I would never admit to being an expert on Sherlock Holmes. After all, there are far too many of those out there already, self-professed and otherwise. But I have always enjoyed the adventures of Conan-Doyle’s creation. I watched all the Basil Rathbone Universal series when I was a lad, loved Peter Cushing in the role, and have thoroughly enjoyed the latest modern version starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Oh, and I also happen to have read all the stories.
I have to confess, however, that I had never heard of the series under consideration here until the BFI flagged it up for review, so I’m guessing there will be a fair few Holmes fans who will also be unfamiliar with it. To put it into context, in 1964 the BBC filmed a one-off hour-long adaptation of the short story The Speckled Band, starring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Dr Watson. This was well-enough received that a full series followed a year later, and that’s what we have here - all eleven surviving episodes of that show, plus two reconstructions similar to the excellent work done on the BFI’s OUT OF THE UNKNOWN box set, spread over four DVDs.
The selection of stories to be adapted is interesting, and it's actually quite refreshing to come across a Holmes series that doesn’t do the usual old standbys. There’s no Hound of the Baskervilles in here, but we do get a version of The Six Napoleons (filmed in the Universal series as the marvellous pseudo-horror SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE PEARL OF DEATH) and some excellent Cornish horror featuring guest star Patrick Troughton in The Devil’s Foot. Otherwise it’s a collection of lesser-known Holmes stories which actually just makes this release all the more worthwhile.
But are the episodes themselves any good? Well bearing in mind they are of the grainy, stagey, slightly camera-wobbly era of British television, they’re actually very good indeed. The Speckled Band feels like an early 1930s horror film with some good sets and a fine atmosphere, and this series is perhaps most going to suit you if you’re a fan of the Rathbone Universals rather than later colour adaptations. Some good location work helps add to the atmosphere as well.
And what of the leads? Wilmer actually makes an excellent Holmes in the classical mode, and Nigel Stock is far more Andre Morell than Nigel Bruce in his portrayal of Watson. As with many of the shows of this era, fans of British TV and cinema will enjoy playing spot the guest cast member, and overall I have nothing but good things to say about how enjoyable this particular series of SHERLOCK HOLMES is for the right kind of fan.
Extras include commentary tracks by director Peter Sasdy (The Illustrious Client) and Peter Cregeen (The Abbey Grange), as well as actors David Andrews and Trevor Martin (The Red-Headed League). Best of all, 95 year old Douglas Wilmer, still going strong, provides commentaries for the Devil’s Foot and Charles Augustus Milverton episodes. There’s also a Spanish audio version of The Speckled Band and an alternative title sequence for The Illustrious Client which incorporates images of the mighty Peter Wyngarde, as per his guest star contract. There’s also an excellent booklet with notes on the restoration, a career profile of Douglas Wilmer, and more. Another absolute classic television winner from the BFI.
The BFI are releasing the BBC's 1964-1965 series of SHERLOCK HOLMES in a 4 DVD set on the 30th March 2015