Friday, September 16, 2011

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

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters.  “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner.  Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.  All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance.  But this rose is an extra.  Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it.  It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
A few months ago, a friend of mine read “The Naval Treaty,” for the first time, in response to one of my earlier blog posts.  When she reached the famous “soliloquy on flowers,” she set the book down and leaned in towards me, conspiratorially.  “Was this,” she asked, “One of those moments when Holmes was… know…” Her question trailed off for a moment, but then her voice dropped to a whisper.  “Was this one of those times when Holmes was…on drugs?”
“Oh, for goodness sake…no,” I replied, quite defensively.  As if the Great Detective’s honor were in question, and for some reason it was my job to defend it.  And I wasn’t even sure if my answer to her question was correct, not in the fullest sense.  How could I be?  Watson certainly did not record every single one of Holmes’s actions, and even then, who can say what the Detective got up to when the Doctor’s back was turned.  So, it was entirely possible that Holmes was on drugs (as my friend had so furtively put it) when he spoke on the goodness of flowers.  But I understood what she was really asking, what she could perceive even from reading this single tale: Sherlock Holmes is acting a little strange here, isn’t he?
Monday of this week, September 12, marked the sixteenth anniversary of the passing of Jeremy Brett, who played Sherlock Holmes in the Granada Television series from 1984-1994. The series was famous for the manner in which it remained faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, and exhaustively captured the minutest details in setting, costume, and performance.  Granada’s interpretation of NAVA manages to be both nuanced and theatrical, and thus successfully captures the scope of the original story.  Brett’s performance manages to mitigate some of the strangeness of Holmes’s dialogue, and as a result, the passage becomes a part of Holmes’s character, rather than a deviation from it.  As Dr. Watson says in NAVA, in regards to Holmes’s speech: “It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.”  Likewise, David Burke’s Dr. Watson seems perplexed, and perhaps a little embarrassed by his friend’s behavior, but his expression is mostly gently accepting.  His face reads more, “Oh, he’s off again,” and less, “What is he on about?”
“Fidelity to Doyle was always at the forefront of [Producer Michael] Cox’s and Brett’s minds.  At the start of the project, both men agreed to use the Sidney Paget drawings as ‘their image’, and in the early shows at least one shot was set up to mirror a Paget illustration.  ‘The Naval Treaty’, which contains the famous rose speech—‘What a lovely thing a rose is’—is a case in point.  The passage and the Paget drawing present Holmes as a dreamer and philosopher, and Brett reproduces the pose very effectively” (124).
This is a moss rose, apparently.  I learned something today.
Unfortunately, canonical fidelity can only go so far in a story where most of the action occurs off-page, and is related secondhand to Dr. Watson and Percy Phelps, on the next morning, by Sherlock Holmes.  Upon spying Holmes’s injured hand, Watson says: “That bandage tells of adventures…Won’t you tell us what has happened?”  The reader has no reason to believe that Holmes tells anything but the complete truth, but it is one thing to hear an account of how Holmes netted the villainous Joseph Harrison, and returned the missing treaty, and quite another to see the story acted out widely, vividly, and in full dramatic fashion.
Granada’s version of NAVA shows the audience firsthand, all that the original text relates indirectly, or perhaps only vaguely implies.  There is Holmes communing kindly with the horses in the stable, and then a shot of the Detective buried in a pile of hay as he waits for Harrison to make his move (it is quite uncomfortable, and there is a light-hearted moment as he tries to surreptitiously scratch his nose).  There is also the very peaceful scene of Holmes resting contentedly under a tree, his light-colored jacket (off-setting Holmes’s normally black, or otherwise dark-colored clothing) over his shoulders.  The sun is setting, and the landscape is bathed in a golden light, and the viewer perhaps gets a brief, rare glimpse of the Detective as he prepares for confrontation.
Photo Credit:
That confrontation is also filmed dramatically, with the actions played out mostly in shadow on the wall of the room.  There is a bright red splash of blood as Harrison attacks Holmes, and the glint of steel as Holmes draws a blade from inside his cane.  The audience does not see the Detective strike at Harrison, or hold the blade against his neck, but the large, expressive shadows show the actions slowly, languorously; the conflict more of a choreographed dance than a ferocious battle.  The slight lilt in his voice as he says to Harrison: "," aptly shows how amusing Sherlock Holmes finds the whole thing to be.  NAVA is an early episode in the Granada series, and shows some evidence that the production team was not always quite sure how they wanted to capture Sherlock Holmes and his adventures.  The slightly theatrical fight scene is one moment.  Additionally, it is unclear at the beginning of the episode as to whether or not Watson is in residence at Baker Street.  This is also the only episode that makes reference to “Billy the Page.”

