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

carfax

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.

Callan – Nice People Die at Home

nice people

Written by Robert Banks Stewart
Directed by Peter Duguid

Eric Marshall (Harry Towb) and his daughter Nadia (Angela Morant) run a pet shop in Shepherds Bush.  They’re also enemy agents.  The stuff they do is pretty low-grade though, Hunter says that they’re “little more than clerks, transmitting, reducing stuff to microdots and delivering to dead letter boxes around London”.

They have their uses though, as Hunter wants to unwittingly employ them to catch a big fish – Belukov (Frederick Jaeger).  Belukov is a remote figure who never leaves the safety of his Embassy, but when Hunter spreads a story that the Marshalls wish to defect, he hopes it will flush him out.  And Callan will be there to finish him off.  He has a special interest in this mission – six years ago Belukov killed Callan’s girlfriend in Beirut.

As with all the episodes featuring Ronald Radd’s Hunter, it’s the conflict between him and Callan that provides a great deal of the drama.  This is no exception, as once Hunter has told him that his target is Belukov, he’s pleased to see the reaction on Callan’s face.  Callan wants to kill Belukov, of course, but he’s also angry with the way that this Hunter can manipulate him.  “You know, ever since you left, this has just been an ordinary job for me. But no, that’s not good enough for you, mate. You’ve really got to get me going”.  Hunter responds by telling him that “you always work much better that way, Callan”.

Callan replaces an enemy agent called Ross (Roger Bizley) and can’t help but get to like both Marshall and his daughter.  They’re not monsters – just two people working for the interests of their country.  And when Callan realises that Marshall is terminally ill, he tells Hunter that “I wouldn’t have gone within a mile of that place if I’d known. Trust you to use a man who’s only got a few months to live”.

Hunter is unmoved – if the Marshalls have to be sacrificed then they will.  Callan knows what will happen to them if they’re caught.  Eric Marshall will be dead within a few months and his daughter will languish in jail for twenty years.  Later, Callan is able to spirit an injured Belukov away and offers Hunter an ultimatum.  He’ll kill Belukov if Hunter allows the Marshalls’ to leave the country.

Frederick Jaeger is good value as Belukov.  Once he was a top agent, now he’s reduced to pushing paper around the Embassy, although the crisis that Callan and Hunter create does force him into the open.  At the end of the story, Belukov taunts Callan that he’s weak and always has been.  Could Callan kill an injured, unarmed man in cold blood?  The final shot of the episode is interesting, as Callan attempts to wipe the blood (real or imaginary?) from his hands.

There’s also a few decent scenes for Lonely, who’s greeted by Callan with the words “My god Lonely, you smell like rising damp today, you really do”.  We also get to see Meres’ unusual interrogation techniques, which include firing a gun close to the unfortunate individual as well as driving golf balls at him.

Nice People Die at Home is mainly about the relationship between Callan & Hunter and Callan & Belukov.  The three actors are firing on all cylinders, especially Edward Woodward who once again is unforgettable as the complex, conflicted Callan.

Callan – The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw

tessa

Written by James Mitchell
Directed by Robert Tronson

Since Colonel Leslie (Ronald Radd) left the post of Hunter, he’s been working for the British government as an adviser on the Middle East.  One particular Middle Eastern country concerns him – it’s oil-rich, but there are indications that the Sultan is keen to expand his empire (which would mean encroaching on areas protected by the British).

The Sultan needs somebody to head his army though and he’s chosen Brigadier Pringle (Allan Cuthbertson).  This automatically puts Pringle in a red file and Callan is assigned to watch him.  He has a way in – it was Pringle who was responsible for Callan’s dismissal from the army.

Posing as a down-and-out, Callan catches the sympathy of Pringle’s daughter Sarah (Tessa Wyatt).  Pringle offers him a job as his valet, but he clearly could use a man like Callan in his new army.  Whilst Pringle might regard him as the worst solider he ever saw, that was only in peace-time.  In war, Callan would be a valuable asset.

The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw sheds some light on Callan’s life in the army.  Pringle’s description of him back then shows that he’s changed very little over the years.

SARAH: He must have been a very good soldier.
PRINGLE: Depends what you mean by a soldier. He was brave enough, certainly, but far too much of an individualist for the army. He always questioned orders, went his own way, that’s why he stayed a private. I made him up to corporal twice and I broke him twice. Finally I got him chucked out.
SARAH: So why do you bother now?
CALLAN: My dear, an army’s simply a device for killing the enemy. And as a killer, Callan was unequaled.

