TV EYE: HolmesWatch (part 1)

Sometimes I think that it’s the same as with Doctor Who – that the first Sherlock Holmes you see is the one that sticks with you. Then, of course, I remember that the first Sherlock Holmes adaptation I ever saw was The Hound of the Baskervilles with Tom Baker as the Great Detective, and while I love Mad Uncle Tom to bits, he really wasn’t a Sherlock there (weirdly enough, he was far more Holmesian in Who story The Talons of Weng Chiang). No, when it comes to screen versions of Holmes, it’s the Granada TV adaptations, and Jeremy Brett or nothing. He’s lodged in my brain as Holmes, and- particularly in his first few series – perfectly captures the mix of brilliance and antisocial nuttiness of the character, riding the line between outrageous and controlled with severe aplomb. As a result of this, I couldn’t resist picking up, as part of my recent exchange-voucher-empowered DVD acquisitions, a 9-Disc set of the ‘Adventures’ and ‘Return’ series of the Granada adaptations – I’m not so worried about the later ones, as once they’d burned through all the classic stories, they did their best with some of the lesser Conan Doyle examples, but it was never quite the same. So, I’ve got them, and I’ve started working my way through the set, and I thought it’d be fun to record my reactions. We start today with a six part catch-up section, including one repeat caught on ITV3. For anyone who hasn’t read the stories, fear the spoilers…


A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA

Of course, the problem with many Holmes stories is that they’re often hard to adapt – the art of deduction can make a great short story, but doesn’t guarantee a great hour of television, one reason why the heavily flashback-based Holmes origin story ‘A Study in Scarlet’ has been very rarely transferred onto the screen. Here, they go for the first genuine Holmes short story, and it’s the classic encounter with Irene Adler. Confession time – while it’s classy and features some nicely played moments (as well as some truly nutty disguise work from Jeremy Brett), I also fell asleep for at least twenty minutes. The pacing of these Granada versions isn’t exactly whip-crack fast, so I am going to have to go back and rewatch this. What it does do, however, is set up some great visuals, and Brett is already rocketing into the upper atmosphere with his performance on only his first appearence.

THE DANCING MEN

An atmospheric episode that’s also surprisingly downbeat, there’s some good stuff in here – although I remember loving the story for the code-breaking aspects of the story (the mysterious ‘Dancing Men’ drawings being a form of coded message), and what comes across as an amazing discovery in the story is rather glossed over here. It was also around here that I started remembering how OTT David Burke as Watson can sometimes be – he has some great moments, but he does overdo the bluster and the “Good lord, Holmes!”, and I do think Edward Hardwicke does a better job after Watson’s post-Final Problem regeneration…

THE NAVAL TREATY

…in which the important lesson is never to trust Gareth “Blake from BLAKE’S 7” Thomas – he’ll always be up to no good. An enjoyable mystery revolving around a missing Naval Treaty – there are some choice lines, some great sarky eactions from Jeremy Brett, and some truly barmy direction (Wide Angle lenses and slow-mo suddenly start turning up, and things get very trippy). No murder, but enough intrigue to keep things ticking over, and some great ‘anguished’ acting on display. 1984 really was another era for TV, and while these adaptations are very classy for their time, there are certain areas where they haven’t always worn well.

THE SOLITARY CYCLIST

And talking of not wearing well, this episode was the first one I sat down and watched with Anna and, true to form, it’s decidedly creaky. The mystery itself is fun, and it all leads up to a hilariously overblown shotgun wedding (complete with a pistol-packing Reverend), but the actual direction of this episode is pretty dire – very stagey, very flat, and there’s a sequence with Jeremy Brett demonstrating Holmes’ ‘different’ boxing strategy that really has to be seen to be believed. Added to this, there’s some hilarious facial hair on display – the wigwork and hair in these episodes is often far from spectacular, but here we get a South African bad guy who seems to have recently killed a gerbil and celebrated by attaching it to his head (and attaching a smaller one just underneath his nose). There are points where it’s difficult to know where to look…

THE CREEPING MAN

…as is also the case here, in an episode we caught on ITV3 that’s the last episode from the 5th series, and which shows clearly that there were some points where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went totally barking mad with his tales. There’s some great build-up, as well as the sight of a youthful Adrian Lukis (who ended up playing Wickham in the 1995 Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice), and the mystery builds up with lots of hints of vivisection and plenty of menace, as well as a genuinely startling shot where a misshappen shadow is glimpsed for a moment. Of course, it’s all leading to the big reveal… which turns out to be that sinister animal expert Charles Kay (who played Pendleton in classic drama Edge of Darkness) is injecting himself with monkey glands, with the unfortunate side-effect that it’s causing him to leap around in the trees and go full-on Greystoke in an ape style-ee. There’s even a woman in danger of being ravished by the gland-crazed monkey bounder, before the pet Irish wolfhound comes to the rescue by mauling the randy simian-inclined bounder to death. It is, frankly, rather unintentionally hilarious, and Brett is somewhat restrained here, as well as signifcantly heavier in weight (he had a nervous breakdown in the late eighties, partly as a result of the pressures of playing Holmes, and this series was his return to the role after three years away). All in all, it’s not really encouraging me to seek out the post 1988 episodes, and there’s a definite ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ feeling here.

THE CROOKED MAN

Not to be confused with the episode above, this is a great story and brilliantly played, but one that does fall into the problem of essentially being a tale where Holmes and Watson spend the entire hour of story collecting bits of backstory. It’s also not helped by an early flashback that gives the game away by essentially putting up a neon sign saying “Her husband had a rival for her love when they were in India! Do you think this might be important?!?” It also occurred to me halfway through that Conan Doyle might (possibly) have been influenced by The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling, as there’s certain similarities between both stories. I may be imagining things, of course…

THE SPECKLED BAND

One of the signature Holmes stories, and they really go to town here with bags of atmosphere, and a truly barking performance from Jeremy Kemp as the main villain with a hairstyle that redefines bouffant gothic. I’ve got a peculiar memory of a Blue Peter recreation of bits of this story with Sarah Greene playing the main female role – one of those odd memories that creeps up on you when you’re not looking – but while it does occasionally struggle to stretch the story out to an hour, this is great stuff and there’s a genuine sense of tension and dread in the lead up to the big reveal. And as with the best Holmes stories, all the clues are there for the audience to see, it only remains for the main character to slot them all together. There’s also another in the series of weird end credit sequences, with a trippy replay of Homes’ encounter with the snake that’s all very sinister, and apparently there mainly to give Jeremy Brett the chance to get some serious stick action going.

More soon…

One thought on “TV EYE: HolmesWatch (part 1)

  1. I actually first saw Basil Rathbone as Holmes, then the tom Baker you mention, but Brett is still the definitive performance for me. I love these Granada Holmes adaptations, although I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them all. I keep catching them out of sequence on TV, so I’ve completely lost track. I agree wholeheartedly that the first couple of series are best, and the final few TV movies are very thin indeed, but Brett is so good there are few episodes that don’t give some pleasure.
    Strangely I find I can’t picture both David Burke and Edward Hardwick at the same time; I can only remember what one of them looked like as Watson at any given moment. 🙂

    Like

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