Since the appearance of Terence Yung’s Dr. No in 1962, there has been a continuing brouhaha surrounding discussions as to which characteristics constitute the best overall portrayal of James Bond. Similarly, cinematic and televisual portrayals of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth also provoke, in equal measure, the admiration and the ire of those obsessed with the character’s literary sources. (All arguments of that nature aside, I’m sure from the outset that most can agree that Guy Ritchie’s recent ersatz efforts, influenced by John Woo and evoking the same kind of surreal, incongruous Victoriana explored in the Hughes Brothers’ rather bizarre From Hell, are best left out of any credible Holmes discussion, fun as they are).
Each actor to have donned the deerstalker and sucked the calabash pipe has brought something appealing or innovative to the role, whether it be a keen English suavity (Basil Rathbone, in Fox and Universal’s excellent black-and-white films of the ’30s and ‘40s) or the conveyance of subtle, subtextual elements that allude to Holmes’ behavioural flaws, the latter of which have been most vividly brought to life by the eccentric performances of Jeremy Brett, whose portrayal in the long-running British ITV series is often cited as among the finest of all time.
I’ve nevertheless always had a fondness for the lovely Peter Cushing’s Holmes, as seen in a series of low-budget BBC colour productions made in 1968. Cushing had already appeared as Holmes in Hammer’s lurid, frantic and thoroughly enjoyable 1959 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but his BBC work is sublime and transcends what threadbare charm the wobbly sets and the (often visible) studio lino provide. All clipped, precise diction and impeccable manners, Cushing imbues the detective with a wonderfully cheeky quality, his gentle admonishment of the always enthusiastic but slow-on-the-uptake Watson delivered with a perfectly-pitched twinkle-in-eye and tongue-in-cheek.
It’s also refreshing to see Cushing in a fairly rare non-horror leading role, particularly considering that around the late sixties, he was prolific in his genre output. Given literate scripts and allowed narrative space to display his acting chops, Cushing reminds us what a fine classical actor he was.
Still, for all the appeal of the Cushing productions, it does seem strange that the BBC would have launched such a venture a mere three years after it produced this wonderful series, although it would appear that the acquisition of licensing rights may have been at the heart of the Corporation’s metaphorical milking of Conan Doyle’s source material.
So, was the BBC’s latter effort worth it? After all, literary classics have usually been interpreted countless times before, so accusations of pointlessness are never too far should the filmmakers not add something fresh to the material.
Happily, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Starring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson, the films in this collection have been often discussed but rarely seen, so their collation here as a handsome four-disc BFI box set, accompanied by some comprehensive and fascinating extra features, is most welcome, and represents their first ever release on disc.
The pilot, The Speckled Band, was originally made as a one-off for the Detective TV drama strand, but an entire run followed, with various episodes offered to reliable directorial hands, among them the talented and highly experienced Hammer regular Peter Sasdy. Whilst each story is by now familiar, they are nevertheless told with economy and efficiency (both in artistic and budgetary terms), which is typical of solid BBC drama of the period.
Following the spirit of Conan Doyle’s sources, the films exude intelligence, without the need for visual spectacle or the tendency to indulge in the pseudo-psychedelia that marked other ‘60s TV efforts such as The Prisoner, the quality of the writing comes to the fore. (With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the Holmes stories are to this day tremendously popular in audiobook form, a testament to the clever, multi-layered, and intriguing plots that stand the closest of scrutinies).
The striking, noble-faced Wilmer is terrific as Holmes, a tangible, living embodiment of the sleuth as visualised by British illustrator Sidney Paget, who was responsible for the artwork that accompanied Conan Doyle’s stories when they were published for an acclaimed run in The Strand magazine during the late 1890s. Wilmer and Stock (the latter actor reprised his role in the aforementioned Cushing episodes just a few years later) are joined by a fine supporting cast, among which are numerous familiar faces: Peter Wyngarde (Jason King and The Innocents), Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor in Doctor Who), and Joss Ackland, later to find success in Hollywood in the ‘80s, with major commercial fare such as The Hunt for Red October and Lethal Weapon 2.
Highly enjoyable and a worthy addition to the canon of television Holmes, not to mention a fine counterpoint to the many other incarnations of Baker Street’s finest, this collection offers great extras befitting such a significant release, including alternative audio and title sequences, two episode reconstructions using surviving vintage footage, a comprehensive information booklet containing various essays, an interview with Wilmer about his career, and a whopping five audio commentaries. In this respect, the BFI is one of the industry leaders when it comes to supplementary material.