardson, Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett on television. These days of course I’m a devout follower of the exploits of Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Lee Miller in the role, regardless of how far these modern versions have strayed from the classic canon.
Up to now, one of the biggest gaps in my Sherlock coverage was Douglas Wilmer’s well-regarded portrayal in the role in a 1965 BBC series. Those episodes had not been released in the UK until now although a Region 1 NTSC DVD has been available for some time in the US. However last month the British Film Institute stepped into the breach and delivered a brand new DVD boxset of Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes which includes restorations of two partially-lost episodes. I had this on pre-order for some weeks before its planned release date and couldn’t wait to dive in and sample the first story, which is actually a pilot episode that originally aired as part of the BBC’s Detective anthology series the previous year.
As with all Wilmer’s outings the episode is an adaptation of a Conan Doyle original short story, in this case “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” in which Helen Stoner consults Holmes about the strange death of her beloved sister Julia two years ago on the eve of her wedding. Now Helen herself is engaged to be married and the strange signs and portents that preceded her sister’s death are occurring all over again. The main suspect is obvious – Helen’s odious and abusive stepfather Dr Grimesby Roylott, who even attempts to physically intimidate Holmes in his own sitting room – but it seems impossible he could have played any part in Julia’s death which occurred in a locked room with no way for any assailant to get in or out. Can Holmes work out the puzzle in time to save Helen, and determine the meaning of Julia’s dying words: “The speckled band”?
What immediately struck me all over again as I watched the BBC version of the story was just how primitive television production was back in 1964. It’s more like watching a stage play mounted in the local town hall, such is the primitive level of the sets and the restrictions on how the cameras are able to work. Other than Holmes’ sitting room – on which some time and care had clearly been taking in the expectation that it would be a standing set for a longer run, and which is therefore modelled closely on descriptions of 221B from Conan Doyle’s stories – there is really only one location, the Roylott country manor at Stoke Moran. Here we see one hallway and three bedrooms, each of which are spectacularly underfurnished studio sets with only the barest essential props required to tell the story. There’s also around five minutes of location shooting out in the countryside around Dorking, mainly involving trips in horse-drawn cabs.
The show follows the Conan Doyle tale reasonably faithfully, but apparently writers and directors in 1964 had no expectation that sixties audiences would be able to follow a non-linear story daring to make use of flashbacks, and so the plot is pulled apart and reconstituted in a determinedly chronological fashion. We start with the events two years ago leading to Julia’s death, then witness the latest strangeness, and only halfway through finally arrive in Holmes’ rooms. To modern eyes that makes for a rather plodding and obvious way to do things, and by contrast the 1984 version of the story made by ITV starring Jeremy Brett in the role of Sherlock Holmes that I went on to view the next day sticks faithfully to Conan Doyle’s far more ambitious 1892 approach, in which the events at Stoke Moran are recounted by Helen as she explains her predicament to Holmes and Watson. Where the 1964 production invents a rather embarrassing scene in which Holmes confronts a group of gypsies to no effect, the 1984 version sticks resolutely to events that are shown or referenced in the canonical text – even to the point of lifting large parts of dialogue from the original.
But what about Wilmer as Holmes? I’ll be honest, I was rather underwhelmed by my first taste of his portrayal. Maybe he gets more into it later in the proper run of stories, but in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” he comes across as rather patrician and condescending, his nose stuck high in the air like a pastiche of an upper class toff. Of course, you couldn’t have got away with the modern anti-hero eccentricities of Cumberbatch, Downey and Miller back then especially not on the BBC, but even so Wilmer’s portrayal verges on the bland and the establishment neither of which is something Holmes was ever meant to be. He plays the role with an air of smug self-satisfaction – which is actually a perfectly reasonable way of depict Holmes to possess a superior intellect and a complete grasp of what’s going on at all times, but does nothing for the character’s likeability or appeal. In making Holmes appear slightly bored with events, it also distances the audience from wanting to know the outcome of the story.
