Arthur Conan DoyleSherlock Holmes - Peter CushingNigel StockJohn Stratton
The Sign of Four (1968)
Medium: TV
Date: 16 December 1968
Originally published in: 1890
Director: William Sterling
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Michael Hardwick, Mollie Hardwick
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: UK
Actor: Peter Cushing, Nigel Stock, Ann Bell, Paul Daneman, John Stratton, Ailsa Grahame, Grace Arnold, Howard Goorney, Ahmed Khalil, Syd Conabere, Tony McLaren, Annabella Johnston, David Boliver, Ann Way, Sara Clee, John Dunbar
Format: 50 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Peter Cushing >>
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 2 December 2008
Even for a rabid Peter Cushing fan like me, it's not much of a choice. Frankly there's little reason to watch this episode. Go for Jeremy Brett and a beautifully made TV movie worthy of cinemas that milks every scene for all it's worth. This is merely fifty minutes of unexceptional 1968 BBC TV. It's not a fair comparison, is it? However I adored the same team's A Study in Scarlet and that's theoretically the same thing. They're two very similar novels, adapted to the same format in a similar way. Flashbacks omitted. The murderer's backstory skimmed over in a few sentences. That's one way of getting around the structural problem you face in adapting it for the screen, I suppose. The results here cover all the bases, but I don't know if I'd praise it any more highly than that. It lacks flair.
For a start, it's not weird or creepy. Paul Daneman's Thaddeus Sholto isn't a quintillionth as memorable as Ronald Lacey's. I didn't think he came across as a genuine eccentric, but more as someone who's pretending to be one. What I saw was just a camp middle-aged man with some goofy ideas about interior decor and a fondness for background music that he's nicked from an Indian restaurant. For the most part he's at the lower end of passable, but I wasn't impressed with his delivery of the line: "I am a little nervous and I find it an invaluable sedative." Nervous, mate? No, you're not. I liked his accent, though. "You are a wonged woman, my dear, and I am going to wight that wong."
The only guest actor here I have much time for is John Stratton as Inspector Athelney Jones, although even he's not as distinctive as Emrys James. Apart from him, everyone ranges from okay to bad. Ann Bell impressed me less than Jenny Seagrove as Mary Morsden, although she's better-looking. Don't expect much of the servants. There's a generally lower level of acting, especially in the minor roles. However the worst of this unimpressive bunch is Mrs Mordecai, who's so offhand that I don't know if I'd even say she was acting at all.
That's not what I object to most, though. The script's mistake is to have whittled Jonathan Small almost to nothing. Deprived of his backstory, he's had to lose almost everything distinctive about him in order to create some version of the character that satisfies the requirements of the plot in the time available. I can understand that, but this butchered version doesn't even work! There isn't enough motivation to make believable what he does with the treasure, for instance. The actor does his best, but frankly he's stuffed. It's particularly disappointing given how well they did Jefferson Hope in A Study in Scarlet.
Only two things in any way make this adaptation stand out. Well, three. I can't rule out Cushing. The first of these things is the dog. They love that dog. Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock are so happy to be on screen with the dog. The director even throws in a doggy-cam gag, as the camera goes snuffling along the street but pauses to inspect a lamppost. It made me smile, so I mention it here.
The more noticeable thing is Watson's romance with Mary Morsden. You might remember that Edward Hardwicke never looked in any danger of matrimony in 1987. Well, not here. They don't marry off Watson, although looking at the dates I'm surprised they didn't push the boat out and do so since this was already the penultimate episode of the series. They could have rejigged the running order and signed off with a wedding. Well, I suppose they wanted to keep The Blue Carbuncle as their Christmas episode (23 December 1968). However all that said, they push the romance angle as far as they possibly could... and then maybe a bit further. Watson's practically a stalker. He's far too old for her, but there he is puffing up his moustache and courting her as if she's blown his last remaining brain cells. Nigel Stock is hysterically funny, albeit unintentionally.
The incidental music plays a flute for them. Bless.
People argue about the best Sherlock, but I'm more drawn by the question of who's the worst Watson. Nigel Stock or Edward Hardwicke? In certain ways they're similar non-actors, but despite the evidence of their The Hound of the Baskervilles I'd have to give the thumbs-down to Stock. At least Hardwicke is a convincing human being. "Good heavens, Holmes. A child has done this horrible thing." Oh dear. As for the best Sherlock, to my chagrin I'll admit that it's Jeremy Brett. Admittedly here he has a huge script advantage, but he's just doing so much more with his scenes. Of course I'm still a fan of Cushing's and would point out for instance the way in which he's quicker in reaching his deductions, but reading up on the internet, I've found a claim that he didn't like his own performance in this series!
There's not much left to be said. The location filming is obviously not 19th century London, as well as being apparently filmed at 5am. The murder's less freaky too. However we do get a boat chase and another look at the Irregulars, whom I love, although they don't come stampeding upstairs en masse this time since Cushing had already told them not to in A Study in Scarlet. Overall, the episode's passable. It's okay, but you have a better option elsewhere.