H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – Crisis in the Desert

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Brady is approached by Colonel Warren (Douglas Wilmer) of Military Intelligence as one of their top agents, Jack Howard (Howard Pays), is being held prisoner in a Middle Eastern country.  Howard, badly injured after an abortive escape attempt, is being guarded in a high security hospital and only the Invisible Man – along with the alluring local assistance of Yolanda (Adrienne Corri) – has any chance of freeing him ….

Fictitious Middle Eastern countries, forever teetering on the edge of instability, would be a staple of ITC adventure series during the next decade or so and Crisis in the Desert is an early example of this genre.  Naturally, foreign location filming was beyond the series’ budget, so instead we have a reasonably dressed backlot (which doesn’t look too shabby, it must be said).

Ethnic actors would also tend to be in short supply whenever an ITC series headed abroad, so it’s no surprise to see British performers in all the main roles.  The eagle-eyed will spot Derren Nesbitt in the background, but the bulk of the action is divided between Corri as Yolanda, Eric Pohlmann as Yolanda’s associate Hassan and Martin Benson as the villainous Colonel Hassan.

These three, along with Wilmer, make Crisis in the Desert a very enjoyable watch.  Wilmer oozes charm as he persuades Brady (rather easily it must be said) to undertake a dangerous mission in the Middle East.  It’s interesting that Warren reacts with horror when Brady tells him he thinks he’s close to reversing his invisibility – it’s obvious that Warren needs an invisible man to rescue Howard, but it’s odd that he doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that once Brady has perfected his formula it could be duplicated.  Creating a whole army of invisible agents would have obvious benefits.  Given this, it seems a little foolhardy to risk Brady’s life (and the knowledge that only he has) on this jaunt abroad.

Corri had already racked up an impressive list of credits before appearing here as the glamourous freedom-fighter Yolanda.  She looks very nice in a nurse’s uniform as well.  Pohlmann has less to do, only react to Yolanda, but he’s effective enough.  Benson is great fun as the sadistic Hassan – he opens the story by slapping Howard about and later suggests to an unfortunate surgeon (played by Derek Sydney) that he performs a little brain operation on Howard in order to make him more pliant.

Several actors black up – most notably Peter Sallis as Nesib, the ambulance driver.  This probably isn’t a performance that’s going to be at the top of his cv, but for a working actor of this era playing the most unlikely nationalities was an occupational hazard (Sallis would later appear as an equally unconvincing Chinaman in an episode of Sergeant Cork).

The main problem with Crisis in the Desert is that there’s no real need for Brady to be there at all, as although he sneaks around the hospital in his invisible state, Nurse Yolanda is in plain sight all the time.  As we’ll see, this proves to be something of a problem for the writers – often the gimmick of having an invisible man tends to be sidelined as Brady is shoehorned into plots that don’t require his invisibility skills to be utilised.

Douglas Wilmer (1920-2016)

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Time marches on alas, and it’s more sad news that another favourite of this blog – Douglas Wilmer – has passed away.

Blessed with a long life and a lengthy career, he was also fortunate that he seemed to keep his sharpness pretty much to the end – he was a pithy contributor to the BFI DVD release of his Sherlock Holmes series last year.

I’ve written in depth about Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes elsewhere on the blog, but suffice it to say that if you love Holmes,  or you love archive television,  then the BFI set is something you really should have in your collection.

And even if you have no interest in Holmes, there’s plenty of other fine Wilmer performances to seek out.  RIP Douglas Wilmer.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Superfluous Finger

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Douglas Wilmer as Professor Van Dusen in The Superfluous Finger by Jacques Futrelle
Adapted by Julian Bond. Directed by Derek Bennett

A top surgeon, Prescott (Laurence Payne) is perturbed when a young woman (played by Veronica Strong) asks him to amputate one of her fingers.  Prescott refuses since there’s no medical reason to do so, but on her way out she deliberately traps her finger in the door – forcing Prescott to accede to her wishes.  He later calls in Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer) to untangle this strange mystery.

The Superfluous Finger was the second of two Professor Van Dusen stories to be adapted for series two of The Rivals.  The original story, by Jacques Futrelle, can be read here.

The story has a strong Sherlock Holmes influence, especially since it opens with a puzzling mystery (why should anybody wish to have a perfectly healthy finger amputated?).  Some of the other Holmesian touches were added by Julian Bond’s adaptation – such as Van Dusen being able to deduce that the woman recently travelled from America (due to her clothes) as well as his assertion that whilst he has many acquaintances he has very few friends.

Of course, having Douglas Wilmer in the lead role (a notable Sherlock Holmes himself) also helps to connect Van Dusen and Holmes.  But though there are some similarities between Wilmer’s portrayal of both characters there are also some fairly major differences.  Wilmer’s Holmes tended to be somewhat abrupt and humourless, whilst Van Dusen has a more light-hearted and ironic air.  Van Dusen seems to breeze through life in a rather detached way, rarely exhibiting strong emotions.

What connects the two is the delight they take in keeping their deductions to themselves.  Both are disinclined to share their initial thoughts with others (Holmes with Watson, Van Dusen with Prescott) for pretty much the same reason.  The others have seen what they’ve seen, so if they can’t draw the same conclusions from the evidence why should it be spelled out to them?

Van Dusen is aided in his investigation by the reporter Roderick Varley (Mark Eden).  It’s odd that Nicholas Courtney didn’t return as Hutchinson Hatch (especially since Hatch is featured in the original story) so I can only assume that filming dates for Doctor Who clashed with this recording.  But Eden is a more than adequate substitute and enjoys a decent part of the action.

This starts when he tails the mysterious woman in a film sequence which clearly had some money thrown at it.  We see hansom cabs with horses (one previous episode had a cab in the studio – but no horse – with a stage-hand clearly shaking it about to create the effect of motion!) as well as several extras walking up and down the street.  It’s a welcome moment of fresh air that does help to open out the story.

Varley later seems to find the woman murdered and is arrested by the police (in the form of Mallory, played by Charles Morgan).  Van Dusen has to go and effect his release, this he does in a wonderfully comic scene which showcases Douglas Wilmer at his best.  Charles Morgan was no stranger to playing Victorian policeman (thanks to his role in the long-running Sergeant Cork) and is just as good here.

William Mervyn (as Sir Hector Drummond) turns in the sort of eccentric performance that he possibly could have done in his sleep, but is amusing nonetheless.  And Laurence Payne is dependable as Prescott, the man who invites Van Dusen to investigate but finds it hard to hide his exasperation with the Professor’s unorthodox practices.

