The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes Part 2

Media, Reading & Writing, The Arts


After Conan Doyle had finished with his creation, the public clamour for more stories was such that his son, Adrian Conan Doyle, tackled the cases which were mentioned in the canonical stories with John Dickson Carr, and ‘The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘More Exploits of Sherlock Holmes’ continued the legacy.

Such was the power of the Holmes stories that volumes of other ‘Holmes’s were published, edited by Hugh Greene. These, ‘The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’, featured various detectives popular at the same time, and included stories by Guy Boothby, Arthur Morrison, Baroness Orczy and William Hope Hodgson. Who could resist the title of a story like ‘The Affair of the Avalanche Bicycle & Tyre Co., Limited’? The mere mention of Holmes was enough to make the stories bestsellers once more, and Thames Television turned them into a hit TV series.

By now, the film world had discovered the consulting detective, and through the 1920s and 1930s stories proliferated from the UK, Hollywood and the rest of the world, some in modern dress. Holmes fought the Nazis, courtesy of Basil Rathbone, and appeared in the guise of Peter Cushing. Then in 1970 Billy Wilder tackles him. With a 260-page script and a budget of $10 million, this was set to be a 165-minute picture with an intermission.

The shooting schedule ran for six months and resulted in a rough-cut that came in at three hours and 20 minutes. The film was originally structured as a series of  linked episodes. The opening sequence was to feature Watson’s grandson in London claiming his inherited dispatch box from Cox & Co. and there was also a flashback to Holmes’ Oxford days to explain his distrust of women.

All were shot, but deleted from the final print. So what happened? Well, it appears that United Artists suffered a number of major film flops in 1969 that scuppered the format for Wilder’s massive project. Studio execs ordered the film to be cut to fill a regular theatrical running time, whittling it down to a 125-minute version. The episodic format made the pruning process  simple, so cut were the opening sequence, the Oxford flashback and two full episodes entitled “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners” at 15 minutes and “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room” at 30 minutes. A full print is not thought to exist.

And along came the definitive Holmes, with Jeremy Brett’s hawk-nosed, hard-eyed sleuth in the British TV version – a faithful big-budget recreation of the stories brought about because its producer argued that the stories should be taken seriously as literature. They’ve just been remastered and released in total on DVD.

After that the timeline drops and we languish – Holmes is suddenly out of fashion in the 1980s. We’re all too hip for a fusty old set of stories. Instead, parodies abound – in ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother’ Gene Wilder explains; ‘Sherlock? Sheer luck!’ There are endless spoofs and mickey-takes. There’s a musical by Leslie Bricusse (quite good) and even a Disney version starring ‘The Great Mouse Detective’. ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ is the first Holmes feature to flirt with CGI, although the emphasis is still on character – but it flops. Perhaps the best of the send-ups is the charming ‘Without A Clue’ in which a penniless actor (Michael Caine) is hired to be a stooge to the real detective, the smart but invisible Watson (Ben Kingsley).

The world was moving away from remembrance of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and it seemed time to put Holmes to rest. What happened next can be attributed to an entirely modern phenomenon.

(To be continued)



11 comments on “The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes Part 2”

  1. Martha Ullard says:

    Jeremy Brett – and Eric Porter as Moriarty. Their encounter in Holmes’s rooms is at once high camp and incredibly chilling. The direction allows these two great actors full room to build dramatic climaxes from nothing more than a raised eyebrow and a tilt of the head. Bravo gentlemen!

  2. Ken Mann says:

    I wonder why no enterprising american company ever did a Brett-like adaptation of Jaques Futrelle’s Thinking Machine stories. They would make perfect 45 minute TV shows. There are a couple in the old “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” TV series, but they made Professor Van Dusen English, and much as I adore Douglas Wilmer that just isn’t right.

  3. David Read says:

    Gaslight Arcanum is great! I fell we now need a version with Lord Peter Wimsey uncovering satanic rituals in the 1920s…or visiting Miskatonic University…

  4. Ford says:

    I came across a book, at work about 5/6 years ago; which looked at the “science” of the Holmes stories – basically debunking them. Missing the point really; but, I did like the idea that “The speckled band” wasn’t possible, because you can’t train snakes!

