Wednesday, March 25, 2015

DVD Review: Sherlock Holmes Starring Douglas Wilmer

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
4-DVD set  (Main Feature: 650 min)
Released by the BFI on March 30, 2015. SRP £39.99 (DVD)
Subtitles, 1.33:1, Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono Black & White

This is a Region 2 DVD only available from the UK and in the PAL format.

I am pretty excited because this is my first review for a release from the BFI. I have long been a fan of their releases especially when it has come to their archive television sets on DVD going way back to The Stone Tape (released on DVD in 2001) and recently picked up The Year of the Sex Olympics because for some reason I have never picked it up.
The last couple of years I have been going BFI release crazy by picking up such gems as Dead of Night, Ghost Stories for Christmas, The Boy from Space, The Changes, Supernatural, Out of This World and ending out the year with one of the greatest archive releases of all-time, Out of the Unknown. This 7 DVD set had set the bar high for archive television and it was a dream release.

When I found out that the BFI were going to release the 1960s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes series, I have to admit, I was a little worried. Not because I felt they wouldn’t do a stellar job but more because for some inexplicable reason this series was released in the US in 2010 from BBC Home Entertainment. I cannot help to write a review about this release without talking about the previous US release and explaining why one should double dip if they got that release 5 years ago. Trust me, double dipping is very much recommended. First off, what is this series about?
I get the feeling many people think of this series as the “lost” or forgotten Sherlock Holmes series. That is a shame but I get it. The series started out as a one off pilot on another anthology series called Detective in 1965. Douglas Wilmer was approached to play the role of Sherlock Holmes along with Nigel Stock playing Watson. Wilmer made some requests on the production when the show went into a full series such as the type of directors he would work with and the amount of rehearsal time he needed for a series of this kind. It appears that none of this happened for Wilmer. Wilmer clearly doesn’t suffer fools which I greatly admire. The directors were inexperienced and the writing was atrocious. You will hear Wilmer recant on this marvelous DVD set how a script came in at 20 minutes running time. Wilmer would stay up until 2am re-writing the script. Both Wilmer and Stock really cared about this series. So, one would assume that because of all the behind the scenes problems, this is the reason why this series is forgotten and must be horrible, right? Wrong!

There is something truly wonderful about this version of Sherlock Holmes. Many have called Douglas Wilmer’s interpretation of Holmes as one of the best. I am a hardcore fan of Jeremy Brett who I consider definitive but I thought I would take another look at this position. There is something really human about Wilmer’s version of Holmes. He isn’t solely about exaggerated speeches and acting eccentric or odd. There is some of that there but I truly feel like I watch his version of Holmes and it is like watching a real person. His actions and motives make perfect sense. I really believe that Holmes and Watson are really good friends which I sometimes feel like I miss in other incarnations of this duo. There is a great moment in The Six Napoleons where Holmes, Watson and Lestrade interview Dr. Barnicot who is a massive Napoleon enthusiast. After they leave he puts on a suitable Napoleon hat as he stands in the mirror admiring himself. We dissolve the scene to Watson back at the 221B Baker Street mimicking that very notion by putting his own hat to the side as if he was Barnicot.  All three (Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade) start laughing with each other as mischevious little schoolboys. It struck me because it is a very human moment. Maybe this scene is in other versions of the story but here it is authentic. I loved it!
These are not stage plays with a camera recording them. They are great pieces of television with a great deal of thought put into camera angles and pacing for the story. I am actually surprised what Wilmer has said about the directors because I think these look to be very competent productions. Set design is superb. It’s not like going from “Victorian era set A” to “Victorian era set B”. Each location has a wonderful look and feel that is individual. I actually think this is accentuated being in black & white. I will always much prefer television of this era in black & white. These episodes have a great feel of atmosphere and depth. I love the sets in The Man with the Twisted Lip. The opium den set is suitably creepy. It’s smokey and dark; it’s hard to see to the other end of the room which makes the whole thing wonderful and atmospheric.

The same episode features great locations shot outside the studio. Location filming was carried out at genuine East End locations that existed back in the time Sherlock Holmes was written. A lot of those buildings now no longer exist. This series did a lot of location filming around London but also went to places like France in The Disappearance of Lady Carfax and Cornwall for The Devil’s Foot.
There are obviously a lot of great episodes on this set. I find it interesting that much of the “known” Sherlock Holmes stories were not made at this time for this series. Stories like The Sign of Four or The Hound of the Baskervilles were made during the following set of episodes starring Peter Cushing. Some standout episodes for me include the aforementioned The Devils Foot, The Six Napoleons, The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Beryl Coronet, and The Bruce-Partington Plans. Obviously, all the episodes are good but these stand out for the qualities I point out above. Something else I love about these episodes are the guest artist that appear in them.

