A step down from the heights of series 1, but still magnificent. John Hawkesworth's still in the showrunner's chair, you see. A number of episodes have a gaping flaw each and two of them suffer from being feature-length, but the overall quality level is still remarkable.
However as time passes Jeremy Brett starts to suffer visibly from his health problems, while worse yet Edward Hardwicke has replaced David Burke as Watson. This is a blow, but eventually I worked out how to enjoy Hardwicke's performance. Don't make comparisons. Don't think about what Burke might have done with the same material, or indeed any actor of energy and imagination. Just regard Hardwicke as a genial placeholder, a good-natured old uncle whose function is to say "yes, Holmes" and be decorative. In fairness, Watson is a tricky role and Hardwicke himself was aware that he'd sometimes be fading into the background. It's a problem Burke had commented on as well.
Coincidentally Hardwicke also played opposite Cushing's Sherlock in The Greek Interpreter (1968), but alas that episode has since been lost. The episodes of this series are:
- 14. The Empty House - July 9 1986
- 15. The Abbey Grange - July 16 1986
- 16. The Musgrave Ritual - July 23 1986
- 17. The Second Stain - July 30 1986
- 18. The Man with the Twisted Lip - August 6 1986
- 19. The Priory School - August 13 1986
- 20. The Six Napoleons - August 20 1986
- 21. The Sign of Four - December 29 1987 (feature-length)
- 22. The Devil's Foot - April 6 1988
- 23. Silver Blaze - April 13 1988
- 24. Wisteria Lodge - April 20 1988
- 25. The Bruce-Partington Plans - April 27 1988
- 26. The Hound of the Baskervilles - August 31 1988 (feature-length)
14. THE EMPTY HOUSE
An excellent adaptation and effectively half of a two-parter with the previous episode, The Final Problem. Great slabs of verbatim dialogue, with barely a comma changed from Doyle's version. The changeover from Burke to Hardwicke goes so smoothly that you hardly notice it. Brett is colossal. Colonel Moran's moustache rules the world. All this is good.
On the downside, the actor playing the judge annoyed me by overdoing it, while obviously the plot doesn't hold up to close inspection. However that's the fault of Conan Doyle and his great galumphing retcon.
15. THE ABBEY GRANGE
It looks amazing, with the opening being lusciously shot even by this series's magnificent standards. A coach hurtles through the night, arriving at a great house where there's been a murder. The adaptation has some fun with the scene at the shipping office, creating a character who's a Sherlock Holmes fan! He reads Watson's work. I laughed at Brett's pained expression on "large-souled". Another glorious bit is the trial at 221B Baker Street.
Unfortunately the episode has a huge flaw: it's a love story between two actors with zero chemistry. The brutal husband is fine, but the loving couple... no.
16. THE MUSGRAVE RITUAL
The original would seem to be popular, having also been adapted for Cushing and even Rathbone. T.S. Eliot put a reference to it in Murder in the Cathedral. This particular adaptation won an Edgar Award for its tweaking of the treasure trail clues, making use of a weathervane, but I found it a rather messy script. The story seems to flail around a bit. However I liked the associated depth, this being a busier episode than usual.
The biggest script problem is again Conan Doyle's fault, though. The Ritual makes no sense. Even Conan Doyle himself realised that the shadows would have different lengths in summer and winter, so added an additional couplet to the poem when the story was collected into Memoirs. However a far bigger problem is the fact that our heroes were able to find the treasure at all. The original rhyme dates back to the English Civil War. An elm tree can easily grow fifty feet taller in just a century, so I can only think that the original tree was long dead and it so happened that when Holmes came along, another elm had coincidentally grown where it fell to the same height as its predecessor.
That aside, there's still much to enjoy here. Holmes takes cocaine at Musgrave Manor, after which that evening he's obviously high as a kite and then visibly coming down again the next morning. That was startling. In addition the cast includes James Hazeldine for those of you who remember him from London's Burning, plus the last TV role of Ian Marter! He died only a few months later. He's almost unrecognisable under those whiskers, though.
17. THE SECOND STAIN
This was Conan Doyle's scarily prophetic story. It's set in 1888, but the international situation it depicts is that of the time when the story was written, 1904, and it foreshadows World War One. The unnamed foreign potentate is presumably Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who a year later really did what's predicted here and made provocative statements that brought about the First Moroccan Crisis. Conan Doyle's fictional Prime Minister even raises the spectre of war in Europe, suggesting figures which would have sounded unthinkable in 1904 but which paled compared with the actual death tolls of 1914-18.