At the end of the episode, Callan is able to forcibly tell Pringle that “you bloody taught me how to kill, and when I got too rough, mate, you didn’t like it, did you?”.  The skills that Callan learnt in the army have subsequently been put to very good use by the Section.  This reinforces the notion that Callan is a man who’s trapped by his past and is therefore reluctantly forced to carry on fighting and killing (something he’s very good at).

Allan Cuthbertson was a familiar face from television and films and he’s characteristically solid as the autocratic Brigadier Pringle.  Tessa Wyatt is his idealistic daughter, who decides that she doesn’t want to follow him to the Middle East. Instead she’d sooner stay in Britain and help those less fortunate than herself.  They live in totally different worlds, he’s a solider through and through – as he admits, it’s the only thing he knows how to do – whilst she’s non-political and views the prospect of war with horror.  Their relationship helps to humanise Pringle as well as providing some dramatic tension.

The episode has some lighter moments – Edward Woodward is good value as a servile domestic who can’t help but let his more truculent nature shine though from time to time.  Anthony Valentine gets to play lower-class for a change, which is quite amusing.

Plot-wise, given that it’s clear from the outset that Pringle is keen to go to the Middle East, why didn’t the Section simply warn him off or take other, more permanent, measures?  As Meres says “there’s no need to speak to him nicely, he’s in a red file”.

The next episode (Nice People Die At Home) was held over from the first series, which explains why Ronald Radd pops up in this one.  As it would have been a bit odd to have a story where Radd returns as Hunter with no explanation, here he’s asked to take over temporarily whilst the current Hunter makes a trip to Russia.

This gives the episode a lovely final scene as Callan comes into the office and is confronted by his old nemesis. Callan’s relationship with Colonel Leslie was always very combative.  So as soon as he sees him, Callan asks for leave – which is refused.  Instead, he’s offered a choice of assignments – all of them in red files.

Callan – You Should Have Got Here Sooner

you should

Written by James Mitchell
Directed by Piers Haggard

Lonely is attacked in his rooms by a mysterious stranger who we later learn is called Loder (Derek Newark).  Loder works for the Section and along with Meres they are minding a man called Pollock (Jon Laurimore).  Lonely broke into the safe house that was being used by Pollock and his description of him (or rather the smell of him) convinced Meres that he knew exactly who the burglar was.

Pollock’s a Russian spy who’s currently front page news – as someone’s just broken him out of prison.  He believes that Meres and Loder are Russians – which is exactly what Hunter wants him to believe.  Before Pollock was captured and sent to prison, Hunter is convinced that he stowed away a nerve gas formula – and Hunter wants that formula.

With Callan still not back in the Section, it’s fair to say that You Should Have Got Here Sooner does require a chain of coincidences in order to bring him into the narrative.  The first is that of all the houses in London to burgle, Lonely should choose one that’s being used by the Section to guard a Russian spy.  The second is that Pollock’s description of Lonely is enough to convince Meres that there’s only one man it can be (presumably Lonely is the only thief in London with a personal hygiene problem).

The initial attack on Lonely does highlight the growing relationship he has with Callan.  In A Magnum for Schneider Callan seems to have barely concealed contempt for him, but by this story there’s certainly more than a spark of affection.  When Lonely thanks him for looking out for him, Callan responds that someone has to.  Although later he does tell Lonely that if anybody’s going to beat him up then it’s going to be him (and it’s said in such a way that it’s impossible to tell if he’s joking or not).

Callan meets with Hunter and Hunter agrees to leave Lonely alone as Callan insists he’ll keep quiet.  However, Meres decides to make sure and attacks Lonely, much more thoroughly than Loder.  When Callan reaches Lonely’s rooms, he’s barely conscious and can only mumble “You should have got here sooner, Mr Callan”.

The following exchange between Callan and Hunter is an interesting one as it highlights the subtleties of the main character dynamics.  What’s the overriding reason for Callan’s anger?  Is it that Lonely was brutally attacked or is it that by attacking Lonely, Meres was making an indirect attack on Callan?

