MPI // 1994 // 330 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Maurice Cobbs (Retired) // October 26th, 2004
"Oh! Rats! Beeswax! Mr. Holmes -- You are the very worst tenant in all of London!" -- Mrs. Hudson (Rosalie Williams) in "The Dying Detective"
..."...[H]e must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about..." -- from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The final Granada series featuring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Dr. John Watson finds the detective once again hip deep in seemingly impenetrable mysteries -- this time, with the occasional hand from Holmes's smarter brother Mycroft (Charles Grey, The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Although many fans of the series find the episodes that comprise The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes to be the least entertaining, I count some of these episodes among my absolute favorites. I can understand the criticism, however; the enduring appeal of the Sherlock Holmes stories is that they are, after all is said and done, enormously fun to read, and that fun certainly carried over to the television adaptations of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Return of Sherlock Holmes. But as the series progressed, the stories became darker -- less adventurous and more introspective. The feel of the show became grittier; the crimes more sinister and gruesome; the scope of the situations that were probed shrank from international incidents (such as "The Naval Treaty") and crime consortiums like Professor Moriarty's to much more intimate and personal transgressions. Where the focus had once been on high adventure and the thrill of the chase, now the focus was on the emotional impact and interpersonal relationships that lurked under the surface of the still very proper Edwardian England. As is fitting for the coming of twilight, gloom had settled by the time of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
Certainly, at least part of the reason for this shift can be attributed to Jeremy Brett himself; overwork combined with crushing grief over the untimely death of his wife, Joan Wilson, triggered a bout with bipolar disorder that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Medication helped, but not enough -- Brett had always been the victim of severe mood swings, and he was already suffering from a heart condition (as a child, his heart valves were scarred by rheumatic fever). The medication prescribed to treat his bipolar disorder damaged his heart further with the toxic buildup it inadvertently created, and the fact that he was a heavy smoker didn't help, either. Adding to his health problems was the excessive weight gain caused by his medication -- quite obvious in more than one episode of Case-Book, but especially so in Memoirs. Also, medication that might have helped his heart condition could not be prescribed, because it would have interfered with the medication for his bipolar disorder.
The second episode of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes would prove to be a rather grim predictor -- the "dying detective" indeed.
Accordingly, Holmes himself seems to have changed. No longer the aloof being of the early shows, for whom reason was religion, Holmes now seems more and more affected by the emotional situations of the people around him. Notice, in the episode "The Three Gables," how Holmes is moved by the tragic story of the aged woman's grandson who was led to his doom by his unrequited love for a designing woman. Consider the empathy Holmes, himself only recently freed from addiction to cocaine, displays when Savage describes her husband's addition to opium in "The Dying Detective." It seems that the weight of the work he does has settled heavily on Holmes's shoulders; indeed, how could it not, when he is faced almost daily with the depths of human depravity, greed, violence, and cruelty? In the words of Fitzgerald, Holmes has lost the old warm world, when each new problem promised challenge and adventure. Now there is little amusement in his work -- not even the emotionally challenged Holmes can be glib when faced with a grieving old woman who has lost her only grandson to a slow death, or a devastated young widow who has been thrown out of her home with her two small children, or a man who has been doomed to the gallows because of the spiteful machinations of a spurned lover. Holmes must also face the limits of his power, such as when a young man and his wife must face trial for killing, in obvious self-defense, an odious monster of a man who has hounded them across an ocean. "The law is what we live with," remarks Holmes, seemingly unaffected, "But justice is somewhat harder to achieve." The detective's face as he watches the young couple loaded into a wagon bound for prison, however, betrays his true feeling...
Not that Holmes has reformed too much, mind you. One of the best and funniest moments of the series is presented when Holmes, confronted by a crying and hysterical old woman, recoils in horror. "Watson!" Holmes pleads, throwing up his hands, voice trembling, "Cope!"
Although some fans of the series express dislike for the grimmer direction of the series in its later years, I have to wonder -- what did they expect? That Holmes would remain eternally detached, that the emotional impact of the work he does would never take its toll? That Holmes would remain ever in limbo, never progressing as a character, never developing or changing? That sort of approach to characterization is best left to sitcoms, not the kind of work that the Granada team was engaged in. Seeing Holmes progress as a character is engaging, and despite his illness, Jeremy Brett still turns in fine, strong performances, making this season an excellent way to end the show.
* "The Three Gables"
The Memoirs begin with "The Three Gables," as Holmes and Watson investigate the circumstances of a most unusual real estate proposal: Elderly widow Mary Maberly (Mary Ellis), still reeling from the death of her beloved grandson Douglas (Gary Cady), has been offered a very generous sum for her house -- as long as she moves out and leaves absolutely everything behind. Soon, Watson is face to face with a brute of a pugilist, Holmes is on the track of cool and calculating adventuress Isadora Klein (Claudine Auger), and old Mrs. Maberly finds that she may hold the key to the entire mystery in the form of her deceased son's unpublished novel. Particularly strong performances all around; the cruel smile that the beautiful Klein gives as she watches her former lover be beaten and kicked in the street is truly chilling, and the interplay between Holmes and the gossip-mongering man-about-town Langdale Pike (Peter Wyngarde) is absolutely delightful.