As for the episode, it's a unique and distinctive story in which the stakes are the very highest and Holmes has almost nothing to go on. Patricia Hodge appears, although she arguably makes her character a bit too intelligent. Colin Jeavons as Lestrade gets a huge lump of exposition with which he struggles a bit, but amusingly there's a moment where the adaptation practically exposes Holmes as gay. "Now, Watson, the fair sex is your department." That's in the original story. No problem so far. However there it wasn't Holmes's response to Watson praising the good looks of Patricia Hodge!
Unfortunately the episode lets itself down by widening a plot hole. Here's what Holmes says early in the story: "A coincidence! Here is one of the three men whom we had named as possible actors in this drama, and he meets a violent death during the very hours when we know that that drama was being enacted. The odds are enormous against its being coincidence. No figures could express them. No, my dear Watson, the two events are connected -- MUST be connected. It is for us to find the connection."
Unfortunately there isn't one. It really is just plot convenience. Conan Doyle just about makes this work with a line of dialogue that he writes in English and tells us is in French, but here the actress just blasts it out in French without translation. Thus for English speakers the plot fudge is lost and it looks as if this lunatic has jumped out of nowhere and attacked the villain for no reason.
18. THE TWISTED LIP
Doesn't really do justice to what for me is one of the more striking and memorable Sherlock Holmes stories. It's a tale of beggars, lowlifes and opium dens. We see bad places and a few uncomfortable facets of Victorian society. That's good. My problem is that the explanations go on too long. Stop at the forty minute mark and you'd have a much better episode. Admittedly I'd have been the first to complain about chopping off a chunk of the original story, but they didn't have to make those eight minutes feel like twenty. Furthermore the script gets on its high horse about Mr Neville St. Clair's conduct, whereas Conan Doyle took it more lightly. I prefer Doyle's take on it.
Eleanor David isn't good as Mrs St Clair, but there's also Denis Lill as Inspector Bradstreet, a role he played three times in this series. Curiously his other two appearances were both opposite Charles Gray's Mycroft Holmes. It even feels as if this might have been deliberate, since The Bruce-Partington Plans (see below) should have starred Lestrade but they changed it. Lill here gets a good scene talking shop with Brett, being intelligent and professional as the two detectives get down to business.
19. THE PRIORY SCHOOL
I found this a bit depressing. It's a school to make you glad with all my heart that you weren't born in the nineteenth century... not evil, but an cold, echoing place where the boys are dressed up like Little Lord Fauntleroy and there's a choir singing on the soundtrack. It's traditional church music. You know, the kind that sounds as if the composer just died. There's only one happy person on view and he's a mere bit part. More important are the kidnapped child's idiot of a father and the prig of a headmaster, played by Christopher Benjamin. However the story ends with "you have given me back my future" and a smile, so that's worth a few points.
The director is John Madden, who'd do Shakespeare in Love and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but unfortunately the writer is T.R. Bowen. I don't like him. He makes stories less intelligent, pruning back Holmes's logic and giving me the impression that he's uninterested in the detective process. On top of that he makes huge changes to the original story, which reads completely differently and also makes more sense in the small matter of the identity of the conspirators. Bowen would write six episodes for the series, including two in that final 1994 season. Gyaaah.
20. THE SIX NAPOLEONS
My goodness, Brett's playing Sherlock Holmes in this one as a flamboyant old drama queen. It's wonderful, of course.
A terrific episode, one of the season's best. It would have been ruined had it been one of the later 1994 episodes, since they'd have undoubtedly gone overboard with the Mafia stuff. Admittedly they have fun with that here too, but it's kept in its place. The important thing is to be faithful to Conan Doyle. The elaborations clarify the story rather than muddying it, while the cast includes Eric Sykes and (if you want to be frivolous) a woman from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Flamboyant, stylish and a good'un.
Reviewed separately. A definitive and beautifully produced adaptation, but too long.
