Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) didn't want to be known for his Sherlock Holmes stories. He would much rather be remembered for his historical novels. While those can still be obtained in print (and are downloadable online via Project Gutenberg, given that Conan Doyle's work is now public domain) history and the reading public have had a different verdict. Conan Doyle wrote four shortish novels and fifty-six short stories about his detective and his sounding-board, audience surrogate and for the most part first-person narrator, Dr John H. Watson. At one point he tried to kill Holmes off by dropping him over the Reichenbach Falls with his nemesis Moriarty, only to bring him back following the public outcry.
Holmes's first outing, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, under a decade before the Lumière Brothers's first public showings of moving pictures but the nascent medium of cinema seized on the Holmes stories very early on and the Guinness Book of Records names him as the most portrayed fictional character. William Gillette, who had played Holmes on stage, appeared in a 1916 silent film
The BBC series of Sherlock Holmes began when the BBC acquired the rights from Conan Doyle's estate for five stories with an option on a further eight. They tested the water with a pilot episode, "The Speckled Band", shown in May 1964 on BBC One as part of the series Detective. Wilmer was cast as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson. It was well thought of, repeated four months later on BBC Two, and a series of twelve was commissioned. They were shown between February and May 1965 on BBC One and repeated between August and October the following year.
Wilmer's Holmes has an autocratic charm which goes some way to disguise the fact that he is not always a sympathetic character, endangering Watson's life more than once, and even getting engaged while in disguise, his fiancée never seen or mentioned again once he is out of disguise. Stock's Watson is convincing as an ex-military man – Stock came from an army family and served in World War II – but also brings across Watson's plucky decency and slowness on the uptake (necessary so that Holmes can fill us in on his deductions) which are vital parts of the character. Wilmer and Stock are the only actors who appear in all thirteen episodes, but other characters in the Holmes mythos do turn up: Peter Madden as Inspector Lestrade in six stories, housekeeper Mrs Hudson (Enid Lindsey) in three, and Derek Francis as Sherlock's brother Mycroft in one. No Moriarty, though. Many familiar actors from 60s British television appear: Peter Wyngarde in "The Illustrious Client", Patrick Troughton in "The Devil's Foot", Anton Rodgers and Anna Cropper in "The Man with the Twisted Lip", Roger Delgado in "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax", amongst others.; The BBC also stretched to location footage, in Cornwall for "The Devil's Foot", France in "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax", and parts of London which were still extant in 1965 but are no longer so. Some of the thirteen are among Conan Doyle's less-often-adapted works. This is the only screen version of "The Beryl Coronet"since the silent era and the only one at all of "The Retired Colourman". The Hound of the Baskervilles was not one of the stories dramatised, as the rights were at that time with Hammer due to their 1959 film version.
Behind the scenes, all was not well. Wilmer was dissatisfied with some of the directors he worked with, and with some of the scripts taking undue liberties with the original stories. In some cases, he and Stock rewrote them shortly before shooting. A proposed cut to the rehearsal schedule resulted in Wilmer declining to return for a second series. Stock remained as Watson with Peter Cushing playing Holmes, in sixteen episodes broadcast on BBC One in 1968. They were made in colour, although BBC One was only broadcasting in black and white until November 1969. Wilmer did play Holmes again in Gene Wilder's 1975 film
The 1964/65 series is well remembered, if mainly to those old enough to see them, as they haven't been shown on British television since that repeat run in 1966. It is fortunate that the series largely survives, unlike a great deal of British television from the period, let alone earlier. Eleven of the thirteen episodes still exist in their entirety, with half missing from the other two (see below for further details). The 1968 series was less fortunate: of those sixteen episodes, ten are missing as I write this. So, outside archives, and special event showings, this DVD set is the first chance for many people, me included, to watch these, and as such is very welcome. Given some adjustments you have to make for television of half a century ago, the episodes remain well made and enjoyable.