Although the story opens with an intriguing mystery it’s probably not too difficult to work out what the solution is long before Van Dusen tells us (the pre-credits sequence, added by Julian Bond, does tend to give the game away somewhat).  But whilst it’s not the most interesting story, Wilmer is once again good value as the eccentric Professor.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – Cell 13

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Douglas Wilmer as Professor Van Dusen in Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle
Adapted by Julian Bond. Directed by Reginald Colin

Professor Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer) doesn’t believe Fielding’s (Donald Pickering) claim that the prison he’s designed is escape proof and says so to his face (Van Dusen states he could escape from any cell in any prison within seven days).

Fielding, slighted by this attack on his professional abilities, agrees to the challenge and so shortly afterwards Van Dusen finds himself at the imposing Grangemoor prison.  The governor (Michael Gough) and the chief warder (Ray Smith) are certain that escape is impossible and the odds certainly seem stacked against the Professor.  Seven locked doors lie between Cell 13 and freedom.  Can Van Dusen really just “think” himself out of the prison?

The Problem of Cell 13 was written by the American author Jacques Futrelle and was originally published in 1905.  It was the first of a number of stories written by Futrelle about Professor Van Dusen, nicknamed “the thinking machine” and was later included in a volume of short stories which can be read here.

Futrelle’s promising career was cut short following his decision to travel aboard the Titanic. He refused to board a lifeboat, insisting that his wife take his place.  This ensured that whilst she lived, he didn’t.  His last book, My Lady’s Garter, was published posthumously in 1912, with his wife May adding the following inscription.  “To the heroes of the Titanic, I dedicate this my husband’s book.”

The peerless Douglas Wilmer is excellent as Van Dusen.  The Professor appears to be somewhat dreamy and remote, but it later becomes clear that he’s a man of rare intellect.  And Wilmer’s comic timing is used to good effect in the early part of the story, when he finds himself subjected to the attentions of the chief warder.

But as the days wear on, Van Dusen doesn’t seem to be any closer to escaping and his various attempts (a note thrown out the window, attempting to file the bars) seem to be both painfully obvious and terribly half-hearted.  Of course, he does manage to escape in the end – but for maximum impact this doesn’t happen until virtually the last minute of his seven days

In terms of the episode’s running time, this occurs at the end of part two – so part three allows Van Dusen to explain in detail just how he did it.  He also gets the opportunity to throw a few, well-deserved insults at the chief warder such as “it’s a pity you don’t exercise your wits as often as you exercise your tongue.”

With no actual crime, it’s much more of an intellectual exercise as well as an early example of the locked-room mystery, which would be a staple of the golden age of detective fiction.  And although it’s very much a vehicle for Wilmer, there’s some decent performances from the supporting cast. Michael Gough, Ray Smith, Clifford Rose and Donald Pickering are all worth watching (although Smith’s very fake beard and overly gruff voice are a little distracting).

It’s also nice to see Nicholas Courtney pop up in a small role and Derek Ware (a well-known stuntman) is the star of the pre-credits sequence (he plays a convict who attempts to escape, but is recaptured).  This sequence is notable since it’s shot on film (a rarity for The Rivals) and also at night, which gives it a glossy, expensive feeling – making a brief change from the usual, studio-bound nature of the series.

This is good stuff, thanks to Wilmer, and there’s another appearance from the Professor, later in the series, to look forward to.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Six

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If the whole series of Gurney Slade has offered a sly meta-textual commentary on the artifice of television, then this is taken to its logical conclusion in the sixth and final episode.

A group of executives pay a visit to the studio to observe the recording of an episode of Gurney Slade.  The recursive show-withina-show nature of the series is once again highlighted, as we then meet all of the characters from previous episodes.  They aren’t actors though – they’ve been created by Gurney’s imagination and now protest that due to his lack of thought they’re unable to live full lives.

The only character traits they have are the ones provided by Gurney – their other likes and dislikes are unknown and unknowable.  The prosecutor (Douglas Wilmer) makes this clear when he tells him that “I submit, Gurney Slade that you are guilty of providing us with inadequate lives.”

Gurney doesn’t believe it’s his fault though.  “All fictitious characters are the same. They just do the bit that the author gave them. They’re not like real people.”  This is a nod to Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, which depicted a group of characters who complain that their author hasn’t provided them with sufficiently rounded personalities and motivations.

But can Gurney help them?  There’s a sense that his time is coming to an end.  As the arguments between the characters are played out, a shadowy man in the production gallery notes that Gurney only has twenty minutes left (as the episode time counts down).  The same man is also able to control Gurney (without, it appears, Gurney being aware of this).

But Gurney does seem to understand that he’s as artifical as the rest.  He knows he was born in the studio six weeks ago and he also knows that someone’s coming to take him away.  The floor manager and the executives regard Gurney with the same dispassionate interest as the cameras and lights – to them, he’s just another piece of machinery.  Are they right?

As with previous episodes, there are sly comments about the television industry in general and this programme in particular.  Gurney is described to the executives as someone who “has a tendency to produce jokes nobody can understand. You pay it about five hundred a week and it’ll do practically anything.”

There are also moments that seem designed to touch upon Newley’s public and private personas.  For example, when he re-encounters the young girl (Anneke Wills) who fell in love with him in episode two, initially she’s still blindly in love with him.  But this is only because she (like the others) is a character defined by the character traits she’s been given by him.

When Gurney tells her that he pictured her aged eighteen or nineteen, she reacts to this by telling him that, in that case, he’s a little too old for her.  “Just think, when I’m thirty you’ll be forty. An old man!”  Newley and Wills would enjoy a relationship for several years following the recording of the series, but was there already something of a feeling of mid-life crisis in Newley’s psyche?  That sometime soon he’d find himself rejected by the younger women he desired?

Luckily for everybody (apart from Gurney) they’re offered new jobs by a gentleman from the Character Bureau.  The prosecutor, for example, lands a plumb role in Boyd QC (although he does grumble about typecasting) whilst Wills’ character looks aghast at having to take her clothes off in a French film.  Therefore every character seems to have been pigeonholed as archetypes, or stereotypes, depending on your point of view.

“Cue Anthony Newley”

With those words, the programme enters its final moments with an ending that’s as memorable and as weird as the final episode of The Prisoner (Fall Out).  But as touched upon before, when The Prisoner was transmitted (some seven years later) the sixties were well and truly swinging – back in 1960 it certainly wasn’t.  This makes Gurney Slade’s wild flights of fancy even more remarkable.

