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.