I love to see Patrick Troughton in anything. Being a life-long Doctor Who fan makes me point this out but Troughton is truly a great character actor. You could see him in Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Finlay’s Casebook, Adam Adamant Lives!, Doomwatch, The Feather Serpent or anything else and he is truly a different character in all of these productions. Easily one of the best character actors to be on television. He appears in The Devil’s Foot. There is also Peter Wyngarde, Jennie Linden, Alethea Charlton (one of my all-time favourites), Michael Robbins, Trevor Martin, James Bree, Anton Rodgers, Olaf Pooley, Allan Cuthbertson, and David Burke (who would eventually play Watson in part of the Brett series). A highlight is Derek Francis as Mycroft in The Bruce-Partington Plans. Throughout all the episodes, I really enjoyed Peter Madden as Lestrade. At first, it’s not how I imagined the character as for some reason Madden’s performance reminded me more of Inspector Japp but he grew on me quite a bit.

One of the areas where this release differs from the R1 set is that this has been re-mastered. As you may have read in my Mr. Bean review (yes I did just reference Mr. Bean in a BFI review) that re-mastering takes on many different sinister tones. The work on these episodes are done by none other than Peter Crocker. When I see his name attached to a project, I simply take notice. He has worked on the Doctor Who releases but other programs too. Is the restoration work as much as on a Doctor Who release? No but it doesn’t need to in my opinion. This is a wonderfully niche title, I appreciate any kind of work done on these.
There is no VIDfire applied to these episodes because it simply shouldn’t be applied. Peter outlines in the booklet that comes with the set how these episodes were prepared for broadcast and how they were prepared for syndication and each done very differently. I won’t spoil the essay. It is short, to the point and interesting.  The worse quality episode is The Speckled Band. The print just doesn’t look sharp and it is pointed out in the booklet why that is. What I was most curious about is the reconstruction for The Bruce-Partington Plans. Only the first reel (of 2) of this episode exists and the rest is a reconstruction with the audio from the episode. I’ve had the audio for the missing reel for a while which is a few generations down and sounds a bit muddy which is expected. The audio on the reconstruction is beautiful and sounds just like the audio for the existing reel of film. Is the magnetic soundtrack from the original 35mm broadcast master that survived? It’s fantastic!

Here are comparison shots between the R1 release from 2010 and the new BFI release. The R2 release pics is the second of each set:


I think what is amazing about this release is that it is full of wonderful extras. Oh, how luxurious would it be that all archive television DVD sets come out to this standard! This release was put together by a team who loves this series and wants other people to love and discover it. I look at extras as secondary to the episodes but when the extras are presented with such enthusiasm, it is hard not feel so strongly about the work that went into this to give us the best possible product. Here are the extras on the set:
Alternative Spanish audio presentation of The Speckled Band. The Speckled Band is not my favourite episode but I appreciate this being included as a novelty and curiosity.

Alternative title sequence for The Illustrious Client. This sequence has an extra name in the opening credits which once more is a nice curiosity that I am happy to see here.
Douglas Wilmer….on Television. This is a nice interview that appears to come from 2012 with Sherlock Holmes himself. This extra warms my heart as Wilmer comes across charming and engaging spelling out exactly what he didn’t like during his time as Holmes but does so with dignity. He does it in a way that makes perfect sense and not out of spite. To be honest, I read interviews with him and I’ve read him as a bit difficult but if that were true (and I don’t know one way or another), you don’t see it presented here. A lovely addition to the set.

Episode reconstructions. Two of the Wilmer Holmes episodes only partially exist in the BBC archive. These have been reconstructed for this set. As I mentioned above, The Bruce-Partington Plans have been reconstructed using the audio that exists from the missing reel. Visually, the missing pieces were reconstructed with passages from the script with screen grabs from the episode in the background. The script segments are overlaid onto the picture. They are married together in a very tasteful way. Leading up to the start of the episode on this set, there are some art cards that describe the reconstruction but it wasn’t as clear to me how it would be presented so I was nicely surprised when I saw them. The reconstruction looks great and I think it is a unique and effective presentation. I will probably be burned alive for this but I don’t think The Abbey Grange is reconstructed as well.
REVISED 26/03/15: Only the second reel of The Abbey Grange exists. We have Douglas Wilmer reading the first part of the story and we join the episode when the story catches up to the existing footage. I don’t think this doesn't works quite as well for me in terms of presentation. I feel horrible for saying this because we have Wilmer on camera for a newly recorded sequence reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work but it gets long and tedious for me. It goes on for a while. I know Wilmer is in his 90s and does an admirable job with the reading but it gets too long. Do I have a better idea? No. Maybe it should have been a more condensed reading? Now, up until a day ago, I thought the audio for the first half of this story existed just the like audio for the second half of The Bruce-Partington Plans. I even mentioned it on this review that I thought it existed but now have revised it because I was mistaken. My apologies to John Kelly and Toby Hadoke for alarming you both in thinking you missed out on something where you both clearly worked a great deal on this release to give us the best there was available! My sincerest apologies to you both.