Although doomed to be a noble, but flawed, experiment, thanks to the 2011 Network DVD release The Strange World of Gurney Slade has gained something of a new audience.  It’s also probably the best visual showcase for the talents of Anthony Newley, whose later career was notable for its peaks and troughs.

Below is one of the trailers for the series, which is as idiosyncratic as you’d expect and offers a final, mocking, commentary on a short, but exceptional, series.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Four

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Gurney Slade is on trial.  “I did a television show recently and they didn’t think it was very funny.  I’m being charged with having no sense of humour.”  Given that by this time the series had been moved to a late-night slot (due to an alarming slump in viewing figures between the first and second episodes) this was a canny piece of prediction by Green, Hills and Newley.

Unlike the first three episodes, which were location based, this is shot entirely in the studio – which means that visually it obviously feels very different.  The courtroom set is quite basic – black drapes form the background, for example (giving a theatrical feel to proceedings).

When Gurney learns that the judge is the fairy-tale figure Princess Eleanor (who’s never laughed) he knows he’s got his work cut out.  Can he rely on his defending counsel, Archie?  Archie is a old-style music-hall comedian – modelled on the likes of Max Miller.  Possibly there’s something of Archie Rice (from John Osborne’s 1957 play, The Entertainer) in his style as well.  He offers a series of painfully unfunny jokes as part of Gurney’s defence, which makes Gurney believe he’d be better off defending himself.

The prosecuting counsel (a typically effective turn from Douglas Wilmer) is convinced of Gurney’s guilt and attempts to prove it by showing the jury a clip from one of his previous shows.  This is another self-reflective moment, as the clip is new – though it could have easily featured in one of the previous episodes.  We see Gurney sitting on a bus, musing about an advertisement showing a man who appears to be delighted about a new countersunk screw.

There then follows a series of arguments and counter-arguments about whether countersunk screws are funny or not.  An average family (the ones we saw in episode two) are called to the witness box.  The father says that the clip was clever.  Not funny, but clever.  The mother was less impressed.  “I didn’t understand what it was all about. Besides that, I don’t think it ought to be allowed. Bad for kids.”  As it turns out, that possibly wasn’t too far removed from the actual response of a good proportion of the audience.

With the jury being made up of twelve men dressed identically (in cloth caps and scarfs) it’s possible to sense a little contempt for the viewing audience.  This is a potentially difficult line to tread, but they seem to have got away with it (possibly because by this time, the people left watching had invested in the programme and its worldview).

Gurney interacts briefly with the jury – and they appear not to realise that he’s the one on trial.  When the foreman asks for a show of hands, Gurney is the only one who says not guilty.  He suggests they talk about it for a while (a clear nod to Twelve Angry Men).

If television is the main target in this episode, then the press aren’t immune either.  Before the jury come back with their verdict, Gurney is offered twenty thousand pounds for his life story.  He refuses, so the press turn to Leolia Plinge (“I will reveal everything.  I first met Gurney Slade at a beauty competition at Tufnell Park.”)

Gurney is found guilty – but he’s unable to be executed due to a problem with the axe.  It needs a countersunk screw to repair it, which makes the Princess laugh (and thereby gets Gurney off the hook).  It’s an ironic ending to an episode that, whilst it’s concerned with humour, isn’t particularly funny.

That’s not a criticism though.  There’s few laughs here, but it does have plenty of well-timed swipes at television makers, audiences, advertising and the media.  The stark setting and the minimal use of music helps to create a sense of tension and unease – which is unusual for a programme that’s supposed to be a comedy.  But by now it should be clear that Gurney Slade is a very unusual programme.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax

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Holmes muses to Watson that in his opinion “one of the most dangerous things in the world is the drifting and friendless woman. She may be perfectly harmless in herself, but all too often, she is a temptation to crime in others.  She is a stray chicken in a world of foxes, and when she is gobbled up, she is hardly missed. I very much fear that some evil has befallen the Lady Frances Carfax.” This monologue is a preamble to Holmes’ request that Watson travels to the hotel in Lausanne (where Lady Frances was last seen) so he can investigate her sudden disappearance.

Holmes is convinced that the trip will do his friend good, since he’s observed that Watson has been feeling run-down lately.  Watson, of course, is amazed that Holmes knows this – and Holmes’ explanation (involving the way Watson’s shoe-laces are tied) is a classic Conan-Doyle moment.

Watson travels to the hotel and speaks to the manager Moser (Roger Delgado).  Moser mentions that Lady Frances seemed to be worried by a bearded stranger and there’s also the question of why she gave a cheque for fifty pounds to her former maid.  The manager is also able to tell Watson that Lady Frances spent some time in the presence of Dr. Shlessinger and his wife.  This seems to be a dead-end though, as Dr. Shlessinger is a man of piety and devotion who surely can have connection to the case.

Watson’s investigations continue, but it’s maybe no surprise to learn that all of his efforts turn out to be futile.  Luckily, Holmes is on hand to shed some light on this tangled mystery.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
was originally published in 1911. Like the preceding story adapted for the series, The Retired Colourman, it’s memorable for depicting an independent Watson, sent off to investigate by Holmes.  It’s just a pity that since this happened so rarely, the two were broadcast one after another.

But no matter, as once again we can enjoy the sight of Nigel Stock’s Watson in investigative mode.  As ever, Stock plays these scenes so nicely (witness the moment when Moser wonders if Watson is a detective and you can see Stock visibly grow in stature).  Of course, things don’t go very well and he has to be rescued by Holmes after he gets into a tussle with the bearded stranger.

Despite Holmes’ claims that he was too busy to make the trip, he has (after reading Watson’s initial reports) decided to come over after all – and Wilmer’s sudden appearance is delightful.  Holmes is wearing a very effective disguise and his ironic comment of “Dear me, Watson. You have managed to make a hash of things, haven’t you?” is one of the episode’s many highlights.

For those brought up with the efficient and unflappable Watsons of the Granada series, this may be a little difficult to take – but it’s totally consistent with Conan-Doyle’s original story.  As good as the Granada series was (for the most part) it’s fair to say that on occasions, their eagerness to redress the perceived imbalance in some of the previous portrayals of Watson sometimes pushed the character too far the other way (making him rather too capable).

This excerpt from the Conan-Doyle story is interesting –

To Holmes I wrote showing how rapidly and surely I had got down to the roots of the matter. In reply I had a telegram asking for a description of Dr. Shlessinger’s left ear. Holmes’s ideas of humour are strange and occasionally offensive, so I took no notice of his ill-timed jest.

