Bloody hell, that was brilliant. First, some history. Peter Cushing played Sherlock Holmes in three different projects, one of which was a sixteen-episode TV series. That's enough screen time to put him on a par with Rathbone and at about 40% of Jeremy Brett's level, but less than half of it still exists. Here's the full roster.
- 1. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959, Hammer)
- 2. GONE - The Second Stain (9 September 1968, BBC)
- 3. GONE - The Dancing Men (16 September 1968, BBC)
- 4. A Study in Scarlet (23 September 1968, BBC)
- 5. The Hound of the Baskervilles (30 September & 7 October 1968, BBC)
- 6. The Boscombe Valley Mystery (14 October 1968, BBC)
- 7. GONE - The Greek Interpreter (21 October 1968, BBC)
- 8. GONE - The Naval Treaty (28 October 1968, BBC)
- 9. GONE - Thor Bridge (4 November 1968, BBC)
- 10. GONE - The Musgrave Ritual (11 November 1968, BBC)
- 11. GONE - Black Peter (18 November 1968, BBC)
- 12. GONE - Wisteria Lodge (25 November 1968, BBC)
- 13. GONE - Shoscombe Old Place (2 December 1968, BBC)
- 14. GONE - The Solitary Cyclist (9 December 1968, BBC)
- 15. The Sign of Four (16 December 1968, BBC)
- 16. The Blue Carbuncle (23 December 1968, BBC)
- 17. The Masks of Death (1984, Channel 4)
Cushing's run was the show's second season, incidentally. The first starred Douglas Wilmer, who'd play Holmes again for Gene Wilder in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) and was Nayland Smith in the Fu Manchu films. He declined the option of a second series and so the BBC turned to... John Neville, who'd played Holmes in 1965 and is best-known to me as the Well-Manicured Man in the X-Files. Neville said no too. Only then did the BBC see sense and approach the king of kings, Peter Cushing. Ironically Wilmer's episodes are almost complete in the BBC's archives, but I don't believe anyone's bothered releasing them on DVD.
This is the first surviving Cushing episode and for me the most interesting since it's my only adaptation of this particular story. Jeremy Brett did all the rest bar Black Peter. A Study in Scarlet has of course been adapted a number of times over the years, but generally by people who jettisoned almost all of Doyle's original novel. The 1933 version for instance bought the rights to the title but not the plot. If you're looking for something faithful, there are radio plays, a 1984 animated version... and this Cushing episode. It's pretty close to the original, except that they've dropped the backstory in the second half with the Country of the Saints and the Mormons. Perhaps surprisingly, I approve. Perhaps one day a full adaptation will rock my world, but the BBC in 1968 weren't the people to try it. 19th century America? You must be joking. Victorian London is the BBC's comfort zone, but that would have been a recipe for disaster. Besides, it's unnecessary. Holmes's investigations in London are more than enough for a nice juicy episode and you don't miss the flashbacks.
It's time to talk about Peter Cushing.
Great Scott, he's good. I was happy to watch his 1959 take on the role, but here I adored him. He's recognisably playing a variation on his own personality rather than constructing Holmes from first principles like Jeremy Brett, but the result is a gentler, kinder detective who's completely at ease with his phenomenal intellect. On the one hand he's a uniquely charming Sherlock, but on the other I've never seen anyone evoke genius so simply and naturally. If I were a criminal, he'd be the scariest thing on God's green Earth. That brain of his is frightening. He's gentle, calm and unstoppable. He doesn't browbeat his intellectual inferiors (i.e. everyone), but simply annihilates any problem laid in front of him as if he'd been given X-ray spectacles. It's a tough call, but I think Cushing's Holmes would win a clash of the Sherlocks. They're clever. He's cleverer. It's a wonder he hasn't single-handedly wiped out crime in London already.
Admittedly I'm a massive Cushing fan, but here he really is a joy to watch. For these fifty minutes he became my favourite Sherlock, eclipsing Rathbone and even the brilliance of Jeremy Brett. Obviously Brett is astonishing and clearly the best screen Holmes to date, working a thousand times harder than anyone else I've ever seen in the role... but he's not Peter Cushing. Hmmm. Tricky.
On the downside we have the forgettable Nigel Stock as Watson, returning from the Wilmer series. Oh, I don't hate him. He's okay. I laughed at "Watson, just sit down and try to look as natural as possible." Then there's the bit where he and Holmes study a corpse together, saying all they need to say with just a "Watson" and a grunt. That was cool. He has a few nice moments and he works well with Cushing, but he doesn't really do much to bring the character to life. The most interesting thing about Nigel Stock for me is the fact that he also played Holmes's mentor Waxflatter in Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear
(1985), the Chris Columbus film which showed Holmes and Watson as boys together at boarding school, gave Holmes a girlfriend and was ripping off Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
I should mention the rest of the cast. Three of them are being asked to do American accents, which to experienced watchers of British TV is an omen akin to a black cat dragging a sheep's entrails under a ladder. Nonetheless against all the odds, two of them are good. I was particularly impressed by Larry Cross as Jefferson Hope. The third American is poor, but surprisingly his accent isn't the problem. It's his physicality that's wrong. The poor chap can't even die convincingly, since he's obviously still breathing when we see him with a knife in his chest.
Meanwhile the story's most villainous character is one Enoch Drebber, who back in his native America had kidnapped, murdered and enslaved. We don't even learn the full details since the flashback half of the book is missing, but we're introduced to him in London by his trying to make off with the daughter of the house. I could have lived with that, but unfortunately the actress playing the daughter has decided to play against her lines, saying "no no" but visibly getting turned on and responding to his physical attentions. This makes her a more memorable character, flavouring her account to the police, but I think it damages the story. Drebber's a bad man. Unfortunately that particular reading made him look more like a mere seducer.
Production-wise it avoids the mistakes of, say, the following week's The Hound of the Baskervilles two-parter
. There are no embarrassingly poor action scenes, for a start. Apparently the show's producer William Sterling wanted the second series to take after Alfred Hitchcock, telling his directors to watch Psycho (1960) as an example of the tone he wanted. What's more, you can tell. There's style in the murder scenes, with killer-o-vision and thus things like the camera walking around with a candle. You can also tell it's not a modern production since both Holmes and Watson smoke like chimneys, although on the upside they use pipes rather than cigarettes.
This episode is awesome. No, on second thoughts it's Peter Cushing who's awesome. He's cool as hell in a production that's playing to his strengths. We even glimpse the Baker Street Irregulars, who come thundering up the stairs to infest 221B Baker Street. There's an older one who does the talking and three younger ones who've clearly been told to keep their eyes down and attempt no acting. Upon their departure Holmes says, "There's more work to be got out of one of those than a dozen on the force." Guess who arrives just as he says that? I laughed.
Overall, this episode is anything but a museum piece. It's a strong blend of mystery, stylish murder, my all-time favourite leading actor and even jokes. I loved it.