Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Game's Afoot...

Watson was Conan Doyle. Don't expect that surprises (m)any of you, but both were Doctors and both wrote about the World's first Consulting Detective, Baker Streets most famous resident. Arthur – later Sir. Arthur – studied medicine and after qualifying as a ship's surgeon moved to practice in Plymouth. After some unsuccessful works, his story about an amateur detective and his Doctor friend A Study in Scarlet was printed in the Beeton's Christmas Annual of 1887. From 1891 Sherlock Holmes appeared in the famous Strand magazine.
As well as writing, Doyle (Conan was one of his middle names, to be picky – as it sounds better from now I'll stick to Conan Doyle) was a keen amateur sportsman, playing in goal for Portsmouth (Sadly not the same Portsmouth FC known as 'Pompey' today) and taking the wicket of none other than WC Grace for the MCC. His interests included miscarriages of justice – his involvement corrected two of these, as well as spiritualism. After losing his first wife and other members of his family, he turned to spiritualism as proof of life beyond death, joining The Ghost Club as part of his research into the paranormal. Famously – charmingly – he was beguiled by the Cottingley fairies hoax, in which two girls cut out paper fairies and posed for photographs with them. Conan Doyle championed the validity of the hoax in his book The Coming of The Fairies. He was friends with Harry Houdini, but fell out over the latter's insistence that he had no supernatural powers. Sir. Arthur? - he was be-knighted after writing a pro-Boer war pamphlet.
Above - Sir.Arthur Conan Doyle in a spirit photograph - a cause he championed passionately
 Sir.Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle died in the hallway of Windlesham Manor, Crowborough in 1930 aged 71. (Crowborough is close to the hundred acre wood of Winnie the Pooh fame, the gorgeous woodland of the Ashdown Forest which I have visited more than once.) His last words?; he told his wife she was wonderful.
ABOVE: Basil Rathbone - for many the quintessential Sherlock Holmes...
So what's all the fuss?, why do – even today, so many believe Sherlock Holmes is/was a real person?. I'm not sure – probably because he's so deep in the popular consciousness. 221b Baker Street itself exists; it used to be a branch of a building society, though there is now a Sherlock Holmes museum claiming the address. The character has been portrayed more times than any other – there are over 200 films but, for fans there are perhaps three notable Holmes'.
ABOVE: ...While others prefer Jeremy Brett's portrayal.
Basil Rathbone – 14 films in total, (1939 – 1946) with a radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Jeremy Brett – 41 television episodes for Granada Television (1984 – 1994) and stage appearances.
Robert Downey Jnr – two movies (to date), Sherlock Holmes (2009) and the sequel Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows (2011) both featuring the marvellous Jude Law as Watson. (Look out for him in an early role in the Granada TV episode Shoscombe Old Place – which makes for a good trivia question if nothing else.)
Director Guy Ritchie on set with Jared Harris and Robert Downey Jnr.
Lets not spend too long on Roger Moore's 1976 offering Sherlock Holmes in New York with Patrick Macnee as Watson. 
Note how Brett (below) resembles Paget's original 
Brett vs Porter
The only authentic portrayals of the three being Brett's – adaptations of the original stories – which should you, as a Holmes novice, settle down to?. I love Rathbone's work – loosely, sometimes very loosely adapted, these films have a wonderful atmosphere – black and white and full of tension and menace. Sometimes silly, most have more than a whiff of production-line film-making, while California doesn't make the most convincing English backdrop at times. Rathbone and Nigel Bruce – a hero of WWI with eleven machine-gun wounds to show for it – really make these films, along with a cast of regulars that sometimes jolts (Wasn't that bloke Moriarty last time round?). I have thirteen of these in the collection and am keenly on the trail of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes... for many, Rathbone is still the Sherlock Holmes...
