Jeremy Brett was the quintessential Sherlock Holmes, David Burke and Rosalie Williams were absolutely perfect as Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson in this first of six Grenada TV collections of the original tales. From the opening credits, an amazing slice of Victorian street life, to the final explanation of how the solution was there for all to see, care has been taken to remain faithful to Conan Doyle’s original work while at the same time sheathing it in a more modern episodic context, with sequential beginnings displaying the crimes and flashbacks while his clients tell their tales of woe. Production values abound, from the costumes, to the period music, to all the incredible touches showing us what life was like before Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, and Bill Gates.
Edgar Allan Poe is credited with “inventing” the modern detective story. It was he who firmly revived the now familiar trope of an everyman narrator relating the exploits of his reclusive genius companion (Plato and Aristotle, Boswell and Johnson come to mind as precursors.) Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” published in 1843, was the blueprint for these, followed by his three tales involving the French private detective C. Auguste Dupin who rarely leaves his home. This mold has been seen again and again, most notably in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot & Arthur Hastings, and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin. But the most famous sleuthing duo of all remains and is likely to remain Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson.
Conan Doyle freely acknowledged he owed a literary debt to Poe, even going so far as to make reference to C. August Dupin in his first Holmes tale, the novelette “A Study in Scarlet,” published in 1886. "It is simple enough as you explain it," I said, smiling. "You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories." Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. "No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine." “A Study in Scarlet,” although well received, was a bit clunky, had the Mormon Church as its villain, and was one of nineteen tales passed over (for whatever reason) in the making of the series which ran from 1984 through 1994 in the UK.
The characters, created over 125 years ago, still fascinate, still resonate with a modern audience. Even Doyle’s own son could not resist penning tales using his father’s most famous character, writing no less than twelve more Sherlock Holmes stories with publisher John Dickenson Carr. (Stories rarely if ever adapted to the medium of film.) Later authors kept up the tradition, adding ever more and more ridiculous iterations in an attempt to connect with a more modern audience, along the way diluting the characters, focusing overmuch on Holmes’ drug use, often adding historical characters like Sigmund Freud or Jack the Ripper to their heavy handed imaginings.
Sadly, we live in a time in which cleverness is prized over creativity, and literary respect is nonexistent. A generation has been introduced to Conan Doyle’s characters through a series of garish imitations, most recently the absurdist Guy Ritchie films, the barely watchable British TV series “Sherlock,” in which the characters have been dragged into the 21st century, and the likewise too clever American TV series in which Watson has been portrayed as a woman! Holmes, in these later iterations, was reduced to a concept, often based on textbook descriptions of mental abnormalities or just regurgitated into a two dimensional cartoon. The window onto Victorian-Edwardian times has been slammed shut, the notion of an era (before Freud and Jung) when the use of deductive logic over associative logic was a novel idea is parodied, and the basic charm of the characters is reduced to soap operatic drivel or camp.
Inspector Lestrade, one of many Scotland Yard detectives to appear in the Holmes canon—he is in exactly seven of the stories—is a must in these imitations. Likewise Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft Holmes, who appears in exactly three of the tales, is indispensable to modern plagiarists. And Moriarty—present in but two of the original tales, two of the least impressive—is a must for every Doyle wannabe. Irene Adler, an opera singer who seeks refuge from the persecution of the King of Bohemia in order to marry her lawyer appears but once in the canon, in the first short fiction, but has appeared in so many guises as to be barely recognizable as reworked by Doyle’s endless imitators. The Baker Street Irregulars appeared only in first two stories, both novelettes but are also a must for all imitators. The deerstalker hat, never mentioned in the text, and only occasionally drawn in Sidney Paget’s Strand illustrations has become the ultimate symbol for the character who more often than not wore the more fashionable top hat. The deerstalker was meant to be worn in rural areas, is a hunting cap in any event, and anyone seen wearing one in London during Victorian times would most likely be mocked. Fortunately this DVD collection rarely gives in to this insipid trend of rendering everything camp, most notably by adding Moriarty to “The Red Headed League” as a preview of sorts for their next episode, the last in this series.
The original Holmes tales are grouped into four short novels and fifty-six short stories which originally appeared in magazines (most in The Strand) and were later reprinted in five book collections as well as the stand alone novels. The first of the short fiction collections, published in 1892, was called “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” hence the title of this DVD collection. But only five of the thirteen episodes featured are from the first Doyle collection, the other seven coming from later books in the canon. Plot similarities (evil stepfather tormenting brave young woman for inheritance) between “The Speckled Band” and “The Copper Beeches” are unfortunate, and the inclusion of “The Final Problem,” (from the second book collection titled “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes”) was ill considered as it is perhaps the worst of the Holmes tales (it was an overt attempt by Doyle to kill off his most popular character in order to write Professor Challenger novels) as it is equal parts exposition and drama and not any sort of real mystery save for a flimsy back story concerning the theft of the Mona Lisa. But it is one of the two stories to originally feature the evil professor (the other being the novelette, “The Valley of Fear,” which was never included in the TV series,) Holmes’ supposed arch nemesis, a concept which has so fascinated modern copycats.
Moriarty, like Holmes, was actually based upon a living person. Moriarty, “the Napoleon of Crime,” was modeled after career criminal Adam Worth, while Holmes, according to Doyle, was fashioned after Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Doyle once worked. He captured his mentor’s personality to such a degree that people who knew Bell often remarked upon the similarity.
This series was developed with loving care by John Hawksworth who also shared scriptwriting duties with a group of equally talented writers. Some of the few faults (an excess of mood making over plot in the few short stories presented as feature film length episodes, and the combining of two stories into one film script) from later in this series are thankfully missing from this first collection, which is a must for any Sherlock Holmes aficionado.
Brett died at age 61 in 1995 the year after he completed the final tale for Grenada, “The Cardboard Box.” He said of this role, “Some actors fear if they play Sherlock Holmes for a very long run the character will steal their soul, leave no corner for the original inhabitant…Holmes has become the dark side of the moon for me. He is moody and solitary and underneath I am really sociable and gregarious. It has all got too dangerous.” On the other had Burke sadly abandoned the role of Dr. Watson for the Royal Shakespeare Company after these thirteen stories were filmed, leaving it to Edward Hardwicke. Brett went on to complete all 41 episodes and will always remain the Sherlock Holmes to anyone familiar with the original stories.
Basil Rathbone eat your heart out; Robert Downey Jr. eat your heart out; Benedict Cumberbatch please do eat you heart out.
Available on DVD from Amazon.com and your local library.
© Paul L. Bates 2012