TV EYE: HolmesWatch, Part 2

After much delays, it’s time to recommence my rambling thoughts on the Jeremy Brett-starring adaptations of various Sherlock Holmes adventures. Part one is here, and for part two, read on – and, understandably, anyone who hasn’t read the stories should fear the spoilers…

THE BLUE CARBUNCLE

An official Holmes Christmas episode, and as warm and entertaining a Christmas tale as you’d want. While the opening sequence features a rather oddly shot sequence of various people being killed for the titular jewel, it’s actually an entertaining chain of circumstance, as a drunken man loosing a goose puts Holmes on the trail of a missing jewel, and the thief who mislaid it. In this case, the thief is the late great Ken Campbell, who puts in a great turn as the weasly manservant with ideas above his station, while the whole episode is packed full of energy and life, and considering it’s the final episode of the 1st season, it’s about as far from the sparsely directed ‘The Solitary Cyclist’ episode as it’s possible to get. Brett is as enjoyable as ever, and even David Burke gets into the swing of things here, and it’s the kind of episode that fits perfectly into the seasonal mood, even if it’s never explained exactly how the unfortunate ex-con who nearly gets collared for the Blue Carbuncle theft actually gets acquitted.

THE COPPER BEECHES

One of the most entertaining things about these episodes is seeing what well-known actors turn up, either before after or during their more well-known times, and while this episode does feature a terribly young looking Natasha Richardson as the typical young lady in peril, it’s stolen hook line and sinker by Joss Ackland at his sleaziest and most deliciously barmy. It’s Conan Doyle at his most deliberately gothic, with mysterious towers, imprisoned daughters, confusions, deceptions, and a general atmosphere of decadent menace. The whole atmosphere builds up brilliantly throughout the episode, and while the mystery itself isn’t exactly tremendously complicated, the journey to the explanation is hugely entertaining, and certainly helped by Ackland being as barking mad as possible, and milking lines like “Would you mind very much if you had to…. cut your hair?” for all the sleazy weirdness that they’re worth.

THE GREEK INTERPRETER

And then, you get the episodes where one particular aspect becomes very difficult to ignore, an aspect that certainly wasn’t any kind of a problem at the original transmission – i.e., the fact that the main supporting actor in this episode, playing the titular Interpreter who gets dragged into a menacing case of abduction and torture, bears a quite worrying resemblance to Anchorman and Elf star Will Ferrell. The fact that he’s wearing a fantastically waxed moustache simply makes it worse, and I kept expecting him to exclaim “By Odin’s Beard!!” at various points during the episode, which turns out to be one of the edgier of Conan Doyle’s tales, with a nice line in brutality, and a climax which seems to get a little confused as to whether the main female character is, or isn’t, sympathetic. There is, at the least, a great 39 Steps-style train sequence at the end, and more fearsome glowering from Brett than seems healthy.

THE NORWOOD BUILDER

One of the slightly less memorable episodes – an effective mystery, but one which (I have to admit) I ended up falling asleep during. It is, however, a tale of revenge that’s very well structured, but, out of all the second season, it’s the one that’s refused to stay in my mind. I now feel thoroughly ashamed, and shall chastise myself thoroughly…

THE RESIDENT PATIENT

Again, we get the interesting question of how to fill out a relatively thin story to an hour, and one of the devices used here is a brilliantly unnerving dream sequence in the opening that cranks up the macabre levels. It’s an effective mystery, even if Conan Doyle did use the “Past catching up with morally flawed man” more than once, and it’s executed in an energetic way, especially with a particularly graphic hanging sequence that’s one of the reasons the DVD set earns its 15 certificate. Unfortunately, we also have to put up with a terribly stagey and unconvincing performance from Nicholas Clay, an actor who’s probably best known for playing Lancelot in John Boorman’s Excalibur, and after some of the sympathetic and interesting clients in the last few episodes, it’s a bit of a wrench to end up with such a thunking dullard. At the least, the episode is one of the stronger of the series, even if it’s yet another case of a pretty damn downbeat ending.

THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE

One of Conan Doyle’s most entertainingly offbeat and byzantine set-ups, this might have been a little lightweight if it hadn’t been for the fact that the adaptors play fast and loose, and use this episode as a setup for the oncoming adaptation of The Final Problem, introducing Forsythe Saga star Eric Porter as the sepulchural face of Professor Moriaty. Despite playing fast and loose with the original story, it’s a highly entertaining setup which also features a barely-changed Richard Wilson as the head of the mysterious league, and a fetching combination of humour, weirdness, mystery and sinister shennanigans. There’s Tim McInnery doing another one of his sinister toffs (his standard setting, apparently as a counterpoint to his role in Blackadder), and a great showdown in a bank vault, before leaving everything open for the final episode of the season.

THE FINAL PROBLEM

Naturally, all the stops get pulled out here – but bizarrely enough, despite the extra room for the setup, they don’t quite manage to get across the true nature of Moriaty’s organisation as well as in the original story. Where in Conan Doyle’s tale it’s a concerted effort by Holmes and the police over several months that brings Moriaty’s crime empire to the brink of collapse, here he happens to disrupt Moriaty’s plans in Paris (where he’s obviously been watching old Who story City of Death, and copying the Fake Mona Lisas gambit) and it’s this that completely pisses the Professor off, and the threat from the police almost seems incidental. While there are problems with the execution in the first third, once the story kicks into gear, it’s a truly ripping tale, and sensibly takes the chance for some Alpine photography, going to the Reichenbach Falls themselves for the final confrontation. There are some genuinely iconic moments here, and while I may have had my issues with David Burke’s Watson, he’s simply brilliant in this episode, carrying the weight of the drama, and the sense that Watson has (as far as he knows) lost his best friend. The final confrontation is a little OTT, it has to be said – while they should be applauded for getting the actual actors to struggle together near the Falls themselves, it very much looks like two actors grimacing at each other who are very much doing their best to not fall to their deaths. The tumble into the falls is excellently done (with stuntmen on a wire), although it’s hard not to wish they hadn’t also included the shot of two very obvious dummies slamming to the bottom of the falls. Nevertheless, it’s a great episode, and marks the end of one Watson, and the beginning of another…

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More soon. Promise…

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