The clear inference from this is that Watson is heading for a fall, since we know that Holmes never makes a frivolous request.  And the fact that Watson, after all his years of experience, should think so doesn’t reflect well on him.

It’s also worth viewing the Granada adaptation, which takes many liberties with the original story – including completely removing the plot-thread of Watson being sent to investigate Lady Frances’ disappeance (in the Granada version he’s already present at the hotel and sends for Holmes when he becomes concerned for Lady Francis’ safety).  All of Watson’s mis-deductions are therefore absent, which isn’t surprising since they would have jarred with the efficient and capable picture of Watson presented since series one in 1984.  It’s a valid decision, but it sits rather uneasily with the Granada’s original claim that they would return to the original stories and present them authentically (undoing the harm they considered was done by earlier portrayals, such as Nigel Bruce’s).

Thanks to Holmes’ intervention, it becomes clear that the bearded stranger is a friend not foe.  His name is the Hon. Philip Green and had Lady Frances’ family not objected, he would have married her years ago.  Joss Ackland (as Green) is completely unrecognisable (he’s sporting long black hair and a black beard).

One of my favourite actors, Ronald Radd plays Peters, the villian of the piece and a brief appearance by another favourite, Roger Delgado, is just the icing on the cake.  Holmes and Watson return to London and track down Peters (the erstwhile Dr. Shlessinger).  I love the moment when Holmes and Watson confront him.  Holmes warns Peters that Watson is a very dangerous ruffian and, after a moments pause, Stock raises his stick in a mildly threatening manner!  It’s only a little throwaway moment (possibly worked out in rehearsal) but it never fails to raise a smile.

Location filming in France helps to give the story a sense of authenticity and whilst there’s the odd production misstep (the body in the coffin looks very odd) all in all this is a very strong end to the series.

This would be Douglas Wilmer’s final appearance as Holmes in the series, as various factors made him decide not to return for a second run.  These included problems with scripts, directors and the news that series two would be made to an even tighter production schedule than the first.  For Wilmer (who considered that the quality of the series was already compromised) this was unacceptable, and it would be Peter Cushing who would have to deal with numerous production difficulties when the series returned in 1968.

It’s fair to say that the series suffers from the same problems of virtually every series of this era.  Boom shadows are a regular presence and the sets sometimes wobble (and so do the actors!).  The stories only had a limited amount of studio-time (with over-runs strictly frowned upon) so occasionally we will see scenes with technical problems (line-fluffs, malfunctioning props) that could have been resolved had the time been available for another take.

But the series also has all the strengths of television of this era – and the main strength is the sheer quality of the actors.  Peter Wyngarde, Patrick Troughton, Patrick Wymark, Nyree Dawn Porter, James Bree, Anton Rodgers, Leonard Sachs, Derek Francis and Maurice Denham are just some of the fine actors to grace the stories prior to this one.  And that’s not forgetting the numerous smaller roles which were equally well performed.

It’s not surprising that the lavish Granada series tends to be regarded as the definitive Sherlock Holmes television version as the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes will never be able to compete in a visual sense (the BBC series was much more studio-bound and therefore lacked the visual sweep of the Granada Holmes).  But these adaptations were as good (and as faithful, if not more so) to Conan-Doyle’s original stories.  Plus the first BBC series has an obvious trump card – Douglas Wilmer.

Few actors have ever been able to capture as well as Wilmer the icy, logical nature of Holmes.  Watson once called him “the perfect reasoning machine” and it’s this precise, mechanical nature that Douglas Wilmer portrays to perfection.  Many actors would have sought to soften him, but Wilmer stays true to Conan-Doyle’s original.  It’s a performance that never fails to impress, as Wilmer (even in the scenes where he has little dialogue) is always doing something that’s worth watching.

He’s complimented by Nigel Stock’s Watson.  It’s, at times, a rather comedic turn, but as I’ve mentioned it’s probably not as far removed from the original text as some people would think.

If you love Sherlock Holmes or you love 1960’s British television then the BFI DVD is a treasure.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Retired Colourman

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Watson briefly meets Holmes’ latest client, Josiah Amberley (Maurice Denham), on the stairs.  When Holmes asks what opinion he formed of the man, Watson confesses he found him to be “a pathetic, futile, broken creature.”

Holmes agrees, but Amberley certainly seems to have cause for distress.  His wife has disappeared, along with Dr Ray Ernest (a friend of both of them).  Also, his strong-box has been forced and a considerable amount of cash and securities taken.  Can Holmes locate the pair as well as Amberley’s missing money?  Naturally, he can.  But the solution to the mystery isn’t quite as straightforward as it initially seems.

The Retired Colourman was one of the final Sherlock Holmes stories, originally published in 1926.  Given that it’s a very decent mystery, it’s surprising that this was the only time it was adapted for the screen.

With Holmes otherwise engaged, it falls to Watson to begin the investigation.  And this means that the story is a lovely vehicle for Nigel Stock’s Watson.  His performance in the series has, it’s fair to say, attracted some criticism over the years.  He’s not quite in the Nigel Bruce buffoon category, but neither is he as competent as the Granada Watsons.

Stock’s Watson is honest, loyal and totally unimaginative.  Yes, the series does delight in showing him to be several steps behind Holmes at all times, but if you closely read the original stories that’s a perfectly valid interpretation.  For example, in this story Holmes is very blunt when he tells Watson that his initial enquiries have missed almost everything of importance (this is taken directly from Conan-Doyle’s original story).

He’s paired up for most of the duration with Maurice Denham’s Amberley.  Denham, as expected, gives a fine performance and there’s something very entertaining about the combination of the relentlessly cheerful Watson and the doom-laden Amberley.

Holmes is rather cruel to Watson – as he sends him and Amberley off on a wild-goose chase so that he can do a spot of burglary at Amberley’s house.  Indeed, Holmes sends them so far afield that Watson and Amberley have to spend the night in a rather uncomfortable country hotel.  In the original story Watson speaks to Holmes on the phone, but here Holmes dictates a telegram to his unfortunate colleague.  The result is the same though and it’s clear from the expressions on the faces of Holmes and Mrs Hudson (making a rare appearance in the Wilmer series) that they have little pity for poor Watson, trapped at a hotel at Frinton with the unpleasant Amberley!

