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The Christmas Carol

Oddly charming
Mainly because of Vincent Price's excellent and tongue-in-cheek narration, reading the celebrated Dickens story, this works better than it should, especially given the ridiculously over the top performance of Taylor Holmes as Scrooge, acting in a way one associates more with the worst excesses of silent cinema.

However, in twenty-five minutes this production does include a scene in Scrooge's office, Jacob Marley and all the three ghosts, as well as a glimpse at Scrooge's redemption and celebration of Christmas.

As an example of early television's attempts to film the classics, it is very good indeed. There are of course better adaptations of this tale, but this one is worth seeking out even if is just the once.

The version I watched is rather muddy picture-wise, but the sound is clear and understandable, and everyone has clear voices which serve Dickens' text well.

The Arbor

Something quite different
Andrea Dunbar wrote two plays before she died tragically young at the age of 29 - 'The Arbor', of which we see snatches and scenes here, and 'Rita, Sue and Bob, Too', which was made into a well-regarded film.

This drama-documentary is rather different to the usual type because not only does it use real interview and actual footage of Dunbar from her TV appearances, but uses real interviews with her family and friends which are then lip-synched (very well) by professional actors. This sounds like a gimmick, but we very quickly forget we are not watching the real people talking about their lives - when we do get jolted out of this by associations with other work (George Costigan 'plays' Dunbar's partner but also of course was 'Bob' in the aforementioned film), it still somehow works.

Dunbar's story was a tragic one, one of wasted talent and a toxic life, to some degree, although her children - mixed-race Lorraine and Lisa - have very different stories about their childhood and the impact their mother had on them. Lorraine's story is just as tragic in its way, and we follow that following the description of Andrea Dunbar's death.

A new and dynamic way of presenting real people's issues and problems, 'The Arbor' is very possibly something Dunbar could have created herself had she lived. As it is, it stands as an interesting memorial to her talent.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Outstanding Christmas animation
'The Nightmare Before Christmas' has hints of A Christmas Carol about it, with its tale of The Pumpkin King (Jack Skellington) and his attempts to hijack Christmas in true Grinch-style.

It's a musical animation, beautifully realised, first as Jack discovers Christmas, and then plans to destroy it ... but will be succeed? Some lovely set pieces including the flight over a Christmas Eve sky, the Bogeyman's gambling lair, and the Edward Scissorhands-like desolation of empty spaces, work well, alongside more obviously comic pieces involving Jack's dog Zero, with the red nose to light up the sleigh.

This being a tale in the true festive spirit it does have the inevitable character development and redemption we have come to expect from versions of Scrooge over the years. But the 'Nightmare' has charm and is very well-voiced and created.


A modern version of Austen's 'Emma'
As a bit of an Austen purist, my copy of 'Clueless' has been left on the shelf for quite a while until I decided to watch it this week. I was pleasantly surprised by, despite the American high school setting, the faithfulness to the original novel.

Emma Woodhouse becomes Cher (Alicia Silverstone), full of ego and a dumb blonde caricature, as insecure as those she aims to help, such as the geeky Tai = Harriet Smith (Brittany Murphy). She makes bad choices in love - throwing herself at the preening Christian (= Frank Churchill) while ignoring the steady Josh (= Mr Knightley), and this is as much a growing-up fable in the teen drama standard as it is an attempt to make a classic novel relevant to a new generation.

Although 'Clueless' is a bit dumb and squarely aimed at a younger audience, it does have some pleasures for those familiar with the book it takes as inspiration - and for those who do not know their Austen and so are ignorant of the parallels. Silverstone makes an endearing heroine and Murphy is convincing in her depiction of a girl moving from geek to glamourpuss (shades of Grease and Sandy here as well).

Like other adaptations it is worth a look simply to see how different directors and writers handle the subject.

