Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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

Jeremy [Brett] was always in danger of playing some kind of grotesque if he wasn’t directly properly. I remember [Jeremy] Paul saying to him one day, “Jeremy, isn’t there going to be anything of you in this portrayal?” Brett responded well, replying, “What a good thought. You’ve pulled me up short and made me realize that I could be going too much into the area of a bizarre character.” Paul agreed, noting, “Don’t, because there is a place in this for things of your own, Jeremy – your magnetism, your ability to charm people, to deal with people – use those in playing Holmes. Don’t put them aside. Don’t think this man is a wierdo [sic] because he’s not” (David Stuart Davies).

Perched anxiously on the edge of the sofa in the sitting room of 221B Baker Street, Hilton Cubitt (Tenniel Evans) bristles at a pointed question directed at him by Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett): “You have a way of putting things, Mr. Holmes,” he says. Dr. Watson (David Burke) has already apologized once for his friend’s gruff behavior, and now he can do nothing except shake his head and look back down at his notes, hoping that Holmes will not irreparably offend their client. Brett often commented on the nature of the relationship of his Holmes to his Watsons: “And so I've had wonderful Watsons – I’ve had two who kind of go [groans], ‘Holmes is doing it again.’ And, I mean, I've even had people in the studio, when I had suddenly crawled across the floor, say, ‘Not another of those’ [laughs]. And that's the lighter side.”
Holmes, will you please stop playing "Keep Away" with the cipher?
And there are a lot of both elements in Granada’s adaptation of “The Dancing Men.” Viewers successfully seek and find the physicality and vitality that Jeremy Brett so famously brought to the role, as well as a Watson that seems equal turns flabbergasted and charmed by his eccentric friend. Brett’s Holmes is at his charming, vivacious best, and Burke’s Watson is at his most endearing and earnest. The episode opens with one of Granada’s most enduring scenes: Holmes successfully outlines how he was able to deduce that Watson has declined a new investment opportunity, to which Watson responds that the deduction was an “absurdly simple” one – despite the promise Holmes had secured just moments earlier that he would not say precisely that. Holmes looks petulant, but not surprised, and Watson looks briefly contrite – until a moment later when he correctly deduces that Holmes has found himself a new case.

Granada’s 1984 adaptation of “The Dancing Men” was the second episode in their Sherlock Holmes series, airing just after their adaptation of “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It is notable that the studio chose to adapt this story very early in the production, when the original tale was, in fact, the third story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and according to William Baring-Gould’s chronology, took place in 1898. Despite this chronological deviation, the episode reaches out to the Canon in interesting ways. For example, there is Holmes’s mention of his monograph on secret ciphers, which Watson uncomfortably confesses he found “rather heavy going.” But the episode is at its most riveting when Brett is at his most dynamic. Audiences remember this episode’s Sherlock Holmes with a telegram between his teeth, leaping about in a vigorous demonstration of the various “Dancing Men” figures, in a desperate bid to convey their meaning to Dr. Watson. Less memorable, but no less powerful, is the scene in which Holmes and Watson receive the final telegram from Hilton Cubitt (unaware of the man’s death), revealing the partially decoded message: “ELSIE - RE – ARE TO MEET THY GO-.” Watson is still in his shirtsleeves and Holmes in his dressing gown, but in a brilliantly acted moment, the pair need only exchange a meaningful glance before rushing off in aid of their client.

Photo Credit: www.jeremybrett.info
But the death of Hilton Cubitt takes the wind out of the Detective’s over-inflated sails in a very obvious way. When asked how he could have possibly known about the crime and come down to Ridling Thorpe Manor from London so quickly, Holmes replies: “Mr. Hilton Cubitt… was my client” [emphasis mine]. There is so much effort in that pause – in admitting to his client’s death, and therefore his own perceived failure in the matter – and it weighs visibly on his face. Even the police inspector’s kind words about the pleasure of working with Holmes and his hope that he should have the Detective at his side again one day, seemingly fail to register with Holmes in any meaningful way. He gives only the merest nod to this compliment. The words do not register, and Brett’s performance manages to manifest physically for the viewer, everything that Holmes has already managed to internalize.

Photo Credit: bookishadventures.tumblr.com
Likewise, the death of his client seems to soften Sherlock Holmes, making him more susceptible to Dr. Watson’s improving influence. While Holmes is interviewing the household staff about the night of the murder, Watson whispers a mostly unheard suggestion to the Detective that he invite the elderly housekeeper to sit down. If Holmes seems slightly annoyed by the suggestion, it should be noted that he does comply. Furthermore, in a later scene, Holmes goes out of his way to inform the same housekeeper that her mistress – Mrs. Cubitt – is quite innocent, a kindness which appears to go a long way towards easing the woman’s troubles.

The episode ends with Watson attempting to decode the “Dancing Men” cipher sent by Sherlock Holmes, which had brought Abe Slane to Ridling Thorpe Manor and neatly ensnared him in Holmes’s trap. Watson stumbles for a moment before reading: “COME HERE AT ONCE.” Holmes smiles at the Doctor’s successful attempt at decoding and says, “How absurdly simple.” His words echo back to the episode’s opening scene, but this time there is no bite or petulance in the words. Only the easy understanding of a comfortable companionship, colored by the spent energy of a case concluded – if not in an entirely satisfactory way for all parties. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson ran the gamut of human interaction in Granada’s adaptation of DANC – from magnetism to charm to shear physical undertaking – but every element has a place, every point perfectly plotted.

“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.

1 comment:

  1. Such a pleasure to read your fond commentary of a personal favorite of mine in the Granada series, too. It is exemplary in so many ways, as you describe, excelling in nearly all the parts of the canonical drama: client interview, witness interview after the fact, clue decipherment, clever apprehension of the perpetrator. Even the theme music composed by Patrick Gowers for "Elsie Cubitt" is especially beautiful!

    But mainly it is one this actor's most perfected performances within the role that already seems made for him--"Brett's Holmes is at his charming, vivacious best" (so true!), and you track the nuances of his acting with such deep appreciation for all they did to deepen the character.