"The Adventure of the Dancing Men" is possibly the very first Holmes story I can remember reading and enjoying as a child. It was one of the stories in a paperback anthology that I was given when I was about ten years old. (I've tried numerous times to find the anthology online, with no luck. I simply don't remember enough about it.) I remember finding the idea of the code of the dancing men fascinating, and it is still one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes adventures. I am happy to report that the Granada adaptation of the tale is excellent. After the scene setting of "Scandal in Bohemia," this one really gets into the meat of what makes Holmes stories so entertaining: a code to decipher, deductions that are constantly one step ahead of everyone else, a murder, an attempted suicide, a mysterious figure from America...the works.
Unlike "A Scandal in Bohemia," which was the first story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, "The Dancing Men" comes much later in the canon, having been one of the cases published in the collection entitled The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps that's why the story is so good: it was written later, but not so late that the writing has become tired or a repetition of the earlier stories. Quite simply, this story is Arthur Conan Doyle at his best. And the Granada adaptation certainly reflects the excellence of the original story.
Jeremy Brett is delightful from top to bottom in the episode: his witty, playful banter at the beginning, as he amazes Watson with his deductive train of thought, is a treat to behold. David Burke's reactions, as Watson realizes how "absurdly simple" (a phrase which recurs in the episode) the whole thing was, is marvelous as well. The dramatic elements throughout the episode are very well done. The opening sequence, before the case comes to Holmes, is admirably brief, but sets up the mystery quite efficiently.
As a musician, I was especially struck by the sophistication of the score underlying the scene: the music sounds a bit like an early American folk song, and as Elsie first sees the code of the dancing men (which the camera does not show initially) the music comes to a sudden stop. The use of the minor third every in the theme that plays underneath Elsie's and Hilton's scenes together gives the music an ever so slight impression of a style no unlike American jazz, which works perfectly for Elsie, who we come to find out is from America.
The actors who play Elsie (Betsy Brantley) and Hilton (Tenniel Evans) are perfect in their roles: I found their tragic relationship emotionally engaging. The sets and costumes are, as usual for this first season of the series, extremely sumptuous. The Baker Street lodgings, of which we get a slightly better view than in the first episode, seem as if they were lifted straight out of the pages of the canon. Meanwhile, we get a bit of a view of the period English countryside, and perhaps most importantly for Holmes fans, our first glimpse of Holmes in the famous deerstalker cap (though not the Inverness cape).
The pacing of the episode is exceptionally tight, with an excellent balance between the more reflective moments of deduction, and the moments of Holmes and Watson springing into action (albeit too late to save the unfortunate Mr. Cubitt). I especially enjoyed the moment, after Holmes and Watson run out of the room suddenly, and the camera pans around to show the final message: "Elsie, prepare to meet thy God." Beautifully done!
In the original story, Sherlock Holmes presents a rather lengthy description of how he solved the code of the dancing men. I thought the adaptation was especially deft at handling this bit dramatically: first, they shorten the sequence immensely, and second, they give most of the explanation to Watson. I thought this worked rather well, especially considering that, if they had been slavish to the original, the dramatic action would have ground to a halt at this point!
Watching this episode was a particularly enjoyable nostalgia trip for me, and overall just a marvelous viewing experience. I can't find a thing about the episode that I would have changed. It was extremely faithful to the source material, while still being as entertaining an adventure as you could wish to see on the small screen. The video of the episode is below...enjoy!
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.