Tuesday 30 November 2010

'pon My Word Holmes!

My first introduction to the art of detection was those wonderful Basil Rathbone films, where the sleuth of Baker Street inhabited this dreamlike world which seemed to jarringly lurch from Edwardian London to 1940's America with an almost disingenuous detachment from all considerations of plausibility.

But Rathbone, eagle of eye, hawk like of profile seemed unperturbed by the rapidly changing morays in fashion and decorum and Nigel Bruce as Watson seemed so totally gaga, that he wouldn't have noticed if it was a hansom cab or a yellow taxi that they were pursuing the fiendish Moriarty in.

But as I grew more absorbed by history I must confess I did begin to become less enamoured of the Rathbone Holmes, who in the later films actually contrived a hairstyle more akin to the era of Wellington then the early 1900's at just the stage when Universal had abandoned any pretext at historical accuracy and souped up the drama to reflect the fact that the U.S. had just entered the Second World War. Rathbone thereby widening the continuity gap by nearly another century, whilst Universal pushed it another half century in the opposite direction.

No, I'd tired of Holmes, OK for a bit, but too much of Nigel Bruce (who was actually Rathbone's junior) looking forever befuddled, in contrast to Rathbone's adrenalised Holmes made the whole thing farcical. Something that wasn't lost on that errant genius Harvey Kurtzman when he served up two supremely funny Mad spoofs; "Shermlock Shomes" and "Shermlock Shomes and the Hound of the Basketballs", drawn by Will Elder who lavished his usual surfeit of manic detail on each story.

It wasn't until a few years later when the BBC made a series of Holmes TV adaptations of Conan Doyle's great detective that I became totally spellbound by the whole Holmes legend. The casting of the two main leads was masterly, with Nigel Stock making an excellent Watson and Douglas Wilmer, who I had never encountered before as a brilliantly plausible Holmes. In fact like Rathbone, Wilmer seemed born to the role. Where the series really scored was in the simple fact that they stuck to the original stories rather than using them as a springboard. It was this series that propelled me towards reading all the Holmes canon and in the end I got so obsessed with the stories that I hunted down the entire run of Strand Magazines which were bound into handsome blue volumes, one for every year as I recall. The beautiful illustrations of Sydney Paget provided the impetus. Sidney Paget who had acquired the commission by mistake as the editors had intended the job should go to his younger brother Walter.

There were two stories in particular which gave rise to a real atavistic shudder as I watched and then read them. The first being "The Speckled Band", which was actually the pilot episode for this BBC series and then the second and really haunting as regards the TV adaptation was, "The Devil's Foot", which was strong stuff indeed and a lot of the power of this broadcast was down to Wilmer's extraordinary performance.

It was a pity that the Beeb didn't do more with Wilmer, or rather that Wilmer didn't agree to a second series. The already insufficient rehearsal time having been further shortened to the extent that Wilmer felt disinclined to continue any further with the project. The series was passed to Peter Cushing who later confided to Wilmer that he'd rather sweep Paddington Station than do another series like that with the Beeb. Miraculously most of the transmissions were filmed rather than merely taped, for export and so they survived and have just been re-released on BBC DVD. It's nice to see Douglas Wilmer who must be around about 90 now, taking Amazon to task for describing this DVD set as featuring Peter Cushing - rather than Douglas Wilmer.

I can't find the Wilmer "Devil's Foot" out there in cyber land but here with an admittedly spartan of set and so-so supporting cast (although Felix Felton as Dr Roylett is indeed excellent) is  "The Speckled Band"  Followed by the excellent and equally superb Jeremy Brett version of this tale, who like Rathbone and Wilmer was borne to the role. The Brett Holmes is in terms of production, acting and authenticity a Holmes devotee's wish dream come true.

But I still prefer the Wilmer version of "The Devil's Foot.

Note to U.S. readers, I believe that all the BBC Wilmer Holmes can be accessed through the fantastic services of Hulu. Unfortunately due to the requirements of the corporate neanderthals who govern our very existence, this stuff is not available beyond the shores of the land of the free. That is unless you are prepared to invoke all kinds of bad ju-ju on your computer and set up a proxy account and downloads various bits of flaky shiteware to aid you in your task.

I think even Dr Roylett and the fiendish Moriarty couldn't be THAT bothered.


  1. I too, Peter, have been an almost lifelong devotee of Sherlockiana since finding the books in my school library. It's probably a bit heretical to say this, but I really enjoyed the Robert Downey version. True, he's nothing like the Holmes in the books - but in a sort of a way he is. It's how Holmes and Watson would have been conceived if they were created today, a reboot in the manner of J J Abrams's Star Trek. I know diehard Holmes fans will lynch me for saying it, though!

  2. Dave, you're a never ceasing source of stuff for me to research. So with my deerstalker firmly pulled down, magnifying glass in hand and Watson in tow I'm off to check the Robert Downey version. If Downey is OK with you, then he's OK with me and it's great to be off on a new quest.

  3. In that case, Peter, let me suggest putting the movie aside for Christmas. It was almost the only movie we've seen where, as we emerged from the cinema, Roz said, "I wouldn't mind seeing that again tomorrow." And as I then made my way through Soho, I found myself looking down grubby brick-walled alleyways and thinking (much to my surprise) what a great choice of director Guy Richie was, as he really knew how to make Victorian London come alive - not in the usual Hollywood "cosy old England" way, but a dirty, dangerous, stylish, breathtaking Victorian London with a vibrant juxtaposition of wealth and squalour we can believe in.

    Anyway, I just bought the movie on DVD and I'm going to bring it out on Christmas afternoon as the perfect family entertainment. (Just hoping Roz doesn't read these comments and spoil the surprise!)

  4. What's the verdict in these parts on that three-part remake/updated version that was on the TV recently?

    I liked it (having only ever seen the Jeremy Brett version before)

    B Smith

  5. I haven't seen it, not having a TV, but a lot of friends whose opinion I trust have said it was pretty good. Or episodes 1 and 3 were, at any rate.

  6. Corporate neanderthals and shiteware.... the game's afoot!

  7. Well Dave, you could (in the words of Ygor) throw the switches and power up the beast that is IPlayer and watch "A Study in Pink", which I've just done and (imo) it's really quite a nice take on the Holmes legacy. Great performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and a very engaging 21st century take on the relationship between Holmes and Watson.

    Simon good to hear from you! We need a creative summit sometime soon or as soon as you can dig yourself out of the snow.

  8. I was hoping to have some repulsor-rays to help me with that task but alas not yet...

    Check out 'Murder by Decree' on Amazon!