Wednesday, 1 April 2015

DVD Review: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (BFI 4 disc set)

Filmed between 1964-65, Sherlock Holmes became a popular series on BBC1 and is now available on DVD in the form of a 4 disc set from the BFI.
Douglas Wilmer (who made a cameo appearance in the modern day BBC series) takes the role of Sherlock here, and is quite possibly the most faithful incarnation of this ace sleuth, supported by Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson.

Disc 1

The opening episode is 'The Speckled Band' which is a pilot episode and was filmed as part of the BBC's 'Detective' strand. 'The Speckled Band' concerns the Stoner sisters, Helen and Julia. The latter (played by Marion Diamond) plans to run away and get married, leaving sister Helen (Liane Autin) alone in the house with a 'papa' who rules the house with a rod of iron. Strange whistling in the dead of night and an overpowering smell of tobacco create an air of considerable unease which ends in one of the sisters dying of fright. Sherlock Holmes is called upon to investigate, in what is essentially a 'locked room' mystery. The dangerous Dr Raylett (Felix Felton) arrives at 221b to ward off Holmes' investigation, but the Baker Street boffin is not easily shaken. Here, Wilmer's Sherlock remains cool under pressure, determined to unearth the meaning behind a dying woman's words, while terror spawned thousands of miles away combines with local malice to threaten another life. It's a cracking opening, which paved the way nicely for a dedicated series.

'The Illustrious Client' follows, with Holmes approached to save Violet de Merville (Jenny Linden) from the clutches of serial womaniser Baron Gruber (Peter Wyngarde) who also includes murder amongst his leisure activities.
When Kitty Winter (Rosemary Leach) turns up to tell of her own sorry experiences with the Baron, Violet turns a deaf ear, leaving Holmes to gain possession of a diary that may expose Gruber once and for all. With Holmes taking a vicious beating, women almost coming to blows over Watson and a supremely nervy encounter with Gruber concerning intimate knowledge of valuable pottery, there's plenty going on here as Peter Sasdy's direction moves things along at a brisk pace. This episode comes with an audio commentary moderated by actor-comedian Toby Hadoke, in which Peter Sasdy talks about Peter Wyngarde (very expensive to hire); the joy of finding new acting talent, and reveals his approach to directing is akin to conducting an orchestra.

'The Devil's Foot' rounds off disc 1, with Holmes acting on Doctor's orders during a visit to Cornwall for rest and recreation. His solitude is rudely interrupted when the local vicar calls with a chilling tale of a game of whist that ended in death and madness for three of the players. Now, Mortimer Tregennis (Patrick Troughton) and the brusque Dr. Sterndale (Carl Bernard) become prime suspects in a case that will see Holmes and Watson participate in a most dangerous experiment. Did members of the Tregennis family fall foul of a supernatural force, or is Holmes correct in suspecting a more earthbound manifestation of evil? Listen to the commentary track, and you'll perhaps be surprised to hear that the shoot for 'The Devil's Foot' often descended into chaos. Here, Douglas Wilmer explains why he had to write chunks of the script himself - due to the laziness of others - and also chats about Peter Cushing's thoughts on his own stint as Sherlock Holmes, and how Douglas got the role for the 1965 series.

Disc 2

'The Copper Beeches'
Well-to-do Jephro Rucastle (Patrick Wymark( seeks a governess for his unruly 10 year old son, and sees a succession of young women before settling on Miss Violet Hunter (Suzanne Neve). He originally offers the sum of £100 per annum - way over the going rate for such an occupation - but he insists she cut short her hair and wear a certain dress that happens to be in the household at the time. Violet refuses, but when the offer is raised to £120, begins to have second thoughts. The bewildered young woman consults Sherlock Holmes who believes Violet to be in great danger. Holmes and Watson negotiate a web of deception, which began with the death of a previous governess, meeting stern opposition before an intriguing case is finally cracked.

