Friday, June 17, 2011

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “A Study in Scarlet” (1968)

[BBC Drama; Peter Cushing, Nigel Stock]
“As a character, Holmes is very precisely defined; an actor approaching the role plays it successfully only if he plays it by Conan Doyle’s rules.  Peter Cushing, in most respects, is all wrong for the part (though it’s his likeness that currently graces the sign for the Sherlock Holmes pub in London), captured the fantastical elements perfectly, bounding up in the middle of conversations to chase after his own bolting thoughts” (Lloyd Rose, “100 Years of Sherlock Holmes”).
“Peter Cushing is the best Sherlock Holmes of all time.”
I’ve got one eye on my telephone, and one eyebrow raised in what I hope is a look of elegant bemusement, rather than one of gawky confusion.  My mother-in-law is on the other end of the line, and that’s how she greeted me when I picked up her call.  She never says hello, or asks how I am, but she’s treated me like a member of the family since I first walked into her life, holding her eldest son’s hand and looking petrified of his gigantic Irish clan, so I know I’m fairly lucky as far as mothers-in-law go.
“I’m sorry, Mom.  Could you say that again?”
“I said,” she repeats exasperatedly.  “That Peter Cushing is the best Sherlock Holmes of all time, in my opinion."
I didn’t even know she had an opinion, and when I ask her to elaborate, she giggles and goes on about Peter Cushing’s more…tangible…characteristics, in a way that I’m fairly certain is going to traumatize me for life if I allow it to go on much longer.  She closes the conversation by asking if I’ve ever really appreciated the nuances of Cushing’s performance in the original Star Wars film, and when I finally hang up the telephone, I immediately begin digging through my liquor cabinet for something that will help me erase the last five minutes of my life.
Peter Cushing starred as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s 1968 television series, which included, amongst other things, adaptations of “The Greek Interpreter,” “The Naval Treaty,” and a two-part episode of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Cushing had also starred in the Hammer Films version of the same story in 1959, opposite Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville).  He replaced Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in the pilot episode and the series episodes running throughout 1965.  The actor also returned as the Great Detective in 1984’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death,” and starred as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “The Great Houdini” (1976).  Early in its run, the 1968 series presented a televised version of A Study in Scarlet, which is worth examining.
A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes story, published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.  The novel is the world’s introduction to its first consulting detective, and is arranged in a two-part plot, including a lengthy flashback to the American West and a community of Mormons (“The Country of Saints”).  Of all the canon stories, STUD seems to be one of the least frequently adapted for the screen.  However, perhaps is more accurate to say that it is one of the least frequently adapted well or completely.  The plot never seems to make it onto the screen in its entirety, and something is usually left on the cutting room floor—whether it’s Holmes and Watson’s introduction ("You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.") or the American narrative.  In fact, the 1933 film adaptation, starring Reginald Owen, only shares its name with the novel, and the plot bears no resemblance at all to the original story (producers were only able to purchase the rights to the title).  Conversely, the 2010 modern adaptation, “A Study in Pink,” includes many of the stories major elements, including the introduction at St. Bart’s, the scribbled word “RACHE,” and the cab driver and his two pills, but the American subplot is entirely omitted.
Cushing’s version of STUD, which starred Nigel Stock (who had played opposite Douglas Wilmer) as Dr. Watson, is not a perfect, line-for-line adaptation either (for example, Holmes and Watson are already comfortably ensconced as flatmates at the beginning), but there are details that are thoughtfully and carefully rendered, which show respect for a legacy in its entirety—a consideration for package, rather than just pieces.  According to David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, “…Cushing’s portrayal of Holmes was praised, and indeed his devotion to the character and attention to detail were invaluable…” (91). For example, upon arriving at Lauriston Gardens, Cushing’s Holmes examines a corpse without thought for propriety or squeamishness, manipulating the body, and bending close to the dead man’s mouth for the tell-tale smell of poison.  It is an accurate rendition of the passage from STUD:
