Sunday, May 5, 2013

Peter Cushing is Sherlock Holmes!

It’s always exciting to write about Sherlock Holmes. The problem for me is when I write about it, it means more research I need to do. If I don’t have my stuff straight, I will hear about it and rightly so. I have gotten off alright so far but this could change at any time. This time it is also compounded because I am writing about a series that is or is not a carry on from a previous series. I am going to examine an episode of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes starring Peter Cushing.

This series generally started out as Sherlock Holmes in 1964 with a pilot being an adaptation of The Speckled Band which was shown as part of the series called Detective. In it, we see Holmes played by Douglas Wilmer and Watson played by Nigel Stock. It is a very respectable production which was brought back as a full series in 1965 starting out with The Illustrious Client. The series was shot in black and white on 405 2” videotape like all other BBC productions of the day. The series was afforded a great deal of location shooting with the series often having a dark atmospheric feeling to it. I think being shot in black & white really helped to move that along. The series has a very authentic feel to it.
Douglas Wilmer as Holmes is quite a special treat. He can be short-tempered but really believable. I find his adaptation of Holmes very genuine and some like him as he looks a lot like some of the sketches made of the character back in Arthur Conan Doyle’s time. The problem with the series is that Douglas Wilmer hated doing it. He hated the scripts and in some cases they were re-written by himself and Nigel Stock. He was dissatisfied with the amount of time he was given to rehearse for the series which was knocked down to 10 days of rehearsal time per episode. When the BBC came back to Wilmer to ask if he would like to do more Sherlock Holmes Wilmer said no.  Now, I am not sure about the timeline to this. I am not sure that he was asked when they came back to do the series in 1968 in colour or after he did the 1965 series. Regardless, it took over two years for the series to return. When it did, it was completely re-tooled. Everything about it changed from music to how it was produced. It was no longer a series in black & white but now full colour. Everyone on the production side changed. Only Nigel Stock returned as Watson but the biggest change of all was Peter Cushing was now Sherlock Holmes.

In the 1960s Peter Cushing was a big name. Of course, you could still argue that Peter Cushing’s status as an actor is legendary. This year is the 100th anniversary of his birth. There isn’t one thing I have seen him in that I didn’t like. One early gem I saw him in before I realised he was in it was Laurel & Hardy’s A Chump at Oxford in 1940. Obviously I have watched him in roles from Van Helsing to Victor Frankenstein. I loved him in The Abominable Snowman and of course Dr. Who in the two Dalek films. He even plays Sherlock Holmes in the 1959 Hammer film The Hound of the Baskervilles. These seemed to be a casting coup to get such a name to do television.
A Study in Scarlet 16/09/68

Due to more BBC silliness, this episode is the first one of the series to exist. Now, I have made a few blunders numbering this episode. Last week when I was explaining what I would be writing about this week I said this is the fourth episode. That was wrong and I fully owned up to it when I was replying to Frankymole in the comments section…..except that is not right either or is it? There are two sources that I find pretty much spot on for British television reference when it comes to airdates. The first was one that I have gained so much information on over the years which is This Site has been around since the mid-1990s and it is invaluable to the likes of us who actually give a shit as to when something aired or what the name of the episodes were to a TV series.  The second source is the BBC Drama Guide published in 2011 from Kaleidoscope. As I have mentioned in numerous places that this guide is a little on the expensive side but if you want to know when programs aired, who was in it, what format did it originally exist in and what is the master format it exists in now, this is the publication for you. Kaleidoscope is the foremost authority in British television.
Kaleidoscope lists A Study in Scarlet as being episode two of the series and airing on 16/09/68 whereas epguides lists this as the third episode of the series and lists the date of 23/09/68. As much as I know that epguides do a great job, I will side with Kaleidoscope on this one. What’s the big deal, why does it matter? When it comes to television from so long ago, it can become very easy that details like this will be forgotten. Partially why I write this blog and why Kaleidoscope is so authoritative in this subject is so people have the correct facts and never forget even the minutest details of these series.

In regards to this Sherlock Holmes story, this is a pretty straight forward affair. The episode starts off with two gentlemen, Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson who appear on the run. They stop off at a hotel. What we get right away is the Drebber is enchanted with some woman and he decides to go back and get her. This is much to the distress of Stangerson. Drebber doesn’t listen to Stangerson and goes back for the girl. This takes him back to Madame Charpentier’s Boarding House because he is infatuated with the daughter of Madame Charpentier’s named Alice. Even though Alice does not look like she is against the advances of Drebber too terribly much, Drebber is eventually chased out of the boarding house by Alice’s brother Arthur. Drebber barely escapes by cab but things only get worse for him. He is so drunk that he really has no idea that the cab driver had taken him to some derelict building that is completely vacant. There he is murdered.
We cut to 221B Baker Street where we are introduced to the Peter Cushing incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is very bored. There are no cases of merit for him and it appears that Watson is agitating him a little bit, “Watson, I find it hard to eat my breakfast, read my Times, and listen to outbursts.” Holmes and Watson are sent for by Inspector Gregson and Inspector Lestrade to help investigate a murder. That has improved Holmes mood greatly!