Denham and Stock are the chief reasons why this one is very watchable.  It’s true that there are a few plot-holes (particularly why Amberley decided to consult Holmes in the first place) but these are problems with Conan-Doyle’s story and Jan Read’s dramatisation is content to faithfully adapt the original material.  A generous amount of location filming helps to open the story out (some of the other studio-bound ones do tend to feel a little claustrophobic).

An interesting adaption of one of the “lesser” stories from the canon.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – Charles Augustus Milverton

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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.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Bruce-Partington Plans

bruce

Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Derek Francis) is a man of regular habits. Nothing (except the gravest crisis) would make him deviate from his normal schedule.  So when he turns up at Baker Street, with Inspector Lestrade in tow, Holmes knows it’s serious.

But his brother’s arrival is just what Holmes needs, as prior to this he had bitterly complained to Watson about how dull the London criminal had become. Now, Mycroft offers him an intriguing case of the most pressing urgency.

A clerk from the Royal Woolwich Arsenal, Arthur Cadogan West, has been found dead on the Underground tracks near Aldgate tube station. On his body were several documents relating to the top secret Bruce-Partington submarine. Several more vital documents about the submarine are missing and Mycroft urges Holmes to use all of his powers to track them down.  It seems obvious that Cadogan West stole the plans and had intended to sell them to the highest bidder. But as we’ve seen in previous stories, the truth is sometimes not quite so straightforward ….

The Bruce-Partington Plans was originally published in 1908.  It featured the second and final appearance of Mycroft Holmes. He first turned up in The Greek Interpreter, which was adapted for the second series of Sherlock Holmes (starring Peter Cushing).  Sadly, that episode is missing.

We’re slightly more lucky with this one, as the first half of the story exists (and there’s an audio copy of the second half).  For this DVD, the audio for the missing half has been nicely cleaned up and is synchronised to a reproduction of the script (with images of the cast in the background).

This works pretty well, although since the soundtrack is so clear it probably wasn’t necessary to have the script on-screen at the same time as the audio.  Instead, a decent reconstruction could have been made with images taken from the first half, along with on-screen descriptions for any visual sequences.  But while the script is sometimes distracting (mainly because it often varies from the actual dialogue spoken) it still clearly allows the viewer to understand how the story concludes.  It’s also interesting that the soundtrack for the existing half of the story doesn’t seem to be in the greatest shape – at various points the odd word is inaudible.

But although the ravages of time have rather compromised this story, what remains is very decent fare.  Derek Francis is a rather good Mycroft and though this story doesn’t have the same sort of one-upmanship that The Greek Interpreter did, there’s still some nice moments between the brothers (mainly visual ones).  For example, when Holmes offers Mycroft a seat, Mycroft promptly takes Holmes’ own – much to Holmes’ annoyance (and Watson’s amusement!).  Later we see Mycoft very freely use Holmes’ tobacco – and again there’s a slight flicker of annoyance from Sherlock.

An effective piece of model-work (a rather nice train!) and a smoky studio set help to bring the railway section of the story alive in the first half of the story and, as ever, The Bruce-Partington Plans boasts the usual quality cast (even in the smaller roles).

John Woodnutt (a highly familiar face during four decades or more of British film and television) is the station-master, whilst Gordon Gostelow (again, another very well-known actor) plays Sydney Johnson, Cadogan West’s superior.  Allan Cutherbertson, whose lengthy career included a visit to Fawlty Towers as well as a stint acting as Tommy Cooper’s straight-man, was no stranger to dramatic parts – and he’s well-cast as Colonel Valentine Walter.  It’s a pity that his more intense scenes come at the end of the story, when we don’t have the visuals.

As we’ve previously seen, Wilmer’s Holmes can be incredibly rude and off-hand at times.  His dismissal of Lestrade early in the story is a case in point and Stock’s Watson covers well for him – Holmes is clearly a man for whom social niceties count for very little.  But although he can be chilling at times, he’s also able to extend a degree of courtesy – witness his interview with Cadogan West’s fiance Violet Westbury (Sandra Payne).  Violet was convinced that her late fiance was innocent and though Holmes couldn’t hide his irritation when he realised she had little useful to tell him, he was still able to reassure her that he would do everything he could to restore Cadogan West’s honour.

Few actors have ever quite managed to capture all the nuances of Holmes’ character quite as well as Douglas Wilmer did – and he’s a major reason why this series should continue to be enjoyed by anybody who loves the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Beryl Coronet

beryl

Alexander Holder (Leonard Sachs) is a well-respected city banker.  Early one evening he is visited by a prominent member of society who urgently needs £50,000.  Holder is happy to advance the money, especially when he’s given the Beryl Coronet as collateral.  Holder shows it to his son and niece and though he admits it’s not quite the Crown Jewels, it’s certainly highly impressive – and is worth at least double the amount he’s advanced.

Holder’s son, Arthur (Richard Carpenter), is worried about such a valuable item residing overnight in their house, but he also has concerns of his own.  Although he’s an amiable sort, Arthur is a gambler and owes a considerable sum.  He asks his father for several hundred pounds, but Holder refuses – he’s tired of settling his son’s gambling debts.

In the middle of the night, Holder is awoken and comes downstairs to find the coronet in the hands of his son.  He is appalled to find that the crown is broken and three beryls are missing.  Arthur offers no defence and is arrested.  Although an intensive search is carried out, there’s no trace of the missing jewels.  It seems to be a simple case and Arthur’s guilt appears to be obvious, but Holmes is never prepared to take anything at face value.

The Beryl Coronet was one of the earliest Sherlock Holmes short stories (originally published in the Strand Magazine in 1892).  Since it was never adapted for the Granada series, the Douglas Wilmer version is quite noteworthy, as it’s the only sound version of the story (it was twice adapted for the silent screen, in 1912 and 1921).

Although Wilmer and Stock don’t enter the story until the 17th minute, it’s still a lovely vehicle for both of them.  Wilmer’s Holmes is rather enigmatic in this one – until he reveals the true solution to Holder at the end, he’s not prepared to share any of his theories.  This, of course, helps to sustain the mystery, which is no bad thing.  Holmes also gets to don a disguise (which totally fools Watson!)

The story boasts a strong supporting cast.  Leonard Sachs (best known for The Good Old Days) is the unfortunate Holder, whilst Richard Carpenter is his son, Arthur.  Carpenter was a decent actor, but it’s his later career as a writer that he’ll undoubtedly be best remembered for.  Amongst his many writing credits were the well-remembered Look and Read serial The Boy From Space, Catweazle, The Ghosts of Motley Hall, Dick Turpin and the best television adaptation of the Robin Hood legend – Robin of Sherwood. He’s very appealing as the unfortunate Arthur, who’s regarded by everybody (except Holmes and Watson) as clearly guilty.  Another noteworthy appearance comes from David Burke as the devious Sir George.  Burke would later play Watson opposite Jeremy Brett’s Holmes during the first two series of the Granada run.

