In 1965, the BBC decided to make a series about the adventures of Sherlock Holmes based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. By the time it went into production, the budget had been drastically reduced and, although they had a solid lead actor, the rest of the production suffered from massive budget cuts. Saved from oblivion and restored, this series was apparently originally saved by Sherlock himself.
Saddled with young untested writers and directors Sherlock or rather Douglas Wilmer, who became the de facto script editor and buffed up and rewrote what he was handed before rehearsals. I can only imagine how stressful this must have been but the result appears polished and professional. He was able to turn script dross not maybe into gold but certainly shiny silver. Using his knowledge of the books, we get proper dramatisations of the original stories. There is no flashy camera work here but is not boring neither. There is even the odd bit of locations shooting which lifts the production again. Yes, it suffers from script, actor and scenery wobble but the cast of quality actors are giving their best performances. If you didn’t know the production had problems you would not guess from the episodes. The budget pressure and the thought perhaps of more rewrites without pay put Wilmer off from doing the second series. This eventually starred Peter Cushing, which he found more nightmarish than many of his horror movies.
To explain some of what happened and how it happened the commentaries are facilitated and directed by Toby Hadoke, comedian, actor and old experienced hand at this sort of thing. Douglas Wilmer has, at 95 sharp and intense memories of this experience, presumably burned on his psyche by the stress. He might be said to have the mind of Holmes and he certainly has the wit. This is perhaps the most telling quote from the commentary on The Cooper Beeches
Toby Hadoke: What was the script editor doing?
Douglas Wilmer: Sitting on his bum.
There are 13 episodes with several commentaries both with surviving members of the crew and Wilmer himself. Where footage has been lost, one episode has been completed by Wilmer reading part the story with adjustments to make it fit the TV plot and one episode has ‘The Bruce Partington Plans’ has been reconstructed using the surviving footage and the original shooting scripts.
The episodes can be watched in any order as there is no overall arc to the series. There are extensive notes and articles included with the box set which really makes this a comprehensive experience.
The first one was a one-off for a series called The Detectives And The Speckled Band (1964) was directed by Robin Midgley. The decision to make a series seemed a good idea with the source material being the famous detective stories. Misled by his positive experience, Douglas Wilmer took on the following 12 part series in 1965.
The first in the subsequent series starts as it means to go on with and with the immediate script problems. The Illustrious Client was directed by Peter Sasdy who went on to do plenty of for Hammer Films. He also discusses his experience in the commentary with Toby Hadoke. He clearly enjoyed it and, despite everything, and his reminiscences are redolent of another more cyclised age of television.
The episode itself has some interesting characters, including Peter Wynguard as the arrogant villain and his put upon girlfriend Violet is played by Jennie Linden who went on to become more famous in the film of ‘Women In Love’. Here it is Rosemary Leach as the musical hall prostitute Kitty who gives an amazing performance.
Devil’s Foot (1965) Director: Max Varnel
With footage shot in Cornwall on the cast’s day off (!), this gives some dramatic meat to the tale. It also stars one Patrick Troughton with a Cornish accent and some over-acting. At least half of this was written by Wilmer and it is actually very good dramatisation of quite a lurid story. The opening shot of two men laughing crazily around a card table next to a dead woman is almost an expressionist film.
I loved the location shots which proved a little more budget could have really stamped this series with some class.
The commentary is with its star Douglas Wilmer and offers some good detail about the production.
The Copper Beeches (1965) Director: Gareth Davies
This time it’s a governess who seeks advice from Sherlock Holmes whether to accept a position which is extremely lucrative and also requires her to cut her hair short.
Using the definite strengths of the cast, this comes across as a fine ensemble piece with good pacing where the young lady proves to be Holmes deductive equal leading to an amusing ending where Watson entirely misreads the situation.
Director Gareth Davies went on to make a lot of popular award winning television.
The Red Headed League (1965) Director: Peter Duguid
As a black and white programme this labours under a slight issue with who actually has red hair and it must be pointed out regularly. A rather strange story that involves one red-headed man closely examining another’s hair and offering him a place in the League. Holmes and Watson are beautifully paired and shared some good dialogue as they consider the 3 pipe problem. No mind palace is mentioned but he spends his pipe time there I’ll be bound.
There is not much of Holmes and Watson at the beginning, presumably because he was still writing the script. He is brought in to solve the problem which we are invited to join him with little hints before hand to give us some heads up where the plot is going. Nice top hattage from Holmes and Watson in this.
Director Peter Duguid went on to helm ‘Z-Cars’ and then a stalwart of ITV’s ‘Callan. Prior to that, he was apparently nearly cast as the first Doctor Who and how history might have been changed by that as Duguid died aged 86 in 2009 and perhaps we wouldn’t have 12 Doctors!
