It's sad, really. The production values are as high as ever. These are works of art, as good as British TV has ever got in terms of visual quality. They're sumptuous, in fact. Unfortunately the show's lost its showrunner, John Hawkesworth, and its brains. He'd gone off to make Campion with Peter Davison for the BBC, shortly before retiring from the industry. After all, he was in his seventies.
As a result, these six episodes are a long way below the show's peak of ten years before. Jeremy Brett is sick and has a year to live. Hardwicke is Hardwicke. However the biggest problem for me is the way in which the show's suddenly forgotten how to adapt Conan Doyle's stories. Hawkesworth's episodes felt like the definitive versions of their respective originals, but these feel like the messy daubings of someone who thinks they know better. They insert irrelevant stuff and in one instance even try to adapt two stories at once. Even the episodes I like lose something when you compare them with the originals, although of course they're still beautiful television.
- 36. The Three Gables - March 7 1994
- 37. The Dying Detective - March 14 1994
- 38. The Golden Pince-Nez - March 21 1994
- 39. The Red Circle - March 28 1994
- 40. The Mazarin Stone - April 4 1994
- 41. The Cardboard Box - April 11 1994
36. THE THREE GABLES
In some ways, admirable. They've greatly expanded on the original story, raising the stakes and making it much more intriguing and dangerous. They've also tweaked the character of Steve Dixie for political correctness, which you'll see was necessary if you read the original. There's an old granny in the cast, which is always a good sign. Finally I'm full of admiration for Peter Wyngarde's reptilian Langdale Pike, who comes out looking as iconic as a Moriarty or a Mycroft.
However it's no fun at all watching an ill and struggling Jeremy Brett. He's actually bad! His opening scene with Steve Dixie is almost painful to watch, although he's okay with his later confrontations at the boxing club and with Isadora Klein. I actually got more from watching Hardwicke, who at least has one good scene when he's talking with grandma. However there's nothing he could have done about his most ridiculous scene, in which he's asked to fight Dixie. Hardwicke's in his sixties, whereas his opponent is a big black prize fighter in his twenties. It's like an adult fighting a child. Who thought this was a good idea? He gets his arse rightly handed to him, but he should have been brushed aside like a fly.
Amazingly though that's arguably not the most risible feature of this episode. That could be Claudine Auger as Isadora. She's a former Miss France and had played a Bond girl in Thunderball (1965), but that's THREE DECADES PREVIOUSLY. Here she's supposed to be this irresistible siren, but looks instead as if she's found a toyboy. When she was the one who rejected him, I almost fell off my chair. Shortly afterwards we saw him being embraced by his granny and I started wondering if he'd got even more extreme in his tastes. That's not the reaction I was meant to be having. Admittedly it's part of the story that Isadora's an older lady. She's about to marry the young Duke of Lomond, "who might almost be her son," but with this casting there's no "almost" about it. This series has often had some strange ideas of beauty, but never so ridiculously in an episode where it's so pivotal to the plot.
There's an upside to this, though. It ensures you can't miss the episode's theme of time a-fleeting, which applies both to Isadora and, if you want to get meta-textual, to Jeremy Brett himself. It also seems to fit that Hardwicke's daughter gets a small role, in her only television work to date.
Unbelievable. Yet apart from those three lead roles, this is gorgeous (if slightly heavy-handed) television and I feel almost guilty at not enjoying it. Brett's the main culprit for me, I'm afraid.
37. THE DYING DETECTIVE
The best of the six. Jeremy Brett's back on form, ironically given the title. Now that's a dying detective! Bloody hell. Never let it be said that even in this final run, he didn't have it in him. He looks like he's already rotting and goes for his performance with such gusto that you'll believe he's on the way out even if you already know the plot. I'd been expecting to suffer through fifty minutes of Holmes in a sickbed, but in fact the original story is shoehorned into the last ten minutes and everything until then is what drives him to it.
The cast is a mixed bag. I've never been able to warm to Susannah Harker, while her character's husband is an idiot. Okay, that's accurate. He is an idiot, but I still found him irritating and was pleased when he died. Then there's Hardwicke, who gets a lot to do and might seem to be doing a reasonable job until you start thinking about what another actor could have made of his scenes. However there's plenty of fun to be had elsewhere, with Caroline John as a grande dame, Roy Hudd as a seedy little introducer and Jonathan Hyde having the time of his life as a particularly appalling baddie. He really is nasty.
Furthermore those final ten minutes are spine-tingling stuff. I loved it to pieces, although I wouldn't recommend comparing it with the original story. They've changed it. A lot. The results here are so good that I'll reluctantly go along with it, but it feels like one of the few instances in these six episodes when the production team's tinkering with Conan Doyle's work hasn't made things demonstrably worse.
38. THE GOLDEN PINCE-NEZ
Guest-starring Charles Gray's Mycroft as a substitute for Hardwicke, who was doing the film Shadowlands. You might think that would please me, but I'm afraid I got bored again. This is a faithful adaptation up to a point, which point would be all the suffragette bollocks they've inserted. Wow, that was painful. It's boring, patronising and adds nothing to the story, having been shoehorned in just to give Mycroft something to do. I could even quibble with the dates. The suffragettes were a 20th century phenomenon and they'd hardly started in 1904 when Conan Doyle published this story (which of course he set a good decade earlier even than that). Emmeline Pankhurst's WSPU had its first meeting in October 1903.