The Beryl Coronet possibly wasn’t the most obvious story to adapt, but I’m glad they did – especially since nobody else had done so since 1921!  Wilmer continues to dominate the screen and it’s easy to see why, for so many people, he’s regarded as the archetypical Holmes.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Man with the Twisted Lip

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Mrs St. Clair (Anna Cropper) has travelled to London to conduct some business.  On her way back to the train station, she passes through Upper Swandam Lane (home to a notorious opium den).  Mrs St. Clair is astonished to see her husband briefly at the upper window of this disreputable place – but a second later he vanishes (as if pulled back by some unseen hand).

Neville St. Clair is a respected journalist who would have no reason to visit such a dive – unless he was a secret opium addict.  When Mrs St. Clair returns with the police they find no trace of her husband, although in the upstairs room they do discover a box of children’s blocks.  Mrs St. Clair collapses, as her husband told her he planned to buy such a toy for one of their children that very day.  Mr St. Clair’s clothes are also discovered.

All the evidence suggests that a well-known beggar, Hugh Boone (Anton Rodgers), was with Mr St. Clair when he was spotted by his wife.  Boone is quickly picked up by the police, but he’s saying nothing.  Holmes is convinced that Boone holds the key to Neville St. Clair’s disappearance – which he does, although Holmes’ solution is a most unexpected one.

The Man with the Twisted Lip was one of the original batch of Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in the Strand Magazine in December 1891.  Jan Read’s dramatisation is pretty faithful to the source material, but it’s a pity that the original, striking, opening wasn’t used.  In Doyle’s story, Watson travels to the opium den to extract a friend of his, Isa Whitney, who has fallen under the thrall of the drug.  When he’s leading his friend outside, he’s accosted by an old man (who turns out to be Holmes in disguise).  Holmes then explains that he’s investigating the disappearance of Neville St. Clair.  In Read’s adaptation, Watson does discover a disguised Holmes, but it sits rather uneasily in the middle of the story (where it makes less sense).

Although his screen-time is quite limited, Anton Rodgers is very effective as the disfigured beggar, Hugh Boone.  Anna Cropper, as Mrs St. Clair, is the latest stoic beauty to turn to Holmes for help.  A sign that retakes were only undertaken in the gravest circumstances is demonstrated by the scene where Mrs St. Clair visits Baker Street.  After lifting the veil from her hat, it falls down again and she simply has to push it back up and carry on.

Given the small pool of ethnic actors working in the UK during the period, it was very common to see British actors playing characters of every nationality.  Here we see Olaf Pooley (as the villainous Lascar) browned up.  To modern eyes it may seem strange, but it wasn’t an unusual occurrence at the time.

The Man with the Twisted Lip benefits from some atmospheric location filming in the East End.  The story could have been shot entirely in the studio, but the real locations certainly add something to the end product.  Within a few years redevelopment would have changed the locations beyond all recognition, so they were used at just the right time.

The first story of the series to be made (it was recorded in September 1964) it’s a very efficient production.  Given that the majority of the stories adapted for this series were later also adapted for the Granada series, it’s difficult to avoid comparing the two.  It’s slightly unfair though, since the Granada series had a much larger budget and therefore it would always score highly, particularly in a visual sense.  But whilst the Wilmer series has more modest production values, it can certainly hold its own performance wise, and in the end it’s the performances that really matter.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Six Napoleons

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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.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Abbey Grange

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Holmes and Watson are summoned to the Abbey Grange by Inspector Hopkins (John Barcroft) to investigate the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall.  His wife, Lady Brackenstall (Nyree Dawn Porter), was also attacked, but only received superficial injuries.

Holmes is irritated to have been called out as the solution seems obvious.  The district has been plagued by the Randall gang (a father and two sons) who have committed several burglaries in the neighbourhood.  After listening to Lady Brackenstall’s story, there seems no doubt that the Randall gang were responsible for this outrage as well.

But on the way back to London, Holmes isn’t happy.  It’s only a small point which worries him (concerning three wine glasses) but it’s enough to make him return to the scene of the crime and look again at the evidence.

The Abbey Grange was originally published in 1904 (it was one of the stories published directly after Holmes’ remarkable return from the Reichenbach Falls).  Sadly, this is one of two episodes which are incomplete in the archives.  Each story was made up of two 25 minute reels – and in the case of The Abbey Grange the first reel is missing (for The Bruce PartingtonPlans, the second reel has been lost).

The DVD has filled in the missing section in a novel way – with a reading by Douglas Wilmer.  Since the adaptation made a few changes to the original story, the text has also been slightly adjusted – but it’s basically the same as Conan-Doyle’s original.  This reading runs for around twenty minutes and works pretty well – although it might have been better to have reduced the text to a summary of around half the time.  But kudos to the BFI and Douglas Wilmer for making it happen, it’s certainly a nice bonus feature.

When we get to the existing section, it’s a chance to observe Holmes at his analytical best – puzzling over the three wine glasses and the severed end of the bell-rope.  His observations are enough to reveal the identity of the true murderer (which is something the police never discover).  As with several stories in the canon, Holmes elects to take the law into his own hands, calling on Watson to act as the jury.  Watson finds the man not guilty – so he’s allowed to go free.

The gorgeous Nyree Dawn Porter is effectively winsome as Lady Brackenstall, a woman who now finds herself freed from the clutches of a cruel and abusive husband.  Peter Jesson has the small (but important) part of Captain Croker, whilst Peggy Thorpe-Bates (later to be a formidable “She” opposite Leo McKern’s Rumpole) is Lady Brackenstall’s faithful maid.

With a large portion of the story missing, it’s difficult to assess how effective it is overall – but what we do have is impressive, and it works particularly well as a showcase for Wilmer’s Holmes.

Douglas Wilmer
Douglas Wilmer

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.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Copper Beeches

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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.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Devil’s Foot

devil

Stress and overwork have affected Sherlock Holmes’ iron constitution, so both he and Dr Watson are enjoying a holiday in Cornwall. Holmes, naturally enough, abhors inactivity and is keen to seize on any distraction – so when the vicar (John Glyn-Jones) bursts into their cottage early one morning with a tale of death and madness, he’s immediately interested.

