This was the second time Peter Cushing had played Sherlock Holmes in an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first being nine years previously for Hammer. They're both great, but unrecognisably different from each other. This is a 1968 BBC TV version and furthermore you'd be able to tell after only thirty seconds.
Firstly, it's too faithful to the text. It's the kind of thing you see in bad, overly stiff adaptations, where the writer's too close to the text and is simply transcribing scenes from the original without a care for whether they need fleshing out. I'm no fan of the romantic side of the Basil Rathbone version, but at least they were doing something with it. Here Sir Henry falls in love with Miss Stapledon without bothering to notify the audience. "You are in love with her." "Perhaps I am." Eh? Did they cut a scene or something? That's merely bad, but downright weird is the scene where Stapledon gets jealous about Sir Henry's affections. Conan Doyle doesn't show us the scene directly, doing it through reported speech, but here they just plonk it in front of us and thus Stapledon treats us to what would seem to be the Oedipal Complex of Scarytown. Wow. No way is she his sister. That's a jealous husband if ever I saw one and it's been made far too obvious.
There are also some bad transitions. They mishandle the introduction of Laura Lyons in episode two, making it look like a plot lurch rather than the normal progress of a detective story.
Secondly, it's practically a stage play. It looks, feels and moves like a standard prestige production of the time, until we get to the action. Wow, that was bad. The sequence with Stapledon's carriage in London is so shocking as to almost worth watching just for that. I presume they couldn't afford any extras and filmed in a public park at something like six in the morning, so you have Holmes and Watson following someone and looking as inconspicuous as they can on this completely empty road. "I've failed," decides Holmes and steps into the open, when the person he's seeking is about to appear. Could any detective be made to look more incompetent? A lone horse and carriage comes clip-clopping along this still-deserted road and... oh, words fail me.
That's merely rubbish, but the finale is actually damaging. Day-for-night filming to make Hammer's look convincing. The hound savages Sir Henry for so long that he should have been dead ten times over. It's a fairly lame-looking dog, too. Then we see Stapledon disappear under the swamp with his mouth open (eugh) and... the closing credits? I can't remember ever seeing such an abrupt ending. It's tempting to blame the medium and the era, but personally I think we've got to say that the director was a deaf-blind retard.
However all things considered, I'd say that staginess is not only a good thing but the production's biggest selling point. This is the kind of adaptation that would spend 13 fifty-minute episodes on a Dickens novel without even embroidering on the text. It's all about the dialogue. Scenes are allowed to play out as they would on the stage, with the main difference being that the camera is delighted to get close to the actors. No modern TV production would dare shoot something so uncinematic, but the results are absorbing. It's all about the performers, who get all the room you could ask for to luxuriate in their roles.
Put all these factors together and you have something that crawls along at the pace of a late Troughton or early Pertwee Doctor Who, yet also goes like the wind. I was astonished when we hit the end of episode one. Had I really been there for fifty minutes? I was sure we'd hardly started. The scenes are long but they pull you in and as I said, the script isn't joining all the dots for you.
The acting is a little disappointing, to tell the truth. Apparently Cushing wasn't happy about how little rehearsal time they had on this series. Sir Henry Baskerville is delivering his American accent through his nose. Beryl Stapledon is rubbish and Mrs Barrymore is mediocre. Seldon isn't scary either. Dr Mortimer is young and amiable, as he tends to be in the TV versions, rather than the bearded, middle-aged figure of authority you can expect to see in the movies. Stapledon is okay. It's a competent but not outstanding performance, but it's a meaty role.
Of the two leads, Nigel Stock's Dr Watson is only okay. He's a born sidekick, at his best playing the foil rather than taking the lead. I liked him in the beginning. He infers! He's pleased with himself for his deductions. He's enthusiastic, utterly trustworthy and jumps at any chance of being of assistance to his friend, but there's not much in the performance beyond that. Stock's Watson doesn't have much going on upstairs. He owes a lot to Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone serials, if you ask me. There's even some physical similarity.
There's something doglike about him. He's the Hound of the Holmes, if you like.
Peter Cushing is obviously the main attraction for me, but he's basically playing Cushing rather than Holmes. He's not transforming himself as successfully as I thought he did in 1959, although I did catch him doing one or two little tics that I associate with his Dr Who. I've never felt he had much range as an actor. However that said, this is also a more memorable performance than his first attempt in a production that gives him much more room to spread his wings. The title sequence doesn't make him look much like Holmes, with his nose insufficiently beaky and the wrong kind of deerstalker, but he looks better in the actual show. That skull-like face of his fits the role rather well.
More importantly, he's still Peter Cushing. He may not be as commanding an actor as Rathbone or transforming himself like Brett, but he's still a lot of fun to watch. He throws in a touch of that ruthlessness he does so well, then on showing up halfway through the second episode is almost frightening. You can see why Conan Doyle had to write Holmes out of great chunks of his novels. He's too efficient. He just turns up and knows! This man blasts over mysteries like a nuclear fire. I had to laugh at the bit where he's presenting his evidence to Laura Lyons that Stapledon is married.
- "He will be arrested?"
- "Before the day is out. It is just a matter of hours."
Wow, I wouldn't like to be Stapledon at that point. Oh, and in London he wears an electric blue smoking jacket that makes him look like Pertwee's Doctor. I've been critical of him here, but at the end of the day he's still my favourite actor and my favourite human being of all time. Hands down. No one else is even close.
As a television production it does have points of interest. It's clearly a prestige production and apart from anything else is the first Hound of the Baskervilles adaptation to have been filmed on Dartmoor. It's also in colour, which was more of a big deal in 1967. The camerawork can occasionally be unsteady, but the production is quite good at being spooky. The historical prologue with Sir Hugo is downright arty, with heaving cleavage, sepia and flash-freezes. The death of Sir Charles is gothic and there's even something of a cliffhanger with Watson, the hound and the yew alley. It wouldn't have taken much to turn this into quite a good ghost story.
Mind you, episode one is also a cracking detective tale. It's aware of the rules and keeps you guessing with rival suspects and red herrings. It's episode two that drops all pretence and does a Columbo. When Sherlock finally explains the truth to Watson half way through, explanations are hardly required. It's been as clear as day to us for quite a while.
Overall, an odd piece of television. It has a really strong first episode that made fifty minutes feel like fifteen and felt like the start of a thrilling mystery. I could have believed that this was the start of a three or even four-parter. That's how quickly it seemed to go. Unfortunately episode two nose-dives at the end, but even a disappointing ending can't stop this from being thoroughly enjoyable. I don't own another Hound of the Baskerville adaptation quite like it. I'd certainly rate it over the Jeremy Brett version
, although anyone going in would do well to be prepared for its quirks. They won't make television like this again. It's slow and dialogue-bound, but that's what makes it great.