Monday, September 14, 2015

Sherlock: “The Sign of Three” (Hartswood Films, BBC Wales, Masterpiece Theatre/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show I picked was a PBS showing of a recent episode of Sherlock, the engaging Sherlock Holmes update from the BBC (the official production credits on are to “Hartswood Films,” “BBC Wales” and “Masterpiece Theatre,” the overall PBS rubric on which this and a lot of other British productions receive their U.S. airings on PBS) that’s already in its fourth season at home and its third season here — though it counts as more of a mini-series than a series because only three or four episodes are made each year. The series stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Hamish Watson (the full middle name is actually a key plot point in this episode), and according to an “Trivia” posting Holmes’ parents are played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s real parents, and Amanda Abbington, the actress who plays Mary Morstan — Watson’s girlfriend, who became his wife in last night’s show, “The Sign of Three” (like all the Sherlock episode titles, it’s both copied and “twisted” from an original Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four) — really is the life partner of Martin Freeman. “The Sign of Three” is a reworking of one of the quirkiest stories in the canon, a novel-length saga about the Sholto family and their criminal doings and mis-doings in India and attempts to atone for them through their treatment of Mary — and the original Conan Doyle story has been filmed more or less come scritto several times, including an excellent 1932 version from Britain directed by Graham Cutts (a leading British director in the early 1920’s and a mentor to Alfred Hitchcock, who worked as an assistant director on Cutts’ films before getting the chance to direct himself) with Arthur Wontner in the best of his four extant performances as Holmes.

“The Sign of Three” is a quirky presentation in that most of it is built around the planning of John Watson’s and Mary Morstan’s wedding — though a casual piece of dialogue from Cumberbatch as Holmes indicates they’re already living (and presumably sleeping) together and therefore Holmes sees no point in them renting a church for an afternoon and a party hall for an evening. Naturally, Watson has asked Holmes to be his best man, and this requires Holmes to prepare and deliver a speech at the ceremony — during which he can’t help but express his decidedly cynical views about marriage, love and relationships generally (writers Steven Thompson, Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss — the latter two also listed as the show’s creators — even incorporate Holmes’ famous comment in one of the Conan Doyle stories that love and sex are important to the criminal investigator as motives for crimes but that he personally isn’t interested in pursuing either — words that should have been emblazoned in the minds of the writers for the American Holmes update Elementary, which has been annoyingly false to Conan Doyle’s characterization of both Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft as essentially asexual, and instead has had them rutting around all over the place) — and for some reason he starts reminiscing about two recent cases he hasn’t been able to solve. One was the near-murder of a guardsman who was locked into a shower stall and stabbed (fortunately, when the body was discovered both Holmes and Watson were on hand, and Watson was able to use his medical skills to save the man’s life, pressing Holmes into service as a reluctant nurse; one thing I like about this Sherlock is Watson is presented as an intelligent character in his own right and not a Nigel Bruce-style doofus!) — and, praise be, director Colm McCarthy gives us some choice glimpses of the guardsman’s bare chest which add to the aesthetic appeal of this show! The other was called “The Mayfly,” and was about a man who had dates with at least five women, taking them to the homes of recently deceased people and leaving them with the distinct impression that they had gone out with a ghost — only it turns out, in keeping with the spirit of Conan Doyle (who occasionally led his late-Victorian readers up the garden path by hinting at a supernatural explanation for the crimes in the Holmes stories but ultimately resolved the stories in a physically possible manner), that this was simply an ordinary human being who was faking being a ghost. It turns out that all five women were part of the service staff of Major James Sholto (Alistair Petrie), who in this version was nothing more than Dr. Watson’s commanding officer when he served in Afghanistan (it’s one of the ironies, made much of by the Sherlock writers, that 120 years after Conan Doyle had Holmes greet Watson with the famous line, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” the U.K. was involved in another war in Afghanistan, so that part of the story didn’t have to be changed!) and a heavily guarded man because of all the terrorists out there who want to kill him. Holmes deduces that there is a murderer out to get Sholto, and he romanced the maids to get information about him and his habits. He also staged the attack on the guardsman as a rehearsal for the murder method he planned to use on Sholto: a spring-loaded dagger blade concealed in the belt buckle of his uniform, so it would go off and he would be stabbed as soon as he unbuckled his belt.

For the first half of “The Sign of Three” (the title seems to refer to Holmes, Watson and Mary Morstan) I fidgeted and wondered, “When is someone going to commit a crime so this episode will be interesting?” Then the criminal intrigue emerged and the show got a lot better! I like Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes — though Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary, albeit not as attractive or personable, seems closer to the Holmes Conan Doyle created, with his more imperious manner and crisper diction — and I can see why this show has made him an international star. Indeed, I thought it ironic when a lot of people criticized the most recent Star Trek movie for casting Cumberbatch as a villain when he’d become known for playing Holmes — I pointed out to Charles that the greatest screen Holmes of all, Basil Rathbone, usually played villains when he wasn’t playing Holmes! To me — as I’m fond of paraphrasing the Conan Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia” — Rathbone will always be the Sherlock Holmes (his height, his rangy athlete’s build, his aquiline nose and his ramrod-straight posture made him looked like he’d walked out of one of Sidney Paget’s illustrations of Holmes in The Strand Magazine and come to life, and he spoke in the crisp, authoritative tones in which I’d always heard Holmes’ dialogue in my mind’s ear when I read the stories), but Cumberbatch is quite a good one even if not at the level of Rathbone, Robert Stephens or Jeremy Brett (and, as I noted in my comments on the 1922 silent Sherlock Holmes, it’s really a pity we don’t have a talkie with John Barrymore as Holmes — in my dream world of unmade movies, along with a Falstaff with W. C. Fields and a Great Gatsby with Cary Grant, is a 1932 Sherlock Holmes remake with John Barrymore repeating as Holmes and his brother Lionel as Professor Moriarty! — while it occurred to me the last time I saw the 1947 thriller Lured that George Sanders would have made a quite good Holmes if he hadn’t reached his artistic and commercial peak at a time when Rathbone owned Holmes on the big screen).