Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Speckled Band

speckled

Helen Stoner (Liane Aukin) leads a lonely existence in the rambling home she shares with her remote, forbidding father Dr. Grimesby Roylott (Felix Felton). Over the last few years, she’s felt even lonelier – ever since her beloved sister Julia (Marian Diamond) died in very mysterious circumstances.

Julia had been engaged to be married and was due to shortly leave them – but tragedy struck before this could happen. And her last whispered words to her sister (“the speckled band”) have stayed with Helen ever since.

Shortly before her death, Julia was convinced that something would happen to her (she claimed to hear strange whistles in the dead of night, which she found very unsettling). Now, two years later, Helen is engaged herself and it seems that the same pattern is happening all over again. In desperation, she consults the one man who can help her – Sherlock Holmes.

One of the most famous of all the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Speckled Band was originally published in 1892. Given its enduring appeal, and the fact it’s an intriguing “locked room” mystery, it was an obvious story to kick off the series. Although when it first aired, in 1964 as part of the Detective series, it wasn’t a certainty that a series would be commissioned. But this was clearly successful enough to ensure that another twelve stories followed in 1965.

The first twelve minutes take place in and around Dr Roylott’s house at Stoke Moran. Although this means we have a little wait before we get to see Wilmer, this scene-setting works well, since it establishes the claustrophobic location (which is certainly dark and forbidding) as well as Holmes’ client Helen and her father, the tyrannical Dr Grimesby Roylott.

When we do see Holmes for the first time, it’s a very low-key appearance. Helen has already clearly outlined the facts of the case to Holmes and our first glimpse of Wilmer is just a back view. Watson (Nigel Stock) then enters the room, greets Helen as Holmes steps out the frame and tells the Doctor that Helen “has brought a strange and tragic tale to our breakfast table.”

Holmes then offers Julia some coffee, but his face remains unseen until Julia tells Watson that she trembles not through cold, but fear. The camera then switches to a close-up of Wilmer as he assures the woman that “you must not fear. We shall soon set matters to rights, I have no doubt.” It’s an unshowy, but impressive introduction.

If Nigel Stock sometimes ventures into Nigel Bruce territory (he can lack the subtlety that later Watsons, such as David Burke and Edward Hardwicke brought to the role) it’s also clear that even this early on, Wilmer is pretty much perfect. He displays many of Holmes’ key attributes during Julia’s consultation him (being both charming and aloof).

Liane Aukin is very appealing as Helen and Felix Felton invests Dr Roylott with just the right touch of mania. It’s pleasing to see that one of the signature moments of the story – Dr Roylott warns Sherlock Holmes off by pending a poker, which Holmes then straightens – is present, correct and done well (although the poker does seem to bend rather easily!)

Any Sherlock Holmes adaptation tends to stand and fall on the interaction between Holmes and Watson. The Granada Watsons (especially Hardwicke) expressed their dismay at how the character had sometimes been portrayed in the past (as a buffoon, basically). It seemed to them quite clear that Holmes wouldn’t spend his time with an idiot.

There’s a touch of the idiot with Stock’s portrayal – as Watson, musing on the case, tells Holmes that “if the lady’s correct and the window was shuttered and the door was locked, then no-one could have entered the room.” Holmes’ response (delivered so well by Wilmer) of “marvellous, Watson” is clearly ironic, but we’ll also see plenty of good humour between the pair as we proceed through the series.

A sinister, atmospheric story, The Speckled Band serves as a fine introduction to both Wilmer and Stock’s interpretations of Holmes and Watson.

6 thoughts on “Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Speckled Band

  1. I have just discovered your website which Douglas and I are greatly enjoying. I watched it in1964 and decided that he was the one for me. Especially seeing him in Milverton kissing the housemaid.
    Anne Wilmer
    No one mentions that he was a very sexy Holmes

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  2. First of all (and especially since Anne and Douglas Wilmer read your blog!) let me say that I absolutely loved this series when I saw it in the 60’s. I must have seen the 1966 repeat. It was around the time that I was discovering Conan Doyle’s stories, and it helped to turn me into a lifelong Sherlockian! For many years Douglas Wilmer for the personification of Sherlock Holmes for me.

    I don’t have much memory of the follow-on Peter Cushing series, although I think I must have watched it, as I remembered the rather frightened looking Sherlock in the opening titles. Then, in the 1980’s, along came the Granada series, and I loved this too, despite Jeremy Brett’s very different characterisation. I saw some of these, mainly the first two series, on American PBS.

    I recently decided to re-read the entire canon, and to watch the BBC and Granada adaptations after reading each story. Since it’s not fair to compare production values (the Granada series looks absolutely gorgeous remastered in HD), I decided to concentrate on the fidelity of the adaptations and the portrayals of Holmes and Watson. So far I’ve watched the earlier stories in the canon (from The Adventures and Memoirs), and find very little to fault in terms of fidelity in either the BBC or Granada adaptations.

    It seems to me that both Wilmer and Brett capture different aspects of Holmes’ character – Wilmer his aloofness and superciliousness, and Brett the biopolar nature of Holmes’ personality (possibly a reflection of his own, from what I understand). Nigel Stock’s Watson is much less of a buffoon than I remembered, whilst David Burke and Edward Hardwicke both give very similar performances (so much so, that when I first saw the series, I didn’t realise at first that the actor had changed). Their ‘comptetent Watsons’ are helped a bit, I think, by the Granada scriptwriters giving some of Holmes’ lines to Watson.

    I was wondering if you had any plans to review the Granada series and what remains of the Cushing series as well?

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    • I’ve been meaning to write something about both the Cushing and the Brett series for a while, maybe 2020 will be the time I actually do it!

      I’ve a lot of time for the Cushing series (or at least what remains) although you have to accept that the productions are often a little shaky.

      By contrast, the Granada series has immaculate production values and – to begin with at least – a remarkable fidelity to the original stories.

      They wavered later (The Last Vampyre still sends a shudder down the spine – but for all the wrong reasons) although at least there would be plenty of scope to pen a hopefully interesting blog post.

      Keep an eye on the blog next year ….

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    • It would have been lovely had he reached his 100 not out, but he had a long life and remained pin sharp pretty much until the end I think (his contributions to the Sherlock Holmes DVD set issued by the BFI a few years back are very incisive).

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