Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review - "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes" (1968)

In the grand scheme of things, "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes," the 1968 BBC television series, is one of the most important in Sherlock Holmes' history. It was only the second time that a real attempt was made to bring Arthur Conan Doyle's work to the small screen. Yet today, this influential series is largely forgotten.

The story of how the series made to the screen begins in 1964. The BBC was in the midst of their first Sherlock Holmes television series which starred Douglas Wilmer as the detective and Nigel Stock as Watson. Wilmer had become infuriated by the production staff, finding the shoot a hectic and un-enjoyable one. When the series debuted, it stirred little interest, however upon a second transmission, the show gained popularity and the BBC commissioned a second series. However, Wilmer refused to return. The search was on to find a replacement for the actor. Eventually, Peter Cushing was chosen to play Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Stock returned to the part of Dr. Watson.

Much has been made of the series' production history, especially in the excellent book, "Sherlock Holmes on Screen," by Alan Barnes, but little analysis of the show's episodes have seen print. So, the following will focus mostly on the existing six episodes which have been recovered. Much like early "Doctor Who" serials, much of this show's run is lost to the pages of history due to the BBC's emphatic "junking" policy. The series kicked off in grand style with a two-part adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," making it the second adaptation to feature Cushing in the lead. As would become the custom with the series, the episodes follow, the plot doggedly follows Doyle's novel. That, however, is the least of the episode's worries. "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is truly let down by a lack of location filming. The moor, which becomes a character in itself in the book, is barely glimpsed here, and so much of the book's atmosphere is lost.

One cannot blame the BBC though. "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes" was filmed quickly and relatively inexpensively making location shooting not the easiest of tasks. The studio-bound locations would not impact many of the other episodes which survive, but it does hinder "The Hound of the Baskervilles" greatly. Next was an adaptation of "A Study in Scarlet," an oddity amongst Sherlockian adaptations. By omitting Holmes and Watson's initial meeting, as well as streamlining the American back-story, "A Study in Scarlet," proves to be a brisk and enjoyable mystery, and my personal favourite of the surviving episodes. Peter Cushing is still in top form here, and despite being in his late fifties at the time of shooting, still seems young and agile.

The next surviving episode is "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," which makes the most of its limited location filming. This episode also provides us a look at Cushing wearing the infamous deerstalker hat and cape, a point which he brought to the attention of the crew. Cushing made it a point to emulate all possible points from the canon, and therefore only wore a deerstalker hat when it was shown in Sidney Paget's original stories. He also refused to wear the typical Inverness cape, as it was not the type of clothing Holmes was depicted wearing in the original stories. It is for that reason that most scenes in the series found the actor donning a homburg or top hat and dispelling many of the conceptions regarding the great detective. Location shooting was also imperative for the next surviving episode, an adaptation of "The Sign of Four," which in this reviewer's opinion is the series' weakest. Far too much plot is crammed into a single 45-minute episode, rendering the entire story a rushed and jumbled mess. What's more, attempts at creating any hint of romance between Dr. Watson and Miss Mary Morstan, per Doyle's novel, fall flat. Luckily, the last surviving episode, "The Blue Carbuncle," does improve upon its predecessor. It provides the series' finest character moments between Holmes and Watson, and manages to end the series on a good note. I am quite partial to this particular adventure on a whole and this adaptation nicely plays up the Yuletide-spirit inherent in Doyle's original.


As I noted at the top of this review, "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes" is important in the great detective's television history. Despite the fact that it is far from perfect, it is interesting to see how much this particular show paved the way for Granada series featuring Jeremy Brett. It is almost unfair to give the series a true rating as so much of it is lost today, but I will certainly recommend it. If you are a self-respecting Sherlockian and you have not yet sank your teeth into this series, you really should. I think that you will be pleasantly surprised.

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