My favourite Doctor Who has always been Patrick Troughton. I don’t really know why, but he feels more Doctor-ish to me than any of them, past or present. So when “The Enemy Of The World” and “The Web Of Fear” were recovered (or, mainly recovered), last year, I was downloading them at quarter past midnight. In other words, fifteen minutes after they were released. They’re both good stories, but for me, “Enemy” is the better of the two. It deals with scenarios – dictatorships, food shortages, mass murder – that we can all recognise in the world today.
But my favourite character is Salamander’s henchman, Benik, played with joyous evil by Milton Johns. I mention this because I frequently confuse him with Colin Jeavons. In fact, I wrote the original draft of this thoroughly convinced that Inspector Lestrade was Benik.
Inspector Lestrade? Well… For many people, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce will always be the definitive Holmes and Watson. For some others, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Or Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. But for many people, the definitive Holmes’s most famous role – prior to being cast as Holmes – might just have been as Freddie in My Fair Lady. Where, of course, he sang “On The Street Where You Live”, hence my clue last time. (Well, actually, he was dubbed. But hey. I digress.)
Some time around 1984, Granada TV (the UK commercial television franchise for Manchester) decided that it was time to dust off the Conan Doyle and make another adaptation for the viewing public. It was perhaps a rather big gamble – they built an entire street on a studio lot for the programme – and anything could have derailed it. There had been an adaptation of The Hound Of The Baskervilles in 1982, starring former Dr Who Tom Baker as Holmes.
Fortunately for Granada, the Tom Baker version had a budget of just about enough to cover one episode, which made the fact that it was made as four episodes somewhat inconvenient. Add to that the fact that Tom Baker just didn’t click with everybody as Holmes – his performance was criticised for being overly charismatic and too wooden at the same time (which is an interesting oxymoron – the only piece of wood I can remember being credited is in Eric Sykes’ “The Plank“, but I don’t think it was ever accused of overacting…)
Even more fortunate for Granada, their show was a hit, both in the UK and internationally, and further adaptations followed. The first series of 13 episodes had left us with “The Final Problem”, and the second opened with “The Empty House”. Purists will note that there were slightly more stories than that in the first two sets of stories, and indeed some, such as “The Cardboard Box” were returned to later on in the show.
The series attention to detail was phenomenal. The recreation of the fictional 221b was immaculate, right down to shooting from the same angle, and with the same costumes, and even the same poses, as some of the original Walter Paget illustrations. Indeed, this came as much from the cast as from the scripts, with apparently both David Burke and Jeremy Brett (both Holmes buffs) suggesting changes to shots and setups to more closely reflect the books.
And the creme of British acting talent was in the shows. John Thaw appeared in the Sign of Four (thus making his third appearance in this series so far), as did Ronald Lacey (oh yeah… you know who he is now, right?). Luminaries who appeared included Natasha Richardson, Charles Gray, Patricia Hodge, Joss Ackland, Fiona Shaw… I could go on, and on – that’s just the first series.
It’s difficult to tell where exactly the series jumped the shark, but it did so simply through force majeure. Brett was not a well man, and he started almost channeling Holmes – opening champagne with swords (something that would probably get you arrested these days), and living a bohemian life. His heart couldn’t take it. You can see in the adaptation of “The Devil’s Foot” that he’s ill (and that’s only in 1988), and by “The Last Vampyre” it’s painful to watch. (Actually, that whole episode is painful – they clearly had a completely different script ready and had to improvise around Brett’s limitations). Sadly, the series ended in 1994, having filmed only 39 of the short stories and two of the novels. Jeremy Brett’s heart had succumbed, and he died on September 12th, 1995.
Some would argue that the jump came with the first feature-length adaptation: 1987’s “The Sign Of Four”. In this, the original Watson (David Burke) was silently replaced by Edward Hardwicke. I don’t agree with this, myself – “Sign Of Four” is excellent, and the subsequent series – “The Return Of Sherlock Holmes” – represents the high point of the adaptations. Brett was at his peak, and Hardwicke made an admirable Watson. (Incidentally, he’s told a story that David Burke was a Holmes obsessive, and that he used to be a prime instigator in the moving-around of items to more closely resemble the original texts and Paget illustrations… and that when Jeremy Brett forgot and called him “David” by mistake, he took that as being the ultimate compliment.)