Lost Christmas

The makings of a new Christmas classic
With all the hype about 'Lost Christmas' I came to it without high expectations, especially after seeing Eddie Izzard in previous dramas and not rating him that highly. However, in the role of the mysterious Anthony, a mystical man of magic without a sense of place, he seems to have found an ideal vehicle for his quirky talent.

We first meet Anthony when Frank (Jason Flemyng) comes across him on a deserted Manchester pavement where the lights mysteriously go on and off. Wearing a name badge on his coat, he has no memory of his life other than an ability to see what others have lost.

Tied in with Frank's story is that of the young thief Goose, who has still coming to terms with the horrible events of last Christmas, spending time with his dog, Mutt.

Taking some inspiration from 'The Christmas Carol' and 'It's a Wonderful Life', this drama weaves together a number of connected stories and situations over an hour and a half running time. It also has a satisfying, although not entirely joyful, twist.

This show could become an enduring classic of Christmas, and if it did, it would be deserved. Well worth a look.

Armchair Theatre: The Hothouse
Episode 9, Season 5

A sparkling quartet
'The Hothouse' was one of the most popular entries in the series of Armchair Theatre plays which ran on British television from 1956 to 1974, and scored very high ratings on its first transmission.

Apart from the first scene, set at the annual dance for the employees of a chain of supermarkets, there are only four characters showcased in this drama of ambition and infidelities, with four actors working at the top of their game. Diana Rigg makes her debut TV appearance (which would eventually win her the role of The Avengers' Emma Peel) as Anita Fender, twenty-eight, mother of two, a bit of lush and suspecting her marriage has gone stale. Veteran Armchair Theatre player Harry H Corbett plays her tycoon husband Harry Fender, who has built up the supermarket business from the time he was a delivery boy in his teens - he's now over forty and obsessed with developing the exotic plants in his hothouse.

Into this brew are dropped the recently married Parsleys - Gordon (Donald Churchill, who wrote this play) is assistant manager at one of the supermarket branches and hopes to be promoted to manager; his wife Charlotte (Miranda Connell) is a blonde stunner who has already attracted the eye of the boss at the annual dance, where they performed a tango together.

The main premise of the story is what happens when Anita invites the Parsleys for the weekend, and presents Miranda with a proposition which could secure her husband his promotion. But does everything go to plan? This play is a delight, funny (there's one delicious double-take between Corbett and Connell which is hilarious), spicy, and surprising. Rigg definitely makes an impression and Corbett removes thoughts of Harold Steptoe with his bored and passionate lover of blondes. Connell also shows a deft gift for comedy and Churchill doesn't disappoint in a role which he clearly relishes playing.

This lost gem can be viewed on DVD as an extra on the restored Avengers series four release. It's not to be missed.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Interesting adaptation of the classic tale
This version of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' was made by the BBC thirty years ago, and featured Diana Dors and Toyah Wilcox in small but pivotal roles, other well-known names in the cast include Ian Bannen and Clive Swift as Dr Jekyll's oldest friends from when they were all students together.

Interestingly this version presents Dr Jekyll as other than a saintly doctor (a failing in earlier adaptations, IMO). Here, Jekyll is already visiting places of sin before he even starts taking the potions to separate his 'good' and 'evil' sides. This makes the transformation into Mr Hyde even more sinister - although in appearance he is younger and more dynamic rather than a simple monster as depicted in other adaptations of this tale.

In the dual lead roles, David Hemmings is excellent and both characters are very much given their own personalities. There are a couple of chilling moments - one involving Mr Hyde and a child prostitute, another Dr Jekyll's maid who is enticed into pleasures by Mr Hyde which leave her disgraced and desperate.

Well worth watching even if its low production values date it rather when viewing today.

Idol on Parade

Spoof of 'pop star is drafted into the Army'
Former child star Anthony Newley found his career took quite a different path once he was cast as 'Jeep Jackson' in this fun pop musical.

'Jeep' is a rising star who is drafted into the Army and spends the rest of the time trying to avoid being an 'Idol on Parade' (the original UK title was 'Idle on Parade' but either suits the subject matter perfectly). His sergeant is played by American import William Bendix (as Irish), while another 'Private Jackson' is played by comedy stooge Bernie Winters (who appeared a lot with Newley in other films and TV shows).