When Holmes and Watson arrive they find that the body of Drebber sprawled out on ground with no blunt trauma to Drebber. On the wall written in blood is the word RACHE. Gregson assumes the murderer was going to write out Rachael. Holmes isn’t so sure. I enjoy the subtle competitiveness between Lestrade and Gregson. It is fun to watch. It’s by no means overboard but adds a little dimension to the story. The two only get more agitated as the story goes on and Holmes run circles around them.

As they find out who the murdered person is, Gregson goes to Madame Charpentier’s Boarding House to find out what they know about him. They find out that there were two men staying there, Drebber and Stangerson. They were kicked out once Drebber started to put more advances on Alice. Gregson then finds out about the return visit from Drebber and the ensuing chase by Alice’s brother, Arthur. Gregson feel that there is enough evidence to conclude that Arthur is lying about what happened. Gregson believes that Arthur was successful in catching up to Drebber at the vacant building and murdered him. Arthur has been arrested.

Holmes believes otherwise. A gold ring was found at the murder scene which is significant and Holmes knows that the murderer will want it back. Holmes puts an ad in a couple of newspapers saying that a ring has been found and can be retrieved at 221B Baker Street from Dr. Watson. An old lady comes to collect it. It is in fact one of the worse old lady disguises ever seen on BBC television but in some ways that is the charm. Holmes starts pursuing the old lady as she takes a cab. When the cab stops the old woman has disappeared.  Holmes deduces that it is an actor who was playing the old woman because the acting was so believable.
Somehow in which I don’t quite understand that Holmes and Watson tracked down Joey Daly, an actor who dressed as the old woman who visited them the night before. He was bet the by the murderer that he couldn’t dress as an old woman to fool anyone. To prove he could, he was told to get the ring from the ad. Meanwhile, Stangerson is murdered. Lestrade nearly catches the murderer in the act. Two pills are left behind but Stangerson is stabbed with the word RACHE in blood on the wall above him.

Holmes is also getting important news as he received a telegram that gives us the identity of the murderer. Holmes and Watson receive a visit from a beaten down Gregson and Lestrade as their case has fallen apart. Obviously Arthur was not the murderer. They once again need Holmes’ help. Once he finds out that the two officers have found pills in Stangerson’s room, Holmes immediately takes them and begins a series of tests.

We get a visit from the Baker Street Irregulars lead by a boy named Wiggins; he was able to get a cab for Holmes. This is a very important cab because the cabbie is the murderer and his name is Jefferson Hope.  Hope is arrested and Holmes talks with him in Hope’s jail cell. Hope doesn’t want to stand trial. He has a heart aneurism and he doesn’t have long to live anyway.  Hope had been after Drebber and Stangerson because they abducted his girl Lucy. The two were to be married after he returned from a 3 month long job away from her.  Drebber married Lucy against her will. Lucy dies from a broken heart and Hope decides to hunt down Drebber and Stangerson. Because Hope doesn’t have long to live, once he gets Drebber at the vacant house he offers him one of two pills. One pill is safe and one pill is death. Whichever one Drebber doesn’t take, Hope will. The wedding ring was used as something Hope wanted Drebber to see before he dies. The pill Drebber takes is fatal. Then he goes to Stangerson to offer him the same pills but instead of taking the pill, Stangerson attacks Hope and as they struggle Stangerson falls on the knife and dies. Hope wrote RACHE on the walls of where the murders took place as a way for the police to think it was something different. RACHE is German for revenge.
Unless I am really missing stuff here, there seems to be an awful lot of information that we are not seeing in this episode. There is a lot of things that happen that just happen with no explanation on how we get there. How does Holmes and Watson track down Joey Daly? Who is Holmes working with to discover the name of Jefferson Hope? How does he get Wiggins to get Hope to Baker Street? Perhaps Holmes gave Wiggins a really good description? To me, it’s kind of a messy production in that way. I feel some details are glossed over a bit. On the book side, if Hope is so hell-bent on revenge why does he even offer Drebber a chance at life? He has been on Drebber’s tail for a year, it seems crazy that he would do all that to leave it to fate.

