Six great episodes, three appalling feature films. The episodes are excellent, easily up to the standards of what had gone before. I enjoyed those greatly. However everything goes completely to pot once they start turning out the feature-length monstrosities, after which the Series 4 episodes
would be a disappointment too. Fortunately I've reviewed the three movies separately, so I can spare my sanity and pretend to ignore them here.
- 27. The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax - February 21 1991
- 28. Thor Bridge - February 28 1991
- 29. Shoscombe Old Place - March 7 1991
- 30. The Boscombe Valley Mystery - March 14 1991
- 31. The Illustrious Client - March 21 1991
- 32. The Creeping Man - March 28 1991
- 33. The Master Blackmailer - January 2 1992 (feature-length)
- 34. The Last Vampyre - January 27 1993 (feature-length)
- 35. The Eligible Bachelor - February 3 1993 (feature-length)
27. The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
It's a T.R. Bowen script, but oddly enough I quite like it anyway. Naturally it's almost unrecognisable from the original. He's wrenched it into a completely different shape, sabotaged the characters' motivations and for no obvious reason given it a depressing ending. Nevertheless I quite like the results, taking a perfectly normal Conan Doyle story and giving it an epistolary framework which begins and ends with Holmes being merely the recipient of correspondance. We start with Watson on holiday in the Lake District and writing to his friend. This has the rather nice effect of letting Holmes deduce danger from the wrong end of a stream of holiday correspondance, which is the best thing Bowen ever did in this series.
The problem is that Conan Doyle's Lady Frances has a clear motivation. "Like most lonely ladies, Lady Frances found her comfort and occupation in religion." Not this one. On the contrary, Bowen's Lady Frances is a modern, independent, go-getting 21st century woman, who's getting likened to the sodding suffragettes. This causes a huge plot problem, in that I have no idea how or why she fell for the conman, what on Earth she was thinking and what she expected to come out of that argument with her brother. Bowen tries to get around this with a contrived boating accident. Nope, sorry. Doesn't work.
There's also a visibly breathing corpse.
The performances are unmemorable, except for Michael Jayston and his owls. Even he's not great, but one of his lines made me laugh. Hardwicke comes across quite well in the early scenes, though. As a kindly old gentleman on holiday, he's in his element.
Bowen crafted something distinctive here and I admire that. The epistolary first act, the arms-length nature of the entire case and the downbeat conclusion were all invented for this adaptation and I like the way they come together. However it's also clumsy, having unconvincing story logic and no elegance in its construction. What was all that messing around with the warrant, then? Why did Slesenger keep all those incriminating newspaper cuttings?
28. Thor Bridge
We're back to being impressively faithful, thank goodness. They've spiced up the old man by making him more pig-headed and wilfully obstructive when his pride is injured, but I like that. It adds fire. Unfortunately it's easy to guess the killer's identity, despite Watson's counter-arguments. Since when did Watson ever solve the crime for Sherlock, anyway?
As with The Last Vampyre
, there's an South American wife in England being played by an unconvincing actress. Look at those hand gestures. I imagine the director told her to do them in the hope that they'd make her look fiery and Latin, but she looks like an idiot doing them even when she's rooted to the spot.
29. Shoscombe Old Place
The original isn't one of Conan Doyle's better stories. It's messy. This adaptation makes things even busier, but then they tip their hand with a close-up at the 28 minute mark that makes the successful inference just a little too obvious. Well, we were going to work it out soon anyway. Hardwicke's Watson is also made to look like a prig and a hypocrite, with his chosen characterisation clashing somewhat with Conan Doyle's lines for him. "By the way, Watson, you know something of racing?" "I ought to. I pay for it with about half my wound pension."
However I did like the deftness of one explanation. "It transpires that even creditors have creditors." Overall it's another nice adaptation, even starring a very young Jude Law. The 1968 Cushing version perhaps had more interesting credits, though, especially if you're a Doctor Who fan.
30. The Boscombe Valley Mystery
A lovely piece of work. It's obviously expensive, as in for instance the shot of the young lad's acquittal. It's done not through dialogue, but instead in a scene of Holmes leading his client from the courthouse as everyone applauds. It's an extravagant shot. The extras, the costumes, the horses... there must have been a million ways of conveying the same information more economically, but it's worth it. You can tell this is a show with money to burn. They've even recreated the Australian Western flashbacks, complete with cowboys and gunfights!
Then on top of that, they have Peter Vaughn. Obviously he's wonderful enough to be a highlight of the season. Joanna Roth is also charming as Alice Turner, although you'll laugh at the idea that you're meant to think she's eighteen.
When I first watched this, I could hardly think of a single criticism. Brett's clearly ill and low on energy, but that's about it. However comparing it with the Cushing version was an eye-opener, making this 1991 counterpart look rather genteel and bloodless. It's wonderful television, but you couldn't accuse it of having guts.
31. The Illustrious Client
This one I really like. It's a distinctive kind of story, with an anonymous commission not to detect a crime but prevent a marriage. That's the dry, intellectual reason. More importantly, the story also kicks arse. There's a splendidly loathsome villain, whose confrontation with Holmes at the 15 minute mark was what really brought things alive. As an aside, note how little Hardwicke manages to get out of his own equivalent of that scene. The actress playing Kitty Winter also doesn't do as much as she might, but she's been given such extreme material that even so she still makes the character compelling.
This is a dangerous adventure, with violence and surprising developments. My only problem lies with the badly staged ending, in which Baron Gruner comes out to find Holmes just standing there waiting for him. What happens next either makes Holmes look like an idiot (if he hadn't planned it) or practically evil (if he had). That was extreme. Conan Doyle handled the finale better, but apart from that this remains an outstanding adaptation which knows when to be faithful and when to add flesh to the bones. I prefer it to the original story.
32. The Creeping Man
Another favourite of mine. The original is fairly ridiculous, but the adaptation fortunately doesn't try to downplay this but instead turns it into a virtue. It starts out almost as a Fortean episode amid a family of natural scientists, in which significantly Darwin gets namechecked. The opening sequence looks as if we're dealing with Mothman. It also gains resonance through its late Victorian setting.
Admittedly you can tell who's behind it all as soon as we meet 'em, just by watching the actors closely. You often get that in whodunnits. The actor's playing what his character would do, rather than what might be deceptive for an audience. Nevertheless it doesn't really matter, since the story's so bonkers that you'll never guess all the details and even then it's lots of fun to see Holmes cheerfully trampling over clients who don't want him there. Hardwicke's also well-served by a script that gives him clearer lines to play than usual. Watson's feeling grumpy this week.
There's one character I wasn't wild about, though. The actress playing dad's fiancee is either giving a terrible performance or choosing to play the girl as an indecisive simpleton. Personally I'd say both of those.
The story's mad, of course, but that's why I love it.
Edit it down from a hundred minutes to the usual fifty and I'd probably love it. As it stands, it's appalling.
Holmes meets a benevolent vampire. Shoehorns its adaptation of the original Conan Doyle story into the last fifteen minutes.
The first half ate my brain, but in the end it was mildly interesting.
As a complete series, this is clearly the worst Jeremy Brett season by a long way. However that statement is taking an average of two things that don't belong together. The episodes are great, as beautiful as ever and well worth your time, while the films are Chinese torture. Basically, the rule when it comes to Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes episodes is "before or after 1991?"