Sunday, June 21, 2015

“A Man of an Honourable Stock” (SHOS): Sir Christopher Lee

For those of you who have been following this blog for a long time (And have I thanked you for sticking with me? Thank you for sticking with me.), you know that I am not usually given to memorial tributes. This is primarily because I have always found it beyond my meager skills to encapsulate the whole of one person’s life – all its wonders and accomplishments – with just a few words. I have always worried that whatever I wrote would come across as, at best, inadequate, and, at worst, completely disingenuous.

However, on the morning of June 11 when I learned of Sir Christopher Lee’s death (Lee actually passed away earlier on June 7, with the knowledge only becoming public on June 11), I immediately went to share the news with my fellow “geek” colleague – a co-worker with whom I share some mutual interests and with whom I had commiserated over Leonard Nimoy’s death earlier this year. After a few moments of some subdued sadness, my co-worker admitted that, beyond the Lord of the Rings series, she knew little of Lee’s career. “Is that terrible?” she asked.

I didn’t answer at first. Of course, it wasn’t terrible. There’s nothing terrible about not having an investment in a particular actor’s filmography. However, I wanted to tell her about my Christopher Lee.

Christopher Lee with his friends Vincent Price and Peter Cushing

“A Man of Some Substance” (LION)

My Christopher Lee was Dracula. And in his embodiment of the iconic vampire, he was perhaps only second to one other actor. He was as synonymous with the role as Basil Rathbone with Sherlock Holmes, or Nigel Bruce with Dr. Watson. Although his Dracula films would sometimes take ridiculous turns (Dracula A.D. 1972, anyone?), the role would still cast a villainous pall over his career and indeed, my Christopher Lee was also the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and Fu Manchu.

“A Man of Remarkable Appearance” (BLAC)

My Christopher Lee was even Count Dooku (or Darth Tyranus, if you are so inclined), unfortunately, in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith. Typically an anathema to true Star Wars fans, the films are worth remembering, if only as a testament to Lee’s villainous character acting.

“A Man of Iron Nerve” (EMPT)

My Christopher Lee was also Francisco Scaramanga in the 1974 film, The Man with the Golden Gun, opposite Roger Moore’s sometimes ludicrous turn as James Bond. Lee was a relative of Bond creator Ian Fleming, and rather perfectly cast as the erudite assassin. Despite the fact that Fleming had originally wanted Lee for Dr. No, he was nonetheless able to channel all his leanness, elegance and his unique razor-sharp keenness to embody Scaramanga.

“A Grave and Taciturn Gentleman of Iron-gray Aspect” (BLAN)

My Christopher Lee was DEATH, voicing the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s (who also passed away earlier this year) characterization in several dramatizations, including The Color of Magic (2008). Tapping into the famous depth and timbre of his voice, his performance was equal turns unlimited cosmic power and affable approachability, just as Pratchett wrote him.

“A Man of Dreams” (GOLD)

And of course my Christopher Lee was Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, a masterpiece of film. How could he not be? In addition to providing a vehicle for Lee’s unsurpassed ability to portray malevolence and subtle deviousness, it also gave rise to what might be one of my favorite Christopher Lee anecdotes. Peter Jackson was preparing to shoot a scene in which Saruman is stabbed in the back. Jackson provided Lee with a long, detailed explanation of how he wanted the scene to go. To which Lee replied, “Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody’s stabbed in the back? Because I do.”

“A Man of Energy and Character” (MISS)

But perhaps, more than anything, my Christopher Lee was Sir Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer Film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring opposite Lee's dear friend Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. As the terrorized Sir Henry, Lee had to call upon no acting skills at all to show real fear:

Now there is one thing I’m really scared of…spiders. In particular these ghastly bird-eating spiders from South America, with big, huge hairy legs as thick as my fingers. I hate these things, and there was a sequence in the film in which one of spiders comes out of a boot. I refused to let them place it on my neck, but I did have it on one of my shoulders and I was in such a state that I virtually went green, and sweat poured off my face. Everybody said what a brilliant performance I gave. All I can say was that it wasn’t acting at all. I was nearly sick with nausea and fear.

And my Christopher Lee was Mycroft Holmes in the 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, starring opposite Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes and Colin Blakely as Dr. John Watson. Lee was perhaps one of the more sinister and uncanonically lean Mycrofts on record. Until Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft in the BBC’s Sherlock, that is. Gatiss has admitted to using Lee’s interpretation of the elder Holmes brother as the template for his own, calling him “cold” and “disdainful.”

And my Christopher Lee was Sherlock Holmes. First in the 1962 German film, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, in which Lee’s performance was inexplicably dubbed over. And then later in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991) and Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls (1992), in which Lee plays a somewhat older, retired Great Detective. Of his performance as Sherlock Holmes, Lee said:

My portrayal of Holmes is, I think, one of the best things I’ve ever done because I tried to play him really as he was written – as a very intolerant, argumentative, difficult man – and I looked extraordinarily like him with the make-up on…Everyone who’s seen it said I was as like Holmes as any actor they’ve ever seen – both in appearance and interpretation.

“A Man of Deep Character, a Man with an Alert Mind, Grim, Ascetic, Self-Contained, Formidable” (MISS)

I wanted to say all these things. I wanted to share my experience of Christopher Lee and who my Christopher Lee was. But he also wasn’t my Christopher Lee, no matter how many times I say it. He wasn’t mine, because he belonged to everyone. He was everyone’s Christopher Lee. And he was also no one’s. For how can a person such as Christopher Lee belong to anyone but himself?

