Mr Sherlock Holmes

The much-hyped third series of ‘Sherlock’ has come to an end and I have to say, I wasn’t that impressed.  When Benedict Cumberbatch hit our screens with his sociopathic amateur sleuth in the clever ‘A Study in Pink’ back in 2010 we all thought “wow’ and were blown over by the mix of modern situations and locations, technology, and the central friendship between the detective who keeps clear from people and the doctor invalided out from Afghanistan.   The first series picked elements from Conan Doyle’s stories like ‘The Dancing Men’ and brought a believable dynamic between characters we knew (Mrs Hudson, Inspector Lestrade) and those created for the series (Molly the nurse) and our central duo.  And despite being an extremely annoying character as played by Andrew Scott, the swimming pool stand-off between Sherlock and Moriarty at the close of the third episode, ‘The Great Game’ (with plot elements taken from ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’) was excellent.

The second series had our heroes escaping from their nemesis, meeting the famous ‘Woman’, Irene Adler (here a dominatrix), doing their revision of ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’, and eventually came to a close with ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ in which Sherlock falls to his death from St Bart’s Hospital … or did he?  Our expectations of finding out just how he escaped was thwarted by the non-revelations of ‘The Empty Hearse’, the opener to series three, which had a throwaway reference to the ‘Moran’ of the Conan Doyle story, a nice bit with a video dealer which echoed the bookseller’s “bargains” of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes three decades earlier, but little else.

Cumberbatch was never going to be my favourite Holmes – half a dozen names would make the list before his (Brett, Arthur Wontner, Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Rathbone, and Eille Norwood in the Stoll silents).  His tedious pseudo-autism is wearing thin after the charming cleverness of a fish out of water of the early first series episodes, and I hope that the planned series four gets him back on track and stops our ‘Great Detective’ being the tedious show-off you want to avoid at parties.  There have been many actors who have tackled the role of Sherlock Holmes: some excellent one-shot performances of which I would have loved to see more, including Nicol Williamson and Robert Stephens, Jonathan Pryce and John Neville, Raymond Massey and Tom Baker.  Of series level Holmes, the Russian Vasily Livanov is excellent, while in cheap 1950s and 1980 TV series retrospectively I rate Ronald Howard and Geoffrey Whitehead very highly, even if they have to work with scripts of the calibre of ‘The Baker Street Nursemaids’ or ‘Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard’.  John Barrymore made a decent stab at the role in the silent era, just the once (in a play remade less successfully years later with Frank Langella).

Of the trio of modern Holmes brought to the screen (not two, as the recent Timeshift documentary had it, ignoring the US reboot named ‘Elementary’ in which Jonny Lee Miller is proving an excellent 21st century Holmes), I haven’t much time for Robert Downey Jnr, as he is only really good at playing himself and his own personality is miles away from the complex contradiction needed to depict Sherlock Holmes.  His Watson (Jude Law) is good though.  Miller’s Watson is a woman (not the first – Joanne Woodward was a Dr Watson to George C Scott’s delusional Sherlock character in ‘They May Be Giants’ and Margaret Colin was the granddaughter of the original John Watson in 1987’s ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’) played by Lucy Liu, and she’s brilliant, easily a match for her strange friend.  Cumberbatch is blessed with Martin Freeman as Watson, although I still find his acting technique limited – his Watson is the same as Bilbo Baggins, is the same as Arthur Dent, but it hardly matters.

So who failed to present the creation of Conan Doyle as we would expect him to be?  Christopher Lee may be a devotee of the stories, but his trio of films in which he plays Holmes suffer from bad dubbing (‘The Deadly Necklace’) and poor scripts and Watson (‘Leading Lady’, ‘Victoria Falls’, with Patrick McNee, himself a terrible Holmes in ‘The Hound of London’).  Stewart Granger looked as if he belonged in the Wild West in his ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, and the less said about Peter Cook’s Jewish Holmes and Dudley Moore’s Welsh Watson in their ‘Hound’, the better.  Reginald Owen was poor in ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Charlton Heston may have played the role on stage in ‘The Crucifer of Blood’ but was far too old for the film.  Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett were miscast opposite Ian Hart’s solid Watson in a TV ‘Hound’ and an original story ‘Case of the Silk Stocking’.  John Cleese was, well, John Cleese for Comedy Playhouse’s ‘Elementary, My Dear Watson’ and ‘The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It’.