When Holmes unexpectedly parts company Dr. Watson and Percy Phelps, as the trio was supposed to be leaving Woking for London, Phelps says of Holmes: “He really is the most inscrutable fellow, Watson.”  And NAVA certainly demonstrates some of Sherlock Holmes’s more inscrutable moments.  But the Granada adaptation of this tale goes a long way towards translating some of that inscrutability for the reader, and like Watson, allowing them to see “a new phase of his character.”

Less than one week remaining!  Share your thoughts about the Master Detective on screen, and you can win the original canon on audiobook, read by the incomparable Edward Hardwicke.  Contest is open until 11:59p.m., on Saturday, September 24.  Details here.
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  1. Great post! You pointed out something in NAVA I hadn't thought about--"the reader has no reason to believe that Holmes tells anything but the complete truth". Suppose (for the sake of supposing) he were lying to Watson, then the real culprit could've been anybody. Or, if Miss Harrison had been an accomplice, Holmes might have omitted that, sort of like what he did for Lady Hilda in The Second Stain.

    As for the rose speech, I always took that change of mood to be another of his quirks. In fact, I think his drug usage is overstated these days, to the point where people believe Holmes is a drug addict. If I remember rightly, his use of narcotics is only mentioned in a handful of the 60 stories--and who knows, Doyle may have changed his mind about it later on.

  2. @Marian: Thank you for your comment! It's interesting to suppose that there are various moments throughout the canon where Watson didn't get the whole truth from Holmes, or even that Watson has something of his own to hide. It's a tricky supposition, however, and could really end up undermining all of the stories, before too long. Christopher Sequeira wrote a short story, "His Last Arrow," that deals obliquely with this issue.

    And regarding the drug issue, I agree with you that it gets overstated nowadays. There are actually a lot of things in the original canon that have developed a life of their own. 2000irises wrote a really interesting piece on Irene Adler in that vein:

    Thank you again for your comment! Always appreciated!

  3. Since the "soliloquy of the flowers" has long been my favorite scene in the canon, both on the page and in the Granada series, I am glad to learn that this passage has a commonly understood name that I can now refer to!

    Perhaps I am the quirky one (rather than Holmes), but I have never found this passage out of character or unusual for him, despite Watson's perplexity. I have taken it for granted that Holmes has a contemplative nature, which can be concentrated upon a three-pipe problem of detection or turned upon life's larger mysteries. Perhaps I cherish this evidence, from a character possessing such deep rational faculties, of a taste for metaphysical puzzles as well.

    Thanks for another subtle and informative appreciation of a story, its adaptation on screen, and its various possible implications for character.

  4. Thank you again Jaime for a lovely post. I admit my memory was hazy this morning and I thought the observations about the flowers was one of those occasions when Holmes wants to avoid a direct question, as in REIG when he uses his recent ill health as a ploy. But looking at the text, there is no immediate tactical advantage I can see for the soliloquy.

    So either Holmes is on drugs as your friend suggests, is truly fascinated by flowers, is just plain strange or is just maintaining his persona. I would vote for the latter. Holmes has always loved the theatrical, witness his staging of the return of the treaty to Phelps at the end of the story. But I wonder — and I admit this is hardly an original thought — if Holmes wasn’t constantly crafting his persona.

    I am reminded of a recent episode of “Glee” where a character can say any mean thing she wants and then explains it away by adding “Asperberger’s” at the end. In the same way, Holmes must maintain his reputation as eccentric so that when he is rude to a client or suspect or asks for a bucket and a sponge or suddenly returns to London it is not seen as a tactical maneuver but interpreted as just Holmes being Holmes.

    I recall, with some embarrassment, one of my own attempts to reinforce my reputation for strangeness. Once during a ride along with my particular friend Lee, who is cop, I straightened a painting while she was questioning a woman about a domestic assault. I caught Lee out of the corner of my eye wondering what I was doing.

    I further wonder if Holmes without his biographer would act so strangely. After all, if Holmes truly wanted the anonymity he always said he desired, he wouldn’t have his own Boswell recording his every tick and nuance. I suppose the real question is whether Holmes’ finally lost himself in his role. To which I need only add — “Oysters!”

  5. That moss rose in your photo is, if I'm not mistaken, William Lobb, an old variety that grows in my garden :-)