Friday, March 18, 2011

“The Meaning of This Extraordinary Performance” (COPP): Granada Television’s “The Devil’s Foot”

“To me, the Sherlock Holmes stories are about a great friendship.  Without Watson, Holmes might well have burnt out on cocaine long ago.  I hope the series shows how important friendship is” (Jeremy Brett).
Have you been paying attention?  I mean, specifically, to this blog?  I hope so, for a lot of reasons, but more relevantly, if you have been paying attention, you’ve probably figured out who my favorite Sherlock Holmes is.  A lot of talented, brilliant actors have taken on the mantle of the Great Detective over the years, so I try to remain unbiased when it comes to this blog.  Having a favorite does not make me blind to all others, of course.  However, as I looked back over my last few posts, I saw that my preference had managed to worm its way in anyway, subtly and stealthily, much to my chagrin.  Whoops.
Anyway, since my secret is out, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” is a wonderfully atmospheric story in its original form, and Granada Television is, of course, famous for their nearly compulsively faithful adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes canon.  Cornwall is deliciously gothic and sinister as a setting, but it is one thing to read: “The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor,” and quite another to see Sherlock Holmes walking pensively and alone amongst the dismal landscape, sitting perched high atop ancient ruins, as his thoughts turn inward—looking pale, diminished, and one stiff breeze away from total collapse.
But if I wanted to speak solely on the subject of atmosphere and setting, I would be writing on DEVI, the original text, and not the television adaptation.  I think that the 1988 version of DEVI is worth discussing on its own merits, based upon the inclusion of three new plot points into the story: Sherlock Holmes’s (literal) abandonment of his cocaine habit on the beaches of Cornwall, the inclusion of Holmes’s nightmarish vision under the influence of Radix pedis diaboli, and, finally, the subsequent aftermath of the vision in which Holmes calls out to Dr. Watson by his first name.  These three additions change the whole tenor of the episode, and can be influential in interpreting the original tale, if you like.
Beginning, of course, at the beginning: after what only seems like a few minutes after their arrival in Cornwall (but who can say, really, in television time), Watson enters the cottage to find Holmes at a table injecting himself with cocaine.  The Doctor says nothing, but his expression speaks volumes, and an exceedingly tense moment passes between the two men, before Watson leaves to tend to their luggage.  Not long after, during a scene in which Watson narrates his companion’s activities during the early days of their holiday, we see Holmes standing alone the beach, taking a deep breath before removing a vial of cocaine for his coat pocket.  He empties the vial onto the sand, and then buries the syringe (and modern medical professionals everywhere cringe…someone could step on that). 
Interestingly, Holmes doesn’t appear to inform Watson of his decisions or his actions, as later in the episode, as Holmes sits recoiling from the pain of withdrawal, Watson seems concerned for his friend, but mostly confused—as if he does not know what to make of this new, odd behavior.  Furthermore, after the spasm passes, Holmes smiles benignly: “Cheer up, Watson.  Sea air, sunshine, patience!” and then, “All will be revealed!”  On the surface, he’s speaking of the case, of course, but his attitude is reminiscent of one presenting a well-thought-out gift to a loved one, and Holmes will absolutely not let the surprise be spoiled until it’s ready.  It’s typical of Sherlock Holmes to attempt something potentially life-threatening or dangerous on his own because he wants to, or because he can, but in this instance he seems to act because he must.
Moving on (and more on the subject of Holmes and his danger-for-danger’s-sake habit): in the original text of DEVI, because of the limited perspective of the narrator, the reader is only given access to Watson’s thoughts as the poison smoke of the devil’s foot root overtakes them.  It is an ugly picture:
“A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe. Vague shapes swirled and swam amid the dark cloud-bank, each a menace and a warning of something coming, the advent of some unspeakable dweller upon the threshold, whose very shadow would blast my soul.”
But in this televised version, we see Holmes’s vision, and it is nightmarish, gruesome.  There is endless running, across endless fields, and the ghost of a child in a mirror.  There is blood, and churning water, and ghastly, religious-themed images.  And behind it all, is the specter of Professor Moriarty saying, “You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes, or be trodden under foot” (FINA).  So, we walk away from this scene knowing that Holmes is a haunted man, not immune to fear, as we may have thought (or want to believe, your choice).  The original text leaves the reader blind to what happens to Holmes during the ordeal (though Watson describes his friend as looking “drawn with horror”), and even though Holmes says, “It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend,” there is no way to know for certain what he went through.  Fear being a relative thing, of course.  A televised version, and this particular one, lends depth to the ordeal, and the viewer sees another instance where, perhaps, Holmes acted because he must, and not because he wanted to—because Holmes’s personal sense of amusement might be twisted, but there are limits.
Finally, Holmes awakes from his vision, screaming, insensible, on the ground outside the cottage, with Watson shaking him and calling his name.  After what seems like a full minute of hysterics, Holmes finally comes to his senses enough to call out to his friend…by his first name.  “John!” he screams.  It is a startling moment, one that Jeremy Brett commented on:
“Well, Holmes is semiconscious at the time, right?  It really was the one time that he could call him John.  I think in extremis he might have said ‘John.’ It gives another slant to it.  I slipped in ‘John’ just to show that, underneath it all, there was just something more than what they say, that Holmes is all mind and no heart.”
It goes back, I think, to who Sherlock Holmes becomes when his layers are stripped away.  There are many interpretations, and they’re all subjective, of course—since this is something we never really see in the canon (just as he never refers to Watson by his first name).  But in a moment of semi-conscious horror, there are going to be very few layers, very little armor.  And there again, we see the things that Holmes must do, and not what he can, or wants to do.
Sometimes readers get caught up in seeing Sherlock Holmes as a man that is driven by proving himself, and demonstrating what he can do to everyone around him; that his every action had a pointed, defensive edge to it, an almost passive-aggressive streak, in which he is determined to show himself capable, and worthy.  Televised adaptations, and particularly clever ones like the 1988 version of “The Devil’s Foot,” serve as excellent reminders that despite what Holmes may have believed or thought of himself, he was still human, with compulsions that prevented him from being entirely separated from the human experience.  He was still one of us, if he only walked amongst us briefly.
One more week to enter my blog contest!  It’s so easy to enter, and the prizes are very cool—a little light reading, a little music.  Sounds like my perfect Sunday afternoon.