    I sort of enjoyed Young Sherlock Holmes; but, Holmes and Watson met at school? Next we’ll discover that Bryant and May were actually at Oxford together, before the War!

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, no, Ford! John may have had some university but not Arthur, who created his own unique education. They were 19 and 20 when they met in Full Dark House and some of their background was given there. I’ll have to research again!

  6. Ford says:

    Helen …. I was whinging about beloved characters having an unrealistic back story foisted upon them!

  7. Terenzio says:

    When I see “beloved characters” or other such phrases I think of Kathy Bates in Misery. It’s great fun to play the game. Put on the deerstalker (one sits a top of a skull on my desk) along with the pipe (also sits on my desk in a tacky, yet cute Michelin dude ashtray I bought at the Bibendum restaurant) and play along with the great detective. To walk down Baker Street and imagine the fog and horse drawn hansom cabs is wonderful. Passing by 221B and looking up halk expect to see Holmes silhoutte in the window is thrilling. Hanging out at the Sherlock Holmes Pub is without doubt one of the most pleasant things to do in London. Better still to be able make the pilgrimage to Reichenbach Falls decked out in Victorian clothes is the ultimate Sherlock Holmes adventure. And of course, reading scholarly essays on Holmes by people like Dorothy L. Sayers or better still doing the research and writing your own essay is an essential part of the game. However, at the end of the day when you take off the deerstalker and remove the pipe you are just John Doe or Jane Smith living in 2013 and Holmes like any other fictional detective never existed.

    When Young Sherlock Holmes came at I was about the same age as the characters in the film. My friends and I never argued the fact in the stories Holmes and Watson met as adult because the film was such great fun. At the beginning Steven Spielberg added a disclaimer about how Holmes and Watson met as adults, however, had they met as teenagers this might have been how it to happened. Quite unnecessary, yet it was nice of him to do this. Today while watching the film I not only enjoy the adventures of a young Holmes and Watson, but it brings back wonderful memories of the times I spent with my own friends and the wonderful discussions we had of the stories writer by Conan Doyle and other mystery writers.

    My point is there is no law (legal or otherwise) that requires when adapting Sherlock Holmes or any other detective that you have to rigidly follow the written text. And I for one thank the heavens this is not the case since if it was, we would not have the wonderfully entertaining television shows Sherlock or Elementary. And didn’t Conan Doyle himself say to William Gillette or someone else that they could do whatever they liked with Sherlock Holmes. There is nothing wrong with re-imagining these characters or creating interesting backstories to their lives that might not have been included in the original text. As far as an unrealistic backstory, were you referring to the film, Young Sherlock Holmes or some other fictional detective?

    À bientôt….the one in the gorgeous purple dressing gown and the lovely velvet slippers. I shall retire to the boudoir and partake of afternoon tea and a scrumptious blueberry muffin.

  8. snowy says:

    I dragged this out from my bookmarks, Jonathan Coe’s decades long search for the missing parts of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

  9. Sam Tomaino says:

    Glad you mentioned the Bricusse musical, Baker Street. I saw it, on Broadway, when I was 12 and Fritz Weaver made a great Holmes. He fit Doyle’s description to a T. Inga Swenson was a gerat Irene Adler, too!
    One thing some of the pastiches of Holmes miss is that he is better served by short fiction, not long novels. Even in Doyle’s novels he’s “off-screen” for long stretches. I think they’ve figure it out because most pastiches now are anthologies.
    It seems every generation gets a Sherlock Holmes, be he William Gillette, Arthur Wontner, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett or now, Benedict Cumberbatch.
    But “my Sherlock Holmes” will always be Fritz Weaver!

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you for the Jonathan Coe piece. So many of us have obsessive bits clinging to our minds but so many of us never get to follow up.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    It is now August 10th, almost the 11th, and I have just finished watching The Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes on PBS, so no commercials and, I assume, no cuts. The music was, as promised, superb, the whole thing all interwoven nicely – slightly over 2 hr. worth. Beautifully cast, lovely views as they cycled across Scotland. Copper rings, canaries and spies. Very, very good. Thank-you all for a very relaxing evening.

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