The BFI's release of Sherlock Holmes comprises four discs, all dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. The 12 certificate is due to drug-taking in "The Man with the Twisted Lip". The episodes on each disc are as follows:
The Speckled Band (49:02)
The Illustrious Client (49:54)
|The Devil's Foot (49:51)
The Copper Beeches (49:52)
The Red Headed League (48:49)
The Abbey Grange [reconstruction] (42:43)
The Six Napoleons (50:22)
The Man with the Twisted Lip (48:39)
The Beryl Coronet (49:23)
The Bruce Partington Plans [reconstruction] (52:59)
Charles Augustus Milverton (51:59)
The Retired Colourman (48:55)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (51:42)
Each episode was made in black and white and is in a ratio of 1.33:1 as you would expect from television of this period. There was talk of shooting the series on 35mm film with a view to selling them to one of the major American networks, but without a guarantee of a sale, the BBC would not go to the expense of that and the series was made on a mixture of 16mm for location work and 405-line video for the studio scenes. (405-line as the series was made for BBC One. BBC Two began broadcasting in 625-line and series made for that channel, for example Out of the Unknown, were made in 625-line from the outset.) However, the output of the video cameras was captured on 35mm film and, unusually, 16mm film simultaneously, a production method that caused delays due to having to change 16mm reels out of synch with 35mm reels. Both were edited and the 35mm reels were used for broadcast and the 16mm reels used for overseas sales. None of the 35mm prints survive, but the 16mm copies do, the two partly-missing episodes due to there being two reels for a fifty-minute programme and one of those being absent in each case. TheThe copy of "The Speckled Band" which exists is a suppressed-field telerecording, reducing the resolution down to 188 lines, so this episode is inevitably softer and more lacking in detail than the others;. The episodes have been scanned in HD from master negatives and magnetic soundtracks and restored. While this is inevitably a long way from HD, due to being 405-line originally, these do look as good as these ever will be. The exterior sequences were edited in to the film prints rather than being telecined in during the studio recordings, and benefit from that.
The soundtrack is the original mono, with English hard-of-hearing subtitles available. Spanish-dubbed versions were available for sale, and one is available on this DVD for "The Speckled Band" as an example. A male voiceover translates the opening titles, but not the final ones.
As mentioned above, two episodes are incomplete: "The Abbey Grange" and "The Bruce Partington Plans" (often hyphenated, but without one in the onscreen episode title). With the former, the first reel is missing, so we have Douglas Wilmer (in black and white) reading the first half of the original story to camera. In the latter, it is the second half which is missing, but a soundtrack survives, so this continues over a reproduction of the episode's shooting script. Both episodes are preceded by explanatory captions and end with restoration credits.
Five of the episodes have audio commentaries, each one moderated by Toby Hadoke, very much a go-to man for vintage television commentaries and is always well-prepared and enthusiastic. Douglas Wilmer talks about two episodes of his choice, "The Devil's Foot" and "Charles Augustus Milverton", though Hadoke does get him to talk about the other episodes as well. Director Peter Sasdy talks about "The Illustrious Client", which is inevitably not his greatest memory of 1965, given that he married his wife that year. He also points out that in the episode is a friend of his, Anne Hart (playing a music hall singer) who in the same year married Ronnie Corbett, and both couples celebrate their golden weddings in 2015. David Andrews and Trevor Martin talk about "The Red-Headed League" in which they both appear. Finally, director Peter Cregeen talks over the surviving portion of "The Abbey Grange".
Disc One features an alternative opening credits sequence for "The Illustrious Client" (0:44), extended to include the name of guest star Peter Wyngarde, as per his contract. This was used on overseas copies but not on the UK broadcasts. Disc Four has a short documentary, Douglas Wilmer...on Television (21:35), an interview with the actor (now ninety-five) again with an offscreen Toby Hadoke. Wilmer came to television relatively early: he appears in the oldest surviving British TV drama, It is Midnight Dr Schweitzer from 1953. This featurette inevitably spends much of the time discussing Sherlock Holmes but does go on to talk about his career. He's particularly fond of One Way Pendulum, the not-commercially-successful film of N.F. Simpson's play, which he had acted in on stage. Retiring from acting, he ran a bar for a while and took up painting, but returned to appear in Sherlock as mentioned above. In the commentaries and here, he's an engaging interviewee, but you can sense where his self-confessed reputation for difficulty came from, mainly a perfectionist nature. He's also quite critical of a few people involved in the series, many of whom are now dead.
The BFI's booklet runs to twenty-four pages. It begins with an essay, "Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes" by Nicholas Utechin, which gives an overview of the writing and public reception of the original stories and novels. Elaine McCafferty provides an appreciation of Douglas Wilmer and Jonathan McCafferty an account of the TV series. The booklet also includes several stills, credits and notes on each episode and transfer notes.