 But then there's Jeremy Brett. Born Peter Jeremy William Huggins in 1933, Eton educated, his acting roles included Freddie in My Fair Lady. Taking on the role of Holmes, Brett was consumed by it – obsessing over the role in his efforts to perfect it. Struggling with heart disease and manic depression, he died in 1995. Brett's Watson was first played by David Burke, with the late Edward Hardwicke taking over the role after Burke left for the RSC. These are wonderful – my darling wife gave me the DVD set for Christmas – and I love all of them. Well filmed, the production and attention to detail suggests a film rather than a television show. Almost all these remain – to the best of my scrutiny – absolutely faithful to the stories, right down to the dialogue. Brett's interpretation here shines; with extravagant hand gestures and vocal emphasis he delivers the lines with passion and surely Conan Doyle would smile at these.
Robert Dowwwwwwneeeee
I love the new films – Guy Ritchie's reinterpretations are lavishly Victorian and tons of fun – the only let-down being the sequels intrusive usage of modern speech; even the national treasure de facto Stephen Fry lets the side down with his “He's all Me, Me, Me, isn't he?”. I am, to be fair, always on guard for these linguistic gaffes - they jar you back to 2013 rather than the 1890's (Or whenever) when you wanted and expected to be. The only let down?, dear-me no; the plots seem contrived, but I suppose the original stories might not leap out at you from the screen. There are some cinematic treats; the unlikely 'Holmes-A-Vision' by which Sherlock anticipates how a fight will go in the split-second as it starts, all rendered in detail-rich slow-motion to leave you the lucky viewer with the impression of extra depth and dimension. Game of Shadows (apparently) came out in 3D to presumably further enhance the thrills. There is a wonderful sequence in a forest as Holmes and Co. leg it from ze evil minions of Moriarty – lots of slow-motion and bits of wood spraying out in all directions as bullets and shells are sent whizzing through the trees. Eye-Candy? - well, yes, but the plot has some pleasing twists and Moriarty is rather wonderfully understated - Jared Harris keeps the character's innate campness way down before unleashing the menty within in truly unpleasant fashion. The man sings to himself about fishing in German whilst gazing adoringly at his own face in a mirror while Holmes swings around on a giant fish-hook. Even the heavy metaphors don't dull the 'Oh-Oh' feeling you get here.
Making the Napoleon of Crime a super-annuated Arms Dealer didn't quite hold the menace I had hoped for, but to be fair he'd be higher up the naughty step than Conan Doyle's failed gold-coin snatcher. I'm only glad Sherlock and his brother Mycroft (The afore – mentioned Fry) went after him and not Mark Thomas. (For anyone unaware; Stephen Fry was General Melchett in Blackadder and Mark Thomas is an anti-Arms Trade activist and television comic responsible for some of the funniest stunts on tv.)
Jeremy Brett with (left) Edward Hardwicke
Moriarty – there's been a few; since I have restricted myself to three Sherlocks you only get erm, five Professors; You've already had Jared Harris, so to speak – which leaves George Zucco, Lionel Atwill and Henry Daniell from the Basil Rathbone series and Eric Porter from the Bretts. Zucco's performance in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes remains a mystery – amazingly I haven't seen this one...
Atwill's Moriarty tries to track the pieces of the Tobel bomb sight in the WWII-era Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. (After the first two films in the series, the Victorian era was abandoned and Holmes suddenly became contemporary). Daniell's Moriarty is probably the better of the two; The Woman in Green sees him involved in hypnotic shenanigans, blackmail and murder. (Both Daniell and Atwill were involved – allegedly – in Hollywood sex scandals. Was Moriarty kinky?.)
A nasty surprise for Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman
I have read the original stories twice to date – I'm part-way through my third reading and they retain a marvellous sense of drama and the times in which they were written. I am lucky enough to have the illustrated box set (ISBN 1-85326-495-4 for the interested) which is a three volume set in facsimile of the 'Strand' magazine. Apart from the pleasure of reading the original typeface there are those charming illustrations by Sidney Paget that formed our first visual impression of Holmes, Watson et al. Both Rathbone and Brett can be seen in Paget's work, reinforcing their respective authenticities. These are definitely worth tracking down for hours of enjoyment – preferably at night by an open fire with a good pipe!. 
 Above - my (99.9% complete) Sherlock film/tv collection - my prized Jeremy Brett box-set centre-stage. Below - where it all began.
 Have another (You deserve it)
 Oh, ok, but this is the last!
 

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