The best bits of the film though are the songs, the title itself, 'I've Waited So Long', and 'Saturday Night'. These make the film a feel-good romp, especially so for Newley fans - he shines in this without over-dominating the screen as he would in future years. Following 'Idol on Parade' Newley would appear in 'Jazzboat', 'The Small World of Sammy Lee', 'The Strange World of Gurney Slade' (for TV), and 'Sweet November'.

Following his pop career success in the 60s Newley moved into writing musicals and eventually appearing in cabaret shows. In many ways he became a sell-out, joke version of his earlier self, but if you want to see Newley in embryo, with evidence of how talented he was, see 'Gurney Slade' and see 'Idol on Parade'. Wonderful stuff.

The Miniver Story

Enjoyable sequel with high production values
The original Mrs Miniver was a huge international hit when released during the Second World War, teaming Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson as architect Clem Miniver and his wife Kay, characters inspired by the writings of Jan Struther.

Mrs Miniver was a fiercely patriotic film, and a reminder to the USA of what Britain was taking in rationing, nightly air raids, and bombings. This sequel though, titled The Miniver Story, takes place in peace time, and is largely concerned with troubles within the family, foreshadowed by Clem's narration at the start of the film.

This film gets a lot of bad press from those who find it weak, heavy-handed or simply sentimental. It may not have the power of its illustrious predecessor as a war film, but it simply doesn't have that agenda. Clem and Kay still have a strong marriage, Judy and Toby are fast growing up (although their eldest, Vin, is curiously absent), and if you enjoyed their characters and the teaming of Pidgeon/Garson first time around, you will like this film.

In support you will find Cathy O'Donnell, Leo Genn, a very young James Fox, and (all too briefly) John Hodiak. Jan Struther might have objected to her creation ending the way it does in The Minever Story - and the film is certainly sentimental - but it is watchable, with good points.

Away from It All

As 'Away From It All' starts, we think we are going to be watching an ordinary travelogue - only the fact that John Cleese is doing the voice-over gives us pause and the thought that this might be something other than 'welcome to Rome ...'.

Slowly we hear sarcasm moving in, then complete and utter anarchy, hysteria, and finally ...

Wonderful stuff which has been rarely seen since it accompanied 'Life of Brian' in cinema screenings. Although it currently languishes in copyright hell, which means a DVD release as a special feature would be unlikely, it is now easily available online.

Do watch it if you are in any way a Cleese or Python fan.

Fall of Eagles

Historical epic which gives time to the great Royal houses
The 'Fall of Eagles' refers to the end of three great Royal houses - the Habsburgs of Austria, the Hohenzollerns of Germany, and the Romanovs of Russia. Over a seventy year period, we follow the course of history from the marriage of the young Franz Josef through to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Each of these great Empires became republics by the end of World War I, a war which, this series implies, could so easily have been avoided. Also there were family links with England which fell apart after the war.

With a cast that includes such familiar faces as Barry Foster as Kaiser Wilhelm, Patrick Stewart as Lenin, Charles Kay as Tsar Nicholas, Gayle Hunnicutt as Tsarina Alexandra, plus Maurice Denham, Miles Anderson, Jan Francis, Diane Keen, Rachel Gurney, Charles Gray, Michael Kitchen, and many others, plus a strong narration from Michael Hordern putting each story in context, this series moves along at a good pace and is never less than engrossing, even with a minimum of outdoor filming and with major events (such as the massacre at Winter Gardens) represented by inserted footage of the time.

'Fall of Eagles' is one of the great classic series which is worth your time if you have any interest in European history.

Play for Today: Schmoedipus
Episode 20, Season 4

Twists and trains
One of the strongest Play for Todays, this odd play by Dennis Potter concerns Liz, a mild-mannered housewife; her train-made husband Tom, bored to tears in his scientific office; and a mysterious stranger called Glen.

