That's the last one. I've now watched all that's left of Peter Cushing's 1968 Sherlock Holmes series, alongside any Jeremy Brett adaptations of the same original stories. So how do they stack up?
Production-wise, the BBC isn't even in the race. Brett comes first, second, third and fourth. That series is the best-looking television I've ever seen. However in other respects, the 1968 series holds up much better than you'd think. Cushing's Holmes can't compare to a Brett who's firing on all cylinders, but he's better than Lethargic Medicated Brett from the 1990s. I also find the 1968 series braver. It's sometimes more intelligent and its stories are more visceral, even if it's obviously less pretty and the London location shooting is laughable. However in terms of "which is the best television", the answer can only be Brett. There couldn't be a shadow of doubt there.
Pitting the episodes against each other on a head-to-head basis yields a rather misleading 2-2 scoreline. A Study in Scarlet
is superb but has no Brett counterpart. The BBC scores with The Hound of the Baskervilles
and Boscombe Valley, but stood not the slightest chance with The Sign of Four
and The Blue Carbuncle
. In those two particular cases, Brett stomps all over not only the BBC but almost every other version imaginable with adaptations that I think we can safely call definitive.
The comparison's still of interest, though, especially when you look at the common differences with Boscombe Valley and The Blue Carbuncle
. In both cases, the Brett versions are all about a loving young couple and their heartwarming final reunion. Cushing's episodes on the other hand think it's much more fun to plunge into paranoia, murder and death. The Blue Carbuncle
was a triumph for the Brett approach, but it's a clear victory for sadism when we come to Boscombe Valley. Brett's version is lovely, but it's the National Trust version. Cushing's episode is scarier. Both the script and the direction have far more life. You can tell that the directors were being encouraged to imitate Hitchcock, with edgier storytelling and a world of angry, violent people. The murder is bloodier, to the point where it's easily as gory as a few of Cushing's Hammer horrors. Even the murder weapon is nasty. Brett's Holmes gave us an overgrown pebble, whereas this is a bulky rough-edged lump that could do some serious damage.
The production values aren't negligible either. There's lots of location shooting and it's all out in the countryside, which is good since this series would get a bit embarrassing when they had to shoot town scenes.
The characters are much more dynamic. It never even occurred to me in 1991 that the son might have killed his father, whereas here his first scene has him clenching his fists and reaching for a gun. Then once he's been arrested, Holmes has to work much harder to get any information from him. This is an angry hostile man who doesn't want to tell anyone anything important. When we see him at the Coroner's Court, we're really made to think he must have done it.
Suspicion is everywhere, though. Even the gamekeeper is made to look like a likely villain. The effect is to make the audience work much harder as we tackle the problem exactly as Holmes is. However more important by far than the children are their blackguard fathers. They're both richly characterised and given plenty of screen time, even the murdered one whom we hardly met in 1991. Here the opening scene shows him getting violent with the gamekeeper. Incidentally at first I thought this was the same actor who played Albert Steptoe in Steptoe and Son, but I turned out to be wrong about that. Meanwhile the other one is played to the hilt as a wicked, lying, scheming old bastard who used to be a killer and a thief, but is now stricken with ill-health and at death's door through his own stubbornness. He even gets dying flashes of dementia, complete with lightning at the window and melodramatic camera effects.
This is terrific stuff and infinitely better than his 1991 equivalent, who'd have been almost a null if he hadn't been being played by Peter Vaughn. That's a huge plus, of course. I adore Peter Vaughn. However what we have here is clearly a far more complete and convincing characterisation.
The cast includes two actors who are father and son, although sadly they haven't been paired up as such in their roles. They're John and Nick Tate. Doctor Who fans can see Staff Sergeant Arnold from The Web of Fear and Captain Samuel Pike from The Smugglers. However the oddest piece of casting is Peter Madden as the evil old murder victim, since he'd played Inspector Lestrade five times in this series opposite Douglas Wilmer.
Cushing's great, better than Brett in the corresponding episode. I enjoyed his investigation at the crime scene, although he's less willing than Brett to get dirty in the mud. He also gets a funny scene in the train with Watson and a fat man with a pot plant. Nigel Stock's Watson gets little involvement, thank goodness, while Inspector Lestrade has actually been written out! It's a shame in a way, since the original story has a lot of fun at Lestrade's expense and it's a good outing for him, but it makes no sense for him to be there. Lestrade's a London copper. Didn't they have any local inspectors in Herefordshire? This lapse gets corrected in both adaptations.
The script is more complete in its details. It doesn't omit clues like "Cooee" and the cloak. It's also less cleanly divided into The Scene With The Son, The Scene With The Daughter, etc. Perhaps as a consequence of this, it ends a little oddly. I was startled when Holmes suddenly solved the case, since it practically comes out from nowhere. Wow, Cushing's Holmes was quick. I'd been sure we still had longer to wait in the episode. The plot resolution isn't laid out before us quite as fully, but I liked the plot detail they'd kept back for a comedy twist at the end.
Overall, I found this rather impressive. I'd thoroughly enjoyed the Brett version, which is every bit as slick and professional as you'd expect, but watching the BBC version made me see the story's potential in a completely new light. It gets a completely different emphasis, with Miss Turner being little more than a walk-on role but in contrast the Bristol wife making an appearance. Personally I'd recommend these two episodes as a double bill to anyone interested in Sherlock Holmes, television adaptation or indeed drama in general. Both are excellent stories and faithful to Conan Doyle's original, yet completely different. This is the stronger of them, though.