Three members of the Tregennis family have been struck down in a most inexplicable way – the sister is dead whilst the two brothers have been driven quite mad. There is a fourth Tregennis sibling, Mortimer (Patrick Troughton), who was present with them the previous evening, but he insists that when he left all was well.

Holmes and Watson risk their own sanity to solve this devilish puzzle ….

Originally published in 1910, The Devil’s Foot was one of Conan-Doyle’s favourite Sherlock Holmes stories (he ranked it ninth out of twelve favourites). With a very limited number of suspects it’s not really a whodunnit, rather it’s a howtheydunnit.

Famously when the script was delivered, it was found to be dramatically under-running, so both Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock intensively worked on it and were able to bring it up to correct length. This is mentioned in the BFI booklet, so there must be some credence to the story, but it’s hard to understand why the actors had to do this (rather than script-editor Anthony Read).

Douglas Wilmer does give his opinion about what Anthony Read was doing at the time (via the highly entertaining commentary track). I won’t reveal what he says, but it’s not terribly complimentary! The comm track on this episode is a must listen as though Wilmer is 95, he’s still as sharp as a tack. Although his dissatisfaction with some parts of the series was well known (and this was the reason why he didn’t do a second series) I wasn’t quite aware just how unhappy he was.

He seems to have had problems with the producer, some of the directors (who he considered to be far too inexperienced) as well as several of the adaptations. Overall, he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed himself at all – which is a pity, partly because it’s still an impressive series (despite whatever was happening behind-the-scenes) but also because it’s the programme he’s best remembered for. But although making the series wasn’t always a happy one for him, he’s still got a sharp sense of humour and this helps to stop the commentary track from simply being a long list of complaints.

The story benefits from location filming in Cornwall (the jagged cliffs and stormy seas are particularly photogenic). It’s just a shame that the original film sequences no longer exist (as the telecine process tends to make the images rather murky).

There’s a remarkable performance from John Glyn-Jones as the vicar. I can’t decide whether he’s playing his initial scenes (where he describes the horror of the Tregennis house) for laughs or if he’s simply overplaying to a ridiculous degree. Much more assured is Patrick Troughton as Mortimer Tregennis. It’s always a pleasure to see Troughton and whilst it’s a fairly low-key part, Troughton’s class still shines through.

His character is rather shifty and therefore appears to be a prime-suspect – so his death (in an identical fashion to his sister) mid-way through the story is a good twist. Suspicion then falls on Dr Sterndale (Carl Bernard) who has already clashed swords with Holmes earlier on.

Holmes eventually divines the way the murders were carried out and elects to undertake an experiment to replicate the same effect. Watson is steadfast in accepting to stay with him and afterwards we see a very nice moment between Holmes and Watson (and Wilmer and Stock). If Wilmer’s Holmes is often rather detached and analytical (with not too much of the warmth and humour that some actors have brought to the part) then the aftermath of the experiment provides us with a telling scene.

Holmes berates himself for risking both his and Watson’s life, although Watson tells him that “it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you.” Any Holmes/Watson relationship will only work if you believe that they enjoy a strong bond of friendship – if Holmes is too remote or Watson too stupid, then it’s difficult to fully invest in the characters.

Some of Doyle’s stories, like this one, do feel slightly stretched when adapted for a fifty minute slot, but overall The Devil’s Foot is very decent fare – thanks to Troughton, the Cornish location and the continuing good work from Wilmer and Stock.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Illustrious Client

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Holmes is consulted by Sir James Damery (Ballard Berkeley) who is acting for an unnamed (but illustrious) client. Violet de Merville (Jennie Linden) is engaged to be married to Baron Gruner (Peter Wyngarde). Gruner has an evil reputation (several deaths, including that of his former wife, can be laid at his door – although he’s never actually been convicted of anything).

Many people have attempted to warn Violet off, but she is completely besotted with Gruner and won’t hear a word against him. Holmes agrees to act but Gruner is a very dangerous man, so by opposing him Holmes will put his life in danger …..

The Illustrious Client was one of Conan Doyle’s final Holmes tales (originally published in 1924). The majority of stories adapted for this series tended to be drawn from the earlier runs (which are generally considered to be stronger) but since this one has a formidable villain it’s no surprise that it was selected.

Peter Wyngarde (later to play the dandy writer and sometimes detective Jason King) is compelling as the malevolent Gruner. Yes, his accent is a little distracting, but he manages to display such a sense of menace that you can forgive him for that. Gruner’s relationship with the unfortunate Violet is an interesting part of the adaptation – he makes no attempt to hide his cruel streak, instead he seems to revel in mistreating her (and she either enjoys it or is so blinded that it simply doesn’t register).

Linden (who would play Big Screen Barbara later that year in Doctor Who and the Daleks) exerts an icy control over herself whereas Rosemary Leach (as Kitty Winter) barely has any control at all. Kitty was one of the Baron’s many previous conquests – used and then tossed aside. She agrees to help Holmes in his attempt to make Violet see exactly what sort of a man the Baron is, but she also has her own agenda.  It was one of Leach’s earliest television appearances and she’s very watchable as the bitter and damaged Kitty.

There’s plenty to enjoy in this one. Holmes and Watson take a trip to a music hall to visit one of Holmes’ underworld contacts. Although it’s only a studio set, it looks very impressive and clever camera angles manage to hide how small it is (and how few people are actually there).

Holmes and Gruner face off in a spellbinding scene (lifted virtually verbatim from the original story) which is a perfect showcase for both Wilmer and Wyngarde. The only thing that slightly spoils it is some rather wonky camerawork at the start (which was something that tended to happen in VT dramas of the period – a pity they couldn’t have gone back for another take).

Nigel Stock might be largely used for comic relief, but he still manages to instill Watson with a certain dignity. Although it must be said that one of the drawbacks of making his character seem a little dense is that when Holmes asks him to swot up on Chinese pottery (so he can distract Gruner, whilst Holmes burgles his study for incriminating evidence) it’s difficult to believe that he’d be able to pull it off.

But he does pretty well and the scene between Stock and Wyngarde is another good one – Wyngarde is arrogantly playful, whilst Stock falls back on bluster when he realises he’s on shaky ground.

Like some other Sherlock Holmes stories, there’s no real mystery here – rather the story revolves around the different characters and the way they interact with each other. And thanks to the first-rate guest cast (headed by Peter Wyngarde and Rosemary Leach) it’s a memorable fifty minutes.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Speckled Band

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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.

