Finally, here it is! My review of the 1987 Granada TV adaptation of The Sign of Four...enjoy!
First of all, one could give this installment in the series a two-word review: mostly faithful. That is, the adaptation follows very closely all the main plot points of its source material, with a few little tweaks here and there. I shall mention some of the most obvious changes as I go along. It may be best to begin with the title: Arthur Conan Doyle's novella was originally published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine as The Sign of the Four (1890), but many subsequent editions omitted the second definite article and were released as The Sign of Four. Granada chose to go with the latter. In the novella, of course, Jonathan Small's calling card reads, "the sign of the four."
As I said, the adaptation is nothing if not faithful to its source. This can be a bit problematic, as it means the last twenty minutes or so of the film are told in flashback by Jonathan Small, which strikes me as a bit anticlimactic for the flow of the story. However, if one were to place the past events told in flashback at the beginning of the film, one would be faced with a Sherlock Holmes story in which the detective doesn't show up until well into the story. Either way, it's a difficult problem for the writers. Overall, I think they did a very good job, despite some of the inherent problem of somewhat slow pacing.
Jeremy Brett is in excellent form throughout the film, despite the fact that he was beginning to struggle with his bipolar disorder around this same time. Perhaps this explains the unusual decision towards the beginning of the film, in which Holmes displays some rather unusual behavior as Mary Morstan tells her story. He complains of the messiness of the flat at 221B and begins to brush lint from his suit as she talks. His reaction ends up coming off as boorish and eccentric. Holmes in the book shows no such odd behavior. Still, Brett is mostly excellent in the adaptation, and Edward Hardwicke had clearly become quite comfortable in the role by this time, so the chemistry between Holmes and Watson works quite well.
I'm afraid Jenny Seagrove's portrayal of Mary Morstan struck me as a bit bland and uninteresting. I was at a loss to understand exactly why Watson seemed so charmed by her (apart from the fact that it's a fairly major subplot point in the book). She's adequate in the role, but I found her quite unimpressive. In contrast, I thought Ronald Lacey (better known as the creepy Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark) was delightful as Thaddeus and Bartholomew Sholto. He's eccentric, funny, and just a bit unsettling at times. Really, an almost perfect portrayal of the unusual character. Emrys James as Inspector Athelney Jones was also quite entertaining, serving as a pompous, comical foil to Holmes's far more intelligent investigation. Brett and James do a fabulous job in the scene in which Jones is presenting his theory of the murder of Bartholomew Sholto, with Holmes wryly responding, "On which the dead man very considerately got up and locked the door on the inside." (A marvelous line, straight from the original novella.)
As often happens in some of the Granada adaptations, the director makes several unusual visual choices, displaying a fondness for shots that show Holmes in mirrors or shots that are obscured by objects in the foreground. A few of those choices work fairly well, though. A couple that I thought were interesting: shortly after Holmes climbs down from the roof of Pondicherry Lodge, there's a brief segment of dialogue in which the camera focuses on the characters' shadows on the brick wall; a particularly effective shot is when Holmes is reading about "the aborigines of the Andaman Islands," and the camera slowly zooms in on him as he smokes, surrounded by stacks of books. Less successful were several shots during the river chase scene, where the view of the steamboats was obscured by various objects in the foreground. Very odd.
Of course, what would a Sherlock Holmes adaptation be without at least one scene where Holmes remains in disguise just to mess with Watson? Jeremy Brett always seemed to take a special delight in such scenes, as displayed in this film, when he shows up at 221B dressed as an old mariner and completely fools both Watson and Inspector Jones. It does require a bit of suspension of disbelief to accept that neither man would see through such an obvious disguise. Still, it's quite entertaining.
One unpleasant detail that I can't help finding cringe-inducing is, of course, the portrayal of Tonga. There's really no way to get around the inherent racism of Doyle's portrayal of other races, which was not at all unusual for the late 19th century English culture. But it is particularly uncomfortable in this day and age to see the obvious blackface makeup applied to actor Kiran Shah, who would later do quite notable work in The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And the prosthetic teeth are just badly done. It also doesn't help that, right towards the end of the film, we're given a really tacky shot of Tonga sinking into the Thames as gold coins splash around him (another Jonathan Small flashback, telling how he disposed of the Agra treasure).