The commentary is with David Andrews who acted in this episode but went on to be a director of many BBC productions and onto Channel 4’s ‘Hollyoaks’!
The Abbey Range (Reconstructed Episode) (1965) Director: Peter Green
This is not the most satisfying episode as quite a long part of it is watching Wilmer read the story from a script. It might have been more interesting to let him read it over a film or series of stills as the mind wanders somewhat until the actual programme commences. However, it is at least a good attempt at completing the set and a little bit of revenge against all those programmes lost forever.
The commentary is with director Peter Gregeen who also went on to become a director, producer and head of series for the BBC.
The Man With The Twisted Lip (1965) Director: Eric Tayler
At the beginning of this story, I was convinced the beggar was actually Holmes which confused me. The plot centring on a Limehouse opium den certainly proved challenging and some of the location around the docks was truly Dickensian. It may also be notable that people are shown taking drugs on screen albeit in a historical context.
The Beryl Coronet (1965) Director: Max Varnel
This is the only screen version of this story since the silent era and it’s a very enjoyable story with some classic misdirection as part of the plot.
The Bruce-Partington Plans (Reconstructed Episode) (1965) Director: Shaun Sutton
There is a lot of exposition and sitting around in the first fifteen minutes of this episode. We do get Mycroft Holmes (Derek Francis) but he is sadly lacking in real presence. I’ve been rather spoiled by having the wonderful Mark Gatiss stamping his mark on the part.
Shaun Sutton went on to become head of Drama at the BBC
Charles Augustus Milverton (1965) Director: Philip Dudley
The commentary on this episode is again with Douglas Wilmer and there is some fantastic chat about various events with the production and outside of it.
Dudley went on to direct ‘Z-Cars’, the original ‘Poldark’ amongst others.
Retired Colourman (1965) Director: Michael Hayes
This, it is noted in the sleeve notes, is the only screen adaptation of this story. Here we have Maurice Denham playing the miser Josiah Amberley to great effect and Watson attempting to understudy Holmes. This is also helped by having outside locations which add to the atmosphere.
Disappearance Of Lady Frances Carfax (1965) Director: Shaun Sutton
This final episode remarkably again includes some location footage in France. It also has some fine talent once again including Roger Delgado (Doctor Who’s The Master) and Joss Ackland.
Douglas Wilmer…on Television
This is a delightful interview with the distinguished actor who always preferred the stage to the screen. He has greater recall and enjoys recounting his adventures as Sherlock Holmes.
It’s all a very long time ago but Douglas Wilmer is obviously retained in the hearts of Sherlock fans. He even appeared as a guest ‘codger in an episode of the new BBC series. He offers lots of detail in his audio commentary and reminds us that, though we may see and hear an old man, he is as sharp as a tack. Sharper than Sherlock I suspect.
This is a nicely presented set which you can take time to enjoy. The plots of the episodes vary but the quality of the restoration is very good. The story of the restoration and the original recording is included in the sleeve notes suffice to day only the BBC could have made such a pig’s ear of budgetary constraints however the presentation in black and white effectively masks a lot of the issues and, unlike the original series, it has been treated respectfully is very watchable. The parade of actors is also a treat with Peter Madden as the cavernous face of the much put upon Inspector Lestrade. Holmes is ably accompanied by his Watson, Nigel Stock, who avoids being the buffoon that the character is often made out to be. He comes across as a fiercely loyal and quite brave as he did serve in Afghanistan after all. The music is surprising and light-heartedly enjoyable in the episodes. It is not as intrusive as many of the scores we hear these days. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the pace and presentation. There are points when I thought there is too much exposition but, overall, this is a series that stands up well and would certainly fit a wet afternoon or two.
There are five audio commentaries, including contributions from Douglas Wilmer and celebrated directors Peter Cregeen and Peter Sasdy, all moderated by actor-comedian Toby Hadoke, and a fully illustrated booklet with essays and full episode credits.
This snapshot of the development of a drama tradition on British television is both an historical object and a smashing bit of entertainment. Finally, having Douglas Wilmer, bright as a button, with us to explain and recreate those times makes this box set a real collector’s item.
(region 2 dvd: pub: British Film Institute. 4 DVDs 650 minutes 13 black and white episodes with extras. SKU: 5035673020401. cat no: BFIV2040. Price: £39.99 (UK))
subtitles: English impaired
cast: Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock
check out website: http://shop.bfi.org.uk/sherlock-holmes.html#.VRgDlo10yM8
The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula by Loren D. Estleman (book review).
The Ordeals Of Sherlock Holmes by Jonathan Barnes (CD review).
Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Can Never Die by the Museum of London and edited by Alex Werner (book review).