When Sherlock Holmes proffers the letter he’s received from Miss Violet Hunter (Suzanne Neve) to Watson, he tells him that it marks a new low-point in his career. Miss Hunter has been offered a position as a governess, but wishes to seek Holmes’ advice before accepting the post.
Although it initially seems like a trivial matter, once Miss Hunter begins her strange story it becomes clear that there may be more to it than meets the eye. Miss Hunter has been offered the post by Jephro Rucastle (Patrick Wymark). Rucastle seems to be a charming man and he makes her a very generous offer – a salary of one hundred pounds a year (a considerable amount, which is much more than many people in her position could ever expect to earn).
Rucastle goes on to tell her that he and his wife (faddy people, he admits) may ask her to sit in a certain chair or wear a certain dress from time to time. This isn’t a problem, but when Rucastle insists that she has to cut her long hair very short, Miss Hunter protests. When Rucastle later increases the salary to one hundred and twenty pounds, she weakens – but she wishes to consult Holmes first. Miss Hunter decides to take up the post, but keeps in contact with Holmes as strange events begin to happen.
The Copper Beeches was originally published in June 1892 and later formed part of the first collection of Holmes short-stores, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Patrick Wymark (best known as the scheming Sir John Wilder in The Plane Makers and The Power Game) is wonderful as Rucastle. Alternatively charming and sinister, it’s a very memorable performance.
Suzanne Neve, as the plucky young Miss Hunter, is another strong piece of casting (fans of UFO will remember her as Straker’s ex-wife Mary). As with the original story, Holmes and Watson are very much on the periphery, so it’s Miss Hunter and Rucastle who dominate proceedings.
It’s certainly a strange household that she finds herself in. Rucastle’s wife (played by Alethea Charlton) is polite, but seems somewhat under her husband’s thrall. There’s a rather surly couple of servants, Mr and Mrs Toller (Michael Robbins and Margaret Diamond), whilst the Rucastle’s young son, Edward (Garry Mason), is a most peculiar child.
Although Rucastle insists that his son will grow up to be an important man, there’s little evidence of that in the very brief time we spend with him. As per the original story, Edward doesn’t feature very much – but Vincent Tilsley’s adaptation does add a little something which sharpens the characters of both father and son. In Conan-Doyle’s story, Miss Hunter tells Holmes that Edward delights in catching all manner of animals, such as mice. Tilsley adds a scene where Edward bashes a mouse to death in front of Miss Hunter (with Rucastle looking on approvingly). It helps to add another rather discordant note and it’s one of a number of good character moments for Wymark.
Although, as mentioned, Wilmer and Stock don’t have the largest of parts in this one, they do enjoy some decent byplay, especially at the end when Watson was briefly convinced that Holmes had asked Miss Hunter to marry him! We saw that Holmes was enamored of Miss Hunter’s analytical abilities, but his appreciation of her clearly went no further than that.
It’s a decent comic moment to end the story on, although it can be seen as rather undermining Watson’s character. This little niggle apart, The Copper Beeches is a faithful and entertaining adaptation of one of the most atmospheric of the early Holmes stories.