In the pantheon of celebrated Sherlock Holmes adaptations there is one BBC television series that tends to get overlooked. In 1965 the BBC produced a series of faithful adaptations of 13 Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories starring Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock. The series is perhaps unfairly eclipsed by the colour series made by the BBC two years later starring Peter Cushing, fewer episodes of which survive, and the Granada series that consumed much of the 1980s and 1990s, and the energies of actor Jeremy Brett.
However, you can judge Wilmer’s and Stock’s celebrated interpretations for yourselves when the BFI release the remaining episodes of Sherlock Holmes on a 4-DVD set this month. Previously available as a Region 1 set, this new release features commentaries, interviews and using the remaining archive footage, the reconstruction of two episodes.
Before and since Holmes has been reinterpreted many times on radio, film and television with the latest incarnations being the Guy Ritchie action films, the contemporary re-staging of the characters and stories in Steven Moffat’s hugely successful Sherlock and the CBS police procedural Elementary featuring Jonny Lee Miller. Holmes and Watson are a very prolific presence among the roll call of iconic British literary myths–including King Arthur, Robin Hood, Dracula–that have continued into the 21st Century, joining modern legends such as James Bond, Harry Potter and The Doctor.
Adapting the Holmes canon was not a new undertaking for the BBC. It had broadcast a six-episode Sherlock Holmes series in 1951, starring Alan Wheatley, and a series of radio adaptations with Carleton Hobbs in the lead role that spanned 80 episodes between 1952 and 1969. Bringing Holmes back to BBC television originated from staff director Vere Lorrimer’s approach to Head of Light Entertainment Tom Sloan.
Sloan discovered, rather remarkably, that the rights from the Conan Doyle estate were available and, by sheer coincidence, when he suggested a Holmes series to Head of Drama Sydney Newman, Newman revealed a Sherlock Holmes story was due to be included in a series of one-off drama pilots called Detective. (1) As the Radio Times of May 14 1964 exclaimed, ‘No series with a title like Detective could possibly afford to ignore the father of all fictional detectives – the man with the deer-stalker and the 9.25 pipe, the Sage of Baker Street–Sherlock Holmes himself.’ (2)
Newman’s motive for producing Detective was to find a replacement for the highly successful Maigret series, starring Rupert Davies, which had concluded a run of 53 episodes in December 1963. Detective‘s most successful try-outs would be considered for a full series and, underlining the Maigret connection, were each introduced by Davies ‘in character’ as Maigret.
Prior to Detective‘s production in late 1963 and early 1964, the BBC had secured the options on five Holmes stories and ‘The Speckled Band’, transmitted 18 May 1964, was chosen to represent the detective in the anthology. Newman and his producer David Goddard recruited Robin Midgley to direct and Giles Cooper as scriptwriter. Midgley had previous form, having produced and directed many of the Holmes radio adaptations featuring Carleton Hobbs, and Cooper had adapted the Maigret stories for television. (3)
Newman determined that each of the Detective instalments would be headed by a star actor and producer Goddard contracted established stage and screen actor Douglas Wilmer to play Holmes in ‘The Speckled Band’ with a view that he would continue in any series that developed from the pilot. Wilmer was described by the Radio Times as, ‘a Conan Doyle enthusiast who has coveted the part since the start of his acting career’ and who bore ‘an uncanny physical resemblance to Holmes as drawn by Sydney Paget to illustrate the original Strand Magazine stories.’ (4)
Wilmer had featured on the big screen in historical epics Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) but had also carved out a successful radio and television career. He was familiar with the Conan Doyle stories and, as he later expounded in his biography, felt that previous interpretations of the character had never fully embraced the darker side of Holmes: ‘I decided I would paint him warts and all. He was a towering and commanding figure, often forbidding and silent. Such men cast great shadows. They can be intimidating and inspire fear.’ However, Wilmer also acknowledged that, even though he thought the scripts should mention it, in 1964 the viewing public was not ready for a television series to describe ‘anything so utterly depraved as a cocaine habit.’ (5)
Joining Wilmer to play the redoubtable Dr John Watson was Nigel Stock, a recognisable British character actor fresh from supporting roles in Brighton Rock (1947), The Dam Busters (1955), The Battle of the River Plate (1956 with Wilmer), Victim (1961) and The Great Escape (1963). Stock managed to imbue Watson with many of the qualities of Doyle’s ‘old campaigner’ and offered something of an antidote to the buffoonish Watson, despite the appeal of Nigel Bruce’s performance, seen opposite Basil Rathbone’s Holmes in the film series of the 1930s and 1940s.