I like my Holmes, and I’ll watch any of them, from the odd defrosted versions of Michael Pennington and Anthony Higgins, the pouty youth of James D’Arcy, the clipped tones of Clive Brook, the teenage sleuths of Guy Henry and Nicholas Rowe, and the intensity of Christopher Plummer in ‘Silver Blaze’ and ‘Murder by Decree’.  And although the third series of ‘Sherlock’ has made me lose the love and admiration I had for Cumberbatch’s performance, just a little bit, I will be back to watch him when he returns.

There’s something about our detective that brings us back time and time again.  Long may he live to be adapted and enjoyed, and long may his intellect and odd view of the world endure.


Jane Eyre on television

In this post, I will be considering seven adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s famous book.  I will also touch briefly on a version I have not yet seen in its entirety, but only in a small number of clips.  (For a look at versions made for the big screen, see my post Jane Eyre in the cinema).

The earliest version made for the US television series, Westinghouse Studio One, was transmitted live in 1949, and features the young Charlton Heston as Mr Rochester, with Mary Sinclair as Jane.  This pair would also appear together in the same year as Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, the book by Charlotte’s sister Emily.   Studio One dramatisations were extremely short and succinct, running at approximately fifty minutes including advertisements.  The time limitation obviously means a much truncated story, although there is still time for basic plot points including Rochester’s fall from his horse, the Mason visit, and the fire at Thornfield.

Another anthology series, Matinee Theatre, provided an adaptation in 1957 with Patrick McNee and Joan Elan in the leads, in a colour production.  Again, this version runs at just under an hour and so must be selective in its storyline.  The advantage of having such a tight timeframe in which to turn around a complex book is that an adaptor must decide which characters/plots to leave out.  McNee appeared in quite a few literary adaptations in the 1950s but he doesn’t have the right personality for this role.

1957 also saw the first full-length television adaptation, made in Italy with a recognised star, Raf Vallone, as Mr Rochester, and Ilaria Occhini as Jane.  The version currently available does not have English subtitles, but those familiar with the story will be able to follow it despite the language barrier.  The settings and atmosphere feel very gothic, and the running time, across several hours, gives ample time for the whole of Bronte’s book to be at least attempted.

The previous year, the first British adaptation of the book was filmed, and although it survives in its entirety, it is not currently possible to view the whole series.  However, on viewing a couple of clips (Rochester and Jane’s first meeting, and the aftermath of the wedding) it seems that in Stanley Baker and Daphne Slater this production provides a leading man and lady who do justice to their characters, although Baker is a bit on the gruff side.

It was not until 1973 that another four-hour version appeared, in colour, this time with the Irish actress Sorcha Cusack as Jane and Michael Jayston as Mr Rochester.  This is one of my favourite adaptations, with Jayston being particularly sardonic and charming in his role, while Cusack is much his match as a rational girl whose personality develops as she falls into love.  This version of the book feels quite wide in scope and landscape, and the St John Rivers story is well-covered with Geoffrey Whitehead a sanctimonious polar opposite to Jayston’s man of hidden passions.

Ten years later, in 1983, the quiet and unassuming Zelah Clarke was cast as Jane opposite Timothy Dalton, who had previously played Heathcliff in a cinema adaptation of Wuthering Heights.  Again running at over four hours, this version is perhaps the closest to the book, and both principal actors are excellent, especially Clarke (who should have had a great career on the back of this, but instead fell into obscurity and is now retired from acting).  A particular highlight is Rochester’s gypsy trick with the Ingrams, which is great fun.

An adaptation at feature film length in 1997 suffers from a degree of miscasting as Mr Rochester, with Ciaran Hinds far too one-note as an angry and bitter man who resents his dark secret.  Samantha Morton, however, is mesmerising as Jane, delicate, naive, and trusting.  We see her shopping for her wedding trousseau in childish delight, and follow her emotional awakening as a woman with some empathy.

Finally, in 2006 we saw another four-hour version which presented another quiet Jane (Ruth Wilson), but this time one with hidden depths.  Toby Stephens was perhaps not an obvious choice for Mr Rochester, but with his Byronic brooding looks he fits the part of a damaged romantic hero, which is how the character is presented during this dramatisation.  Wilson is absolutely stunning as a girl who goes from plain to beautiful before our eyes.  She rightly went on to more high-profile roles in television (including Luther) and cinema (most recently in The Lone Ranger).