“…his nimble fingers were flying here, there, and everywhere, feeling, pressing, unbuttoning, examining, while his eyes wore the same far-away expression which I have already remarked upon. So swiftly was the examination made, that one would hardly have guessed the minuteness with which it was conducted.”
At the conclusion of the same scene, Holmes pauses to write notes on his cuffs, in a wonderful homage to period and place that the audience might miss if they blink.  The attention to detail in regards to costuming was also Cushing’s doing.  According to Davies:
“Cushing requested that the costumes for the series replicated those shown in the Paget illustrations.  The BBC agreed, and in doing so exploded the myth of Holmes’s Inverness cape…The color of Holmes’s dressing gowns as stated in the stories was also copied: the purple, the grey and the famous ‘mouse-colored’ one” (91).
Also of note here are George A. Cooper and William Lucas in their portrayals of Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade, respectively.  The men practically trample over each other to share each bit of information and discovery, their words running together as they stare accusingly at each other.  These inspectors are every inch Holmes’s description: “They have their knives into one another, too. They are as jealous as a pair of professional beauties.”  Even the Irregulars are present in this adaptation, in a scene that is faithfully rendered, including Holmes’s militaristic command of the gang of street urchins, and Holmes’s request that: “In future you shall send up Wiggins alone to report, and the rest of you must wait in the street.”
As Lloyd Rose states, Peter Cushing should be all wrong for the role of Sherlock Holmes.  He was fair-haired, and nearly 60-years-old at the time of filming STUD, when in the original text, Sherlock Holmes would have been in his late twenties.  And although he was nearly six-feet-tall, Cushing sometimes managed to appear far shorter in scenes (perhaps due to his much vaunted costuming, and poorly-chosen camera angles).  But Cushing’s performance was energetic and driven, much like Holmes himself, with respect to a body of work and the arch of a story, and he treated the series as a whole, rather than individual episodes.  Though Cushing once famously said, “…he would rather sweep Paddington Station for a living than go through the experience [of being Sherlock Holmes] again,” he left a distinct and defined fingerprint on the character, traces of which are evident in later interpretations.
And also I like having something to discuss with my mother-in-law; though we disagree and lock horns, it’s all in fun, and everyone has a good time.  Except for my husband, who turns a just marvelous shade of pistachio green whenever I mention his mother’s fervent crush.  I suppose it just leaves him a little unsettled, though I can’t imagine why. 
On June 27, a new blog contest will be starting up, so make sure you check back here for details on how to win! 
Rose, Lloyd. “100 Years of Sherlock Holmes.” Murder in Baker Street (September 2002), 248.
Stuart Davies, David. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (January 2006), 91.


  1. It sounds like you have a very interesting mother-in-law. I've only seen the Hammer Films version of "Hound", but I will have to take a look at Cushing's other work now.

    Also, love what you've done with the site.

  2. @KateM: My mother-in-law keeps me on my toes, which I can't complain about too much! :-) If you get around to watching Cushing's 1968 version of HOUN, I'd love to hear your thoughts on how it compares to the Hammer Films version.

    And thank you for your compliment on the site! I was very nervous about it.

  3. Cushing was a Sherlockian and is the favorite of many people.

    I personally favor Jeremy Brett. The Granada series is one of the best adaptations of Sherlock Holmes ever.

    Have you read the book "Bending the Willow: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes" by David Stuart Davies. This book is a must read for fans of the Granada adaptation and/or Jeremy Brett.


  4. @Buddy2Blogger: Jeremy Brett is my favorite as well, although I usually manage to find aspects of every film/television Holmes's performance that I enjoy. Have you read Tony Earnshaw's book about about Cushing as Holmes: "An Actor and a Rare One"? Apparently, Cushing and Brett were equally fond of each other's performances. And, I have yet to read "Bending the Willow." I'd love to, but I can't get my hands on a hard copy and I don't own a Kindle (only a Nook). Maybe someday!