Everyone’s got their own idea of him, haven’t they? When you hear the name “Sherlock Holmes” you get an image in your head of what he looks like, how he behaves. If you’re anything like me you’ll have at least one screen portrayal that stands out as “favourite”, and that’s likely to be the one you see in your head, even when you read the original Conan Doyle stories.
It’s inevitable. Holmes has been portrayed so many times by so many different people. There are hundreds of them. An awful lot of great actors have tried their luck at him. A surprising amount of them have been absolutely terrible. He’s trickier to pin down than you would think. There’s more to him than the common conception of the deerstalker, the pipe and the magnifying glass. By this point he’s been played so often and in so many different ways, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the perfect embodiment of Holmes – but there can be the perfect embodiment of what you imagine him to be.
I’ve got several. Usually Douglas Wilmer is the one. He’s a fantastic actor and his Holmes is like a hawk. Always watching, always thinking, always a step ahead. The 405 line monochrome murkiness of the BBC’s mid 60s adaptations really capture the flavour of the original works. If you have a love for the Paget illustrations which accompanied the original publication of Conan Doyle’s stories in “The Strand” magazine, Wilmer is those drawings brought to life.
I’m also partial to Peter Cushing as Holmes (of course) and Jeremy Brett can be superb, if frustratingly erratic. On radio, Clive Merrison remains the only performer to have played Holmes in every single original Conan Doyle story and he’s very close to definitive. Twitchy, arrogant, nervy and far ahead of everyone else he plays to the unlikeable side of Holmes’s personality, the one that suffers not only no fools but no-one else at all, really. There’s an early fifties television adaptation starring Ronald Howard which has very little to do with the original canon but which is tremendous fun and rollocks along at a furious pace. Howard chooses to play it as warm, friendly and sociable, ignoring some of the less attractive aspects of Holmes’s personality. Basil Rathbone? Well, he’s untouchable in the part, really. For better or worse that portrayal pretty much sets in stone the common conception of Holmes. He is superb, but he casts a very long shadow.
Nowadays Benedict Cumberbatch is casting a shadow of his own. The BBC’s modern-day “Sherlock” quite rightly refuses to treat the originals as sacred texts and instead plays with them like a kitten with a ball of yarn. It takes what it likes, fiddles about, throws in loads of in-jokes and reshapes them into new and fascinating patterns. It’s superb and it’s great to see the legend continuing to evolve and expand. The recent Robert Downey Jr. starring films take a similar path, and I’m terribly fond of them. “Marry him, murder him, do anything you like to him”, said a weary Conan-Doyle to William Gillette on being asked permission to amend the character. People have been doing just that with Holmes ever since.
In 1979 Russian television presented their own version of Sherlock Holmes. Shot entirely in Russia and split into eleven discrete episodes, it has always been bit elusive. Until fairly recently it’s been pretty hard to get hold of copies. I’ve wanted to see it for a long time. For years the only clip I ever saw from it was a fairly unrepresentative sequence used in a BBC4 documentary, featuring Holmes and Watson hammering the living daylights out of each other in a boxing match. Having finally tracked it down I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I sat down tonight to watch the first two. I’m pleased to report that first impressions are good. It is superb.
These first two installments (“Acquaintance” and “Bloody Inscription” – frequently bolted together to form a single 140 minute tv film) cover the first meeting of Holmes and Watson in Conan Doyle’s “A Study In Scarlet”. Once our heroes have got to know each other we career off into a compact version of “The Speckled Band” before returning to “A Study In Scarlet”.
Some Holmes tales are perennials for those looking to bring him to the screen. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is way out in front I’d say, with the likes of “The Speckled Band” and “A Scandal In Bohemia” close behind. For some reason the very first Holmes story seems to confound most film-makers. If they take anything at all from “A Study In Scarlet” they’ll grab the original meeting between Holmes and Watson and discard the rest. The rest of the story – a lengthy revenge mystery (involving an extensive flashback to Utah, long before Holmes ever gets involved with the narrative) is rather unwieldy. As a result this substantial portion of the story tends to be ignored. Bert Coules has a fair crack at it for the Merrison radio version but even he can’t do much about the total absence of our heroes for at least fifty minutes of a three hour running time. Easier to get rid of it altogther.
