On the sleeves notes of the new release of the BBC’s 1964-65 series of Sherlock Holmes adventures, it is suggested that the series is “Regarded by many to be the best incarnation of the Baker Street sleuth…”. Within further, more detailed essays in the accompanying booklet, the opinion seems to be one that is shared; that in spite of the great technical set-backs the series suffered throughout its filming, Douglas Wilmer is held in high esteem as the lead for the most accepted television adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. Yet, broken down on paper, it’s surprising that the series is held in such high repute.
It has no real introduction to the incarnation of Holmes and Dr. Watson, played with an eager-to-please sensibility by Nigel Stock, due very simply to it being branched off from a onetime episode of the crimes series, Detective. Therefore there is no A Study In Scarlett to open up the friendship. Alongside this there is no Moriarty, no Irene Adler, no Sign Of Four and no Hound Of The Baskervilles. These are staples that various and more recent adaptations all but rely upon and yet, this series as a whole works superbly without any of them.
On first glance, there seems to be one key factor that makes everything within the series gel together and that is Wilmer himself. It’s been noted often that his portrayal of Holmes really began the process of getting back to the character that Doyle wrote about. Since the days of Rathbone’s detective, the character had been somewhat amalgamated with a more general hero-aesthetic, sometimes for propaganda, more often for its sense of ease. Within Wilmer’s varied and defining performance, Holmes’ flaws as a drug addicted, at times heartless and dangerously arrogant character make him seem instantly refreshing.
The series is littered with moments where these flaws come to play a role in the drama and the choice of stories being adapted is clearly vital for allowing these to come through. In The Devil’s Foot, Holmes’ own curiosity leads to almost getting Watson and himself killed by a deadly poison. Even more questionable are Holmes’ actions in Charles Augustus Milverton, where he persuades Watson to accompany him to burgle a blackmailer’s house. These are just two of many instances where the character’s sometimes blasé approach to danger causes a refreshing alarm, one albeit that the viewer is now used to as such flaws have become a Holmesian norm.
The series has two other strong factors within its arsenal of quality. The first is that every episode is chocked full of British character actors, many of whom will be familiar to anyone with a keenness for vintage television. One of the Sherlock norms that is kept on board (though only for one episode) is the presence of Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, played with a mischievous, blustering nature by Derek Francis. It lifts the episode, The Bruce Partington Plans, well above that of those around it (at least in the half that exists). Elsewhere, other recognisable faces appear. Anna Cropper, Peter Wyngarde, Patrick Troughton, Jenny Linden and Olaf Pooley are just a handful of the many different talents that appear. It reminds of a time when the BBC seemed more like a quality rep company rather than a corporate behemoth.
The other factor of endearing quality is the sporadic but effective use of location filming. Of course, later series such as the Jeremy Brett seasons and the recent Benedict Cumberbatch series benefit completely from location filming but, in the Wilmer series, a location adds a sense of spark to the often multi-camera studio work that dominates. The best example is in The Devil’s Foot where a beautifully shot Cornish landscape makes the episode seem and look almost like an early Ken Russell edition of Monitor. Other episodes also feature occasional but refreshing locations which often help to relieve some of the more studio-heavy direction.
As a collection of stories, the choices seem almost like curios but perhaps this explains why it is such a success; it feels no need to pander to any audience in particular, it simply wants to tell a collection of good stories. Because of this, there is obviously no story arc and, in the days where viewers are limited to three heavily tied Sherlock stories a year, it is again refreshingly uncompromising. This is not, however, to say that the series is by any means perfect. Apart from suffering a great deal of financial and technical set-backs during filming (rendering usually competent craftsman such as Peter Sasdy and Shaun Sutton as having to work extra hard to keep up pace), some of the scripts struggle with the format. The Man With The Twisted Lip for example, a staple of most Holmes series, spends almost half of its running time setting up the scenario before allowing Holmes and Watson to enter into the case. Several episodes also suffer from this unbalanced structure though it’s telling just how well the pair of leads work together when their absence makes an episode a waiting game for their appearance.
The BFI release is packed with extras including several commentaries, a booklet and a good interview with Wilmer himself whose colourful life could probably lead to hours’ worth of stories. Of most interest though is the attention to the two episodes with missing footage. Because of the odd, double practice of filming episodes simultaneously on 16mm (with the intention of splitting the episodes in halves for American audiences), almost exactly half of each of the two missing episodes exists. The audio for The Bruce Partington Plans also exists and so a script and collection of stills work well in recreating the latter half of the story. For The Abbey Grange, the audio does not exist and so Wilmer, at a sprightly 95, gives a reading that leads to the second half of the story. Both formats work well.
Overall, this release is a gem though one perhaps better suited for the transitional, autumnal months towards December than for spring. It evokes fireside pleasures, pleasing mysteries and tobacco daydreams on breezy evenings and is absolutely essential for those after a Holmes who is both dandyish in the most Adam Adamant sense of the word and darkly powerful. Wilmer’s time to shine is now and his influence on all of the future incarnations of the detective is abundantly clear to see.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is released by the BFI on the 30th of March.