In the twists and turns of this plot we learn about all three of them, and the tangled web of secrets, lies and games which pulls them together.

Not unreminiscent of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this play is sweet, sexy, disturbing, and ultimately tense, and boasts strong performances from Anna Cropper and Tim Curry as the 'mother' and 'son' in the case.

Rarely seen these days, this play was remade for the screen as Track 29 in 1988, with Gary Oldman in the Tim Curry role. This, too, has become rather obscure. A pity, as Schmoedipus is a clever piece, witty, charming, and with an undercurrent of pure evil. Curry would of course become very well-known as Frank 'n Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a part which suited his odd looks and demeanour perfectly.

The Holly and the Ivy

Christmas family gathering
A fine play in a 1950s screen version, wonderfully cast - Ralph Richardson is the parson who has bred a dysfunctional family (daughters Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton, son Denholm Elliott).

When the family comes together at Christmas, with the two maiden aunts - the holly and ivy represented in human form? - secrets tumble out, the family comes together, and peace and understanding comes to pass as it should in the festive season.

Leighton's flighty daughter with the grief of a loss in the war hanging over her; Johnson's tired and emotionally drained woman in love (with John Gregson, about to emigrate for his work); Elliott's Army private bristling against authority at all levels - all these characterisations are spot-on.

But the film belongs to Richardson - quietly watching and waiting for his moment in the sun, a long speech to his daughter - although he is saddled with a slightly odd accent.

The Holly and the Ivy is a heartwarming fable of Christmas and should be much better known than it is - can we have a television showing this season?

Theatre 625: The Year of the Sex Olympics
Episode 25, Season 5

not easy viewing
Imagine a world where 'high drive' people with no souls push the boundaries of entertainment for the 'low drive' people - the watching, inert masses, dead at 35. The masses who do not 'do', only 'watch'. A world where a show called 'Sport Sex' puts forwards participants for the Sex Olympics. A world where art is suppressed and tension of any kind is not allowed.

By the time laughter comes from the masses not because of a custard pie fight, but because of a bloody death, you can see how the experiment of 'The Live Life Show', starring a high drive couple and their underachieving child, transported to an island where they have to fend for themselves as in the old days, away from Output, will end.

In a cast who are uniformly effective, Tony Vogel, Suzanne Neve, Brian Cox and Leonard Rossiter stands out. As a look into a future dominated by reality TV, it is quite shocking to stop and realize how far along the road we are, and where it could end. Kneale's play certainly makes its point, although it takes a while for the story to get into its stride.

Originally made in colour but now only existing in black and white, the sets and costumes definitely get lost in the version we now have available. But as an indication of edgy sci-fix drama of the kind which wouldn't get commissioned now (they'd be too busy commissioning The Live Life Show), it still pulls no punches.

The Constant Nymph

Music, romance, and misunderstandings
'The Constant Nymph', first presented as a stage play, has been filmed three times. In 1928 it was filmed by Gainsborough Pictures in England with matinée idol Ivor Novello as composer Lewis Dodd and Mabel Poulton, once one of the biggest players on the silent screen, as Tessa Sanger, the schoolgirl with whom Lewis becomes infatuated.

It is to the credit of the writers and Novello and Poulton that this particular love story does not appear unsavoury, given the age gap between the principals. Dodd is something of a comic part for Novello in the first half of the film, as he deals with Sanger family he is visiting with amusement (especially the blousy wife of Sanger who can't wait to depart the house taking as much as she can get). Later in the film his dramatic style comes to the fore - never the world's greatest actor, Novello is still a pleasant presence on the screen and easy to watch.