No such concerns here. Director Igor Masslenikov and his team dive straight in and give us the most faithful version I’ve yet seen. That they manage to nail it down in two and a half hours and see off “The Speckled Band” as well is remarkable. These two episodes move at a cracking pace, and they look beautiful.
Russia appears to be sun-drenched at all times during these two episodes – the country looks gorgeous – albeit not very much like London. Not much effort is made to make the country look like England but it doesn’t matter. When the architecture is this ornate, the country so verdant and the interiors so gothic and shadowy, I’m not particularly bothered if something seems slightly out of period.
Retired Army Doctor John H Watson – freshly back from foreign parts – is looking for lodgings and is directed by an acquaintance to 221b Baker Street, where a certain Mr Sherlock Holmes is wrangling with his housekeeper Mrs Hudson over the cost of the rent. It’s too much for one man, so he’s decided to take split the cost by advertising for a lodger. Watson has no idea what he’s letting himself in for and on meeting Holmes instantly jumps to some very wrong conclusions. After reluctantly taking up lodgings for a trial period, Watson’s initial impressions point to Holmes being some sort of shady criminal figure. Strange characters wander past Watson at the breakfast table, enter Holmes’s room and never come out again (the Holmes penchant for ludicrous, unconvincing disguises making an early appearance here). Holmes is engaged in all sorts of strange experiments. At one point he’s standing next to a display of photographs which feature a variety of very shady characters. In a transparent attempt to unnerve Watson, Holmes informs him that these are the circles he moves in, the people he knows best. Strangely, the photographs consist of several publicity pictures of well known horror actors. I definitely spotted Lon Chaney and Frederick March in there, amongst others.
Watson’s suspicions grow and before too long he’s sleeping with a chair under the door handle and a gun under his pillow. Eventually, it all comes to a head and the truth comes out in a remarkable scene where Watson takes his frustrations out on Holmes by challenging him to a boxing match. A recurring theme of this particular incarnation begins here as Watson is knocked flat within about two minutes – something which will happen to him again before the end of this initial story.
Once Mister Grimsby Roylott makes his appearance and The Speckled Band is resolved it’s back to the main business of “A Study In Scarlet” and the mystery of the poisoned man in an abandoned house. There’s a word scrawled in blood on the wall (“Revenge”, which is a slight deviation from the original which goes for the german equivalent of “Rache”). There’s a superstitious policeman who appears to walk straight past the murderer (“That head of yours is not just there to keep your helmet on”). The Baker Street Irregulars make an early appearance. In a remarkable deviation from the original text, Watson gets walloped square in the knackers. At least one suspect turns up dead before anyone can arrest him. There’s a lot to pack in.
Despite this, there’s also time to introduce a remarkably careerist and ferrety Inspector Lestrade (all ego and stupidity, with the hard work being done by a long-suffering Inspector Gregson). Between them, Holmes and Watson have a lot to do. The pesky Utah diversion is despatched in ten minutes flat with the killer simply telling the other characters about everything that’s gone before. Rather wonderfully it all ends with the police taking the credit in Her Majesty’s press and a furious Watson vowing to tell the truth to the world. He will write up what really happened, and give Sherlock the credit he deserves. End of credits. Bring on Charles Augustus Milverton.
As Holmes, Vasily Livanov is a slightly older than the norm, grey-at-the- temples detective, and he manages to pull off the remarkable trick of being simultaneous langourous and full of nervy energy. Sometimes he lounges around expressing no surface interest in anything at all (in the famous scene where he admits to not only not knowing that the Earth moves around the Sun but doesn’t care he barely even looks at Watson, pretending to be far more interested in the relics Watson’s brought back from India). He lapses into silence on several occasions, staring off into the middle distance and smoking thoughtfully. At other times he’s totally focussed. At one point he offers to play Watson some music he thinks he’ll like on the violin – and essays his own theme music tune as heard mere minutes before on the opening credits.
On location he leaps around looking for clues, forcing Watson to do likewise. He smacks a poison pill out of Lestrade’s hand with such violence that I suspect it embedded itself in the wall of the set. In a scene which I strongly suspect would never be passed now one of the Baker Street Irregulars asks to be paid in cigars (the kid is about eight, wearing a bowler hat. Just one of the many slightly odd things about these adaptations). Livanov looks at him and says “you should not smoke. It’ll make you thin. Look at me. I smoke, and I’m terribly thin”, drawing his cheeks in and making a pantomime grimace. It’s a lovely little bit of business and Livanov’s performance is full of moments like this.