CALLAN: Somebody duffed Lonely and you promised me that wouldn’t happen.
HUNTER: Who?
CALLAN: Somebody called Meres.
HUNTER: You’ve no evidence Callan.
CALLAN: Who else could it have been? Anyway, since when have you needed evidence?
HUNTER: What do you want me to do?
CALLAN: Nothing I’m coming over.
HUNTER: That little man’s so important?
CALLAN: Yeah. Yeah he is to me. Besides, Meres knows I look after Lonely. So when he was beating him up, he wasn’t just attacking him – he was getting at me. Now he’s not going to get that kind of edge on me, Hunter. And neither are you.
HUNTER: What a relief, for a moment you sounded like a knight in armour, it’s only selfishness after all.

The dynamic between Callan, Lonely, Hunter and Meres is the driving force behind this episode, whilst the story of Pollock and the formula is very much secondary.  But although Jon Laurimore doesn’t have a great deal of screen time, he’s such a solid actor that he’s able to make something out of Pollock.  Russian spies (such as George Blake, who had escaped from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966) were familiar news stories at the time, so this story (like many episodes of Callan) was very topical.

Callan – The Good Ones Are All Dead

good

Written by James Mitchell
Directed by Toby Robertson

The Good Ones Are All Dead was the first episode of series one and whilst it follows on directly from A Magnum for Schneider it was obviously also designed to work as an introduction to Callan’s world.

Therefore the first few minutes cover the same ground as the opening of A Magnum for Schneider (and in some parts very similar dialogue) to explain the basics.  Callan used to work for Hunter, but not any more and although Hunter has one more job for Callan – he isn’t interested.  “You sacked me, remember. You said I was too soft. Well I’m still soft, Hunter. I still worry about the people I killed.  I’m done with you mate, I’m finished”.

Hunter is implacable – either Callan does this job or Hunter will destroy him and for once it’s not a wet job (secret service slang for murder).  Instead Callan has to monitor Reinhold Strauss (Powys Thomas).  According to Hunter, Strauss is a Nazi war criminal with three thousand deaths that can be laid at his door.  His current identity is that of a businessman named Nicolas Stavros.

The Israelis are coming to collect Strauss so they can put him on trial – Hunter wants to make sure this happens, a dead Strauss would be no use to anybody.  Callan isn’t convinced that Stavros is Strauss and mentions this to his Israeli contact Avram (Tom Kempinski).  “He doesn’t look like a killer to me. He’s podgy, he’s soft, he’s got a girl.  It’s twenty three years ago”.  Avram counters that “men change, their crimes do not”.

Callan does discover irrefutable proof that Stavros is Strauss – rather foolishly he kept a trunk of Nazi memorabilia – his dress uniform, party card, revolver and a bag containing thousands of gold fillings.  Why does he still have these artifacts?  Is it to gloat over his past crimes or as a reminder of the terrible deeds he committed?

When confronted by Callan, Strauss begs for mercy.  “For twenty-three years I have not harmed a living soul. Right now, Strauss is dead. I am Nicolas Stavros, Callan; and Stavros would not hurt an animal, let alone a human being”.  Strauss then asks Callan “What use is a monster in a cage?”.  Callan allows Stavros to commit suicide with a cyanide capsule, an act that will undoubtedly infuriate both the Israelis and Hunter.

Can a man like Stauss ever be redeemed?  That’s one of the key questions of the episode and Callan seems to ask the same question of himself.  He doesn’t necessarily want to be drawn back into Hunter’s world – although it’s a job that he does supremely well (but at what personal cost?).  There’s a very revealing scene where Lonely asks Callan what it feels like to use a gun.  “What’s it like? It’s like eating your lunch. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s easy. Trouble is, you get to like it”.

The relationship between Hunter and Callan is finely balanced, as Hunter confides to Meres, “Callan and I seem to have arrived at a very good working arrangement, what you might call a balance of terror”.

If Powys Thomas is a slight weak link as Strauss, then the regulars (Woodward, Radd, Valentine, Hunter) more than make up for him.  The clip below of the first five minutes is an electrifying tussle between Callan and Hunter that makes me wish that Ronald Radd had stayed with the series for longer.

Armchair Theatre – A Magnum for Schneider

magnum

Written by James Mitchell
Directed by Bill Bain

David Callan (Edward Woodward) used to work for a shadowy section of the British Government, but six months earlier he walked away.  Now, his old boss Hunter (Ronald Radd) has called him back.

