As television prepares to celebrate a hundred years of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Owen Dudley Edwards tracks down his various incarnations on screen and stage, and delivers verdict on Who Did It Best.


‘. . . Have you turned the case over in your mind?’

‘Yes, I have thought a good deal of it in the course of the day.

‘What do you make of it? '

‘It is very bewildering.

‘It certainly has a character of its own. There are points of distinction about it. That change in the footprints, for example. What do you make of that?’

‘Mortimer said that the man had walked on tiptoe down that portion of the alley.

‘He only repeated what some fool had said at the inquest. Why should a man walk on tiptoe down the alley?’

‘What then ?’

‘He was running, Watson running desperately, running for his life, running until he burst his heart and fell dead upon his face.

‘Running from what?’

‘There lies our problem. There are indications that the man was crazed with fear before ever he began to run.

‘How can you say that?’

‘I am presuming that the cause of his fears came to him across the moor. If that were so, and it seems most probable, only a man who had lost his wits would have run from the house instead of towards it. If the gipsy ’s evidence may be taken as true, he ran with cries for help in the direction where help was least likely to be. . .’

Our text, taken from the third chapter of The Hound of the Baskervilles, illustrated as well as any the possibilities and pitfalls of bringing Sherlock Holmes to the screen. We are in Baker Street, some hours after Holmes and Watson have heard Dr Mortimer’s narrative of the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, an

Possibilities and pitfalls

event heard but not seen by a drunken gipsy horse-dealer named Murphy, possibly remembered by Conan Doyle as that of a Jesuit hellfire preacher whose discourse had frightened his fellow- schoolmates. The dialogue is a cool academic exercise in analytical deduction; and the very dryness and domesticity of the exposition increase the terror induced by each revelation. Murphy’s evidence, supported by Holmes’s reasoning, seems to hint of some infernal pursuer, all the more as Mortimer has stated that beside the body were ‘the footprints of a gigantic hound.’ The reader sees the scientific

Holmes and the kindly Watson; the reader begins to formulate some hideous vision from the fragments of deduction, but its overall picture remains unseen.

Theatre can take such a form of exposition; as Bernard Shaw testified, Conan Doyle had a great

Holmes’ tragic heroism

sense of theatre. Film wants to see all it can. So the slow piecing together of partial vision, with many false assumptions on the way, cuts against the expectations of the film-goer. When 20th Century-Fox introduced Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes with The Hound of the Baskervilles (BBC 2, Frill Dec, 6pm), they opened with the crazed flight of Sir Charles Baskerville over the bay of a hound. It singles out the story’s first moment of real terror, but without the economy enhancing its effect in that quiet assembling ofdata in Baker Street. We share ' a little of the whiffof hell; butwe lose \ . \, Holmes showing us . f. fear in a handful ' of dust.

Holmes never- theless arrives quickly enough. Basil Rathbone was . , _ a fine, if limited actor, . " '~ especially in the portrayal ofaustere " and somewhat sinister intellectuals in melodramatic action. As originally conceived by Conan Doyle, Holmes is the pure scientific reasoner, almost amoral, although within a short time he became a force of intellect in the cause of Right. Rathbone catches some of that early ambiguity, especially in the first two films of his Holmes series: the later ones make him a reasoning automaton, whose emotional release appears to consist of mental sadism at the expense of Dr Watson. Perhaps he could not be expected to get the subtleties of humour and irony that John Gielgud gave the part in radio plays. He missed the inherent implications of tragic heroism in Holmes. Tim Pigott-Smith, in Forty Minutes: The Case of Sherlock Holmes (BBC 2, Thurs 10 Dec, 9.30pm), is billed as saying ‘Sherlock Holmes never fails’: it looks as if he has Seen the Films without Reading the Books. Holmes does fail: significantly the first of the Holmes short stories (which won him immortality), records his defeat - by

a woman. ‘We all need to identify with someone who is omnipotent,’ asserts Pigott-Smith. Do we? Maybe he does. Holmes’s success was because he was not certain of success. The finest scientific deductions may not be proof against a human factor. Very often Holmes’s triumph is only partial, with detective equivalents of medical victories Conan Doyle would have seen in his training at Edinburgh when the case had been a success and the patient died.

Hollywood, especially in the 19405, wanted something neater. Rathbone offered neatness and assurance. Unfortunately he also offered experience as the costume bully, and directors increasingly played him in that direction. It is hardly much progress to call in Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree (BBC 2, Sun 13 Dec, 10pm). In this case the bully invites hope that his pretensions will be quickly set down pretensions will be quickly set down ' by the arrival of his caterwauling offspring . ,, h F accompanied by an 2' ' I; ' amorous nun. and to

l . do it justice the . A script appears to have ' done its best to offer improbabilities almost as exacting.

It is certainly far . , . more elegant in 3. "{5}" its labyrinthine nonsense than the ‘- 12' " crude artefacts to . (7‘? ~ which we will be subjected by the BBC showing ofthe later Rathbone movies in which Hollywood’s ominiscience - maybe that’s where Tim Pigott-Smith is really seeking his model throws aside the Conan Doyle stories for pasteboard creations of its own genius.

Scientific inhumanity

Rathbone ultimately refused to continue , finding his part increasingly one of boastfulness and cruelty locked into absurdities. Above all he resented the nastiness to Watson. And it is with Watson that film has most conspicuously

failed. Watson’s whole existence depends on his place as a respected narrator, not conspicuously more intelligent than the average member of the reading audience, but likeable, generous and humane. It is with him, in fact, that the reader identifies: Holmes is there to be watched and admired, but his


success depends on our affection, and his affection, for Watson. By turning Watson into an imbecile,

Immortal partnership notably as portrayed by the bovine Nigel Bruce, the heart of the immortal partnership is lost. The irony is bitter: Conan Doyle wrote the stories in part as a protest against scientific inhumanity whenever Holmes is really rude to Watson he almost immediately draws a blank in his own turn - and the Rathbone series became a triumph of sadistic arrogance. The qualities of Holmes seem to have been swamped in those of Inspector Lestrade at his worst.

Even in the Rathbone Hound of the Baskervilles, where the original script received respect if not the fidelity which normally characterised the Jeremy Brett television series and gave it its greatest strength the film ends on the sour interpolation ‘Oh Watson the needle!’ Again, the real disaster here is caused by a failure with Watson. In the stories, Watson cures

new film.

Holmes of drug addiction; it is peculiarly horrible to depict him as pandering to it. But the movie in general has work of quality, so much so as to have given Rathbone the reputation as a perfect Holmes which fuelled the long decline. The mish-mash script of the second Rathbone film, TheAdventures of Sherlock Holmes (BBC 2, Fri 18 Dec, 6pm), still managed to retain enough of the atmosphere of the original to stave off the rot, and George Zucco as Professor Moriarty was as convincing as could be hoped in bringing to the screen an immortal villain whose effect in the stories is partly achieved by never being encountered by Watson (and hence the reader).

The overall verdict is: Bring Back Brett.

Sherlock Holmes is celebrated on tv with ‘Forty Minutes: The Case of Sherlock Holmes’ (BBCZ, Thurs 10 Dec); in a season offilms on BBC2 starting with ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles' (Fri 11 Dec); and with a special feature length episode of Granada '5 Jeremy Brett adaptation (Scottish Tues 29 Dec). See Media Listings.

8The List 11 Dec l987—7Jan 1988