It's a strong, intelligent adaptation. In some ways it's closer to Conan Doyle's original than is the sublimely wonderful Brett version
. I liked it. I didn't go apeshit for the episode or anything, but it has its charms. It shoots itself in the foot by giving an important story role to Nigel Stock, but even so you can see why they chose it as their Christmas Eve episode to end the series.
That's one thing it has over the Brett version
, now I come to think of it. That aired in June.
If you read the original story, you'll find that both adaptations had been thinking along similar lines. Conan Doyle begins with Holmes studying the hat. However instead of that, we flash back to the Hotel Cosmopolitan and Lady Morcar being about to lose her blue carbuncle. So far, so familiar. The servants are still canoodling and calling in poor John Horner to fix a loose bar on the gas grate. However what comes next is both wonderful and without counterpart in the Brett version
. The Countess tries to engage Holmes! That might sound run-of-the-mill, but what makes the scene glorious is her being such a bitch about it. She's arrogant, high-handed and in return gets the brush-off from Cushing, which in itself makes it funnier that he'll soon get so interested in an old hat and a goose. "Your case is that of a sneak thief, Lady Morcar. There is not a single aspect of it which is of any interest to me." Off she goes with a flea in her ear, although Cushing later admits to Watson that, "I should rather Lestrade's Christmas was disturbed than mine."
This provides a logical framework in which to fit the story. Naturally once the gem is found, we end with a similar Countess-Holmes confrontation and that's just as good.
The story's spine is unchanged. It's efficient, arguably more so than the Brett version
. The gambling-mad stallholder is won over more naturally and I think the goose-feeding flows better too. However the minor characters get less time in the spotlight, with Peterson hardly appearing at all and the bloke who lost his goose being a snooty egghead rather than a charming old drunkard. In fact we're kept wondering for a few moments as to whether he might have been the thief. However I liked the pub landlord and the market stallholder, the latter of whom I recognised but couldn't place. In fact he was in Doctor Who. He's Michael Robbins, from The Visitation. Other actors include James Beck as Ryder, aka. Joe Walker in Dad's Army. He's okay without being in any way at all exceptional. Commissionaire Peterson is Frank Middlemass, who also appeared in the Brett version
of this very story as well as playing opposite Christopher Lee's Sherlock in 1992.
Thought has even been put into Holmes's logic. Watson gibs at Holmes's notion that having a big head must make you intelligent, which I've always felt was the daftest thing Conan Doyle ever put in Holmes's mouth. Watson also asks intelligent questions, pointing out a possible hole in Holmes's reasoning which eventually turns out to have a third option that proves them both wrong! This should have been one of the best Watson episodes ever. He's cleverer than usual and he has a good scene in the prison where he bonds with the wrongly accused Horner. Thereafter he's his defender. It's a logical story role for him and I like what it does for the script's structure. In the hands of a David Burke, this would have been superb. Unfortunately we have Nigel Stock, whom I'm coming to like less and less. He seems to be hiding behind his moustache and he has one facial expression. Look at him. The director gives him one whacking great close-up where he's listening to Holmes expound about the hat... and he does nothing! No reactions. Not a sausage. It would be flattering even to call him wooden, since that to me suggests a different kind of bad acting. A wooden actor is under-emoting, whereas Stock is simply standing there like a lemon. He honestly thinks what he's doing is sufficient. Thus when Watson gets indignant with James Ryder about endangering an innocent man, here it falls flat even though the line would have been stirring from an actor. Look at what Jeremy Brett did with it, for instance.
I'm coming to notice that Stock's best moments feel like ad-libs, often jokes at the character's expense. They're Nigel Bruce moments, in other words. There's one in this episode. "Faces to the south." It's funny, but it's basically another line of script rather than actual acting.
Partly as a result, John Horner doesn't make as much impression on the story as I might have hoped. This is a huge difference from the Brett adaptation, although it's hard to criticise too much since we don't see the poor chap at all in Conan Doyle's original except to read about him in a newspaper report. We certainly don't see his wife or children. Here he talks to the policeman in his cell and to Dr Watson, which is unfortunately the problem. The script makes him attempt suicide, which is a deft way to communicate his mental anguish to the audience, but he's not a patch on his 1984 equivalent. They've also cast an actor too old for the line about "young Horner".
Peter Cushing is charming and a lot of fun, although if we're going to compare the two episodes I preferred Brett. Cushing's obviously more natural and less mannered, which I think is why I prefer his reading of the line about the evil that a jewel can inspire. If you ever needed an actor to tell you about evil and murder, go to Cushing. I also found him funnier when betting with the stallholder, while I admired his "go" to Ryder. Now that's a "go".
Production-wise, it's clearly a 1968 BBC production. There's some location filming at the start for the Hotel Cosmopolitan, which is every bit as grand as the Brett version
's. However after that it's back to the studio. Of course there's nothing wrong with that. It's simply what it is. Unlike The Sign of Four, this episode has specific points where it scores over its Brett equivalent and is thus well worth watching, even if overall it's merely good rather than stunning. I love what it does with Lady Morcar, not to mention the charming bit where Watson gives Holmes a Christmas present.
Overall, this is an episode of which I'm sure its production team was proud. I have an issue with its Watson, but it's still strong television that I'd have been praising much more highly if I hadn't seen the perfection of the Brett version
. That had more heart. It put more into fleshing out its characters and in particular made much more of Horner, his wife and their pain at his imprisonment. There's more to storytelling than having a solid plot structure, you know.