A corpse is found inside an abandoned house; nearby, the word “Rache” has been scrawled on the wall in blood. Scotland Yard is stymied, so Sherlock Holmes is called in to investigate…
“Where there is no imagination, there is no horror…”
These words, spoken by Sherlock Holmes in this adaptation of A Study in Scarlet, could be said to represent the philosophy of actor Peter Cushing, here cast as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal sleuth. The BBC brought Holmes to the small screen in 1964, in the form of the imposing character actor Douglas Wilmer. Wilmer’s frustration with the lack of rehearsal time prompted him to depart after two seasons, thus leaving the BBC in a bit of a bind. They initially sought to get John Neville as a replacement, but the actor – who had played Holmes in A Study in Terror (1965) – turned them down flat. The net was then cast to Peter Cushing, who decided to ignore Wilmer’s warnings and elected to take the part. It would not be a pleasurable experience for the actor, and when he and Wilmer were later united on the Hammer/AIP production of The Vampire Lovers (1970), Cushing remarked that he would sooner spend the rest of his career sweeping Paddington Station than to work for the BBC again under similar circumstances.
Cushing would later argue that the strain affected his performance, indicating a preference for his earlier, less hurried portrayal of Holmes in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1958). With all due respect to Cushing, however, I disagree – where his earlier performance is a bit mannered, he seems far more relaxed and comfortable in the role in the BBC series. Sadly, many of the episodes are now missing – but the ones that survive show just how effective Cushing really was in the role. A Study in Scarlet wasn’t the first of the run that he did for the BBC, but it is the first in continuity of that surviving episodes.
The story itself, published in 1887, was actually the first of the Sherlock Holmes adventures. It established the template for everything which would follow, and set the stage for the public’s fascination with his super rational master detective. It was first adapted in the silent era, with the approval of Doyle himself, but this version is considered lost. The earliest surviving version dates from 1933 and starred Reginald Owen as Holmes. As with so many adaptations of Doyle’s works, the makers saw fit to use the title and very little else. Completests may feel compelled to seek it out, but it remains a stodgy, stilted and hopelessly dated affair. Amazingly, it would not be officially adapted again until this version from the BBC, though an episode of the 1950s series starring Ronald Howard as Holmes used it as a starting point for a “new” adventure. When Holmes went back into “vogue” courtesy of the Granada series starring Jeremy Brett, the story was passed over altogether. It was, however, loosely adapted for the recent hit series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. In essence, the Cushing version remains the most “canonical” crack at the tale – and it arguably remains the best by far.
In addition to Cushing’s splendidly detailed performance – note the wonderful bits of sly humor, as when he rolls his eyes when Watson announces that even he was fooled by the murderer’s deception, or the way he writes notes on his cuffs, a detail culled from Doyle’s stories – there’s much to enjoy in the performance of Nigel Stock as Watson. Stock, also to be seen as a disgraced medic in Hammer’s off the wall The Lost Continent (1968), would finish out his career playing a supporting part in the Steven Spielberg production Young Sherlock (1986), thus reestablishing a connection to the franchise which brought him the most popularity in the UK.
Stock had already established a good rapport with Wilmer in the previous two series, and would later remark that he felt that Wilmer was impossible to replace; but he also had good things to say about Cushing, for whom he had tremendous respect. Stock plays the character with a bit of the comical bluster of Nigel Bruce in the classic Basil Rathbone series, but he doesn’t reduce the character to caricature; he is credible as a sensible ex-military man and medic, as well. William Lucas, Cushing’s costar in Night of the Big Heat (1967), makes for a solid Inspector Lestrade, while George A. Cooper (veteran of the Freddie Francis films The Brain, 1962, Nightmare, 1963, and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1968) impresses as Inspector Gregson. Lovely Edina Ronay, previously seen as one of Jack the Ripper’s victims in A Study in Terror, is on hand as well.
A Study in Scarlet packs in enough incident and deduction to fill its hour time slot quite nicely - and with such skill in the acting department, it remains a joy from start to finish. It is not the best of the run of the series, but it’s a fine intro to one of Cushing’s most iconic portrayals.
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