Lady Eva Brackwell (Penelope Horner) has become the latest victim of master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton. Milverton has acquired a bundle of rather indiscreet letters that she wrote to a young army captain. If they fall into the hands of her intended husband,is the preferavle version.the Earl of Dovercourt, then there’s little doubt that their forthcoming marriage would be in serious jeopardy.
Holmes agrees to act for Lady Eva, but when Milverton holds all the cards, what can he possibly do?
Charles Augustus Milverton was originally published in 1904. It’s a rather interesting story, mainly because Holmes doesn’t provide any resolution to the tale – a third party does – and therefore he needn’t have appeared at all. Plot-wise, it strongly resembles A Scandal in Bohemia (both revolve around an incriminating item, which Holmes decides to retrieve via burglary).
Barry Jones’ Milverton isn’t demonstratively villainous. Since he knows that his position is unassailable, he’s able to project a relaxed persona (although there’s little doubt of the evil that lurks beneath). Holmes is well aware just how formidable a foe he is, as he tells Lady Eva. “You have fallen into the hands of a very dangerous man. Charles Augustus Milverton is far from commonplace. In fact, one may safely call him the king of blackmailers. There are hundreds in this great city who turn white at his name.”
Holmes quickly discovers that Milverton can’t be threatened or intimidated and he won’t negotiate. His price is seven thousand guinees – no more, no less. When Holmes tells him that surely it’s better to accept a smaller amount than to expose Lady Eva for no personal gain, Milverton replies that it would suit his purposes very well. If it become known that he had ruined Lady Eva, then his other victims would be all the more anxious to settle. Penelope Horner’s Lady Eva is the nominal central figure, but it’s Lady Farningham (Stephanie Bidmead) who brings the story to its conclusion. She had previously suffered at Milverton’s hands and we see her return to exact a measure of revenge.
If the main plot is quite linear, there’s a great deal of incidental business (mostly centered around Holmes and Watson) which make this one very enjoyable. Nigel Stock is on fine form from the start – he’s disgusted with Milverton’s treatment of Lady Eva (indignantly calling him “a blackguard”) and later picks up a chair to attack him!
When Holmes decides that the only course of action is to burgle Milverton’s house, Watson insists on coming with him – despite Holmes’ protests. Eventually Holmes agrees and tells him that “we have shared the same rooms for a number of years, my dear fellow. I suppose it might be amusing if we ended up by sharing the same cell.”
Wilmer has some lovely comic business when he’s disguised as a plumber who’s been courting Milverton’s maid (he later tells a shocked Watson that he’s become engaged to the girl) . The pair enjoy a kiss and it’s obvious how discomforted Holmes is. He gingerly places his hands on the girl and then shortly afterwards attempts to break free of her tight embrace. Once they’ve finished, his first thought is to check that his false moustache is still in place!
The Granada adaptation was extended to two hours (and was broadcast under the name of The Master Blackmailer). It kept the same basic plot as the original short story, but the two hour running length ensured that a great deal of additional material had to be added. This means that the Wilmer adaptation does bear more direct resemblance to Conan-Doyle’s original and so, for me, is the preferable one.