Reviewed by Guy Adams
Sometimes, the greatest joy in archive television releases can be found in the commentaries. Eavesdropping on ancient actors losing themselves – sometimes quite literally it seems – in reminiscences more colourful than the adventures onscreen. A drinking game can be played, a shot for every time someone forgets the name of their colleagues, a shot for when they bring up the sexual attractiveness of their co-stars (never try this if Frazer Hines is involved, you’ll go blind) and finally, of course, drain your glasses every time someone expresses concerns over ‘spoiling’ the story by commenting on the plot, as if anyone would be foolish enough to experience a story first by having its makers witter over the top of it.
As fun as these Sherlock Holmes adaptations are, this set from the BFI has its foot firmly in the ‘the commentaries are where the action lives’ camp. First you hear Peter Sasdy – sounding deliciously like the sort of velvet-tongued vampire he would one day go on to direct – flinging praise at the script-writer (“We were so lucky to have him.”), co-star Stock (“Watson was always more important than Sherlock.”) and cautious, guarded, praise on Wilmer (“Not easy to get on with but I respected him.”). An episode later, Wilmer is poked into action by the masterful Toby Hadoke (who can be heard, very sweetly, to wilt occasionally across these commentaries, and indeed many others, as he fights to prompt his fellow sound booth prisoners into life). Wilmer promptly savages the scriptwriter (“I had to write it myself”), the directors (“They would, perhaps, have been better served selling groceries for a living”) and the importance of Watson (“It was alright for him, he just had to say ‘My Word’ occasionally, it was me that carried the whole show”).
Clearly, the BBC’s first stab at adapting Holmes was not an easy production. In fact, if Wilmer is to be believed, it was an absolute disaster (and things hardly improved when Peter Cushing took over the role after Wilmer refused to sign up for another series).
It’s surprising then that, for the most part, the finished product is as engaging as it is. Despite his determination to bring out the ruder side of Holmes’ character, Wilmer is still somewhat too genteel and urbane for my tastes (but then I always struggle to dispel the glittering lunacy of Jeremy Brett in the role). That’s a subjective opinion though, and if we’re to justify buying a Holmes adaptation on the strength of who’s playing the lead subjectivity will abound.
Yes the episodes are frequently staid and stagey (this is 1965 BBC Drama and there’s no escaping its limitations, if indeed you choose to view them as such) but there’s frequently a pleasing Gothic atmosphere on display and there’s no doubting the quality of some of the guest actors (there are very few less-entertaining ways of passing half an hour than watching Peter Wyngarde snarl).
The set contains all eleven surviving episodes, plus reconstructions of the missing two (once utilising surviving audio, once with Wilmer reading a chunk of Doyle’s original story, lightly adapted to match the alterations in the script). Commentaries (Naturally. Not only from Sasdy and Wilmer but also from actors Trevor Martin and David Andrews and director Peter Creegen), a twenty minute interview with Wilmer, an alternative title sequence and even – marcha del juego! – a Spanish language version of one of the episodes.
The surviving episodes were released on DVD in America a few years ago, but it’s likely they were only hunted down by Holmes devotees, who will want to buy them again anyway as this set is far superior. For everyone else, the BFI release is the first time they’ve graced UK shelves.
Available 30th March, BFI