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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ith a brand new Sherlock Holmes movie hitting the big screen in just a matter of days, it probably goes without saying that there will be a demand for classic adventures featuring the world’s most famous detective. The folks at A&E have unearthed this collection from the bowels of the BBC and are presenting these episodes from the ‘60s series starring Peter Cushing for the first time here in the States.
The back of the box claims that “only five episodes of the BBC’s celebrated 1960s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series survive. Coincidentally, all five star the inimitable Peter Cushing…” This is somewhat true, but also a bit misleading. The series spanned two seasons in the U.K. The first batch was produced in ‘65 and starred Douglas Wilmer in the title role. As I understand it, nearly that entire run exists, only it’s never been released on DVD either here or in the U.K. For the second season, which was produced three years later, Wilner was unwilling to return, so Cushing was hired to take his place. (Nigel Stock played Watson in both seasons.) As is often the case with old British BBC TV, many episodes were scrapped and the Cushing season was hit the hardest. Actually, six episodes still exist, but two of them comprise “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” so it’s actually five stories, rather than five episodes. The six episodes are spread across three discs, and as one might expect from a color ‘60s BBC show, the majority of the program in shot on videotape, while the occasional exterior work is shot on film. The picture and audio quality is acceptable across the board, but you can tell that no real restoration work has gone into this set.
The two-parter is bound to be of interest to Holmes aficionados, since Cushing had already played the role in a movie of the same name some ten years prior to revisiting it here. “Baskervilles” is probably the highlight of this set, if for no other reason than the running time allows it to feel more like a proper mystery. It’s a sturdy, if not entirely spectacular outing, and the rest of the episodes pretty much follow suit. What’s most interesting about the piece is that Holmes is actually absent for a great deal of the running time; for the middle half of the story, Watson is actually the central character, which gives Nigel Stock a chance to show his wares before moving on to the other, far more Holmes-dominated stories that follow.
“A Study in Scarlet” is also a great outing, with a strange, sympathetic twist for a finale. The book upon which it is based was actually Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes novel ever. It’s something of a shame it’s not a more thorough adaptation, as each episode only has a 50-minute running time; although in this case it doesn’t seem at all obvious that quite a bit of narrative had to be trimmed to fit the hour-long format. “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” is based on a Conan Doyle short story, so it’s likely a more faithful adaptation (although I may be talking out my ass a great deal here, since I’ve never read a single Holmes book in my life, and opinions aside, much of this review is conjecture based on facts; I might make a good Watson, but I’d make a lousy Holmes.)
The third and final disc features “The Sign of Four,” which again is based on a full-length novel, and this particular outing feels a bit strained, as though there were definitely some dots not being connected. Since these are mysteries, it’s best to not speak in great detail about any of them, but the finale for this one, featuring the reveal of an assassin, had me unintentionally laughing at the way it came across onscreen. The last story on the set is “The Blue Carbuncle” which is based on a short story and works marvelously well. There are no murders in this one – just a missing jewel and deceased Christmas goose, and the whole thing really feels quite jovial in its own way.
For many, the draw of this set is probably the presence of Cushing (that’s certainly what drew me to the set). He plays Holmes in an efficient, clipped manner – always one step ahead of everyone else, and continually intrigued by the possibilities surrounding any given mystery. He seems like he’s having a lot of fun, like he’s in on a joke that nobody else understands. Stock lives up to his last name, and does a good enough job as Watson, but nothing that’s going to rock the foundations of Holmes-lore; his best moments easily come through in “Baskervilles.” I watched the episodes somewhat out of order, but I wish I had watched them as presented on the discs, which seems to be the best manner in which to view these stories. If you’re seeking out classic Holmes for the first time, I’m not sure I would recommend this set; you may want to go search for some of the Jeremy Brett outings, as many consider him the definitive screen Holmes, and his episodes have production values that are far closer to what we expect from TV today. If, however, you’re an old school Holmes fan who’s seen just about every other screen incarnation of the detective, this will probably be something you’ll want to see or own just because it’s such a rarity.
Special Features: There’s a documentary on the third disc called “Sherlock Holmes: The Great Detective.” It’s an A&E piece that runs 45 minutes and looks as if it was probably made in the ‘80s. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Cushing series per se, but is rather an overview of the character and Conan Doyle, with lots of talking heads and opinions floating around. If you know nothing about the history of the character, this is a great primer.