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 Partington–Plans, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 SixNapoleons 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).
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.