Friday, November 25, 2011

“…a group of people who seemed to be intensely amused by the situation” (BLAN): The Nature of the Sherlockian Gathering

“We’re more than reality, you and I…you, my friend, have made us immortal.” (Clive Merrison, as Sherlock Holmes)
I have my nose nearly pressed up against a display case at the Lilly Library, trying not to breathe clouds of condensation onto the glass.  “That…that…that is just…” I stutter, struggling for words.  “That is just spectacular,” I finally announce to the room at-large, and the few people around me murmur in agreement.  We are all exhibiting a similar posture—trying to get as close to the case as possible, without smearing the glass with fingerprints.
“I know, isn’t it?”  Ginger sidles up beside me, and peers down appreciatively into the case.  “It’s just magnificent.  I wish I could put my hands on it.”
“Far be it from me to interrupt you two,” Darlene mutters from behind us.  “But you do know that there is a copy of the Gutenberg Bible sitting just to your right?  Just turn your head slightly, and you’ll see it.  Right there.  Gutenberg Bible.”
I glance back at her, and then back down again at the original “Elementary, My Dear Data,” script sitting in the case before me.  “My priorities are where I want them to be, thank you.”
“Well, as long as we’re all in agreement,” Darlene says with a smile.  “Now, shove over.  I want to see too.”

"Gillette to Brett" attendees viewing rare items in the Lilly Library collection.
(Photo via
The weekend of November 11-13 marked the third incarnation of Wessex Press’s seminal “Gillette to Brett” conference, which highlights the various incarnations of the Great Detective on stage and screen.  Distinguished presenters included: actor Curtis Armstrong, editor and scholar Leslie Klinger, BBC radio producer Bert Coules, and authors Tony Earnshaw, Henry Zecher, and Michael Hoey (son of character actor, Dennis Hoey, who appeared as Inspector Lestrade in the Universal Sherlock Holmes films).  The event was capped off with the 35th anniversary screening of “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” with introductory remarks by author and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer.  Presentations were punctuated by film screenings and networking opportunities.  Throughout the conference, at meals and huddled in the Dealer’s Room, conversations centered on the various persons who have had the opportunity to portray Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the various types of media in which they been portrayed. 

However, the conference’s theme seemed to center around one of Curtis Armstrong’s early remarks: “Anyone can play Hamlet…Keanu Reeves played Hamlet…but Sherlock Holmes requires a gift which is not given to many.”  Because more than anything I learned that weekend in Bloomington, Ind., I learned that studying Sherlock Holmes requires a keenness that is not given to many.  For instance, Henry Zecher’s impressive and monumental biography, William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes, which is nearly 750 pages of exhaustive research and was therefore too large to fit into my carry-on bag, demonstrates a depth and an enthusiasm of subject, which was mirrored in his presentation.  Another point of fervent conversation regarded the various adaptations’ attentiveness and adherence to the minute details of the canon: where Peter Cushing was forced to deviate from his original vision for Hammer Films’ version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles;” and conversely, how Bert Coules worked tirelessly to create the first complete rendering of the canon using the same two actors (Clive Merrison as Sherlock Holmes, and Michael Williams as Dr. Watson).  Furthermore, Michael Hoey’s stories of his time on the Universal Sherlock Holmes set with Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, and his father, have lost none of the childlike wonder and appreciation which he must certainly felt as a young boy, surrounded by such giants of the industry.
But that, I think, is part of the nature of being a Sherlockian, too.  We do not, and cannot afford to, lose our childlike wonder at the subject that so gripped our hearts as children, as young people, or even as grown adults.  As I sat in the Lilly Library, viewing a presentation of some the collection’s rarer pieces, the gasps and murmurs of appreciation grew louder and more pronounced with each new treasure—a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’sTamerlane,” a rare printing of Chaucer’sCanterbury Tales,” pages from that Gutenberg Bible that had failed to catch my eye earlier, but which were now given to the audience to touch.  But when the librarian presented one of the Lilly Library’s two copies of the 1887 “Beeton’s Christmas Annual,” the intakes of breath took on such a sharp edge that I began to worry that the audience as a whole was going to gasp itself into suffocation.  I wondered briefly if the librarian knew CPR, but lost the thought when he revealed an original print of the Declaration of Independence.

Author and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (left) with
"Gillette to Brett" co-creator Steven Doyle.
(Photo via

“Education never ends, Watson,” Sherlock Holmes says in “The Red Circle.”  “It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.”  And after meeting some of the presenters and authors in attendance at “Gillette to Brett,” I realized just how many Sherlockians hold this axiom close to heart.  I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Dan Andriacco, and Kieran McMullen, two MX Publishing’s authors.  Andriacco is the author of Baker Street Beat, and No Police Like Holmes; McMullen is the author of Watson’s Afghan Adventure and Sherlock Holmes and the Irish Rebels.  And they are both enthusiastic devotees of Sherlock Holmes, as enamored of their chosen subject today, as they were when they first began.  They are always learning, constantly thinking, and most importantly, they want to be a part of the conversation—not just start it.  Sherlockians want to discuss everything from bourbon, to period weaponry, to the finer points of rare pastiches—as long as it all relates back to the root discussion.  The desire to talk about the thing we love, with others who love it, should not fade, but only grow stronger with time.  This is, after all, why conferences such as “Gillette to Brett” exist, and why they continue to exist.  It is also why Sherlockians continue to seek each other out, and hopefully will always do so.
“Better Holmes & Gardens” now has its own Facebook page.  Join by “Liking” the page here, and receive all the latest updates, news, and Sherlockian tidbits.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

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

“One morning, as I approached the entrance to the Granada studios, Jeremy arrived in a cab.  As he leant forward on the pavement to pay the driver, the waistband of his well-worn, much-laundered white trousers parted company with the legs which fell in a heap on the kerb.  Giggling, Jeremy pulled them back up and struggled to the safety of the wardrobe, where his laughter could be heard as far away as Liverpool.  His laugh was always infectious.  When I think of Jeremy, I think of his laughing... that will always be my lasting memory of him.  I cannot pay him a greater compliment” (Edward Hardwicke).

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 recherch√©.”  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.


“Better Holmes & Gardens” now has its own Facebook page.  Join by “Liking” the page here, and receive all the latest updates, news, and Sherlockian tidbits.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less.  Last week, I finished up "The Devil's Foot," and I wonder if you agree with the Great Detective's own personal assessment of the case: "...strangest case I have handled."

The current story is "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." I hope you will join in on this seasonal tale, which Christopher Morely once described as: "Surely one of the most unusual things in the world: a Christmas Story without slush." 

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, although I am usually inspired to post more than once a day. And don't forget you can read through the original canon online