22. THE DEVIL'S FOOT
My absolute favourite of this 1986-88 series. It's H.P. Lovecraft! Cower in fear from the madness and death of strange inbred people in a coastal wilderness far from civilisation. Cornwall! Those accents! Those whiskers! They're like some kind of alien mind parasite glued to people's faces. Then there's the revolting doom stalking these people, of which even the survivors are dragged away in straitjackets with their mouths full of foam. That was nasty. Finally come the hallucinations. Holmes does an experiment on himself that's downright frightening, in the process seeing psychedelic images of his parents, Moriarty and himself with blood streaming down his face. All this and more can even be found in Conan Doyle's original, with its talk of sullen, introspective locals and physical deformity.
This adaptation is never less than beautiful and in one respect downright astonishing. The African explorer Dr. Leon Sterndale. Scary isn't the word. He blew me away. The Oliver Award-winning actor in question is one Denis Quilley, who doesn't seem to have been interested in films although he occasionally did a little television as a diversion from his theatre work. That was special. He's a force of nature, primal and unstoppable.
On top of that, there's gorgeous Cornish scenery, a funny moment with a police inspector with no love for London amateurs and a surprisingly strong performance from Edward Hardwicke, who's been given something to play for once. Holmes is here on holiday, with instructions not to investigate anything for the sake of his health. Watson is thus looking after him and trying to keep him out of trouble. This is also the episode where Brett's Holmes kicks his cocaine habit, pouring it away before burying the syringe on the beach shallowly enough for the local children to find.
There's nothing about this episode that isn't astonishing. Gorgeously produced, with a strong, scary story and some cool lines to boot.
23. SILVER BLAZE
I didn't much like it in the beginning. The setting is bleak and lonely, while of course there's nothing less glamorous than a stables. However it soon picked up, with both Colonel Ross and Inspector Gregory being a bit more intelligent than usual. There's plenty of Dick Francis racing world, with weighing rooms, stewards, bookies, etc. although I was shocked that the jockeys ran in cloth caps instead of helmets. In the end, it's one of the better episodes, being both strong and faithful.
It only makes three mistakes as far as I'm concerned. The first is that this series's strange habit of casting too old has tripped them up again. The murdered man was supposedly working as a professional jockey seven years ago, but he's being played by an actor who's 57. The second is that they've cut back a little on Holmes's logic, making it less clear. Finally the last is their handling of the most famous inference in detective fiction: the curious incident of the dog in the night time. The original story puts no emphasis on the dog at all, so Holmes's line comes like a bolt from the blue. Here the camera lingers on the animal, so it's easier to tell that something like that's coming.
24. WISTERIA LODGE
Messy. The original is a two-part story and the adaptation doesn't seem comfortable with either its length or its structure. It forgets to include connecting plot tissue, forgetting to tell us at one point that Holmes had disappeared off to London, but more importantly I must have missed the explanation of why Holmes's client had been involved at all! In the original story he'd been invited down by his host for the sake of creating an alibi, but the episode can't be bothered with telling us all that and so I spent the second half wondering when they were going to get back to him.
That aside, the episode is mostly remarkable for a florid, outrageous performance from Freddie Jones as Inspector Baynes. Yet again he's older than I think the character should be, which changes his motivations and makes him less honest. It took me a moment or two to get my head around what Jones was doing, but he's certainly memorable. I should also mention the blood. There's a gore shot and nastiness with knives and sandbags. Yes, sandbags.
25. THE BRUCE-PARTINGTON PLANS
This season's Mycroft episode, although it gives Charles Gray less to do than usual. Nevertheless I was happy to see that he's more dynamic from the start than he'd been in The Greek Interpreter. Grumpy Mycroft on the warpath. Yay! Sherlock is amusing in his delight at others' disasters and the interesting detective problems that come from them, but Hardwicke's at his blandest. His moment of decision and later his spot of burglary are both underplayed into nothing.
This is another strong episode, again a bit off the beaten track in dealing in espionage rather than ordinary criminals. It's also as magnificently faithful as anyone could ask for, with lashings of verbatim dialogue.
See my comments on The Sign of Four
. The same, but weaker. Even its best friends couldn't call this attempt on the most famous of all Holmes's stories definitive.
The second-best run of stories from the best screen Sherlock Holmes to date. There's one episode here that blew my mind and several more that are wonderful, sometimes in spite of having major holes in them. There's some wooden and uninspired acting in there, but plenty more that's fearless and/or excellent. Jeremy Brett is still full of energy and creativity. I don't think I need to say any more, do I?