Sherlock Holmes (BBC Douglas Wilmer series) – BFI DVD Review

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The Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes series (broadcast during 1964 and 1965) wasn’t the first time that the BBC had brought the Great Detective to the screen. Alan Wheatley and Raymond Francis had starred as Holmes and Watson in a short series of six adaptations, broadcast live in 1951. Wheatley would later call it the most difficult job of his career – as the adaptations had been structured in such a way which left little time for the actors to get from one set to the next or make costume changes. According to Wheatley, the worst example of this occured in one of C.J. Lejurne’s dramatisations when “in one particular scene she finished up with a sentence from me, and opened the next scene also with a sentence from me, in heavy disguise, with no time at all for a change!”

With no effective way for recordings to be made from live broadcasts in the early 1950’s, we’ll never know exactly how good (or bad!) the 1951 series was, as no visual or audio record exists. But we’re much more fortunate with the Wilmer series – as eleven of the thirteen episodes exist in their entirety (later, we’ll discuss how the BFI have dealt with the two partly missing stories).

The stories adapted for the first series of Sherlock Holmes (a second, starring Peter Cushing as Holmes with Nigel Stock continuing as Watson was broadcast a few years later) are as follows –

The Speckled Band (18 May 1964). This was transmitted as an episode of the Detective series.

The Illustrious Client (20 February 1965)
The Devil’s Foot (27 February 1965)
The Copper Beeches (06 March 1965)
The Red-Headed League (13 March 1965)
The Abbey Grange (20 March 1965)
The Six Napoleons (27 March 1965)
The Man with the Twisted Lip (03 April 1965)
The Beryl Coronet (10 April 1965)
The Bruce-Partington Plans (17 April 1965)
Charles Augustus Milverton (24 April 1965)
The Retired Colourman (01 May 1965)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (08 May 1965)

With the complete canon to cherry-pick stories from, the above list is an interesting selection. Some of the choices are no surprise, since they’re amongst the most popular of ACD’s tales (the likes of The Speckled Band, The Copper Beeches, The Red-Headed League, The Six Napoleons and The Man With the Twisted Lip) although it’s surprising that a few others (The Retired Colourman and The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, for example) were chosen ahead of arguably stronger fare.

Of course, had the series continued, then maybe the ultimate aim would have been to record all of the fifty-six short stories and four novels. This is something that no British series has ever done (the Granada series with Jeremy Brett came close – but by the time Brett died, there were still more than a dozen unfilmed stories).

By the mid 1960’s, television no longer had to be transmitted live, since it was possible to pre-record. However, it was still often recorded “as live” (shot in long continuous takes with recording only pausing for serious technical problems or when it was impossible for the action to continue from one set to another without a pause).

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The Speckled Band

Sherlock Holmes, like the majority of BBC drama of the period, was made largely in the studio (captured on 405-line videotape with exteriors shot on film). Since videotape was very expensive, the tapes would be routinely wiped in order to record new programmes – so virtually everything that still exists from these years does so thanks to the film copies that were made (either for overseas sales or because the programme was so technically complex that it had been decided to edit and transmit it from a film dub).

Anybody who knows a little about British television of this era will be aware that the survival rates of programmes can be frustratingly inconsistent – so we’re very lucky that virtually all of the Wilmer series exists (the Cushing series is sadly much less complete). Something else which the archive television fan will be aware of is that the existing film prints of any series tend to vary in quality – which can be for several reasons.

It may be because the prints were “biked” from country to country (when a particular country had finished broadcasting it, as per agreements with BBC Enterprises they then forwarded it onto the next country in the chain) and so the print would have suffered wear-and-tear (dirt, damage, etc). Or it might be due to the telerecording process used (The Speckled Band was the only one of the Wilmer series to be recorded with the ‘suppressed field’ process – a system that produces a noticeably lower picture quality).

The upshot is that whilst watchable, previous releases (such as the Region 1 DVD) left a little to be desired on the visual front. This BFI DVD features restored versions of all episodes and does offer a good upgrade. Although it’s true to say that it could be better (it’s not up to the standards of the frame-by-frame restorations and VidFIREd black & white Doctor Who stories, for example) it’s important to understand that the budget for restoration will only stretch so far.

If you have the BFI release of Out of the Unknown, then the restoration carried out here is comparable – certainly every story now looks better than it did on the Region 1 DVD and various picture flaws that were previously very evident (a tramline scratch on a long section of The Devil’s Foot, for example) have either been fixed or made much less obvious. With more time and money the episodes could have been improved even more – but when so many programmes of this era languish unreleased in the archive (and of the few that are released, many don’t receive any restoration) the picture quality of these episodes are generally very pleasing.  Peter Crocker, of SVS Resources, should be applauded for his efforts, considering the limited time and budget he had to work with.

If the improved picture quality is one reason to upgrade, then the strong selection of special features is certainly another. Chief amongst these are the inclusion of the existing footage from the two incomplete episodes – The Abbey Grange and The Bruce-Partington Plans (which is very welcome since neither story was represented on the previous DVD releases).

The first half of The Abbey Grange no longer exists, so it’s completed with a newly shot sequence of Douglas Wilmer reading an adaptation of the story. The second half of The Bruce-Partington Plans is missing from the archives and it’s been completed with an off-air soundtrack syncronised to extracts from the camera script. Neither is a substitute for having the complete episode (and it might have been wise to cut-down Wilmer’s piece to camera for The Abbey Grange) but it’s certainly much, much better than nothing (like the Region 1 release offered us).

Like Out of the Unknown, Toby Hadoke and producer John Kelly have assembled a mouthwatering series of commentary tracks with directors Peter Sasdy and Peter Cregeen as well as actors Douglas Wilmer, David Andrews and Trevor Martin across five episodes.

Wilmer’s involvement (on two commentaries, a 22 minute interview and the first half reading of The Abbey Grange) is particularly welcome. The BFI should be applauded for including so many good supplementary features, as these help to place the original programmes in their correct historical and cultural contexts.

From Tuesday onwards, I’ll be blogging a quick review of each story (where I’ll go into more detail about the merits of both Wilmer and Stock) but suffice it to say that if you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes or simply a fan of 1960’s British television, then this is must buy. Good picture restoration and a quality selection of bonus features help to enhance a very strong series. Hopefully sales of this will be good enough to persuade the BFI that other BBC series of the same era deserve similar treatment.

But for now, I’d strongly recommend picking up a copy of this classic series.