'The Red-Headed League'
Holmes and Watson find themselves on the trail of a master criminal who leaves a clay pipe at the scene of every crime. In fact, a dastardly duo are behind a series of robberies, and add a red-headed storekeeper (played by Toke Townley) to their list of victims. Holmes deems this case to be "a 3 pipe problem", but manages to stay one step ahead en route to a thrilling climax. While it's true you may well guess the identity of one of the felons a few seconds after he first appears, this should in no way impair your enjoyment of an enthralling episode which comes with the option of a commentary track. Actors David Andrews and Trevor Martin talk about why Holmes has endured through all these years; why David went on to become a director and their memories of working on this episode.

'The Abbey Grange' (Partial Reconstruction)
Most BBC drama of the 1960s was recorded on 35mm for broadcast and 16mm for overseas coverage. For this particular series, the 35mm masters no longer exist, but most of the 16mm recordings are held in the BBC archives. The 16mm material was split into two 25 minute reels, but for 'The Abbey Grange', only the second reel still exists.
So, we have Douglas Wilmer reading the opening 22 minute section, and the final o minutes with sound and vision on the second reel. The story concerns the evil Sir Eustace Brackenstall who was robbed and murdered, with a nefarious family trio identified as the culprits. Holmes isn't so sure of their guilt, and grills Brackenstall's wife (Nyree Dawn Porter) who was found bound and gagged at the scene. Directed by Peter Gregeen, this is a hugely enjoyable episode, with a finale most of us would applaud and understand. Peter also takes the microphone for an audio commentary, talking about the main actors and his own career, which began in 1964. He also reveals directors on Sherlock were only allowed 5 edits per show which goes a long way towards explaining the presence of continuity errors which, in a curious way, add to the charm of this half a century old series.

Disc 3

'The Six Napoleons'
In this episode, we meet Inspector Lestrade (Petter Madden) who seeks the identity of someone he considers to be a vandal. 3 paster busts of Napoleon have been smashed; a seemingly unimportant case, which of course turns out to be something far more sinister when a Napoleon bust is stolen leaving a throat-slashed corpse in its wake. Mafia involvement is one of the theories offered, but Holmes works to his own suspicions and soon apprehends the culprit, even managing to establish a link between this case and an earlier unsolved crime. It's a fast moving episode with plenty of humorous moments - check out a priceless encounter with a storekeeper who drips with sarcasm - and Gareth Davies' direction is finely tuned to the original literary creation.

'The Man With The Twisted Lip'

When Mrs St Clair (Anna Cropper) sees her husband at the window of a "dreadful den", Sherlock Holmes is called upon to investigate the case, which places beggar Hugh Boone (Anton Rodgers) as a murder suspect. After reading De Quincey's 'Confessions Of An English Opium Eater', Holmes disappears on a some would say foolhardy undercover operation. It's a deliciously compelling slice of drama involving not one, but two, masters of disguise and things are finally resolved with customary skill and perception.

'The Beryl Coronet'
High stakes gambler Arthur Holder (Leonard Sachs) is forced to issue an IOU to buy time on a 200 guinea gambling debt, with his father refusing to bale him out. The temporary loan of a coronet studded with 39 valuable beryls is kept under lock and key by Arthur's father who faces ruination when 3 of the beryls go missing. Did Arthur steal them in order to pay off his debt? Holmes arrives on the scene, which is also populated by a maid who holds clandestine meetings with her lover; the dastardly Sir George Burnwell (David Burke) and Arthur's cousin Mary (Suzan Farmer) who apparently loathes Burnwell. It's a tangled web indeed, though not without several clues which are picked up on by the sharpest of minds. Once again, it's an absolute joy to watch everything fall into place.

'The Bruce Partington Plans'
For this particular episode, only sound and vision survives for the first 26 minute reel, with the original sound and the script in text form taking over for the second half, with a background of on-set photographs. Here, Sherlock's brother Mycroft (Derek Francis) is introduced when he arrives at Baker Street with Lestrade. The body of government junior clerk Cadogan West has been found on the line at Aldgate tube. It is strongly suspected West took the 3 most important pages from the Bruce Partington submarine plans, and sold them to foreign interests. With national security at risk, Holmes enters the murky world of espionage, visiting the home of Sir James Walter, only to be told by Valentine (Allan Cuthbertson) that his brother died earlier that morning. Probably one of Holmes' toughest cases, but his inexhaustible knowledge and great powers of perception (which include the workings of London's underground tube system) ensures our attention is held throughout. A crying shame about the missing footage, but a round of applause for the overall presentation.