Commentaries: There are five commentaries on this set. Once again this is a treat because I would have never expected this many commentaries on a release for this series. We get one with Douglas Wilmer on The Devil’s Foot and Charles Augustus Milverton. Amazing! We also have one on The Illustrious Client with Peter Sasdy, The Red Headed League with David Andrews and Trevor Martin, and The Abbey Grange with Peter Cregeen. All moderated by Toby Hadoke and produced by John Kelly. I really enjoyed these. I think Toby has a strong knowledge of the genre and helps the commentators along if they forget a fact while not making them feel silly about it. All the commentaries are very natural conversations that not just about working on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes but also working in the industry of the time. These are treasured conversations because this information and people are disappearing as time goes on. Anything we can do to record this history is important!
Illustrated booklet: As common with all BFI releases, this includes a well-written booklet that showcases essays about the series, the production and Sherlock Holmes himself whether it be the fictional character or Douglas Wilmer or Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes. This booklet is the perfect accompaniment for the set of episodes.

DVD Breakdown:
Disc 1: The Speckled Band, The Illustrious Client, The Devil’s Foot, The Speckled Band (Spanish Audio Version, The Illustrious Client (Alternative Titles)

Disc 2: The Copper Beeches, The Red-Headed League, The Abbey Grange (Partial Reconstruction)
Disc 3: The Six Napoleons, The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Beryl Coronet, The Bruce-Partington Plans (Partial Reconstruction)

Disc 4: Charles Augustus Milverton, The Retired Colourman, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, Douglas Wilmer….on Television.
I think what I like best about the BFI releases is that everything released by them feel like an event with these episodes being treated as special which they are special. There isn’t a product they put out that feels like it is a show bung onto a DVD. There is always some kind of special features and the episodes look great with some kind of work applied to them. I truly appreciate that so much effort went into the release of this series. Although I first saw these episodes from the R1 BBC Home Entertainment release, I feel like I get to really experience the series from different unique perspectives with this release.

If you bought the R1 DVD in 2010, I would suggest picking it up the new BFI release. Obviously the episodes look the best they can now but there is so much more to enjoy than just the episodes. If you are curious about this version of Sherlock Holmes, pick it up. It’s a good price on Amazon and it is truly a fantastic set. This set is highly recommended.
Next week: We take a look at the series Galton & Simpson created for Sid James after he was dumped from Hancock’s Half Hour. It’s not one I am completely familiar with but I can’t wait to give it another shot since I am such a fan of Sid James. The series is called Citizen James and I am looking at the first 2 episodes The Race and The Elixir.

Have a great week!

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Derrick said...

Very comprehensive review. I've just received my copy and after blogging a quick review I'm looking forward to working my through the episodes during the next few weeks.

I'd certainly agree with you that the care and attention lavished on this series (and previous DVDs such as Out of the Unknown) by the BFI is very welcome and we can only hope that sales are sufficiently good to enable them to exhume a few more gems from the BBC archive.

I'll be interested to hear your thoughts next week on Citizen James. I love Galton and Simpson and I love Tony Hancock, so the first series of this (essentially Hancock's Half Hour without Hancock) should have been right up my street.

But I didn't manage to make it past the first few episodes (possibly I just wasn't in the right mood and the next time I approach it I'll get more out out it).

Greg said...

Hi Derrick,

Thanks for the kind words about my review. I have been to your blog many times ( which is quite good and will check back in to see your thoughts on these episodes.

As far as Citizen James goes, I had previously run into the same issue you have with getting past the first couple of episodes but I also don't think I put my full attention to it so I hope that I have better luck this time since it features some of the best talent around.

Take care,

Derrick said...

I have heard that the later episodes of Citizen James (the ones not written by G&S) are better, so I'm going to give the series another go to see if this is the case.

I agree that given all the talent involved it should be top-notch, but something just didn't click for me last time.

Still, it's a B&W BBC series that's available on DVD, so we should cherish it - considering the number of great programmes of a similar vintage that remain unreleased!