Once his friendship with Watson is formed he becomes warm, friendly and fond of a practical joke. There’s a remarkable scene where he pretends to have deduced everything about a passerby from mere observation before revealing that said passerby is in fact his brother Mycroft. He explodes into hysterical laughter which ends up with him having to hang on to Watson for support until the giggles subside. Not something I’ve ever seen Holmes do before. He crackles with energy and the potential of the unexpected. In the version I watched he also swears like a trooper. “Bastard” is his epithet of choice, although that might be a translator’s quirk. My Russian isn’t good enough to confirm whether that’s what he’s really saying. Livanov’s absolutely wonderful here and he’s already well on the way to giving Wilmer a run for his money.
Almost more than Holmes, when adapting these stories it’s vitally important to get Watson right. As our identification figure – the only one who ever gets close enough to observe Holmes and provide our way into the narrative – he’s been poorly served over the years. Even now – despite the sterling work of many fine performers – there seems to be a public conception of Watson being the bumbling idiot of the Basil Rathbone films. Nigel Bruce’s version of Watson – all “Good lord, Holmes!”, “That’s Brilliant, Holmes!” and comedy relief – seems so fixed in stone that nothing seems to shift it. Howard Marion Crawford’s version of Watson in the fifties series – all handlebar mustache and Colonel Blimpisms merely emphasises this, although Nigel Stock does some great work at the BBC in the sixties.
Peter Cushing – a wise man here as on so many subjects – once commented that “Watson is not a fool. There is no way that Holmes would suffer him if he were”. This strikes me as getting to the very heart of the character. Watson’s an intelligent, compassionate man, in many ways every bit as smart as Holmes. He simply chooses to employ his talents in different ways to his fellow lodger. Holmes may be able to distinguish between several hundred different types of cigar ash but it’s doubtful if he’d manage to survive his many cases without Watson by his side, unobtrusively looking after him and steering him through. “I am lost without my Boswell” he says egotistically, but absolutely correctly. Even now you can see it in Martin Freeman’s version – sometimes the only thing standing between Holmes and a fist in the face.
That’s a tough character to take on. Here, Livanov is blessed with the perfect foil. Vitaly Solomin is everything you could hope for. Physically he’s in his early forties and looks not dissimilar to David Burke in the early Granada episodes of “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, with a touch of Jude Law about him. As an ex-army Doctor he’d almost certainly have had to have been handy in a scrap from time to time and you can well believe that Solomin can handle himself. Sandy haired, mustached and impeccably dressed at all times he’s also a man with pain behind his eyes. There’s real sadness there. At one point he talks about the dissolute and tragic death of his brother and he just about manages to hold it together. He’s impulsive and with a tendency to try to go it alone but you’d want him at your side in a ruck, and the friendship that blossoms between Holmes and Watson is touching and wonderful. Within fifty minutes or so you believe that these two are lifelong friends.
Whether it’s indulging in a round of high-speed chess, sharing a companionable cigar or protecting the honour of a young lady with nothing more than a trusty old service revolver and a shooting stick, this is a pairing that works. They’re also blessed with a highly capable and handy Mrs Hudson. Ekaterina Zelenaya was in her late seventies when these were made and accordingly doesn’t do much physically beyond pottering about the premises (and wonderfully, delivering some remarkably inventive insults to Dr Grimsby Roylott’s departing back). However, she has the measure of Holmes totally. On walking in on him shooting letters in the wall of his rooms she merely points out that the correct calibre bullets he’s ordered won’t be ready until Tuesday. She out-deduces Watson, proving that she hasn’t hung around Holmes for all these years without picking up a thing or two. And she brings breakfast. Lots of it. Watson likes breakfast, it’s something that seems to run through every version of Holmes I’ve ever seen. The fact that she does it while delivering lines dripping in the deepest sarcasm is merely a lovely bonus.
With these three in place, a production team that obviously loves the source material and soaked with a determination to cleave as closely to the original texts as possible these two episodes are… lovely. Just lovely. As Holmes goes, these are as good as I’ve seen in a very long time. I’m terribly pleased that there are another nine episodes for me to savour. If you ever get the chance, I suggest you do likewise. They’re well worth seeking out. Thoroughly recommended.