A good decision made by the writers was the decision to move the revelation of the empty treasure box to occur after Jonathan Small's story has been told. I've always been confused by Doyle's decision to have that moment (as well as Watson's profession of love to Mary) happen before Small is allowed to recount his entire story. I still find myself wondering, however, how no one who lugged that treasure chest all the way across town (to Mary's employer's house in the book, and to 221B in the film) could tell that it was empty! I imagine many viewers have been disappointed that Watson's declaration of love and his subsequent proposal to Mary have been omitted. I can only guess that the writers for the Granada series were not interested in having Mary become a recurring character, and that they preferred to keep Watson and Holmes a couple of bachelors. Thus, we are only given a few longing looks from Watson as Mary goes her merry way. (See what I did there?)
I mustn't forget one of the most enjoyable moments in the film: the appearance of the famous Baker Street Irregulars. Although these little ragamuffins don't appear all that often in the canon, they certainly have earned the affection of Sherlock Holmes fans that probably ranks right up there with Sherlockians' fascination with Irene Adler (another fairly minor character who has achieved great fame). The scene where the Irregulars arrive at 221B, much to Mrs. Hudson's consternation, is done perfectly, and Jeremy Brett seems to be having a lot of fun at this point.
I have to say, overall, I enjoyed this particular adaptation of The Sign of Four. I found it engaging, despite just a bit of slow pacing here and there. Faithful to its source material, the film is a credit to its production team and cast. Brett and Hardwicke were quite comfortable in their roles, and the level of production value was still quite high at this point in the Granada series. As their first attempt at more long-form storytelling, it seems to have been a success, one that was not repeated with their adaptation of the most popular Holmes tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Ah, but that's a story for another time...
Not unlike a certain famous detective, I have been on a bit of a hiatus from the Baker Street Babble blog for the last several months. But I mean to resume at least some of my blogging in the very near future. I have finally begun watching the Granada TV adaptation of The Sign of Four, which is the next adventure in my series of Granada reviews. I hope to finish watching it and writing up a review of the film in the next few days.
I hope to be able to resume my reviews of the Granada series moving forward over the next several months. I am just a bit concerned that Weebly, which hosts this blog, has merged with Square. I think I have successfully migrated the blogs I kept on Weebly to their new home on Square. Hopefully there will be no quirks as a result of the migration. But one never knows...
So, once again, perhaps...the game is afoot?
This morning I discovered that the playlist on YouTube of all the Granada TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes has returned (for the time being). So my series of reviews will continue...but not today. I'm going to need some extra time this week to fix all the links from my previous posts, as it appears that the links to the previous incarnation of the YouTube playlist no longer work. Also, the next installment in the series is the full-length film, The Sign of Four. That one will take twice the time to watch, and I'll need to at least skim through the novel, so I can compare and contrast the adaptation to its source material. But I intend to make the review a bit longer than most of my reviews, to accommodate the longer episode.
I will plan on having the next review up no later than next Saturday. So, once more, the game is afoot!
Well, pursuant to my last post about the unfortunate disappearance of the complete Granada playlist from YouTube, I did manage to find the finale of the first season of The Return of Sherlock Holmes elsewhere on YouTube, so I am happy to report that I can, at the very least wrap up this third season of the Granada series with my review of "The Six Napoleons." And what a finale it was!
Of all the episodes I've watched thus far, this one may be the most entertaining. It really has it all: a lengthy opening scene in Italian, featuring a knife fight(!); Jeremy Brett in top form, as well as an admirable performance by Colin Jeavons as Inspector Lestrade; and a plot that follows the original story quite closely, while maintaining a flow of storytelling that works remarkably well. And to top it all of, there's humor...lots and lots of humor! Indeed, this was by far the most enjoyable and funny episode I've seen in the Granada series.
When I say that Jeremy Brett was in top form in this episode, there is no better example than the final scene in the rooms at 221B, when Holmes acquires the last of the six busts of Napoleon. After a very humorous sequence in which he purchases the last bust from a very finicky chap, he proceeds to set up his smashing of the bust with the same kind of flourishes one would see from a master illusionist. He even pulls the tablecloth from under the tea set that is on the table, lays it out, and then...BANG! his walking stick crashes down on the final bust. Priceless.
