It’s hard to imagine anyone with even the slightest familiarity with popular culture to be unaware of Sherlock Holmes even if most of them have never read the original stories. As one of the most filmed characters in cinema history, Holmes has been interpreted in various ways – from the reverential to the insulting – since the birth of cinema, becoming one of those iconic figures who can be recognised immediately – the deerstalker and pipe being an immediately recognisable visual shorthand for the Master Detective.
These days, Holmes tends to be unpleasantly bastardised by people who want the name but have no resect for the material or the character, but once upon a time, there were respectful attempts to film Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories for television. I’m not referring to the variously titled Jeremy Brett series from the 1980s however, but the much earlier BBC TV series that began in 1965, starring Douglas Wilmer (and later followed up with another series starring Peter Cushing). It’s one of the more obscure versions of Holmes, in part because the production values ensured that it would not be repeated for future generations, instead lying buried, unseen and incomplete in the BBC archives. Until now. Following their magnificent work with Out of the Unknown, the BFI have pulled together everything that remains of the series and salvaged what they can of the remaining episodes.
Opening with pilot show The Speckled Band (which is in less good shape than other episodes), the thirteen episodes here are notable for not, for the most part, featuring the better known Holmes stories – there’s no Hound of the Baskervilles, no Study in Scarlet. Instead, the series features some of the more obscure (at least to the non-aficionado) tales. It also presents a version of Holmes that certainly feels original, in the form of Douglas Wilmer. Many filmed versions of Holmes – whether based on the original stories or not – have tried to show Holmes as a fearless believer in truth and justice, often concerned with the fate of the little man, but that’s not really the character we see here. This Holmes is very much a man of the establishment, who believes that everyone should know their place, especially the lower orders. While Sherlock Holmes in Murder By Decree railed against the government and their cover-ups in the Jack the Ripper murders, this Holmes, you suspect, would have actively supported them. On several occasions in this series, he buries the truth abut the case his has investigated, lest it embarrass or cause scandal for a well-heeled family – you somehow suspect that he would be less concerned in the case of a lower class culprit.
In The Illustrious Client, he essentially manipulates working class woman Kitty Winter (Rosemary Leach) into attacking the shifty foreigner Baron Gruner (Peter Wyngarde, sporting a constantly shifting accent) who hasn’t actually committed a crime, as far as I can see, but is nevertheless both a cad and a German, and so deserves all he gets. That Kitty ends up imprisoned for her act of vengeance is unconvincingly regretted by Holmes, but earlier, he has looked remarkably unsurprised at her actions – as it he had planned it. In The Devil’s Foot, he ignores the guilt of one murderer because he feels it is justified, though you wonder how anyone who believes in justice could excuse a revenge killing (especially when the victim in question might have also been able to make a claim for justifiable vengeance).
I haven’t read enough of Conan Doyle’s work to be sure, but I suspect that this version of Holmes is rather closer to the original version than the more egalitarian version found in some films and television shows – Conan Doyle was, after all, an old school toff who probably believed wholeheartedly in the class divide and the idea of the English gentleman. In any case, it allows for a fascinating version of the character, rather different in style than most, to emerge. Wilmer avoids the sharp tongued intensity of Basil Rathbone or the twitchy nervousness of Brett, and instead plays Holmes as a rather more relaxed character, often bored, frequently indifferent to his clients’ distress and rather more emotive than most versions. He’s sharp, brilliant and not especially likeable as a person much of the time, and that makes this one of the better – and certainly one of the most original – portrayals.
Matching him is Nigel Stock as Dr Watson – avoiding the Nigel Bruce bumbling, he still manages to seem rather naïve at times, a solid supporter of Holmes, ever willing to volunteer for dangerous duties but never quite on the ball. He’s not a comedy character here. But does represent the humanity that Holmes perhaps lacks, more openly expressing the moral outrage and the sense of propriety that clearly drives the detective.
The style of the series is interesting – Holmes often doesn’t appear until well into the story, and the narrative is allowed to develop at a pace that would never be accepted today. In other words, it’s slow. That is not a criticism – each story is given room to develop, and is often the better for it. Stylistically, the series moves from almost gothic horror to lightweight near comedy, giving it a decent mix of approaches that ensures that it never becomes one-dimensional.
Unfortunately, due to a typical bit of short-sightedness, the BBC chose to shoot interiors on video, robbing the series of a potentially lucrative US TV sale and ensuring that even the best episodes look rather ‘basic’ when seen on a modern TV. Add to this the theatrical style that was standard in BBC productions for decades (scenes shot as ‘live’, and with fluffed or forgotten lines usually left in) and this is certainly going to be a challenge for modern audiences. But it’s worth making the effort, as this long-lost Holmes offers a radically new, yet entirely authentic version of the character and the stories. And the BFI have worked wonders in not only presenting this material in the best possible versions, but also in salvaging incomplete episodes, with Wilmer reading part of the story to fill in The Abbey Grange, and original shooting scripts and surviving footage used to recreate The Bruce Partington Plans. There are also commentaries by directors like Peter Sasdy and actors, including Wilmer, who is also the subject of a featurette. A fine package all round, and one that will hopefully help this version of Holmes be recognised as one of the best.
Now, can we have the surviving Cushing shows as a follow-up?