Anthony Read, who adapted ‘The Red Headed League’ and took over as script editor on the series in September 1964, further underlined to writer Duncan Ross, who had submitted what would be an unused adaptation of ‘The Sussex Vampire’ that he should: ‘keep away from the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce interpretations which we firmly eschew.’ (6)
Wilmer and Stock’s immediate rapport with the characters, the atmospheric location filming in Dorking and BBC Birmingham’s economic but effective studio production derived a suitably Gothic melodrama from Conan Doyle’s story. A highlight of the pilot is the encounter between Holmes and poker-bending Dr Grimesby Roylott, featuring a volcanic performance from Felix Felton. Under Midgley’s direction, Felton had previously appeared in a radio adaptation of the story with Liane Aukin as the heroine Helen Stoner. She also reprised her role in the television version.
‘The Speckled Band’ was a notable success with viewers and the BBC optioned eight further Conan Doyle stories for the series that followed in 1965. However, negotiations with the Conan Doyle estate now came with an added pressure. They wanted to see the BBC make the series on film and, enthusiastic about Holmes’s export potential, enter a co-production deal with an American network, and thus have a greater say in the selection of cast and crew.
The BBC were not keen as a significant financial outlay would be required to shoot on film and complete the series before any guarantee of a sale and they rejected the idea that an American network should therefore be allowed to interfere with what original script editor John Gould saw as a quintessentially English series. (7)
Another issue, which would gradually have a significant impact on the writing of the series and Wilmer’s decision not to continue when the BBC commissioned a second series, were the negotiations over rehearsal time, scripts and directors. The BBC originally agreed to Wilmer’s request for scripts to arrive three weeks in advance of production and that the series would be handled by a small group of directors to maintain quality and style, including the pilot’s Robin Midgley.
Sherlock Holmes‘s 12 episodes were eventually made with the standard studio VT and location film inserts, although as restoration expert Peter Crocker explains in the notes accompanying this DVD set, the 405-line VT recordings were transferred to 35mm for editing and broadcast.
The adaptations were divvied out to several writers, including Giles Cooper, Clifford Witting, Jan Read, Vincent Tilsley, Nicholas Palmer and Anthony Read (Read took over from original script editor John Gould and inherited a pile of scripts that would need revising or rejecting). Midgley was not amongst the directors hired to make the episodes and Wilmer was somewhat aggrieved that many of the episodes were handed to inexperienced youngsters.
Jan Read’s ‘The Man With The Twisted Lip’ commenced production in September 1964 with location filming in Wapping and studio recording at Television Centre. With production continuing on ‘The Abbey Grange’ in October, Anthony Read had to completely rewrite the script for ‘The Red Headed League’ two days prior to its November studio recording when Harry Green’s version was rejected. Indeed, Wilmer recalled the problems with the script in Stage Whispers and told the BBC he ‘had not the smallest intention of appearing in such drivel.’ He strongly recommended the script editor simply ‘have a good look at Doyle and just copy out the excellent dialogue, as written.’ (9)
Further scripting problems affected ‘The Devil’s Foot’. Wilmer observed that Giles Cooper’s script ran short of the 50 minute slot by some significant margin and he and Stock had to write additional material at the last minute. ‘The Devil’s Foot’ boasted some excellent location filming in Cornwall, undertaken in December 1964, and the Radio Times recalled Nigel Stock entertaining the cast and crew with a bagpipe recital beneath Wilmer’s bedroom window. (10)
The series opening episode, ‘The Illustrious Client’ was also completed in December and was the first episode to use the Baker Street exterior set specially built at Ealing Studios. Filming and recording continued into January and February 1965 on ‘Charles Augustus Milverton’ and ‘The Copper Beeches’–where director Gareth Davies had to track down an Old English Mastiff to perform as the guard dog of the house and discovered there were only six of the breed left in the UK. (11)
The week prior to the 20 February transmission date of the series heralded a press launch at the Sherlock Holmes pub.
As the series began on BBC One, the rest of Sherlock Holmes continued to be recorded through to April 1965, concluding with ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’, ‘The Retired Colourman’ (negotiations with Boris Karloff to guest star as Barker unfortunately came to nothing) and ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’. The latter’s Swiss setting was provided by some extensive location filming in the French town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. (12)
‘The Illustrious Client’, boasting a Radio Times cover, received some mixed reviews. While the Sherlock Holmes Society of London praised the adaptation and Wilmer’s and Stock’s performances, the BBC’s Director of Television Kenneth Adam informed Sydney Newman that the BBC Board and the Director General were disappointed that the episode had not lived up to the promise of the pilot.
The format of the series, established so effectively in ‘The Speckled Band’, is certainly consolidated by ‘The Illustrious Client’. Two very broad performances from guest stars Peter Wyngarde, providing a ripe German accent as the serial womaniser Baron Gruner, and Rosemary Leach, plunging into Cockney melodrama as the vengeance seeking Kitty Winter, tend to dominate over the quieter, subtler work from Wilmer and Stock.