In the original story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet is the first Holmes & Watson story. This is an introductory story for how they met and how they end up working together. The story is set in 1881 (published in 1887) and is two distinct parts “Part I: "Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, MD, Late of the Army Medical Department" and “Part II: "The Country of the Saints".  Holmes and Watson are younger than how they are represented by Cushing and Stock or for that matter Wilmer and Stock. Although this story is the first for the legendary Holmes and Watson, it is the second episode for the BBC Peter Cushing series. Unlike the original story, Holmes and Watson are established characters in this episode having worked together for many years. Also what is only vaguely alluded to in the episode is the idea of Mormons and the Church of Latter-day Saints. Doyle was under the impression that the Mormons did a lot of kidnapping, murder and enslavement which was not true but was represented as fact in the book. This episode tip-toe around this by saying that Drebber and Stangerson just kidnapped Lucy from Hope. They were from Utah but no mention is made that they were Mormons.
Peter Cushing in some ways seems to be the quintessential choice to play Sherlock Holmes. I suppose he really could play just about anything. He was an amazing actor and in so many ways very underrated. With Cushing playing Holmes, he was a generally pleasant person to everyone though there were moments of being aloof. I think he has a more humanity in the role than Wilmer; I think in some ways the two actors channel their own personalities into the character. Cushing is known for being gentle and some of this comes across in the role. Wilmer, I believe, is someone who can be outspoken and did not suffer fools gladly. That also came across in his version. Peter Cushing’s version had some very odd habits and one of my favourites is when he is taking notes at the scene of the first murder and Holmes is writing his notes on the cuff sleeve. There are also some interesting action sequences showing Peter Cushing can be quite physical. Holmes runs after the cab that has the old lady in it and it looked to me as if it were Cushing himself doing the stunt. Very impressive!

Nigel Stock is quite good as Watson. There isn’t much difference between how he plays it in this and how he plays it with Wilmer. I did think it was interesting that there are some moments that Watson is doubtful of Holmes’ powers of deduction.  That in itself interesting since this is the first Holmes story but as this is clearly not the first time they have met in this series plus clearly an established history has been made between them, it seemed rather out of place. Watson seems to be more egotistical than I have seen him before. Holmes starts to condemn himself for not noticing that old lady was really a man and Watson tells him not to get too worked up over it as after all, even he (Watson) was fooled by it.
The episode had a nice supporting cast. Lestrade was played by William Lucas. I recognize him as range from the Doctor Who story Frontios. Gregson was played by George A. Cooper who is a favourite character actor of mine. I have seen him in Steptoe and Son, Doctor Who as Cherub in the The Smugglers as well as a lot of other series of that vintage. I always enjoy him in any program I see him. It was interesting to see Ed Bishop as Stangerson. Many will recognize Ed Bishop as Commander Ed Straker from UFO. Overall I thought the acting was very strong. All the performances were believable and this episode is from a period of BBC television that excelled in this area.

The production itself is kind of a mixed bag. It’s a traditional colour BBC multi-camera studio production. Interiors are shot on videotape and exteriors are shot on film. It’s too bad that the series didn’t continue to use the theme music created by Max Harris from Douglas Wilmer series as it had a memorable theme to it. The Alan Fogg theme is nowhere near as good. The incidental music fine and it is actually rather reminiscent to some of Doctor Who stories from the 1960s that I can’t think of at the moment. I felt that the lighting used during night shots was exceptional. Very atmospheric but unfortunately it did not match the shots within the same scene shot on video which kind of muddied the effect.
I watched these from the R2 PAL DVD released in 2004. This is not the BBC Learning release though I doubt there are any differences between the two. There has been no restoration done to the video at all. The video image is pretty noisy and there are some odd banding issues on it too. A lot of times the light levels appear too low in some scenes which are causing some odd banding issues. Clearly there has been no DVNR or any PAL transform decoder applied to this release.  It is interesting to see that now buying the title from Amazon it is now an on-demand disc that will come to you as a DVD-R. I am not against a MOD type program from the BBC but I was rather hoping it would be for programs that have not already been released instead of programs that are not going to get a proper re-pressing.

Of course as this series is 1960s BBC television, there are episodes that are missing. Out of the 16 episodes made of this series, only 6 episodes exist. The Douglas Wilmer series that is an earlier production fares better as it is missing two episodes which each of the missing episodes have footage that exists. Though, as with many series that have missing episodes, rumours circulate about episodes of the Peter Cushing series that exist in Germany. Does it? I doubt it but I wouldn’t mind being wrong about that!
I enjoyed this episode but I am not a great fan of Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. I prefer the Douglas Wilmer episodes. It appears that Peter Cushing himself wasn’t a great fan of his own performance in this series. The rehearsal time was cut down and he had said, “Whenever I see some of those stories they upset me terribly, because it wasn't Peter Cushing doing his best as Sherlock Holmes - it was Peter Cushing looking relieved that he had remembered what to say and said it!” That is too bad since Peter Cushing deserved better than that. Douglas Wilmer had worked with Peter Cushing after Cushing had finished working on Holmes and asked him about his time on the series. Wilmer says, “I asked him how he had enjoyed doing the Holmes series. He replied tersely to the effect that he would rather sweep Paddington Station for a living than go through the experience again. He had my sympathies!

All quotes from Douglas Wilmer were sourced from an interview from Matthew Coniam with Douglas Wilmer published in 2009 from Movietone News.
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Next week: the tradition for this blog is that every May I do a theme month. That theme is always final episodes of a series. Next week I re-examine the final episode of a favourite series of mine, All Creatures Great & Small as I look at Brotherly Love. I wrote an article on it in 2010 and I am going to look back at it and update. We will see how that experiment goes.

Have a great week!
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