The original story is certainly very entertaining, but this TV adaptation perfectly captures many of the things we love the most about Sherlock Holmes stories: the banter between Holmes and Watson, Holmes always one step ahead of the local constabulary, and Holmes's delight in details that seem meaningless to others, but that turn out to be the heart of the case. I shall share the link to the video I watched, in the hopes that it won't disappear from YouTube any time soon. Enjoy!
Well, I was disappointed (but not 100% surprised) to discover this weekend that the YouTube playlist I'd been watching of the entire Granada series is no longer on YouTube. I realized all along that YouTube could pull it, as it is copyrighted material. But I had hoped maybe I would get through the series before it happened. I have DVDs of The Return of Sherlock Holmes somewhere, so I will try to locate them, and maybe continue the reviews soon. But beyond that series, I don't know what I shall do. Perhaps my local public library has other installments of the series.
Anyway, if you've been following the review series, I apologize for this break in the action, and that you can no longer watch the episodes to which I've provided links. I'll see what I can do to continue with the series, but for the time being, we are in a bit of a holding pattern. Thanks for reading!
It's Arthur Conan Doyle's birthday today, and today I return to my series of reviews of the Granada TV series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Once again, the game is afoot!
The Granada adaptation of "The Adventure of the Priory School" is dramatic and action-packed (particularly towards the end of the episode). But, although it retains some of the major plot points, it bears relatively little resemblance to its source material. Material from the original story is shuffled around, we are treated to a considerable amount of horse riding and bicycle riding, and there's an interesting scene where the main villain, Mr. James Wilder, meets a nasty end in a torch-lit cave. It's certainly an engaging story, but it's not quite the story Arthur Conan Doyle wrote!
Still, there is much to recommend, above and beyond the beautiful scenery of the English countryside. Noted Shakespearean actor Alan Howard portrays the Duke of Holdernesse to great effect. (His long red beard described in the story has been replaced by bushy red sideburns.) Jeremy Brett brings his usual intensity to the role, and Watson is given quite a bit more to do than in the original. The dramatic pacing of the adaptation is quite good, I think, and less dialogue heavy than the original, so the story flows fairly convincingly. As an occasional student of Latin, I also enjoyed the tiny little detail of the headmaster, Dr. Thorneycroft Huxtable (surely one of the greatest character names in the whole Canon), greets all the students with, "Salvete discipuli!" (Hello, students!)
I was intrigued by a dinner scene towards the middle of the episode, wherein Holmes and Watson joke a bit about the origins of the Holdernesse family (they started out as cattle thieves). An outraged Dr. Huxtable gets a little peeved with Holmes' s disrespect of the Duke, which leads to a scene that is not in the original story where the detective shares his deductions on the role that the German teacher has played in the boy's disappearance. It seemed to me that it was a bit out of character to be joking about an aristocrat, as he usually shows great deference to those of high station, but the scene was certainly well played, especially with all the pipe and cigarette smoke that created a visually interesting effect.
Perhaps this is a good point to pause and consider the challenges inherent in adapting Doyle's stories to the medium of television. While they often have their fair share of action and adventure, many of the stories in the Canon tend to be rather heavy on dialogue. We are often given much of the exposition, and often much of Holmes' s investigations, in the form of characters telling other characters what has happened. To make an effective TV drama, of course, the writers have to show rather than tell, and to a great extent, most of the episodes I've watched thus far have done a pretty good job of doing so. Added to the visual nature of TV is the necessity to make stories fit into the format of a 50-minute episode. For some stories this means trimming the plot considerably, while for others it means padding the plot with more material.
Overall, I believe the adaptation of "The Priory School" is one of the better examples of handling the source material in a manner that retains much of the flavor of the original, while demonstrating a willingness to depart from the source where necessary, in order to provide a better dramatic structure for the medium in which they are working. I certainly found this to be a worthwhile installment in the series. Feel free to share your thoughts on the episode, particularly if you have ideas about how much an adaptation should adhere to the original story.
My apologies to anyone who has been following my series of Granada reviews, for skipping last week's post. We had a very busy weekend, and there simply wasn't time to watch an episode and write a review. This review will get us back on track as I near the midpoint of my viewing experience. Thanks for reading!