Far better is ‘The Devil’s Foot’, despite the scripting problems, and it expands the series out of the often poky studio settings with its Cornwall location filming. Patrick Troughton is also a highlight as the poisoner Mortimer Tregennis hoist by his own petard by the scheming Dr. Sterndale. It’s also here that Wilmer’s adjustments to his performance as Holmes begin to emerge. He had rewatched his performance in ‘The Speckled Band’ and told the Radio Times in April 1965: ‘when I saw it again five months later I thought my portrait of Holmes was incomplete and in places inaccurate; too smooth, urbane and civilised. I’ve realised that he is a much more primitive person, more savage and ruthless.’ (13)
Stock’s chemistry with Wilmer isn’t quite as well developed as the later relationship between him and Peter Cushing in 1968’s colour series but as the series progresses both actors refine and define their characters. Their portrayals are appealing but very self-contained. Stock’s Watson certainly paved the way for the excellent work that David Burke (who makes an early television appearance in ‘The Beryl Coronet’) and Edward Hardwicke would put into their portrayals of Watson in the Granada series. Wilmer offers a definitive portrayal of Holmes for the times, which now provides an antithesis to Jeremy Brett’s own brilliant but often extravagant embellishments.
The series is blessed with further outstanding guest roles. Patrick Wymark and Suzanne Neve are perfect casting in ‘The Copper Beeches’. Wymark encapsulates Jephro Rucastle’s snarling but suave cruelty as he forces Neve’s Violet Hunter to stand in as his imprisoned daughter Alice. He uses her to convince the man watching from the road Alice is no longer interested in seeing him and to prevent the couple from benefiting from her mother’s will. Tucked away in the episode are lovely turns from Michael Robbins as the drunken servant Toller and horror icon-to-be Sheila Keith as employment agency owner Miss Stoper.
Sadly, only the final reel of ‘The Abbey Grange’ remains in the archive (and this wasn’t presented on the previous Region 1 DVD of the Wilmer series) and the first 25 minutes of the adaptation are here represented by Douglas Wilmer reading the opening half of the story to camera. What we do eventually see is a well made, atmospheric adaptation with Nyree Dawn Porter effulgent as the tormented Lady Brackenstall desperately waiting for lover Captain Croker to rescue her from a violent husband.
As played by the hawkish Peter Madden, Inspector Lestrade makes the first of six appearances in the series with Giles Cooper’s adaptation of ‘The Six Napoleons’. It’s notable how elements of light comedy flavour this, ‘The Red Headed League’ and ‘The Retired Colourman.’ In Cooper’s version of the former James Bree provides a very appealing performance as Dr. Barnicot, the Napoleon enthusiast whose destroyed plaster bust of the French Emperor provides the catalyst to Holmes’ investigations.
Wilmer did not return when a second series option was taken up.
‘The Man With The Twisted Lip’ establishes the series proper. It’s an evocative and effective adaptation and Anton Rodgers provides a suitably sympathetic performance as business debtor turned beggar Neville St. Clair. There’s some splendid location filming in Wapping photographed by Dick Bush, one of the best film cameramen working at the BBC at the time.
However, viewers were more concerned about the correct depiction of an opium den, according to the Radio Times letters page, than what was then the common practice of asking a Caucasian actor (in this instance Danish-English Olaf Pooley) to ‘black up’ and play ethnic stereotypes like the Lascar. The series’ growing confidence can also be seen in ‘The Beryl Coronet’ in which Leonard Sachs’s (familiar to viewers as the tongue twisting MC of The Good Old Days) banker Alexander Holder, safe-keeping a beryl-encrusted crown, falls victim to David Burke’s unscrupulous villain George Burnwell.
Another incomplete episode in the archives is ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’. The first 25 minutes of the episode exist and are here supplemented by surviving audio and the shooting script. It works very well and the engrossing adaptation features a smashing performance from Derek Francis as Holmes’ brother Mycroft and well-known television character actors John Woodnutt, Gordon Gostelow and Allan Cuthbertson add quality to director Shaun Sutton’s ensemble casting. A shame we can only see half of it.
‘Charles Augustus Milverton’ is dominated by Barry Jones’ turn as the ‘most dangerous man in London’, the reptilian master blackmailer Milverton. He’s definitely the highlight, as is Stephanie Bidmead as Lady Farningham, a former victim who is observed seeking her violent revenge by Holmes and Watson while they are breaking into Milverton’s safe to destroy the blackmailer’s evidence. In the last act, there’s also some lovely comedy between Watson, Holmes and Inspector Lestrade when Holmes acknowledges that Lestrade’s description of one of the ‘burglars’ seen trespassing on Milverton’s estate matches that of Watson. Stock’s comedy timing and reaction is particularly satisfying.
