Director: Peter Sasdy, Peter Cregeen, Max Vernel
Screenplay: Giles Cooper, Vincent Tisley
Based on the stories by: Arthur Conan Doyle
Producers: William Sterling, David Goddard
Starring: Douglas Wilmer, Nigel Stock
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 12 x 50 mins
Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes is one of the most adapted characters in the history of literature. There are numerous famous versions of Doyle’s stories with famous faces in the title role; Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch. However, frequently adaptations of Holmes stories stray significantly from the original narrative or else seek to put a new or modern twist on the original tales. I’m not against this and, on the contrary, frequently find myself defending the art of adaptation as something that should be a creative process rather than just a direct translation from one medium to another. However, in the case of the Holmes stories there is such an army of admiring fans longing to see faithful recreations of the stories they love that it is surprising how few straight translations of the material there are out there. Having read and adored the 56 short stories and four novels that make up the Sherlock Holmes canon, I myself have sometimes been horrified by just how much a few liberties with the carefully constructed narratives can prove detrimental to the story, such as Graham Cutts’ chaotic travesty of an attempt at The Sign of Four, with Arthur Wotner as the great detective.
With failed adaptations like this fresh (or should I say rotten?) in my mind, it was with cautious optimism that I set about watching the purportedly faithful 1965 BBC series Sherlock Holmes, starring the comparatively little-known Douglas Wilmer in the title role and Nigel Stock (forever known to movie fans as Cavendish from The Great Escape) as Watson. On the one hand, I had read much (not least in the excellent accompanying booklet that comes with the newly released DVD set) about Wilmer’s own dedication to the original material, and how he and Stock had often affected their own rewrites when scripts didn’t come up to scratch or took too many liberties, so the promise of some faithfully adapted versions of Conan Doyle’s work raised my expectations. On the other hand, I’d seen enough from the BBC archives to know that production values in the mid-60s were not exactly great and it was a concern that they might not be quite up to capturing the atmosphere that is so crucial to so many of the original stories.
My concerns about BBC production values were heightened while watching the pilot episode, ‘The Speckled Band’. One of the most famous Holmes stories of all and selected by Conan Doyle himself as his own favourite, ‘The Speckled Band’ might seem like the natural starting point for the series. However, it is also a shame to throw away such a brilliant piece of storytelling on an uncertain first step and, sadly, the adaptation is faithful but ineffective. In a series where most of the acting in the secondary roles is fairly stagey, in this pilot episode it is positively woeful and the direction by Robin Midgley is little better. Early on in the episode, a lady leans over in bed to blow out a candle. She blows, the room goes dark around her but the candle is still lit and it takes her two more blows before she extinguishes the flame. While budgetary concerns were surely a factor here (look at all the old BBC sitcoms where fluffed lines are kept in the aired episodes), leaving in such an embarrassing mistake so early in the episode immediately puts one in mind of the work of Edward D. Wood Jr. Fortunately, when they finally arrive some 15 minutes into the episode, Holmes and Watson are nicely portrayed by Wilmer and Stock and their continued presence from hereon in, coupled with the strength of the story itself, go some way to making up for the numerous shortcomings. Wilmer, in particular, is excellent as Holmes, a role he seems to have been sculpted to play. He arrives fully formed and maintains his dead-on portrayal of Holmes throughout the series, flaws and all. Stock is a fine Watson, somewhat more exaggerated than Wilmer but likable, believable and not too buffoonish, as so many adapters have mistakenly made their own Watsons.
The improvements are noticeable immediately in the second episode which launched the series properly, ‘The Illustrious Client’. Though the acting is still stagey, it feels agreeably rather than self-consciously so and the story moves forward smoothly rather than like a stumbling, filmed play. The result is a good deal more satisfactory, which is odd given that ‘The Illustrious Client’ is by far one of the weakest Holmes stories, with little actual detection or ingenuity involved. Why it was chosen as the opening episode is a mystery but the fact that it makes an entertaining stab at a forgettable tale is promising. Episode 3, ‘The Devil’s Foot’, unfortunately tries to run before it can walk, transporting Holmes and Watson from Baker Street to Cornwall and disorienting the viewer before they have settled into Holmes’s world. ‘The Devil’s Foot’ is one of the very best Holmes short stories but, unfortunately, its elements of the horrific and fantastic make it practically impossible to adapt without turning it into a risible artefact. This adaptation illustrates the point, as the details become more dramatic and the action on screen becomes more hilarious. An unbelievably hammy Patrick Troughton of Doctor Who fame does nothing to help matters.
Fortunately, after this valiant but over-ambitious misfire, the series settles down into fairly consistent quality with ‘The Copper Beeches’, another of the best Holmes stories but this time very nicely adapted. ‘The Red-Headed League’ keeps up the quality, although this is arguably the last of the really famous Holmes tales adapted for the series, with the rest of the episodes focusing on lesser known and little-adapted works such as ‘The Beryl Coronet’ and ‘The Retired Colourman’. It’s something of a treat for a fan of the original stories like myself to see so many of the lesser known works represented, with ‘Charles Augustus Milverton’ being a particular highlight (another story which features little in the way of real detection but plenty in the way of suspense). The DVD set also offers a treat for fans of the series in the shape of two reconstructed episodes. Both ‘The Abbey Grange’ and ‘The Bruce Partington Plans’ have large sections missing but these have been restored through a special reading of the first half of the original text by Douglas Wilmer himself (looking in rude health for a man in his 90s) for the former and the original audio track overlaid on images of the shoot and pages from the script for the latter. Although this may not make for particularly rewatchable experiences, it will please completists to have all that is available of the series.
Douglas Wilmer stated that Sherlock Holmes was a series that suffered throughout production from underwritten scripts, untried directors and tight schedules. When Wilmer was offered the chance to appear in a second series, he turned it down because rehearsal times were due to be cut significantly and Wilmer foresaw the continued drop in quality that was inevitable. Nigel Stock stayed on as Watson for the subsequent series, in which Wilmer was replaced by Peter Cushing, who would himself bemoan the lack of quality in the end result. It is the Wilmer series, and Wilmer’s take on Holmes, that has remained more dear to the hearts of Conan Doyle’s fans and while the episodes on this DVD set are deeply flawed, they do represent a partially successful, good-natured attempt to recreate the magic of the original stories on screen.
Sherlock Holmes is released on 30th March 2015 as a four DVD set. The generous extras include five audio commentaries on key episodes, a 22 minute documentary on Douglas Wilmer, reconstruction of the lost episodes, an alternative Spanish version of ‘The Speckled Band’ and an illustrated booklet featuring essays on the series.