November 3 recently marked what would have been the 78th birthday of Jeremy Brett, who was born Peter Jeremy William Huggins in 1933. He starred as Sherlock Holmes in the Granada Television series, appearing in 41 episodes as the Great Detective. Brett looms large over the role of Sherlock Holmes, and casts a very long shadow over all the actors who have played the part. Even Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the new BBC series “Sherlock,” said in an October 2010 interview: “[Brett] casts a towering shadow. He was a friend of my mom's, and he was around our family a lot. He and the part collided, and he let it take him over. He was a manic depressive, but that was a side issue, but he then played one.”
The immense range of performance that Jeremy Brett brought to the role of Sherlock Holmes is thrown in to sharp relief in Granada Television’s adaptation of “The Musgrave Ritual.” This particular episode manages to contain some marked deviations from the original source material, but also somehow, remain remarkably faithful and familiar. As has been discussed elsewhere, the primary mystery of “The Musgrave Ritual” originally takes place before Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson first meet. The actual narrative of story is told by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson, with Watson relaying the telling of that tale to his readers. MUSG has been dated by both William Baring-Gould and Leslie Klinger as taking place in 1879, which would have made the Great Detective around 25-years-old. In other words, the Sherlock Holmes of the original MUSG was quite a young man.
Unfortunately, when Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke filmed Granada’s version of MUSG in 1986, neither man could be quite honestly classified as “young.” At the time of filming, both Brett and Hardwicke were approximately 53-years-old, and so therefore, the production team’s first obstacle was how to compensate for their stars’ somewhat advanced age. Furthermore, it simply would not do to film an entire episode with Watson appearing only briefly at the beginning, and perhaps at the end. That is, it would not do to exclude Watson intentionally, as some casting and plot allowances were made in later Granada episodes for Brett’s health troubles, and Hardwicke’s scheduling conflicts.
So Granada’s 1986 episode of MUSG opens with both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson perched on the back of a cart, on their way to a brief holiday at Musgrave Manor. Holmes is wrapped in several layers of clothing, including a ratty crocheted blanket, and is coughing pitifully (and melodramatically) every time Watson tries to cheer him with the thought of the entertainments that await them. On the cart with them is a heavy, locked trunk, which Holmes reveals to contain notes on some of his earliest cases: “…the record of the Tarleton murders, the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, and the adventure of the old Russian woman, a full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife, and the singular affair of the aluminum crutch…that was something a little recherché.” Unfortunately, the moment Dr. Watson expresses interest in reading these notes, Holmes slams his foot down upon the lid and begins to use it as a footstool.
And so, from the very beginning, Granada’s adaptation of MUSG both deviates from the original story, and at the same time reaches out to its source. Many plot details remain the same: Reginald Musgrave, whom Sherlock Holmes always associated “…with gray archways and mullioned windows and all the venerable wreckage of a feudal keep”; Musgrave’s brilliant butler, Brunton; his tumultuous relationship with the housemaid, Rachel; and of course, the ancient Musgrave family ritual. According to Richard Valley:
“When it came time to remake the story for Granada’s THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, dramatist Jeremy Paul found that it was again necessary to make some minor changes, this time because no suitable location could be found containing the trees essential to the untangling of the puzzle. The solution: a tree-shaped weathervane atop Hurlestone Manor.”
But the most significant divergence comes relatively early on in the episode, after Watson arrives at Holmes’s room to collect him for dinner. Holmes is nowhere to be found, but the tempting trunk of early case notes is prominently displayed. But just as Watson is about sneak a quick peek, the Doctor also spies Holmes’s open morocco case, the needle and cocaine solution prepped for dosage. The scene ends with Watson looking pensive, but ultimately saying nothing. Holmes spends the following scenes, and the rest of the evening, being easily coaxed into maniacal, uncontrollable laughter. Sometimes giggling privately under his breath as he warms himself in front of the fireplace, sometimes flinging himself bodily around the room—laughing in a powerful way that seems to make both Musgrave and Brunton uncomfortable, while Watson tries desperately to simultaneously ignore Holmes and distract the other men.
Finally, at the end of the episode, as Holmes and Watson drive away, it is the Doctor who posits the theory that perhaps Rachel Howells may have intentionally sent the stone crashing, and also the alternate hypothesis that she had “only been guilty of silence as to [Brunton’s] fate.” Holmes seems uncharacteristically indifferent about this loose thread and says, “Very probably she's far away from Hurlstone now and carries her secret with her.”
Surprisingly and unfortunately, Holmes is wrong. In the final scene, the pale, waterlogged face of Rachel Howells’s corpse rises up from the mere. Her romantic rival, Janet Tregellis, recoils in horror at the sight, and runs away screaming in terror. This final scene brings closure to a plot point that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had originally left open—whatever happened to Rachel Howells? But this addition on Granada’s part in no way seems like a correction, or an admonition directed at Doyle for leaving a question unanswered. Instead, it seems like one last accommodation, a last tribute to the original story that was flexible enough to meet the needs of an evolving cast and crew, which was able to stretch enough to meet in the middle between canon and canonization.
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