The sad thing is we're getting short-changed on some far more interesting history. This is a story about Russian revolutionaries, but the adaptation never gives us enough background to make it clear that this has nothing to do with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution but instead precedes its democratic predecessor of 1905. Back then, the Bolsheviks were just another terrorist group like the SR and PSP Combat Organisations. I liked the Russians. They were good. Nothing like a blood vendetta for a bit of a giggle. However the production team seem to think I'd be more interested in dialogue like:
- "What next? Women police? Women politicians?"
- "I've had quite enough of the criminal classes for one day, Inspector."
...and suffragettes being seen as "the lowest of the low".
The cast is quite good. Charles Gray still has the best evil smile in the business and he works well with Jeremy Brett. "That's father's magnifying glass." However unsurprisingly he doesn't work very well as a substitute Watson and furthermore disappears halfway through. Amusingly though there's a line which does nothing to undermine the argument that Sherlock and Mycroft are homosexual. Admittedly the show did tweak a certain line back in The Greek Interpreter, which theoretically should have been: "The Diogenes Club is the queerest club in London, and Mycroft one of the queerest men." However in this episode we have:
- Nigel Planer in a moustache - "...had a bit of an eye for the ladies."
- Mycroft - "Each to his own..."
The cast also includes one Frank Finlay, who'd twice played Lestrade in films about Sherlock Holmes solving the Ripper murders. Overall I didn't like this episode, finding it boring and unfocused.
39. THE RED CIRCLE
It's a good episode. It lacked a little clarity, but I enjoyed it. I quite liked Hardwicke, who gets plenty to do, but most surprising was Kenneth Connor and Betty Marsden as the owners of a boarding house. These were both of their last TV performances, incidentally. Connor actually died four months before the episode was broadcast. Obviously they're both comedy legends, albeit here in straight roles. Connor appeared in about 10000000 Carry On films, while Marsden is best known for Round the Horne with Kenneth Williams. Mind you, they're playing the roles a bit older than they should be, with Connor being 77 years old at the time and yet supposedly leaving the house before seven to go to work every day.
There's also John Hallam from Ghost Light, dressed up like a vampire from a Hammer film. That was fun too.
However I flipped my lid when I read the original story, which is a gem. It's one of those stories where Holmes starts with the tiniest clue and upon it builds a chain of deductions until he's got himself an international assassin. Conan Doyle's story is wonderfully clear and simple. This adaptation bears almost no resemblance to it and is merely quite good, throwing out some of Holmes's best inferences and cobbling together a plot that, frankly, flounders.
40. THE MAZARIN STONE
This is the one which tries to adapt both The Mazarin Stone and The Three Garridebs, starring Jeremy Brett only in a cameo because of ill-health. Charles Gray stands in for him as Mycroft.
The Three Garridebs adaptation is unfortunately centred on Edward Hardwicke. He's pleasant enough, but it's like watching the adventures of an empty space. The Mazarin Stone at least stars an actor, i.e. Charles Gray, but the plot had been shredded even before he got there and his presence damages it further. Great chunks of it have become unusable and much of what remains should have been jettisoned too. Mycroft becomes a master of disguise and trails someone for days around London! What happened to him being a lazy bastard, then? More importantly though, Gray's performance isn't as strong as Brett's. He was never at his best as this show's Mycroft, despite fun individual moments and the fact that even a below-par Charles Gray is still better than most actors at their best. I love his evil undertones. Nevertheless this is an episode that's missing a strong central performance.
The original story started life as a Conan Doyle stage play, incidentally. This screams out at you if you read it, with Doyle having done little more than tidy up the stage directions. It's barely pretending to be prose. You might think this should be an advantage to an adapter, but apparently not. Furthermore I don't think the two stories together make sense. What use was the Garridebs plot to Count Sylvius? He seems never to have had any intention of using those diamond cutting facilities and so that entire story becomes padding.
The episode's a mistake, basically. Also the music levels are so bewildering as to make you wonder if someone on the production staff hated Charles Gray.
41. THE CARDBOARD BOX
Much better. If you're thinking of sampling these episodes, go for the even-numbered ones. It's Brett's last episode and thankfully he finds reserves of energy for it, with Sherlock doing his eccentric best to get into the Christmas spirit. He made me laugh. It's nice he did well in his swansong. It's a remarkably seasonal episode in fact, although it obviously can't compare with The Blue Carbuncle
. It even has snow!
It could have worked a little harder on the clarity, with one flashback in particular giving me the sense of having turned over two pages at once until I worked out some considerable time later that it had been a flashback in the first place. Again you'll enjoy it more if you haven't read Conan Doyle's original, since it's chucked out one of Holmes's cleverest deductions (the ear) and it undersells Lestrade. However it's a strong episode that ends up being quite powerful. I also like Holmes's last lines.
There are plenty of mis-steps here and I think Brett was right in his reported decision to quit, although of course his death made that moot. These episodes fall well below the show's former standards, although I can't overemphasise their beauty. They really are gorgeous, even the episodes I've been kicking to death. Every one is worth watching at least for that.
Personally I think these episodes' worst crime is to have abandoned any attempt to be the definitive adaptations of their respective stories. That's a high standard I'm holding them to, you know.