To say that these are the most accurate adaptations of Holmes stories wouldn’t – for the early ones – be too far from the truth. That they have excellent production values is unquestionable. That they were made by fans with exquisite attention to detail is also true. But there is still one thing that puzzles me. Why was David Burke replaced with Edward Hardwicke?
Would I recommend buying the series? Well, it’s on Amazon on DVD, and other places as well. There’s a few on YouTube too, if you don’t feel like splashing out your cash right away.
So why did I start with Colin Jeavons? Well, remember I mentioned who the ultimate Holmes would be? For me, the ultimate Lestrade (at least, Victorian Lestrade, as written by Conan Doyle himself), will always be Colin Jeavons. The right combination of solid, practical policeman, slightly rumpled, a bumbling air but even so, more intelligent than he looks… remind you of anyone?
Finally, then – The Columbo Index…
Ahead of the game: This is Sherlock Holmes, of course – famously ahead of the game in more ways than you or I could possibly imagine. His deduction style is based on the diagnosing skills of Dr Joseph Bell, a medical lecturer Conan Doyle studied with during his medical days. Score: 9/10
Car: Hansom cabs. The London Underground does feature in “The Bruce-Partington Plans”, of course, but curiously, Holmes never seems to actually get on a train. Which strikes me as most odd. Score: 4/10
Catchphrases and ambience: Victoriana, of course. A detective who keeps his tobacco in a Persian slipper, keeps his correspondence pinned to the mantel above the fire with a dagger, and used the wall for target practice (shooting a patriotic “VR” in there to boot). And of course there’s the catchphrases: “the game’s afoot”, “the dog did nothing in the night time” and “but that’s my banana”. Ok, I may have made that last one up – but he never said “Elementary, my dear Watson” either! Score: 8/10
Investigative style: Deduction, deduction, deduction. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (Oh wait – doesn’t that one belong in the catchphrases section?) You can’t fault Holmes’s methods – and he’s not above playing the odd Columbo-esque trick, too… Score: 8/10
Personality: Holmes is not a warm personality, although we see enough of him to know that he is likeable enough – when he chooses to be. Personality-wise, it’s Watson that drives things. Score: 5/10
Sidekick: Watson is the yardstick by which all other detective sidekicks are usually measured, but while Watson is really yang to Holme’s yin, Dog is more Curly to Columbo’s Mo. And seen from that point of view… well, Watson has his moments. Score: 3/10
Violence: Most of the violence in Holmes occurs offscreen – usually Holmes doesn’t arrive until after the police have already been there. And this is followed through in the series, too, although there are occasional fights. But if Morse can score 8 on this point, then… Score: 9/10
Which leads to an interesting leaderboard:
- A Touch Of Frost – 48.5 points
- Inspector Morse – 48 points
- The Avengers – 45 points
- Sherlock Holmes – 45 points
- Randall and Hopkirk (deceased) – 40 points
It’s funny, this list.
I thought that Randall and Hopkirk would be leading it, I really did. But the thing is, looking at it objectively, and having rated everything carefully and thoroughly, I do actually agree with these ratings – even if they do surprise me.
I initially didn’t want to do Sherlock Holmes, having thought that I only wanted to touch things that were created and written for TV. But then I remembered that Columbo started as a play, and that Bert Freed played Columbo on TV before Peter Falk ever did. So why not? And look where that thinking gets us!
This has been a long long post – no doubt for you to read just as much as it has been for me to write. I’ve always had the custom of slipping a little clue into this final paragraph, a little addition to tease you with. Maybe I have this time, maybe I haven’t. If you think I have, please leave a comment – let me know what you think it is. And if not – or there’s a show you’d like me to cover, again please feel free to comment, or reach out to me on Twitter. But before I go, here’s one dangling little aglet, courtesy of YouTube – it’s believed to be the only filmed interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Enjoy:
1927 interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle