Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Red-Headed League

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Holmes is distracted from the pursuit of a daring young criminal called John Clay (David Andrews) by the arrival of Jabez Wilson (Toke Townley) who has a most curious tale to tell.

Wilson makes a decent, if not particularly profitable living, as a pawnbroker.  But then his young assistant Vincent Spaulding draws his attention to the following newspaper advertisement.

On account of the bequest of the late Ezekiah Hopkins, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., there is now another vacancy open which entitles a member of the League to a salary of four pounds a week for purely nominal services. All red-headed men who are sound in body and mind and above the age of twenty-one years are eligible. Apply in person on Monday, at eleven o’clock, to Duncan Ross, at the offices of the League, 7 Pope’s Court, Fleet Street.

Wilson and Spaulding duly apply and Ross (Trevor Martin) is most impressed with Wilson’s fiery red hair and offers him the position on the spot.  His duties are quite straightforward – each day he has to copy out pages from the Encyclopedia Britannica.  But he has to remain within the offices of the League the whole time (if he leaves for any reason, then he forfeits his position).  Spaulding tells him that he’d be happy to run the shop whilst Wilson is working at the League, so all seems well.

For a while, everything is fine.  But then, without warning, Wilson arrives one day to find that the office is shut and nobody else in the building has ever heard of the Red-Headed League.  Was it all just an elaborate practical joke or is there a more sinister purpose at play?

The Red-Headed League (originally published in 1892) is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories, although I do find this adaption to be a little flat.  This is partially because it’s a tale that works better on the printed page than on the screen, but there are other problems.  The story rests on the notion that Jabez Wilson has such a head of fiery red hair that Duncan Ross, once he sees him, instantly sends all the other applicants away.  It’s difficult to show this in black and white though!

The major difference between Anthony Read’s teleplay and Conan Doyle’s original is that in Read’s version we know about John Clay from the start, whereas in the Doyle original we open with Wilson’s strange story and it’s only much later that Holmes realises that Clay is involved.  I’m not sure whether Read’s embellishment is an improvement or not, but it helps to bulk out the running time somewhat.

Toke Townley (best known as Sam Pearson from Emmerdale Farm) doesn’t look much like Doyle’s description of Wilson (he described him as a stout, florid-faced elderly gentleman) but he has decent comic timing and is quite a sympathetic character.  Although Carla Challoner (as Wilson’s maid) only has a small role, she’s rather striking and coincidentally one of her other 1965 television appearances (as Zenna Peters in the Out of the Unknown episode Thirteen to Centaurus) was also recently released by the BFI and is well worth a look.

This is a wholly studio-bound production which is competently handled by Peter Duguid, although the opening scene does have some quick cuts which maybe don’t quite work as well as they should.  Whilst this episode has a certain charm, for me the later Granada version with Jeremy Brett is far superior.

7 thoughts on “Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Red-Headed League

  1. Both the BBC and Granada adaptations are reasonably authentic, although each added their own embellishments. I prefer the BBC version of how John Clay found out about the French gold in the vault (through a burglary at the bank manager’s house), rather than the Granada version (that Moriarty had an agent in the bank). In fact, I don’t know why Moriarty was introduced into the Granada version, unless it was to lead in to ‘The Final Problem’, which was the next, and final episode in their first series.

    The stories in the first Granada series were mainly based on stories from the (canonical) Memoirs, so I suppose there is some logic in choosing ‘The Final Problem’ as the last episode, since it is the last story in that volume, but it seems a bit odd the end their first TV series on that note, unless it was thought at the time that there might not be a follow on series.

    My enjoyment of the BBC adaptation was slightly marred by the performance of Toke Townley as Jabez Wilson, who unfortunately kept reminding me of Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army!

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    • I’ve just been reading an interview with David Burke in ‘The Sherlock Holmes Companion’ by Daniel Smith. It seems that a second series had not been commissioned by Granada at the time that the first series finished filming, so perhaps this explains their choice of ‘The Final Problem’ as the last episode, and the rather odd introduction of Moriarty into ‘The Red Headed League’.

      The Companion also includes an interesting interview with Douglas Wilmer, although I’m not sure that it adds anything to what is included in the BFI DVD set.

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      • I wonder if all 13 Burke episodes were recorded in a single production block but spread over the two years (1984/85)? My memory is that when The Final Problem aired in 1985 another series was already planned, but I may be mistaken.

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  2. I don’t know if it was filmed as a single production block, but I understand that it was conceived as a single series of 13 episodes that were then broadcast by ITV over 2 years. At least, this is how Alan Barnes lists it in ‘Sherlock Holmes on Screen’. Barnes (who generally approves of the changes made by Granada to Conan Doyle’s stories – something that I disliked) also says that Moriarty was introduced into ‘The Red Headed League’ as a prologue to ‘The Final Problem’. This choice of final episode had been signalled from the beginning by the picture of the Reichenbach Falls above the mantlepiece in 221B Baker Street (where there is a mirror in Conan Doyle’s stories).

    In another interview in ‘The Sherlock Holmes Companion’, Edward Hardwicke says that Granada originally planned a single series of 13 episodes (which explains their choice of the final episode), and only agreed to further series after the first was a success in the US. I wasn’t aware that ITV had shown the first series in two blocks – I originally saw this on American PBS or A&E in 1987-88, I think, although apparently it premiered in the US in 1985.

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    • Given how expensive each episode must have been (not to mention the cost of building the Baker Street set from scratch) it’s interesting that Granada committed to thirteen episodes, rather than, say, just six or seven.

      Thirteen had been a common number for ITV drama series during the seventies, but as budgets grew larger in the eighties (due to the shift from VT to all film) this number did decrease.

      I can still remember the surprise I felt back in 1988 when I realised that there were only four episodes in that year’s run of The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Although presumably they’d hived off some of the budget to pay for their version of the Hound later in the year.

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  3. According to Barnes, they overspent on location filming for ‘The Devil’s Foot’ and ‘Silver Blaze’, which meant that they had to cancel the last two planned episodes of The Return (reducing it to 11 episodes). They made up for this with the 2 hour Hound, but with a severely reduced budget.

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