* "The Dying Detective"
This episode must surely rank among Jeremy Brett's best work as Holmes. The ailing Brett gives a rousing and emotionally stunning performance as he investigates the death of banker Victor Savage from a rare type of tropical disease -- the kind of disease that Savage's misanthropic cousin, Culverton Smith (Jonathan Hyde), is an expert in. Watson quickly fixes on Smith as a prime suspect: He's the only beneficiary of Victor Savage's will, and he unfeelingly tosses Savage's widow Adelaide (Susannah Harker) and two small children out of the house he has inherited. But Holmes isn't so sure -- Culverton Smith has exactly the sort of mind that the detective can respect, unlikable though he may be. But is Holmes allowing himself to turn a blind eye toward the crime of a man he respects, or is Watson letting his dislike of the man cloud his judgment? The mystery thickens when Holmes himself contracts the devastating disease and, in a fit of delirium, tells Watson that the only man who can save his life is the man he has insulted and maligned. Unfortunately, Brett looks every bit as ill as he actually was; after filming of this episode was completed, he collapsed, and (having already once collapsed during the filming of the previous episode) was finally diagnosed with cardiomyopathy.
* "The Golden Pince-Nez"
With Edward Hardwicke away filming Shadowlands, Holmes and Mycroft must investigate the murder of the young man who was acting as secretary to an ancient, invalid professor. An interesting variation of the classic "locked room" type of mystery, the episode sets the stage for a bit of sibling rivalry. Mycroft has no problem deducing the key to the mystery, and he leaves his brother with some sound advice: "As Father used to say, 'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.' I forget his exact words," says Mycroft, "but it was something to that effect." Charles Gray's dry humor plays a marvelous counterpoint to Jeremy Brett's hawkish Holmes -- a performance that is all the more remarkable considering the magnitude of the heath problems that Brett was coping with during the filming of the episode. The interplay between Brett and Gray is as amusing as it is convincing, offering a rare bit of insight into the family history of the world's greatest detective, and Mycroft's sour grumbling as he finds himself attending -- of all things! -- a suffragette rally is priceless. "Poppycock!" indeed. However, the direction is a bit distracting, with too many trick shots and artistic flourishes, which detract from the effectiveness of the narrative.
* "The Red Circle"
Mrs. Hudson (Rosalie Williams) enlists Holmes and Watson to come to the aid of an elderly couple (played with neurotic charm by Kenneth Connor and Betty Marsden, both veterans of the Carry On series of comedies) who are being terrorized by their mysterious and elusive lodger. Soon Holmes and Watson find themselves uncovering a secret Italian organization whose deadly grip has extended from New York to London, threatening to destroy the wedded happiness of a young couple (James Coombes and Sophia Diaz). This episode is notable because of the expanded role that Mrs. Hudson plays in it, an all too rare opportunity for the wonderful Rosalie Williams to shine.
* "The Mazarin Stone"
Too ill to return for the filming of this episode, Brett gives the stage instead to Charles Gray, who, as Mycroft Holmes, must unravel the mystery of the disappearance of the Mazarin Stone. A gigantic diamond that is to be given to the French government in a gesture of goodwill, its theft could mean strained diplomatic relations between the two countries. Mycroft quickly sets his sights on a probable suspect -- Count Sylvius (Jon Finch, Frenzy), a foppish con man and thief who travels in some very influential circles. Meanwhile, Watson finds himself occupied with a curious puzzle involving an old professor of his named Garrideb, who may be in line for a five-million-dollar inheritance from America, under the most unusual circumstances. Generally considered to be the worst of the Holmes stories (based on a one-act play that was also written by Doyle), this dramatization by Gary Hopkins nevertheless makes for a fairly strong episode; it's hard to say whether it's more delightful to see Watson taking command of an investigation on his own or to see the normally immovable Mycroft roused from his favorite chair at the Diogenes Club to run a villain to ground with uncharacteristic ferocity.
* "The Cardboard Box"
Perhaps Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most controversial Holmes story, this amazing adaptation of "The Cardboard Box" stands as one of the finest, most poignant episodes of the entire series, and certainly a grand exit for Brett, Hardwicke, and company. Although the story as written takes place in the summer, T.R. Bowen's dramatization sets this sordid tale of anger, jealousy, and unrequited love during the Christmas season. But there is no peace, no joy, and certainly no good will towards men -- quite the opposite, in fact, when a very respectable spinster opens a package containing two hacked-off ears. But the mystery of who would send such grisly greetings pales in comparison to the other mystery Holmes must navigate -- namely, what to give Dr. Watson for Christmas! Naturally, both mysteries are brought to conclusion, ending the series with a terrible and disturbing image that inspires Holmes to give what might be the epitaph not only for The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes but for the haunted, tragic Jeremy Brett as well:
"What is the meaning of it, Watson? What is the object of this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must have a purpose or our universe has no meaning, and that is unthinkable. But what purpose? That is humanity's great problem, for which reason so far has no answer."
With those words, Jeremy Brett ended his 10-year run as the best Holmes ever captured on film. Over the course of 36 episodes and five feature-length films, Brett truly established the definitive Holmes -- no small task in performing a role that had previously been played by such luminary actors as Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone. The extra dimension that Brett brought to the role was a kind of delightful unpredictability, developing the character to make him as accessible as he was eccentric. With strong support from the supporting players, strong screenplays that remained faithful to the original stories while not being afraid to embellish them, and incredible production design that brought the Edwardian era to life as rarely seen before, Granada has given us a quality television series that everyone can enjoy.
"I've been thinking, if I'm not going to star again, what a way to go out, with Sherlock! I don't think I could have topped Sherlock." -- Jeremy Brett, shortly before his death in 1995.
It is a great injustice that more people are not familiar with Brett's amazing Sherlock Holmes -- but now, with these excellent DVD sets available, more people will discover and appreciate the outstanding job done by everyone connected with this show. Sherlockians, mystery fans, and lovers of quality television alike will certainly thrill to Holmes's adventures as presented by Granada.
Not guilty. Please stop that harrumphing, Inspector Lestrade.
Review content copyright © 2004 Maurice Cobbs; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 330 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track with Screenwriter Jeremy Paul and Holmes Expert David Stuart Davies on "The Red Circle"
* Interview with Adrian Conan Doyle