Well, right off the bat I have to say, this is not the greatest episode I've seen. Nor is it the greatest Sherlock Holmes story, either. Indeed, "The Man with the Twisted Lip" seems a singularly odd choice for dramatization. Of all the 56 short stories in the Canon, why adapt this one? Reading the story again, and watching this adaptation of it, I am struck by how incredibly dense Holmes is in this case. I hadn't even remembered the plot of the story when I began watching the episode, but early on, I thought, "It's obvious, isn't it? Neville St. Clair and Hugh Boone are the same person." Does it really require so much work on the part of Holmes and Watson to figure out something so plain?
That being said, the adaptation is fairly faithful to the source material. There is, of course, the adjustment of Watson still being a bachelor in the show, which actually improves on the story a bit. Reading through the story, I was wondering what Mrs. Watson would have thought when her husband doesn't come home after going out to find their friend's husband? And that's one interesting thing about the story: we begin with Watson going out to find a friend who has an unfortunate opium addiction, but that turns out merely to be a device to get Watson to the opium den. A very odd shift in the storytelling, I think.
The TV adaptation also fleshes out the character of Neville/Hugh a bit, by giving him all kinds of clever quotes from Shakespeare, Tennyson, and even W.S. Gilbert ("a policeman's lot is not a happy one," from The Pirates of Penzance). This is an example of what Doyle describes in the story as "the facility of repartee." Entertaining enough, but it gets pretty corny at the end, when Neville clumsily paraphrases Shakespeare, saying, "Farewell, sweet Boone...a flight of angels sing thee to thy rest." This is, of course, adapted from Horatio's farewell to Hamlet in the final scene of Hamlet: "Good night, sweet prince/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"
As there is no real crime in this story, apart from Neville being a colossal ass to his wife, there's really not a whole lot to recommend about the episode. I found myself occupied through most of the story with fairly trivial questions, for example:
As you can probably tell, this was not my favorite installment in the series. Indeed, I would say it is my least favorite episode thus far. By all means, watch it it for the sake of completeness (as I did), but if you choose to skip it, you won't have missed anything.
The Granada adaptation of "The Adventure of the Second Stain," the last case published in the collection entitled The Return of Sherlock Holmes, is a very solid episode in the series. Jeremy Brett is in particularly fine form in the episode, and the supporting cast is excellent as well, most notably (for me, at least) Patricia Hodge as Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope. (Fans of the British comedy Miranda will certainly recognize Ms. Hodge from her role as Penny, Miranda's mother.)
The adaptation follows the original story quite closely, merely rearranging a few scenes to heighten some of the dramatic tension, but following all the plot points quite closely. The most interesting change comes at the very end, where Holmes is given the chance to indulge in a fine bit of sleight-of-hand to deposit the letter into Trelawney Hope's dispatch box while he is sorting through the letters. In the original, Holmes deduces that Lady Hilda has a duplicate key, and has her place the letter in the box before her husband gets home. In the adaptation there is no second key, and there's a lovely shot where Jeremy Brett walks into the foreground, showing his face in profile as he lights his cigarette, immediately after his little trick.
A couple other little details caught my attention and made me grin with delight. The first is so random that I actually think it may have been a mistake while filming. As Holmes complains about his inability to find the letter over several days, he lights his pipe and flings the match aside. The match is clearly still aflame, and a few seconds later, Watson shouts, "Holmes!" The camera then shows that the pile of newspapers on a nearby chair has burst into flames, and Brett and Hardwicke proceed to put out the flames for a few seconds. There is no mention in the original of anything catching fire, and it has absolutely no impact on the plot, so I wonder if the fire was an accident?
The other detail that made me smile was when Holmes searches for the letter in the hidden compartment in Eduardo Lucas's floor. When he finds it empty, Jeremy Brett utters a snort that sounds exactly like a hog. It made me laugh out loud, but this moment was apparently Brett's interpretation of what the original story calls "a bitter snarl of anger and disappointment." Okay, it was more a snort than a snarl, but entertaining nonetheless!