Disc 4

'Charles Augustus Milverton'
When Lady Farningham (Stephanie Bidmead) goes to see Charles Augustus Milverton (Barry Jones), a most deplorable case of blackmail occurs concerning a military agreement. it seems Milverton has forged a lucrative career as 'The King Of Blackmailers' and his next victim is Lady Eva Bracknell (Penelope Horner) who desires the return of incriminating love letters. Holmes feels this vile individual instills more revulsion than even the worst murderer and engages in a battle of wits to recover the letters and expose Milverton for the bastard he is. Douglas Wilmer chose this episode as one he'd particularly like to talk about and his commentary track - again moderated by Toby - is revealing on a number of levels. Douglas chats about another of his favourites ('The Speckled Band); why he feels that Milverton's director Phiip Dudley fared better than most and why he was disappointed with Patrick Wymark's contribution to the series. Douglas declares he's a tough critic of his own performances and feels there was too much pipe smoking and deer stalker hat (which is perhaps a bit harsh)in the production overall. He also feels some of the director's of Sherlock Holmes could have been started on lesser productions than this one, and talks about his cameo in the modern day series.

'The Retired Colourman'
Josiah Amberley (Maurice Denham) claims his wife has cheated on him, and run away with a man he regarded as a son. As Holmes is preoccupied with another case, he sends Watson to gather information and draw conclusions. The little matter of a missing £7.000 worth of cash and bonds make this a little more than just another jilted husband story, but when Holmes eventually takes command, he smells a rat, or rather paint to be exact. It's another masterclass in detection from Holmes who sees his job as art for arts sake rather than financial gain.

'The Disappearance Of Lady Carfax'
The series is rounded off with this wonderfully compelling tale of a single lady who goes missing in France the same time as her new-found friends depart a swanky hotel. Holmes feels his colleague could do with some fresh scenery so Watson is despatched, only to fall foul of Holmes' and his withering put-downs. In Watson's defence, it's an especially hard case to crack, not for the first time putting Holmes on the wrong side of the law, but an amazing piece of observation moves things forward when all seemed lost.

This most special set concludes with a 1m 35s Douglas Wilmer interview where the great man talks about his own career (which included playing Charles II and work in series such as UFO, The Invisible Man, The Avengers and The Saint), and laments the fact that most of his stipulations for playing Sherlock were ignored (including no more than 3 directors for the series). He also chats about his favourite locations for filming (Cornwall being one) and relates a rather unkind Peter O'Toole comment about one of the actresses in Sherlock Holmes.
This BFI 4 disc set also comes with a booklet which includes info on cast & crew; an excellent piece on Douglas Wilmer (now 95 years of age)by Elaine McCafferty; an episode guide and notes on the transfer. There's also a well written piece on Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes by Nicholas Utechin which delivers a potted history of Holmes and proves very informative.

Image quality on the discs is variable. Dirt and speckles are inevitable given the archive material which have been largely sourced from HD transfers of master negatives. The picture quality can vary from sharp to soft, but the BFI has to be commended for their work which has doubtless made these episodes as good as they can look.

By the time I reached the end of the final episode, I felt a genuine sense of regret that there were no more to savour(the episodes' running time varies between 42 - 52 minutes) Watching Dooulas Wilmer as, for my money, the best Sherlock Holmes; seeing so many great character actors and Nigel Stock's solid performance as a loyal friend whose courage could never be questioned.Then we have Max Harris' haunting score, script editor Anthony Read's sterling contributions and some rather splendid photography which amplifies the tension of these tales. Fifty years old and still not out, Sherlock Holmes makes for compelling small screen drama and this DVD release at last makes it available and a compulsory purchase for Holmes devotees.

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