[9 December 2010]
Nobody does the detective drama quite like the British and if you’re a fan of the genre you’ll find much to enjoy in the Great Detectives Anthology, a 12-DVD set from A&E Home Video which includes 18 BBC productions featuring Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. If you’re a fan of these classic characters and the BBC production style you, could get happily lost for days watching these programs. I have only one caveat: most of these episodes have been released before so if you own DVDs of these series, you will want to check to see how much this collection overlaps with whatever you already have.
The five Sherlock Holmes programs included were originally produced in 1964-1968 and represent all that remains of the 16 episodes originally produced (the original tapes of the others having been lost or destroyed) in that series. The versatile Peter Cushing, who had already played Holmes in the 1959 Hammer film Hound of the Baskervilles, captures the detective’s intellect and arrogance beautifully while also looking remarkably like a Sidney Paget illustration come to life. Cushing is the best thing about these episodes, with veteran actor Nigel Stock running a close second: he plays Watson somewhere between the bumbling fool created by Nigel Bruce in the 1939-1946 Holmes films (with Basil Rathbone as Holmes) and the thoughtful narrator in the Doyle stories.
The five Holmes episodes included are The Hound of the Baskervilles, A Study in Scarlet, The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Sign of Four and The Blue Carbuncle. Of these, The Hound of the Baskervilles comes off the best, in part because it was produced as two 50-minute episodes which gave the story time to develop, while A Study in Scarlet was crammed into a single episode and thus feels rushed. All are worth seeing because of Cushing’s performance, but you do need to bear in mind that that these are television programs produced in the mid-‘60s and are not always up to the technical quality we expect today. Many of the smaller roles are played by actors of less than stellar ability and the sets look cheap and cramped, a fact not helped by camera placements which seems intent on producing a feeling of claustrophobia. Despite obvious efforts to create a Victorian feel these episodes frequently betray their origin as a ‘60s television series, a fact underlined by the series intro which has Cushing’s Holmes doing an Emma Peel-like head turn. Of course if you are an Anglophile (or BBC-phile) that’s just one more reason to be charmed by these programs.
The eight Marple episodes are also held together by their star, in this case Joan Hickson whose Miss Marple is generally accepted as being extremely close to Agatha Christie’s original vision (as opposed to, for instance, the memorable portrayal by Margaret Rutherford in three films of the early -‘60s). These episodes were produced between 1985 and 1992 and stick very closely to the plot of Christie’s original novels while their production values represent a notable step up from those of the Cushing/Holmes episodes. The supporting cast’s acting is always at least adequate and sometimes quite good plus you have the enjoyment of seeing well-known actors in unexpected places (Donald Pleasance of the Halloween films turns up in A Caribbean Mystery for instance).
The cinematic quality of the Marple series is comparable to that of the best of British heritage television as exemplified by the 1981 Granada serial Brideshead Revisited. Evocation of time and place is a strong point so if you feel in need of an escape to the quaint English village of St. Mary Mead where matters are always put to rights by a elderly lady detective you need only pop one of these discs in the VCR. The Marple tales presented in this collection are The Moving Finger, At Bertrams Hotel, Murder at the Vicarage, Nemesis, A Caribbean Mystery, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, Sleeping Murder and 4:50 from Paddington.
Finally, there are five classic performances by David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Taken at the Floor, After the Funeral and Cards on the Table. As with Hickson and Marple, Suchet has become so closely identified with Poirot (65 episodes were produced with him in this role in the years 1989-2010) that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. The production values are high in all episodes and as Poirot gets out more than either Holmes or Miss Marple one of the delights of these episodes is the location shooting: for instance Death on the Nile was partially shot in Egypt and The Mystery of the Blue Train in France. They also offer the fun of spotting your favorite actors in unexpected roles: for instance Jenny Agutter appears in Blue Train and Alexander Siddig (Cairo Time) in Cards on the Table.
Great Detectives is an excellent anthology for those whose interests match up with its strengths: that includes people with a love for all things British, admirers of classic detective stories, fans of good storytelling, and those with an interest in how television production has changed over the years. For such viewers this is a very satisfying collection which provides over 23 hours of viewing enjoyment. Extras include a 46-minute feature on Sherlock Holmes, brief biographies of Agatha Christie, David Suchet, and Hercule Poirot, and lists of the works in which Poirot and Miss Marple appear.