by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I picked out an old episode of the British TV series The Return of Sherlock Holmes from 1988 starring Jeremy Brett in an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, one of the best-loved Holmes stories, in which a racehorse trainer is found dead on the moors at Dartmoor and his star horse, the favorite of the upcoming Wessex Cup, disappears. Like all the Holmes shows with Brett, it’s a faithful adaptation of a story from Conan Doyle’s canon — much of John Hawkesworth’s script comes verbatim from the source — and it’s an exciting tale, well adapted and staged by director Brian Mills. I must confess I still have my doubts about Brett as Holmes — to me, as I’ve said in these pages before, Basil Rathbone will always be THE Sherlock Holmes (deliberate paraphrase of the opening of Conan Doyle’s Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia”), even though of Rathbone’s 14 films as Holmes only the first one, The Hound of the Baskervilles, comes from the canon. If I had to pick a second-favorite Holmes, it would be Robert Stephens, star of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (the only Holmes film made by a major director!); Brett deserves acknowledgment as only the second actor (after silent-era veteran Eille Norwood) to play Sherlock Holmes in the entire Conan Doyle canon, and he’s certainly good enough for these reference versions, but to me he’s just a bit prissy and queeny to rank among the very top-drawer interpreters of Holmes.
Still, the shows in this series I’ve seen have been consistently high-quality, sensitively and faithfully adapted, generally well acted (it’s especially welcome that Edward Hardwicke plays Dr. Watson as a man of normal, or even slightly above-normal, intelligence who genuinely contributes to Holmes’ detective work, not the comic-relief idiot played by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone films) and handsomely staged, convincing in their evocation of the Victorian period and benefiting from being filmed in Holmes’ (and Conan Doyle’s) home country and therefore being able to take advantage of the actual locations the author had in mind. The only bone I’d have to pick with this version is that I’d always thought of the characters of Col. Ross (owner of Silver Blaze) and Silas Brown (the rival trainer who captured the horse on the moor after it had killed his own trainer in self-defense) as much larger and physically robust than the actors that play them here, Peter Barkworth and Russell Hunter, respectively. I’d also thought of the Wessex Cup as a horse race taking place on a large track with a grandstand and an audience of thousands — here it seems like a race run on grass for a crowd the size of a garden party — but then that’s a kind of hazard when you’re watching a movie based on a book or story you’ve read often and formed a strong imaginary image of what the characters looked, sounded and acted like!