Partly filmed in Austria and partly in London's Queen's Hall (the concert hall which was bombed in the war), 'The Constant Nymph' looks great and has lots of atmosphere. There are supporting players a plenty who are well worth watching (including Benita Hume, Frances Doble, JH Roberts, Mary Clare and Elsa Lanchester. We watch with amusement as Lewis Dodd is ensnared by a society lady who wants to further his career - much against his wishes. We laugh along with the mischief making Sanger sisters, and commiserate with the crusty Cambridge professor. We watch the awkward courtship between Toni and Ike, and wonder when Tessa's love for Lewis will be reciprocated.

Finally, due to the lightness of what's gone before, we are shocked and moved by the ending, which should not be unexpected, but which is beautifully played out. A gem of a film.

Emil and the Detectives

Charming children's adventure
Emil and the Detectives was first adapted for the screen in Germany in 1931, and was quickly followed in 1935 by this version made in England and then subsequently missing for many years - it eventually turned up in the collection of a film buff in the USA.

The story probably needs no introduction; Emil is sent to London to stay with his grandma and cousin Polly with six pounds in his pocket, by way of the train to Charing Cross. But first he encounters the mysterious and creepy man in the bowler hat, who is up to no good. And in London he seeks the help of a gang of children led by The Organiser and The Professor to right the wrongs.

With John Williams as Emil, Marion Foster as Polly, Bobby Rietti as The Professor, and George Hayes as the OTT villain, this film benefits from good London locations - surprisingly not changed much from 1935 - strong direction from Milton Rosmer, and a good dose of humour.

A little scary for very young audiences, perhaps, but very watchable and nicely restored by the British Film Institute.

Thriller: A Coffin for the Bride
Episode 1, Season 3

The twist was a surprise to me too
This episode of 'Thriller' starts simply enough, with a murder and a change of identity - but slowly it becomes a tense battle of wills as the Michael Jayston character (who has a succession of names) meets his match as he plots another way to gain riches.

Although it is clear that one of Jayston's lady friends isn't quite what she seems, I didn't work out the twist at all, and once seen you want to immediately review the episode to see how clever it is.

Beautifully written and supported by Helen Mirren, Michael Gwynn and Arthur English, this 'Thriller' story is one of the best of the series, and Jayston is appropriately mysterious, sinister, and silky smooth.

Land Girls

Watchable but a bit disappointing
Riddled with clichés, this daytime drama about the land girls (women conscripted to work on the land during World War II) is in five parts and boasts a competent cast in a sanitised script - a very PC and simplistic view of a country under siege.

We first meet the four new land girls at the start of the first episode - snooty Nancy (Summer Strallen) who wears high heels and expects a soldier to carry her luggage from the station, sisters Annie (Christine Bottomley) and Bea (Jo Woodcock) - one bitter, one naive, and salt of the earth Joyce (Becci Gemmell) whose family were wiped out in the Coventry bombings. We also meet Esther (Susan Cookson), who keeps the girls in order, black-marketeer and farmer Finch (Mark Benton), and the Lord and Lady of the House (Nathaniel Parker and Sophie Ward).

There's also a Home Guard Sergeant, Tucker (Danny Webb) who likes the feeling of being in charge, and in town there's a group of GIs.

From here it is very much ticking the boxes - there's an illicit affair, a soldier going AWOL, suspected collaborators, a marriage based on hate, and a bit of political correctness about black GIs and segregation. It's watchable enough but somehow I was expecting a bit more.

Although it looks great and as if a bit of money has been thrown at it, Land Girls is historically shaky and very much has the air of 'we've seen all this before'. A bit of a missed opportunity.

Hammer House of Horror: Growing Pains
Episode 4, Season 1

Devil children and science do not a thriller make
Originally broadcast fourth in the series of 'Hammer House of Horror', this episode gets off to a bad start when William Morton (Christopher Reilly) breaks into his father's lab, drinks some poison, and dies, badly. Staggering around on a lawn pretending to choke isn't horrifying, it is just funny.

Fast forward and William's parents, Laurie (Barbara Kellermann) and Terence (Gary Bond) adopt an odd boy called James (Matthew Blakstad), who stares a lot, speaks in a monotone, and is fairly unpleasant.