Compare that to Jeremy Brett’s portrayal in the same story 20 years later. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” was the sixth story in the first season of ITV’s prestige production when no expense was spared to make high quality adaptations of Conan Doyle’s stories, and Jeremy Brett was at the height of his powers long before ill-health and fatigue would affect his performance. It’s a delight to watch him work, his eyes gleaming at the first hint of criminal wrongdoing, his features almost reptillian as he sets himself to the hunt, and an inappropriate bark of laughter when something particularly gruesome or gothic is presented to him for consideration. There’s not a single moment when he isn’t finding something to do that will steal the scene and keep the audience’s eyes firmly on the star of the show; even the moments when Holmes has to be still are preceded by an ostentatious display of ‘relaxing’ which tells us that underneath his mind is still whirring at 100 miles per hour despite outward appearances.
Paired with this powerhouse performance the ITV series does all it can to raise the game for its Doctor Watson as well. David Burke works hard to add depth and raise the profile of the part, and is rewarded for his efforts by being given lines that in the story are ascribed to Holmes. As a result, the faithful sidekick gets to demonstrate that he’s not thick as as a brick by being the one to first articulate the solutions that Sherlock has reached but which he, too, has been able to follow. By comparison, the 1964 Watson is played by the respected character actor Nigel Stock, and while it happily steers well clear of the bumbling buffoon version of the character initiated by Nigel Bruce in the 1940s, it’s nonetheless a rather unremarkable portrait.
The ITV version is released from cramped and basic studio sets and allowed to roam free in an all-film shoot. The rooms at Stoke Moran are shot in authentic period interiors dressed in full Victorian regalia, all part of the sumptuous production whereby the network was trying to show at the time that it could do period drama every bit as well if not better than the BBC which had a world-wide reputation for such endeavours. Ironically, however, this did not always work in the best interest of the story: the ITV production suffers from flat interior lighting all-too prevalent in the 1980s, and the day-for-night exterior sequences are particularly ineffective. By contrast, while you couldn’t get away with calling them expressionistic, the basic studio sets of the BBC’s 1960s episode come closer to invoking a sense of claustrophobic dread thanks to gloomy lighting and some early theatrical thunderstorms.
The BBC staging also delivers a wonderfully grotesque villain with Felix Felton’s brutish turn as Roylott who is a blackhearted bully through-and-through, that one genuinely fears could kill without warning in an explosion of temper. In the ITV version we have the fine actor Jeremy Kemp, but he overthinks the part and delivers a Roylott who seems wracked with inner demons and deep fears of his own which takes away from his bad guy status and has a direct watering-down effect on the audience’s response to the outcome of the story.
Both versions somewhat flunk the staging of the climactic scene, although in fairness they do so because they’re both faithfully following Conan Doyle’s own presentation. A more ambitious all-action climax would in any case almost certainly have been beyond the technical capabilities of the BBC in 1960s, but that’s not the case with the ITV version – as it immediately demonstrates by promptly remounting the climax under the end credits with a much more effective outcome, culminating with a freeze frame that reproduces one of the original Sidney Paget illustrations that accompanied Conan Doyle’s short story in the pages of The Strand magazine.
Overall there’s no question that on a technical level the ITV version is streets ahead of the BBC one, but that’s only to be expected given the 20 years advancement in the television media in the interim. The complete DVD boxet of the ITV stories is also of excellent quality, the new restoration resulting in a nicely detailed and sharp picture with beautiful colour and not a speck of dirt in evidence.
Things are very different on the Wilmer boxset despite all the hard work that’s gone into it from the BFI. I’m always amazed by how poor the quality is of British TV from the 50s and 60s even when compared with silent films of the 1920s like Nosferatu, Doctor Mabuse – Der Spieler and The Phantom of the Opera, but that’s down to the BBC at the time using early video tape technology to record studio scenes rather than film stock, which was limited to location shooting only. There’s nothing to be done about it, and once you set your expectations accordingly there’s no real problem enjoying the end result despite its limitations.
Certainly the BFI is to be commended for the extras it has put together for the Wilmer set: alternative titles and a Spanish soundtrack oddity, reconstructions of incomplete episodes, a 2012 interview with Wilmer and five audio commentaries on the episodes, together with one of the BFI’s trademark informative booklets. Unfortunately the Brett collection lacks any extras at all.
As for who makes the best Holmes: on the side-by-side comparison of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” there is simply no contest. It’s been a while since I’ve watched Brett at work and this has reopened my eyes as to just how spectacularly good he was on those first, early outings in the role when he was at the height of his powers and before the part started to run away with him. It’s no wonder he became the Holmes of a generation, and even now three decades later it’s hard not to cite him as perhaps the best and most faithful Holmes of them all.
