Welcome to my newest project here on Baker Street Babble: reviews of all 41 episodes of Granada TV’s Sherlock Holmes series, which ran on the ITV network in Great Britain, as well as PBS in America, from 1984 to 1994. This first review may run a bit longer than subsequent reviews, as I shall attempt to “set the scene,” as it were, and give some background on the series and its cast. The Granada series starred Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, and Brett’s performance was hailed by many as the quintessential Holmes of his generation, and perhaps of all time.
Before the Granada series began, many fans of Sherlock Holmes had considered Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of the great detective to be the most iconic in film history. Certainly Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson was a bit less popular with many Sherlockians, as many of them objected to Bruce’s portrayal of Watson as a buffoonish, bumbling sidekick. Also, despite the two films Rathbone and Bruce did for 20th Century Fox being presented in a Victorian setting, the rest of the Rathbone/Bruce films had been set in the 20th century. One of the aims of the Granada series clearly was to return Holmes and Watson to an authentic Victorian setting. Beyond simply returning the duo to the late 19th century, there was clearly a desire to be as faithful to the original stories, as well as the Sidney Paget illustrations that had accompanied them. To a very great degree, the series was successful in this mission.
Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes was, by all reports, obsessed with making his performance as close to the original canon as possible. David Burke, who was the first actor to play Watson in the Granada series, was a very different character from Nigel Bruce’s bumbler. Burke’s Watson was far closer to the Watson we read about in ACD’s original stories: a Victorian gentleman, intelligent and loyal to a fault.
As I review each episode in the series, I shall share my thoughts as to how the adaptation compares to the original story, as well as my opinions as to how successful each episode is, not only as an adaptation, but as visual storytelling in its own right. I shall provide links to YouTube video of each episode and to an online version of each story, so the reader may access both story and adaptation. My thoughts and opinions are my own, and I fully expect some Sherlockians (and non-Sherlockians who may read the reviews) to have differing opinions. So without further ado, let us proceed with the first episode, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
“A Scandal in Bohemia” was the very first Sherlock Holmes short story to be published in The Strand Magazine in 1891. Arthur Conan Doyle had published two Holmes novels before the short stories began to appear: A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of the Four (1890). Neither novel was particularly successful to begin with. But the scene had been set: a brilliant detective and his loyal partner. “A Scandal in Bohemia” as a story begins with words that immediately capture the reader’s attention: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” Thus are we introduced to Irene Adler, a fairly minor character in the Sherlock Holmes canon, but nonetheless one whose presence in Holmes pastiches and film/TV adaptations has been immense.
This episode first aired on April 24, 1984. Readers who are familiar with the original story will notice the difference in the visual storytelling that opens the adaptation immediately. Instead of Watson’s narration beginning the episode, we are given a short introductory scene in which some thugs are ransacking Irene’s home. The plucky woman catches them in the act and calmly holds them at gunpoint. As the camera zooms in on the woman’s face, we hear Watson’s familiar narration begin. (Perhaps the tiniest bit unfamiliar to an American viewer, when Watson pronounces Irene’s name as “Ee-ray-na” rather than “Eye-reen.”) The scene then shifts to Watson arriving at the iconic lodgings at 221B Baker Street, where a sizable number of scenes throughout the series will take place.
There are some changes made to the opening scene between Holmes and Watson, where we are first introduced to the famous duo, that are not different enough from the original story to be distracting, but are certainly interesting to readers of the stories. Right off the bat, the observant reader will notice that, instead of stopping by the old flat after having been separated from Holmes due to his recent marriage, as he is in the story, Watson’s voice-over in the episode informs the viewer that he and Holmes still share a flat together at the time of the story, but that the doctor’s medical practice has called him away to the country for several days. So at the beginning of the series, gone is the married Dr. Watson visiting his friend and former roommate, to be replaced by a bachelor who still resides at 221B Baker Street. The iconic partnership is unbroken.
The episode then replaces the banter about marriage and medical practice with a sequence that was originally from the opening of The Sign of the Four, wherein Dr. Watson criticizes his friend for his drug use, the famous “seven-per-cent solution” of cocaine. The scene closely mirrors this passage from The Sign of the Four:
I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer.
Although it is quite different from the beginning of the original story, it is quite effective at setting the scene. And I was impressed by how intelligent David Burke’s Watson is, especially when compared to the old Nigel Bruce model. When Holmes asks him to examine the letter he has received, Watson is more than capable of some pretty nifty deduction of his own. But, of course, one of the more striking elements right away is Jeremy Brett.
Brett is a marvel: every mannerism, every gesture, every word creates a version of Holmes that, at the time the episode aired, had rarely been seen its match in the faithfulness to Doyle’s character. I remember thinking, when I first saw some of the Granada episodes when they first aired on PBS during my teen years, “This is it! This is how Holmes is supposed to look and sound.” Indeed, throughout this first episode, the production values, the costumes, the sets, all reflect to a remarkable degree the nuances of Sidney Paget’s original illustrations.
It’s all extremely well done. For the reader of the original stories, the attention to detail, the fidelity to the original, the acting and the writing, are all top notch. That’s not to say that this is the perfect opening to a Sherlock Holmes series. To begin with, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is kind of an unusual Holmes story: there is no real mystery to be solved, and despite a little bit of deductive prowess towards the beginning of the episode (figuring out where the letter had come from before his client arrives, that sort of thing), there’s not a whole lot of the deductive prowess one expects from the legendary detective. In fact, even in the original story, one may come to the conclusion that Holmes is working for the wrong side. Irene is clearly the wronged party, and the King of Bohemia is not a very nice guy. By the end, Irene has tricked Holmes rather nicely. But his delight at having been tricked (by a woman, of all people!) is delightful to read, and it’s delightful to watch in the episode.
Meanwhile, we are also treated to Jeremy Brett as Holmes showing his talent in disguise, as he portrays a stable groom and an elderly clergyman. The actress who plays Irene (Gayle Hunnicutt) is quite good, a real Victorian heroine. The only thing I find puzzling is that she speaks with a British accent, even though Irene is clearly described as an American from New Jersey, and the actress was from Fort Worth, TX! Why not let her do an American accent? Still, watching the episode for the first time in a couple years, I was pretty impressed by how this one sets the scene. We know right off the bat that this series will set a very high bar as far as its faithfulness to its source material. The acting and the writing is all top-notch.
Even though I think there are more exciting episodes to come, I find “A Scandal in Bohemia” to be a very fine opening to an excellent series. Very high marks in every respect.
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.