  1. Excellent article! Granada's The Devil's Foot is in my top 3 Holmes adaptations and quite possibly my favorite Holmes TV episode ever. If you haven't seen this already, Gary Hopkins (writer) posted his memories of adapting DEVI for Granada. It's an absolutely fascinating read. Equally interesting is how Hopkins' script was chosen in the first place and why he made some of the script decisions that he did. You and your readers are going to love this:
    - Matt Laffey

  2. @Always1895: Thank you very much! I'm glad you enjoyed the article. And also thank you for posting that link. I did read that piece when I was researching for this week, and you're correct in that it's an absolutely fascinating read. I have it on file in case I ever revisit DEVI, because he makes some excellent points about setting.

  3. I love this episode. The scene when Holmes calls Watson "John" still stuns me (in a good way). I always had a small problem with DEVI, actually, simply because the experiment really is royally stupid. He willingly, almost eagerly, subjects himself and his best friend to a substance about which nothing is known other than the fact that it has killed and driven men mad. To me, the story suggested that this serious error in judgement was caused by a moment of extreme hubris on the part of Holmes, which I never found a satisfying explanation. The episode gave it a depth that the story was lacking, especially considering the added subplot of Holmes' cocaine withdrawal.

  4. @KateM: I think you raise a really interesting point. Could we maybe say that stage and screen interpretations of the canon are necessary to fill in the gaps that an exclusively textual analysis leaves? So much of communication is dependent on tone and facial expression, so in including performances in a critical analysis, it lends validity to all the various ones out there. For example, I would have liked to have heard Edward Hardwicke read the line: “You know...that it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you.” I wonder if it wouldn't have come across a little sarcastic, or a little bitter.

  5. I think performance interpretations are certainly valuable, if not necessary. Nuances and hints that may have otherwise been hidden are often opened up. I always envisioned Watson saying "it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you" with a look on his face similar to what a parent gives a child when it apologizes after doing something wrong - touched that the child really feels sorry, but extremely frustrated if not a bit angry at the same time. Hardwicke's Watson almost does this when he scolds Holmes, but it would have been neat to hear the line mixed in.

  6. In sharing your impressions, you have woven another truly excellent essay, doing justice to the Conan Doyle story (DEVI), the Granada teleplay, and, most of all, Jeremy Brett as an unparalleled Holmes (my prejudice too). He brought life to this unpleasant story (never one of my favorites), even as his own health was on the wane, as you point out. The interplay of comments your post elicited are fascinating too.

    May I add a parallel from another outpost of my brain's fandom? A similar scene of spontaneous first-name usage occurs in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Before there was Data as Holmes on the holodeck, Spock was the Federation's epitome of cool rationality. But in the extremity of being restored to life, Spock calls Captain Kirk "Jim" and the emotive moment likewise serves the function of highlighting a legendary friendship.

  7. @Lucy: Like I said on Twitter, my husband and I had a wonderful debate after reading your comment--my husband being a "Star Trek" fan--so thank you! I'm certainly no expert on the franchise, but I've always been partial to Spock as a character: half human, and other parts something else that makes him a little unreachable and unrelatable (sound familiar?). Doesn't Spock quote Sherlock Holmes in one of the movies? Am I remembering that wrong?

  8. We have just posted part two of our Jeremy Brett interview on the website! In the next few days we will also posting up the video interview with Gary Hopkins..lots of interesting detail on the making of Devils Foot and the othet episodes Gary adapted for the Granada series...! Hope you come and have a look! Great blog btw;)

    Marcus Brooks
    facebook: marcus blackboxclub
    peter cushing appreciation society facebook groups

  9. oh there's an interview with Edward Hardwicke too in the next few days! Wouldn't want you to miss it!

    Signed postcard: Jremey Brett and Edward hardwicke as prize in up coming competition!


  10. @theblackboxclub: What a great interview! Thank you for directing me to it, and I'm very much looking forward to the video interview with Gary Hopkins--Granada's version of DEVI is (clearly) a source of great interest to me and I can't wait to hear about his other episodes. I'm looking forward to the competition, as well--what a fantastic prize!

    And thank you for the compliment on my blog, much appreciated!