Once James arrives in the house, odd things start to happen. Things come to a head when Terence has a visit from some African dignitaries keen to hear more about how his plants and genetically modified rabbits can solve the food crisis in the Third World.

This story just doesn't go anywhere. The editing is quite poor, particularly the scenes involving the dog who goes berserk. From an early promising scene where James and Laurie are coming home which does have some chills, you expect the episode to take a different direction. It doesn't. And the ending is trite.

I have to defend the actors a bit though. The children, especially Reilly, probably suffered from poor direction. As the parents of this new devil child, Barbara Kellermann looks lost and Gary Bond looks embarrassed at the stuff they're given to do. Both were fine actors who would be given opportunities to do good work outside of this series.

I tried to like Growing Pains, and differently edited and cast it could well have worked, without the copout ending. As it is, it is only OK. It passes the time but has little else going for it.

Galactica 1980: Spaceball
Episode 6, Season 1

Oh dear
The nicest thing that can be said about this episode is that it has a lot less of Troy and Dillon than other episodes of this woeful sequel to the original Battlestar Galactica. You can only pity Lorne Greene, still going through the motions as Commander Adama, and this episode's special guest, Jeremy Brett, who is a long way from Sherlock Holmes in a roll- neck, Germanic accent, and evil grin.

We met the Super Scouts in the preceding two-parter episode, where we learned of their superpowers and their lack of recognizable human DNA. Here they end up playing a baseball game which utilizes all their remarkable talents. Tedious Jamie Hamilton, the reporter who has been out of earth's orbit, is still on hand to do very little, while Brett's comedy villain performance hardly stretches his acting muscles.

Spaceball is plain awful. The bit with the TV camera is fun I suppose but Jamie taking this oddly accented fellow to be a good Galactican just makes her look daft.

Comedy Playhouse: Elementary, My Dear Watson: The Strange Case of the Dead Solicitors
Episode 3, Season 13

Holmes and the theatre of the absurd
John Cleese as Sherlock Holmes and William Rushton as Dr Watson in a half hour comedy might not sound like much of a draw, but stay with this absurdist episode of Comedy Playhouse and it may well make you smile.

A letter arrives for Holmes asking for help with a family grudge with a difference: a killer rattlesnake. Holmes' deductions are failing and as he and Watson go to a future of London buses and troubling Intercity trains they are waylaid onto a much greater case, that of the dead solicitors and Fu Manchu.

A side plot has Jack the Ripper phoning the police every few minutes to report a crime, while the tale of the solicitors comes to a head when one becomes mixed up with TV show Call My Bluff. Meanwhile the rattlesnake is steadily sending animals in Lady Cynthia's house to meet their maker, Holmes and Watson heroically push a desk with slumped dead solicitor on it Manchester, and Holmes attempts to get rid of the giveaway deerstalker.

No plot as such allows for such silliness as Bill Maynard dressed in drag as Moriarty, dead carrier pigeons, and the invincible Holmes jumping off a train. Nods to 'reading too much Conan Doyle' and to TV mogul Lew Grade are also clever.

The Cincinnati Kid

Poker, suspense, a sex kitten, and Mr Cool
Steve McQueen, an underrated actor in his lifetime who was actually quite subtle and gifted as his films now confirm, is an up-and-coming poker player, The Kid, cocky and sure of himself, smitten by Ann Margret's sexy purring miss, and led into the lion's den - a game against Lancey Howard (The Man - a showy and assured performance from Edward G Robinson) - by Shooter, a crooked card sharp (Karl Malden).

Mainly a poker film, that's where all the scenes of tension lie. But in McQueen's scenes with Ann Margret, the bad girl, and Tuesday Weld, the good girl, we see a fleeting glimpse of what goes on behind the gambling man's straight face. And I love the ending.

A good cast, including Joan Blondell, Rip Torn, and Cab Calloway, a sharp script, good direction and memorable music make The Cincinatti Kid a keeper.

