DVD REVIEW: SHERLOCK HOLMES / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: VARIOUS / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: DOUGLAS WILMER, NIGEL STOCK / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 30TH
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective has surely never been more popular and there seems to be a Sherlock Holmes for all tastes in amongst the various current incarnations of Baker Street’s finest. The BBC’s slick, modern reinvention of Sherlock has made a superstar out of Benedict Cumberbatch, but there’s also much to recommend in Jonny Lee Miller’s slightly more generic American take on the same theme in Elementary, and Robert Downey Jnr’s two-fisted interpretation in the presently in-limbo Guy Richie movie series is quirky fun even if the series lost its way a little in A Game of Shadows. Later this year Sir Ian McKellan will appear as a retired nonagenarian Holmes in the feature film Mr Holmes, based on Mitch Cullen’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. But what we haven’t had for some time is a traditional Sherlock Holmes prowling a Victorian London of hansom cabs, choking fogs and singular mysteries. Jeremy Brett’s Granada TV series, which ran from 1984 to 1994, was pretty much the definitive version of the classic image of Sherlock the 19th century sleuth and whose considerable oeuvre came close to bringing the entire Conan Doyle canon to the small screen.
This charming new four-disc BFI DVD boxset will delight Holmes purists who may be a bit sniffy about the modernization of their hero, resurrecting as it does one of the ‘great’ (if often overlooked) Sherlocks as magnificently played by Douglas Wilmer for a twelve-part BBC series in 1965. The series itself was a spin-off from the anthology title Detectives (whose episode The Speckled Band is presented here) and ran to one twelve-instalment series before Peter Cushing took over the role in a belated second series in 1968. Only ten of the series’ twelve episodes remain, and they’re here in all their terribly earnest 1960s BBC glory – and almost without exception they’re wonderfully enjoyable realizations of some of the best of Conan Doyle’s short stories. Although typically stagey and theatrical, there’s a decent amount of atmospheric location filming suggesting that this was surely a prestige production for mid-1960s British television, and in Wilmer we have easily one of the very best Sherlocks who, as many commentators have pointed out, bears an uncanny resemblance to the character as depicted in the famous Sidney Paget illustrations which graced the pages of The Strand magazine in the late 1890s. Wilmer’s Holmes is clipped, sharp, unfussy and to the point, often evoking the style (if not the occasionally arch spirit) of Basil Rathbone in the long-running 1940s film series. Wilmer’s Holmes is accompanied by Nigel Stock as John Watson, here very much the bumbling, slightly bloated caricature figure popularized by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone films until his rehabilitation courtesy of David Burke and Edward Hardwick in the Brett series when Watson became more of an urbane confidante to Holmes rather than a slightly dim and naïve blunderer.
It’s a relief to revisit these Holmes stories done straight; Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s Sherlock has become too keen to show how clever it is to concern itself with telling a proper story, and its lip service to Conan Doyle’s originals sometimes does the legend of Sherlock Holmes little justice. The stories here – familiar titles such as The Illustrious Client, The Devil’s Foot, The Copper Beeches, The Red-Headed League, The Man With The Twisted Lip – are very much the bread-and-butter stories which made Holmes’ exploits so addictive to his wide-eyed Victorian audience. This lovingly-presented collection might not hold the attention of modern viewers who’d rather see their hero being clever with a mobile phone than painstakingly solving a puzzle with his finely-tuned deductive skills, but for fans who miss enjoying Holmes and Watson just getting on with the business of solving crimes without the benefit of any fancy gimmicks and snazzy visuals, this is an absolute joy and a boxset to hold as close to your chest as the man himself might hold his beloved violin.
Special Features: Reconstructions of the two missing episodes with contributions from Douglas Wilmer / 2012 Wilmer interview / Five audio commentaries / Alternative title sequence for The Illustrious Client / Spanish audio for The Speckled Band / Souvenir booklet.
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