But equally it would be rash for me to dismiss Wilmer based on one outing, and a backdoor pilot episode in a separate anthology series at that. There needs to be further investigation, more evidence to be gathered and analysed before a proper conclusion is formed. Fortunately there are 12 more episodes awaiting me which I’m looking forward to getting to grips with, and if they make a material difference to my feelings toward Wilmer’s Holmes then I’ll report back with an update.
The game, as the saying goes, is afoot.
Update: I promised to return to this review when I’d watched some more of the two Sherlock Holmes adaptations in question, so here goes with a quick write-up of “The Illustrious Client”, which was the first episode of Douglas Wilmer’s 12-part series to air on the BBC in 1965.
Now a prestige full-season project rather than a one off play in an anthology, it immediately benefits from higher qualify production values with an increased number of sets all of them more lavishly decorated than any we saw in “The Speckled Band”, together with notably better technical facilities thanks to the move to the then-brand new Television Centre, although the show pays for this with only one brief bit of exterior filming at Ealing. Wilmer’s portrayal still has its problems – still too smug and patrician, and a tendency to pose with his chin elevated as if waiting for Sidney Paget to capture his likeness – but it’s getting more developed. Stock meanwhile is stuck with a Watson that isn’t being played for laughs but is nonetheless painfully slow, stiff and generally not terribly useful.
Above all, “The Illustrious Client” is an odd choice of story with which to launch the series. One of Conan Doyle’s last Holmes tales, it’s far from his best: Holmes has no deduction to do as he is called upon to persuade a misguided young woman from marrying Baron Grüner, a man Holmes knows to have killed his first wife in Austria. Along the way, Holmes gets ambushed, beaten to a pulp, and then caught red-handed breaking-and-entering – it’s far from the detective’s finest hour. The 1965 adaptation follows the published story very closely and at times almost word-for-word, but the principal attraction is a gloriously ripe performance by Peter Wyngarde as a truly vile Grüner – so much so that it’s actually impossible to see what Violet (played by Dr Who and the Daleks star Jennie Linden) could possibly see in him, requiring the introduction of a hint of post-hypnotic suggestion to make the situation even remotely credible while simultaneously semi-absolving Violet of being deserving of her impending ruin. Over the top while it may be, Wyngarde’s performance is unquestionably the most enjoyable thing in the show and his single confrontation with Wilmer’s Holmes fair crackles.
Once again, I viewed the Jeremy Brett version as a direct comparison. It was a much later instalment for Brett, not made until 1991 some seven years after his go at “The Speckled Band” and at a time when the show was starting to lose its way and the star’s health beginning to fail. Against my expectations, however, neither of these problems crop up in “The Illustrious Client” which may possibly represent the show’s zenith with drop-dead gorgeous production throughout, a reigned-in and unusually intense central performance from Brett and some nice touches to make Watson (now played by Edward Hardwicke) both fully rounded and genuinely useful while being no one’s fool. It’s also just as faithful to the original story as the Wilmer version: where the 1965 show adds some entirely superfluous music hall scenes to pad the story out to 50 minutes, the 1991 version adds a little teaser dramatising something mentioned in passing in the story and then a full blown chase-and-fight scene through some beautifully realised Victorian-era London backstreets. Anthony Valentine plays Grüner this time and does so with genuine charm, but the actor is also able to inject sufficient dark currents into his performance to always convince us he’s a very bad man while at the same time remaining a convincing lover for Violet (Abigail Cruttenden). However in this version it’s Kim Thomson as fallen woman Kitty Winter who steals the show, and the intelligent script adds an extra dimension to her hatred of Grüner and adds motivation for her to do what she does at the gruesome climax – which the script works hard to absolve Brett’s Holmes of any responsibility for, unlike the Wilmer version were he really does appear fully culpable if not even complicit.
Find out more about the background of Douglas Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes from Cathode Ray Tube’s inimitably detailed and insightful article about the DVD release.
The four-disc DVD boxset of Douglas Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes is available from the BFI, and Jeremy Brett’s complete series of adventures have been restored and released as a boxet from Granada.