Where Are My Children?

powerful anti-abortion film
Quite apart from being one of the few chances to see a Tyrone Power film (father, not son); this Lois Weber film is a powerful anti-abortion piece - albeit one which is clogged with concerns around birth control and what looks to be misguided focus on the process of eugenics (i.e. determining strong genes and background before having children).

DA Richard Walton has always wanted children and cannot understand why his wife (played by the real-life Mrs Power, Helen Riaume) fails to conceive. Of course as we quickly find out, she has sent many unwanted children back to the portal of heaven where they wait to be called, by having numerous abortions and arranging for her friends to do the same, including the lazy social butterfly Mrs Carlo (Marie Walcamp).

There are three plot strands here - one concerning a progressive doctor (C Norman Hammond) who wishes to teach the poor about birth control and who is being prosecuted for obscenity; one concerning a virginal housemaid's daughter (Rena Rogers) who is seduced by Mr Walton's brother-in-law (William J Hope), with tragic consequences; and one about the trips to the abortion clinic of Dr Malfit (Juan de la Cruz) which are commonplace to Mrs Walton and her set.

Intercut with these stories are sights of the children waiting to be called into the womb - the unwanted as well as the wanted. This is perhaps the most artificial part of the film as the gates of heaven open and close to allow children to be called to earth or to return again to the portal of the unwanted. It works but looks rather old fashioned these days.

The ending is very moving, however, as Mr and Mrs Walton, knowing she is now unable to have children, are surrounded by the ghosts of their unborn as they descend into old age.

A preachy film but a powerful one. Amazing to think that items tackled here, over 90 years ago, could not be touched on again until the second half of the twentieth century.

The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire

cartoon Holmes
Matt Frewer's four films for Hallmark television are never likely to budge memories of the series made for Granada in the 1980s and 1990s; however, they are meant to appeal to a young audience and in this respect, they probably succeed.

Frewer is saddled with a comedy deerstalker, the worst British accent since Robert Duvall played Watson in 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution', and an annoying range of tics, smirks and general non-Holmes type behaviour. But he does have a rather good Watson in Kenneth Welsh who is a more serious version of Nigel Bruce from the 1940s Holmes films, so there are some compensations.

The story here is nothing to do with Conan Doyle's 'The Sussex Vampyre'; it concerns a group of monks who are slowly being killed by what appears to be a vampire bat - each are found slumped and cold and bleeding from two wounds to the neck. Is there something supernatural going on, or, as Holmes believes, it this an inside job? The filming is actually not that bad - Canada passes for Victorian England, and set dressing isn't that inaccurate. With a better actor in the lead, these could be worthy additions to the screen Holmes. It's just that Frewer's version doesn't work - unless you see him as a kind of cartoon, comedy, superhero Holmes.

If you are a Holmes completist, then of course you will want to watch these. But otherwise, you won't miss anything by staying away.

The Masks of Death

leisurely and thoughtful Holmes
'The Masks of Death' was Peter Cushing's swansong as Sherlock Holmes, a character he had played opposite Andre Morell in a Hammer 'Hound of the Baskervilles' and then in a television series for the BBC opposite Nigel Stock.

Here his Watson is an elderly John Mills, and the two make a charming pair presenting Holmes in his later life as a beekeeper who is tempted out of retirement to help an old friend, policeman McGregor (Gordon Jackson). It soon becomes apparent that more urgent matters require the intervention of the great detective when the Home Secretary (Ray Milland) comes to call with a foreign dignitary (Anton Diffring). And to complicate things, still further, The Woman has returned to London (Irene Adler of course, played by Anne Baxter).

As a plot goes, 'The Masks of Death' is rather pedestrian and not that involving. But with a cast like this, who can complain? Cushing is more crotchety than he had been in his previous outings in the role, but Mills proves a fine foil - his Watson is definitely the army man, a man of action. Baxter is luminous, and even when the solution is staring us in the face there's still enough going on in the interplay between the actors to keep us interested.

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