The episode wraps up with Jeremy Brett jumping into the air in celebration, an action that seems a tiny bit out of character for the detective. However, as I consider Brett's approach to his portrayal of Holmes, I think one of the things that makes it so enjoyable much of the time is how much humor he injects into the role, without it devolving into slapstick. I have to admit that, every once in awhile, he carries it a bit too far, as in the adaptation of "The Musgrave Ritual." (See my previous review for my thoughts on that episode.)
Overall, I found this episode rather enjoyable to watch. I don't know if it would ever end up in, say, my top five favorites, but it did have a dramatic arc that I found rather satisfying. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments after watching the episode linked below.
NOTE: On the YouTube playlist I've been following, "The Second Stain" is listed as S03, E04, while IMDB's entry on this season lists it as episode 3. I apologize for any confusion this discrepancy may cause.
Well, here we have a very unusual adaptation indeed! Readers of the original Sherlock Holmes canon will recognize "The Musgrave Ritual" as one of the few stories that actually takes place before Holmes and Watson meet. Right off the bat, this poses some difficulties for writers adapting it for the screen. The story consists largely of Holmes telling Watson about one of his earlier cases "before my biographer had come to glorify me." He tells Watson of cases that have long intrigued Sherlockians:
the Tarleton murders, and the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, and the adventure of the old Russian woman, and the singular affair of the aluminum crutch, as well as a full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife.
As Holmes tells Watson the story of how one of his former university colleagues, Reginald Musgrave, showed up at his rooms in Montague Street, the story-within-a-story actually becomes a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, leading to double quotation marks within single quotation marks within double quotation marks. So, obviously something different needed to be done with the adaptation.
Now I would have expected the story to be told as a flashback, Holmes telling Watson about one of his cases in the old days. However, the writers chose to get a little more creative: they insert Watson into the story, and the scene is now Holmes and Watson being invited for a little vacation time at the estate of Reginald Musgrave. As the adventure unfolds, the dynamic duo are in the middle of the action, and the tale gets rather entertaining and interesting. Most of the major plot points are imported intact from the source material, as well as large chunks of dialogue from the original. Not the least of these is the "Musgrave Ritual" from the title. (I have removed all of the many quotation marks, for ease of reading.)
Whose was it?
As the adaptation unfolds, the mystery is rather engaging for the viewer, but there are some misssteps along the way. The most bewildering choice, I thought, was that Holmes inexplicably spends the first half of the episode wrapping himself in an afghan blanket, as if he is freezing, while no one around him seems to be too cold at all. I found that little detail to be incredibly distracting. Also, Jeremy Brett spends an entire scene holding back laughter, and then erupting into guffaws for...no reason whatsoever.
One might also be surprised (in the original story and in its adaptation) by an adventure in which Holmes solves the case of the mysterious Musgrave Ritual, but seems completely unconcerned by the missing Rachel Howells, who most likely was directly involved in the murder of the butler Brunton. The adaptation solves this problem, to a certain extent, by having the woman's body emerge from the pond, as another servant (with whom Brunton had an affair) discovers the corpse and runs away, shrieking. Considering, though, that the pond had been searched thoroughly at an earlier point in the episode, this doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.
So, is this a faithful adaptation of the story of "The Musgrave Ritual"? Well, yes and no. As I mentioned, most of the story is fairly similar, but there are certainly many liberties taken, rearranging it for ease of storytelling, as well as to have Watson be a participant. Still, it's enjoyable enough to watch, and there are great moments throughout, including a lovely shot of Holmes, Watson and Musgrave at work on the mystery, which I've shared at the top of the post, and a humorous moment when Watson miscalculates the length of a shadow (after Holmes has exclaimed, "The answer lies in trigonometry!"). Overall, an entertaining, if a bit unusual, entry into the Granada canon.
Shakespeare and Sherlock
Posted on May 6, 2014 by Sylvia Morris
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous characters in literature. So compelling has Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective proved to be since the stories were written over a century ago that he has been brought to life in scores of films, TV series and radio plays. And the character himself has inspired novelists and playwrights to write new stories. So powerful a hold does this fictional character have that a museum dedicated to him, furnished as if he had really lived there, is situated in Baker Street, London.
Nobody has opened a Hamlet museum, but if there was to be a Shakespeare character to have his own museum this would probably be it.
I'm a stay-at-home dad, and Director of Music Ministries at a United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, TN, and a longtime fan of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.