But I didn’t tell say any of those things, of course. Who could? Instead, I simply said, “I know Christopher Lee from a lot of things.”

Thursday, January 8, 2015

“My power to surprise you” (EMPT): On Hiatuses

“I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.” (EMPT)

It is sometimes more difficult to return, than to leave.

On May 4, 1891, Sherlock Holmes allowed the world to believe him dead. He abandoned everything and everyone, only permitting his brother to know the truth. Holmes didn’t leave a single clue that he still lived, not even the flimsiest scrap of hope for those who cared most about him – unless one made a habit of looking for subtext in newspaper articles about Norwegian explorers. (Don’t we all?) The Great Detective was silent for nearly three years.

It was a time during which the criminal population of London grew more confident: “It is best that I should not leave the country. Scotland Yard feels lonely without me, and it causes an unhealthy excitement among the criminal classes.” (LADY)

In which Inspector Lestrade managed somewhat passable achievements in police work: “Three undetected murders in one year won’t do, Lestrade. But you handled the Molesey Mystery with less than your usual – that’s to say, you handled it fairly well.” (EMPT)

In which Mrs. Hudson kept a strangely untouched room at 221 Baker Street: “…Mycroft had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been. So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.” (EMPT)

And in which Dr. Watson returned to his medical practice, his personal bereavements, and a quiet, uneventful life: “As we drove away I stole a glance back, and I still seem to see that little group on the step – the two graceful, clinging figures, the half-opened door, the hall-light shining through stained glass, the barometer, and the bright stair-rods. It was soothing to catch even that passing glimpse of a tranquil English home in the midst of the wild, dark business which had absorbed us.” (SIGN)

It can be argued that Sherlock Holmes left under duress, certainly. He left in pursuit of what remained of Professor Moriarty’s criminal empire, dodging boulders heaved at his person by Colonel Sebastian Moran, and the safety of the public at the forefront of his mind. Neither was it three years of rest and relaxation. He may have found ways to occasionally amuse himself, but Sherlock Holmes was rarely at ease during this time, telling Watson:

The course of events in London did not run so well as I had hoped, for the trial of the Moriarty gang left two of its most dangerous members, my own most vindictive enemies, at liberty. I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum the results of which I have communicated to the Foreign Office. Returning to France, I spent some months in a research into the coal-tar derivatives, which I conducted in a laboratory at Montpellier, in the south of France. Having concluded this to my satisfaction and learning that only one of my enemies was now left in London, I was about to return when my movements were hastened by the news of this very remarkable Park Lane Mystery, which not only appealed to me by its own merits, but which seemed to offer some most peculiar personal opportunities. (EMPT)

So, while it may not have been a consensual parting, the Great Detective left, nonetheless. And without a doubt there is a certain, sharped-edged cruelty to his departure, both for the people he left behind and for Sherlock Holmes himself. Leaving is difficult enough when you want to be found and contacted during your time away, but to disappear completely, without a trace? Well, that’s an extraordinary undertaking.

What’s even more extraordinary, however, is that Sherlock Holmes came back.

You may wonder, what’s so difficult about returning? Wouldn't that be the easiest part? Sherlock Holmes could just slip back into his old life, his old ways, his old work. Even his flat was kept just as he left it. And his friends and associates, once they got over the initial shock and sting of his deception, wouldn't they be grateful to have the Detective back? Wouldn't returning to his old life in London feel positively relaxing compared to the trials of the past three years?

But three years is a very long time, and things change. Mycroft Holmes may have done his best to keep his brother informed, but there was truly no way for the Detective to be certain of what awaited him in London. Perhaps Mrs. Hudson had grown tired of the perpetual silence in her home and the morbid memorial to a man she believed long dead – no matter what princely payments she was receiving for its upkeep? Perhaps Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson had learned to cooperate, and their combined forces meant the dawn of a new age of criminal investigation in London? Perhaps the criminal masses of London had grown tired of a city without Sherlock Holmes and had moved on to greener, more interesting pastures? Worst of all, perhaps Dr. Watson had grown accustomed to his new quiet life – with regular sleep, predictable meals, and no errant bullet holes piercing the walls of his sitting room?

None of these things, of course, proved to be true, but there was always the risk that his life was not as he left it. That there would be no well-worn rut to slip unobtrusively into. That returning to his life would be just as much of a fight as leaving it had been. Returning was just a risky as leaving, and Sherlock Holmes knew it, as he knew most things. But he also knew it was worth it. He knew – or perhaps only hoped – that there was still a place for him in London, and that the world still needed its only consulting detective.

My own hiatus has a name. Her name is Morrigan Maeve, and when she was born this past April, she weighed 7lbs, 5.5oz and was 20 inches long. She is an absolute joy and is completely worth everything. Unequivocally, everything. Like the Great Detective in Tibet, however, I have observed my Sherlockian life from a distance and hoped that there would still be a place for me when I returned. So now I’m back and “I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety,” and that you all still have faith in “my power to surprise you.”

Now, there is work to do. Let’s get to it.


“Stand with me here upon the terrace…” (LAST)

For Trevor: You played the game for the game’s own sake. May it be 1895 wherever you are, my friend.