In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original short story, “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Mrs. Kate Whitney actually arrives at Dr. Watson’s home looking for, not the doctor himself, but his wife. “Folk who were in grief came to my wife like birds to a light-house,” he says. But in the 1986 Granada Television adaptation of the story, Dr. Watson is the lighthouse. This is, of course, because the marriage between Mary Morstan and Dr. Watson was written out of the Granada series. According to Jeremy Brett, “[Mary Morstan] would have got in the way. Watson was more in love with Holmes – in a pure sense – than he could have been with a woman. He wouldn’t want to give up the excitement, the danger. As for Holmes, if Watson had gone off and left him for a woman he wouldn’t know what to do. He’d be stoned out of his mind every night.” And so, in Granada’s version, Mrs. Kate Whitney arrives at Baker Street, hoping that Dr. Watson (played by Edward Hardwicke) might help her find her missing husband, Isa Whitney. But the hour is late, and Mrs. Whitney tells Mrs. Hudson that she is concerned that she will only be in the Doctor’s way. “He won’t mind, I’m sure,” says Mrs. Hudson. “He’s the kindest of men.”
The audience has already seen Mr. Isa Whitney in the opening sequence of the episode, walking distractedly past the beggar, Hugh Boone. Whitney attracts Boone’s attention momentarily, if only because he fails to give him any change before disappearing down a shadowy alleyway. “Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven, sir,” Boone mumbles after Whitney’s retreating figure. Whitney walks past a group of workmen, who lift a burlap sheet in the course of their labors, but when the sheet falls again, Whitney is gone – vanished completely. It is an effortless bit of cinematic magic, but nevertheless effective. Whitney has evaporated as completely as the smoke from an opium pipe, gone the audience knows not where, but the tone of the episode has been set. Existence and identity are insubstantial notions, and both ideas are at odds in this episode. A person can dissipate into nothing, with an ill-timed word or a thoughtless action. A person can vanish completely, but they can also vanish deliberately. “Mr. Holmes disappears without a trace at regular intervals,” Watson tells Kate Whitney, and such is the episode’s common thread. The audience finds characters that are tasked with the effort of identity and the burden of existence.
Dr. Watson eventually leaves Baker Street to retrieve our vanished man, leaving Mrs. Whitney to take tea with Mrs. Hudson. The two women muse philosophically as to whether “men ever really truly grow up, or if they remain little boys forever,” over a shot of Dr. Watson running to catch a cab and arriving in Upper Swandam Lane – a vile alley of disrepute if there ever was one, and brought to vivid life out of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story. As the Doctor arrives, a well-dressed man is discussing trade with two women of ill-repute (who then turn their attentions to Watson), then a scream as a fight breaks out, and Watson narrowly avoids being struck down by a shattering bottle. Watson locates the vanished Whitney inside The Bar of Gold, the opium den, but he also finds Sherlock Holmes, “merge[ed] with the surroundings,” and artfully disguised as an opium addict – complete with grizzled wig and beard, false eyebrows, a prosthetic nose, and tattered clothing. It’s a masterful camouflage, and so the effect is rather singular, therefore, when Holmes removes the disguise once in a cab with Watson. Each piece of his false face is removed to reveal the refined, patrician features of Jeremy Brett underneath. He has already exchanged his ratty addict’s costume for his traditional black suit, all crisp lines and sharp angles, and the transformation is complete. Sherlock Holmes himself has shown the audience how simple it is to assume the persona of another person – and also how effortless it is to dispose of one.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson arrive at the Cedars, near Lee, in Kent, where Mrs. Neville St. Clair is waiting and eager to attest to her husband’s character. Of interest, in this adaptation Mrs. St. Clair is played by Eleanor David, who would take another Sherlockian turn in the 2004 film Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking as Mary Pentney (with Jonathan Hyde, as George Pentney, who appears in Granada’s 1994 adaptation of “The Dying Detective”). She describes her dramatic ordeal in detail, including how she found her (also vanished) husband’s garments behind a curtain in the opium den. Neville St. Clair’s clothing has been discarded like a snakeskin, disposed of like so much trash, but Mrs. St. Clair fervently announces the name of her husband’s tailor – as if that were somehow an integral part of his identity and the mention of it will somehow summon him into being. Later on the episode, as Holmes recounts a discussion with Inspector Bradstreet, the audience sees those same clothes in Bradstreet’s office. In this instance, however, the clothes are laid out neatly, as if trying to replicate the man who should be occupying them. And at the end of the episode, when St. Clair emerges from his Bow Street cell in his gentleman’s persona, he arranges the remaining scraps of Hugh Boone in a similar, tidy fashion, perhaps in the hopes of bidding the beggar into his own separate, independent existence – so that he won’t have to destroy him completely by casting him into the fire.
In the original short story, after a few hours of sleep at the St. Clair residence, Watson (and therefore, the reader) is awoken by Holmes’s shout of revelation, to find the Detective still smoking and in much the same contemplative position as he was before the Doctor drifted off. Holmes has solved the case, but the readers do not get to witness the actual epiphany. Granada’s adaptation remedies this omission by having the audience witness Sherlock Holmes while in the midst of his method. Immersed in the golden light of a slowly rising sun and subtle clouds of tobacco smoke, the Detective sits in a meditative state. The camera angle moves in gradually and narrows into a tight shot of Jeremy Brett’s face, his eyes opening slowly and his brow subtly arched. With his pipe in hand, perhaps we see a slight echo of Holmes as he appeared earlier – as the ragged opium addict in the Bar of Gold. And in this version, Watson sleeps through the moment of grand understanding, because it takes place elsewhere. In front of a mirror, Holmes washes his face only in waistcoat and shirtsleeves, and understanding slowly dawns, resulting in a boisterous clap instead of a verbal cue. As he wakes Watson in the next scene, Holmes is suddenly fully dressed – including overcoat and hat – his detective identity fully assumed and ready for battle.
At the end of the episode, Inspector Bradstreet makes Neville St. Clair promise that they will see no more of Hugh Boone. “I swear it by the most solemn oath that a man could take,” St. Clair replies. But the understated smirk and downturned expression on Holmes’s face suggest that the Detective doesn’t think much of St. Clair’s promises. Perhaps it is simply because the end of Hugh Boone doesn’t necessarily preclude St. Clair from taking up some other beggar persona, in another part of London. The man had a gift for disguise, after all. Or perhaps he understands that St. Clair and Boone are inexorably intertwined, and that untangling the two will be no mean feat. Because as the audience has already seen, Sherlock Holmes knows better than anyone how simple it is to assume an identity, dispose of one, and begin the whole process anew.
• Stuart Davies, David. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (January 2006).
"Better Holmes & Gardens” has its own Facebook page. Join by “Liking” the page here, and receive all the latest updates, news, and Sherlockian tidbits.