7 December 2003 | Filmtribute
Excellent representation of Conan Doyle's celebrated adversary of crime
In this Granada television series, Jeremy Brett presented us with a definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. The attention to detail was superb with an interpretation far closer to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation than previously shown on film by the deerstalkered Basil Rathbone et al. Jeremy Brett's wild, haunted and melancholy performance of the second series in 1985 was, by his own admission, heavily influenced through the personal tragedy of the loss of his wife to cancer. He adapted the role somewhat for the return series and managed to introduce some levity, even though he found it difficult to play a character who was all mind and no heart. David Burke and his successor Edward Hardwicke (who took on the role in the third series: `The Return of Sherlock Holmes') both gave intelligent performances as Holmes' crony, Dr John Watson. Brett and Hardwicke made an exceptionally good team and brought the relationship alive with a believable friendship more than any previous characterisations had done.
The series combined fine period detail and atmosphere to create a very credible late 19th century London, and the dialogue replicated the novels fairly closely. The main drawback of the storyline adaptations and format is that they may have removed some of the exploration into the incisive detective skills of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and the series became sanitised with the playing down of both of Holmes' predilections for drugs and the violin. Unless I am suffering from false memory syndrome I seem to recall someone's dramatisation where Watson recoils from Holmes' ear-splitting scratching, which I now find is contrary to Conan Doyle's assertion that Holmes was "not only a very capable performer but a composer of no ordinary merit". The problem may lie in actually dramatising the novels, as Jeremy Brett himself observed, they are better read, and he described performing the action of crawling through the bracken like a golden retriever as "hysterically funny". The concept of the images being better seen in the mind's eye would also explain why the excellent BBC radio productions of the 1990's, with Clive Merrison and Michael Williams as the sleuth and good doctor, worked so well.
The choice of guest actors was consistently of a high standard and is one of the reasons why I remember `The Abbey Grange' so fondly, with a note of thanks to the director Peter Hammond. The episode notably deals with Conan Doyle's expose on the cruelty of marriage in locking women into an abusive relationship without any means of escape. Holmes is called to investigate the savage murder of an Earl in his Kent mansion and finds that the Australian wife and her maid apparently survived the attack. The two women obligingly give compelling evidence to incriminate a notorious local gang. As usual Holmes' mind is still trying to fit contradictory pieces of the puzzle together after leaving the house when he has a lucid flash of insight and promptly returns to the scene of the crime. More evidence is unearthed to refute the honourable ladies' story though they will not budge and Holmes sets off on a trail as any diligent detective might follow. However, he of course tracks the real culprit down and brings him to justice but there is a novel twist and a very romantic solution. A very rewarding episode demonstrating Holmes' brilliance and compassion to divert man's base cruelty and the rigid laws of the land which surely would have seen a gallant hero hung.
Charles Dickens was also moved to write on the similar theme of a beautiful and intelligent woman imprisoned in abusive matrimony in one of his most enduring novels, `Great Expectations', originally serialised some 37 years previously in 1860-1861, and his earlier `Hard Times' also touches on the prohibitively expensive, complex and discriminatory proceedings for divorce prior to the 1857 Divorce Act. In Victorian England the only married woman with any rights and an independent identity was Queen Victoria herself. Men could beat their wives under law as long as the rod was no greater than a thumb's thickness and a woman was deemed to have no just cause to refuse conjugal rights. Sadly such attitudes are only too prevalent today in this technologically advanced but in many ways still primeval world. Evidence shows that matrimony benefits men at the expense of women and it is hardly surprising that in the UK a third of marriages fail. Indeed, Schopenhauer speaks of a "life force" that brings people together to reproduce, but warns that the chosen partner is not necessarily right for you. The concern for society as a whole should be on minimising the negative effect on the unfortunate offspring who may of course have unwittingly contributed to the marriage breakdown. A factor that is so often blatantly ignored by sensational newspaper stories when intruding on public figures' private lives.
Oliver Tobias (`Luke's Kingdom', also directed by Peter Hammond with Peter Weir) finds that his gruff rigid manner works very well here as the merchant captain and friend driven to the fatal act of defending his beloved from her brutal husband. The disturbingly beautiful Anne Louise Lambert, who fits the narrative's description to the letter, plays the free spirited Miss Mary Fraser from Adelaide. After a dazzling beginning in 1975 in Peter Weir's hauntingly enchanting `Picnic at Hanging Rock', which led to a prominent role in Peter Greenaway's artful `The Draughtsman's Contract' (1982) as well as this episode in 1986, it is both perplexing and disappointing that Lambert's international film career has faltered. Despite appearances in several Australian features and a handful of overseas projects, since starring in Susan Dermody's 1993 largely unknown but extremely pertinent `Breathing Under Water' Lambert has only been seen in a few cameos including an ailing mother in ABC's 2001's controversial prisoners-of-war series, `Changi'.
The exclusive video rights in the UK for the Granada TV series have passed from VCI to Britannia Music so that membership is necessary to obtain copies of the videos in PAL format.