The series concludes with two fine episodes, ‘The Retired Colourman’ and ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’ both of which benefit from excellent location filming. One of the best of the series, ‘The Retired Colourman’ features the legendary Maurice Denham as the supremely grumpy miser Josiah Amberley and the story refreshingly provides Stock with an opportunity to shine as Watson. The last episode of the series is also not without a superb supporting cast, including Ronald Radd, Joss Ackland and Roger Delgado, here playing the hotel manager Moser.
Sadly, Wilmer did not return when a second series option was taken up, a decision buoyed by a successful repeat run of the first series in summer 1966. Although Head of Series Andrew Osborn asked Wilmer to return, the actor declined. His experience of the production treadmill on the first series, the fact that some of his demands had not been met about script availability and director approval and the BBC’s decision to cut the production time for each episode of the next series down to ten days, and thus reduce the rehearsal time, had all left him rather unimpressed.
In Stage Whispers, he recalls that John Neville (a fine Holmes in the 1965 film A Study in Terror) and Eric Porter were approached to co-star with Nigel Stock before the BBC settled on Peter Cushing (having played Holmes in Hammer’s Gothic take on The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1959) to bring Doyle’s anti-hero to colour television in 1967. But that’s another story…
For now, Holmes purists can return to these episodes. They are an interesting counterpoint to the Granada series of the 1980s, where money was clearly lavished on sets and location work and many liberties were taken in stretching stories out, and their pace is probably best described as very genteel in comparison to contemporary television but these faithful, if rather economic, adaptations are worth viewing for the Wilmer and Stock interpretations of the Doyle characters. There is also a generous selection of extra features to complete a very welcome DVD release.
- Commentaries. Toby Hadoke moderates five audio commentaries: with director Peter Sasdy on ‘The Illustrious Client’, Douglas Wilmer on ‘The Devil’s Foot’ and ‘Charles Augustus Milverton’, director Peter Cregeen on ‘The Abbey Grange’, and actors Trevor Martin and David Andrews on ‘The Red Headed League’.
- Alternative Spanish audio presentation of The Speckled Band. The Spanish export version, entitled ‘La banda de lunares’, if you are so inclined.
- Alternative title sequence for The Illustrious Client. Apparently Peter Wyngarde requested his name to be included in the title sequence when the series was sold abroad, feeling he should share and benefit from equal billing with Wilmer and Stock.
- The Abbey Grange episode partial reconstruction of the two 25-minute film reels. Only the second survives and here 95-year-old Douglas Wilmer reads the opening half of the story to accompany the surviving footage.
- The Bruce-Partington Plans episode partial reconstruction. The first reel exists of the episode and the remainder of the episode is represented by an audio recording mixed with extracts from the shooting script.
- Douglas Wilmer…on Television (22 mins). A convivial conversation with Wilmer in which he discusses his casting as Holmes and his determination to play him as an unsympathetic, vain and dangerous character. He recalls various aspects of the pilot and series, from snake wrangling in ‘The Speckled Band’, his desire to see its director Robin Midgely continue directing the series, to the work of Shaun Sutton compared to the many ‘pup’ directors on the series and the uneven quality of the scripts. Nigel Stock is fondly remembered by Wilmer as a loyal support during a time when Wilmer was very unhappy with the production of the series and he amusingly recounts the arguments with Patrick Troughton about Catholicism and working with other guest actors such as Joss Ackland. Wilmer then reflects on his days at RADA and the Old Vic and his debut at the BBC, working with Rudolph Cartier, making 1958’s The Diary of Samuel Pepys, acting with Nigel ‘Tom’ Kneale, and the Royal Court and film versions of One Way Pendulum. The interview brings us up to date with his recent cameo in the Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss series Sherlock.
(1) Alan Barnes, Sherlock Holmes – The Complete Film and TV History
(2) ‘Detective – The Speckled Band’, Radio Times May 14 1964
(3) Alan Barnes, Sherlock Holmes – The Complete Film and TV History
(4) ‘Sherlock Holmes’, Radio Times February 18 1965
(5) Douglas Wilmer, Stage Whispers – The Memoirs
(6) Alan Barnes, Sherlock Holmes – The Complete Film and TV History
(8) Douglas Wilmer, Stage Whispers – The Memoirs
(10) ‘Dr. Watson Takes Over’, Radio Times April 29 1965
(11) ‘The Copper Beeches’, Radio Times March 4 1965
(12) Alan Barnes, Sherlock Holmes – The Complete Film and TV History
(13) ‘Douglas Wilmer as Holmes’, Radio Times April 8 1965