Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Six Napoleons


Inspector Lestrade (Peter Madden) pays a visit to Baker Street and recounts a strange tale to Holmes and Watson.  Someone in London seems to have such a hatred of the late Emperor Napoleon that they’ve taken to smashing miniature busts of him.  What’s even odder is that they’ve resorted to burglary to do so.

Dr Barnicot (James Bree) is a collector of Napoleonic memorabilia, and he’s disturbed to find both his office and house have been burgled and in each case a bust of Napoleon has been smashed to smithereens.  When another burglary takes place, at the home of a journalist called Horace Harker (Donald Hewitt), Harker not only finds his statue smashed, but a dead body as well …..

Like The Abbey Grange, The Six Napoleons was one of the stories published after Holmes’ return from his tussle with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls (later collected in the volume entitled The Return of Sherlock Holmes).

The farcical side of the story is emphasied in Giles Cooper’s adaptation.  Bree’s Dr Barnicot is a character who’s certainly played for laughs – he’s depicted as a highly eccentric devotee of Napoleon who advances three theories (all of them bizarre) to Holmes, Watson and Lestrade in order to explain who could have committed such an outrage.

Wilmer, Stock and Madden have little to do in Bree’s scene – but Wilmer especially is a joy to watch as he rolls his eyes at Barnicot’s wild flights of fancy and beats a hasty retreat as soon as he politely can.  When Barnicot is alone again, he takes out a Napoleonic hat and, after putting his arm inside his jacket, strikes a suitably heroic pose by the mirror.  You get the feeling that he does this a great deal!  James Bree was certainly an idiosyncratic actor, capable of performances of depth and subtlety (series one of Secret Army) as well as turns which verged on the bizarre and unwatchable (the Doctor Who story, The War Games).  He’s quite odd here, but since he plays it as scripted and only has a small cameo appearance, it’s quite acceptable.  Had he appeared throughout, it might have been quite wearying though.

The opening of the next scene is nice – Watson is striking a Napoleonic pose back at Baker Street, to the amusement of Holmes and Lestrade.  It’s only a little throwaway moment, possibly worked out in rehearsal, but it does help to reinforce the bond of friendship between them.  Since Wilmer’s Holmes tends to be quite serious, the odd lighter moment is welcome.

The Six Napoleons sees the first appearance of Peter Madden as Lestrade.  Characteristically, Wilmer’s Holmes doesn’t pretend to be particularly pleased to see him at the start of the story – he offers him a chair with the air of a man who’d be equally happy if he left straightaway.  But as soon as he piques Holmes’ interest, the Great Detective is clearly much more kindly disposed to him!

It’s a studio-bound production, but director Gareth Davies does manage to make the most of the limited space and he offers the viewer a few good flourishes.  My favourite is the scene set immediately after the burglary at Harker’s house.  The camera tracks past a number of statues, as well as a policeman standing so immobile that he could be mistaken for a statue.  Which is almost what Watson does, as we see him walk down the line, identifying each statue to Holmes – before giving a double-take as he reaches the policeman.

Elsewhere, the limitations of the studio environment are more apparent.  There’s a brief scene set in the garden outside Harker’s house, which shows the sky to be a rather wrinkled backdrop.  Moving clouds are projected on it – had the backdrop not been so tatty it would have been quite effective.

The comic turns contunue throughout the story.  Later, Holmes finds himself caught in the middle of Josiah Brown and his wife (Arthur Hewlett and Betty Romaine) who are a rather voluble couple.  Wilmer’s pained expession is priceless.

Indeed, this is a story where the solution of the mystery is somewhat secondary to the performances.  Giles Cooper’s adaptation is good fun and certainly allows the cast plenty of scope to produce some ripe turns.

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