Callan’s currently working in a dead-end job, which he hates.  Hunter professes sympathy, but goes on to tell him that “you chaps don’t have much choice when you leave me.  I do my best of course, but your talents are so specilised.  After all, what can you do?  Use a gun, use your fists, open locks.  Legally, you’re unskilled”.

Hunter wants him back (maybe) – but Callan has misgivings about the work he’ll have to do.  This is the driving force behind not only this Armchair Theatre, but the subsequent series.  Callan has undoubted skills, but he also has a conscience and it’s this conflict which provides the drama.

Hunter goes on to describe the reason for his department’s existence.  “What’s my section for?  Getting rid of people.  Bribery, frame-ups, deportation and death.  In the last seven years I’ve had ten people killed, you did two of them.  They all had to die Callan.  If they hadn’t they would have killed too many innocent people themselves.  And that’s what security’s for – protecting innocent people”.

There’s a clear distinction between Callan and Hunter’s new right-hand man Meres (Peter Bowles).  Meres, like Cross later, is a company man – quite happy to obey Hunter’s orders without question.  If Callan doesn’t have all the facts then he’ll always question – and decide on his own course of action.  This makes him something of a loose cannon and a clear liability, but his undoubted skills keeps him alive.

Hunter wants Schneider (Joseph Furst) killed but he doesn’t explain why.  Callan has to do it quickly and without any official assistance – not even a gun.  Callan knows Schneider (he works in the office just down the corridor) and he seems a perfectly pleasant man, but for all that Callan dislikes and distrusts Hunter he knows that there’s a reason why Schneider has been placed in a red file (Hunter’s system for people who demand “special” treatment).

After burgling Schneider’s flat, Callan finally understands why Hunter wants him dead – Schneider is a gun-runner, indirectly responsible for the deaths of a number of British soldiers.  Callan therefore accepts that he should die and asks his smelly friend Lonely (Russell Hunter) to get him a special gun – a Magnum, like the ones that Schneider imports.

The relationship between Callan and Lonely would be one of the joys of the series – although here it’s a very hard-edged one.  Callan makes the usual jibes about Lonely’s lack of personal hygiene, but there’s little of the good humour that the pair would share later.

One irony of the story is that Callan later becomes reluctant to kill Schneider because he’s got to know and like him (even though he’s aware of the blood on his hands).  If Hunter had given him all the information to begin with, he probably would have carried out the mission much earlier.

Callan arranged with Hunter that he would kill Schneider by 11.00 pm, Hunter then arranged to have the police call shortly after that.  Could Callan have shot Schneider in cold blood?  The question didn’t arise, because Meres had broken into the flat (ready to kill Schneider, if Callan wasn’t able).  When Schneider pulled a gun on Meres, Callan was able to do the deed.

Callan’s well aware that Hunter had double-crossed him.  If he’d killed Schneider by 11.00 pm, then he would have been caught red-handed.  So he exits the flat, leaving an unconscious Meres and the murder weapon behind.  After informing Hunter that he really doesn’t want to work for him, Hunter places Callan’s details into a red file.

Initially a one-off for Armchair Theatre, James Mitchell saw the obvious potential and Callan would run for four successful series during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  Even here, most of the parts are in place.  Edward Woodward was, of course, perfect as Callan – a man with scruples in a business where that’s a positive liability.  Ronald Radd was the first (and in many ways) the best Hunter – unscrupulous, amoral and totally untrustworthy – although there’s sometimes the odd spark of understanding between him and Callan.

As I’ve said, Lonely is not yet the confidant of Callan that he would become – but Russell Hunter does a great deal with a small role and it could be that the character was developed once Mitchell knew what Russell Hunter could deliver.  Meres would be a regular in the series, but he would be played by Anthony Valentine and not Peter Bowles.

Here, Callan and Meres barely exchange more than a few words – but their relationship would develop during the first two series.  Initially rivals, they would grow to understand and appreciate each other.  Whilst Peter Bowles is a great actor, I think that having Anthony Valentine as a regular was something that really benefited the series.  His brand of suave brutality contrasts well with the more down-to-earth nature of Callan.

It’s a shame that the archive retention of the first two series isn’t greater (two of the six stories from series one exist, nine of the fifteen from series two) but since other programmes fare even worse, we’ve a decent cross-section of stories from the B&W era, which I’ll be reviewing in the weeks to come.