One of the mysteries Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote was Sherlock Holmes and the Wiped BBC Videotape. This was a horrifying true art crime story. From 1967-78, various shows produced by the BBC on videotape found themselves recorded over. There were numerous reasons including strange actor’s union rules and beancounters eager to save money by reusing tape. Countless shows vanished thanks to a bulk magnetic eraser. In 1963, the BBC began a series based on the books, unlike the Basil Rathbone films that strayed completely from the source. They cast Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson, his devoted assistant for 13 mysteries. The series was revived in 1968 with Peter Cushing (Star Wars and Horror of Dracula) as Holmes and Stock once more as Dr. Watson for an additional 16 episodes. The Sherlock Holmes Collection brings together the six Cushing episodes that survived the BBC’s video purge.
Before Sherlock Holmes gets a major makeover from Robert Downey Jr. as an utter heathen; these episodes remind us of his original attitude. Peter Cushing plays him as a more sedate British gentleman. His stare that works so well in Hammer Horrors allows him to give off a deductive attitude without over playing his hand. During this part of Cushing’s career, he was eating scenery in low budget fright productions. It is refreshing to see him being reserved. This was not his first time in the role. Back in 1959 he starred in Hammer’s version of The Hound of Baskervilles with Christopher Lee as Sir Henry and Terence Fisher in the director’s chair. Fittingly enough the first two episodes on the boxset are the BBC’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The BBC version is a bit more talky and less cinematic than the Hammer take. The BBC production has all the studio scenes shot on video while the exteriors were shot on 16mm.
The Hound of the Baskervilles sticks close to the original book. Holmes and Dr. Watson are hired to protect the heir of the Baskervilles from the mythical hound that kills the relatives. It’s a family canine curse. The film doesn’t get overly atmospheric on the limited TV budget. There’s not too much fog in the moors. It’s just not nearly as creepy as the numerous Hound films including Cushing’s earlier version. But what they lack in production, it more than made up with the ideal pairing of Cushing and Stock. The duo inhabit the characters and not merely dress up like trick or treaters. They exude their own fog.
The other four episodes are condensed versions of stories written by Doyle. “The Blue Carbuncle” is a jewel and not a horrible skin disease. The valuable gem is stolen and turns up inside a Christmas goose. It’s up to Holmes and Watson to figure out how such a priceless wonder ended up as a surprise. “A Study in Scarlet” tangles Holmes into murders that lead back to the Mormon community in Salt Lake City. This could be a prequel to Big Love. “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” traces a victim’s death back to his day in Australia. He’s been knocked dead with an old rock. His son is busted as the suspect, but the dead guy’s girlfriend wants Holmes to find the real killer. “The Sign of the Four” involves a woman receiving a pearl every year after the disappearance of her father. She hires Holmes to figure out why she gets these valuables. The case involves a boat chase that has an Indian firing poison darts at Holmes.
The Sherlock Holmes Collection has more class than action. You’re not going to get the roller coaster thrills from Peter Cushing like Robert Downey Jr. promises. This is the classic Holmes who prefers not to thrash clues out of suspects. Cushing is in complete control while deducting a crime scene. You know why people want him to solve their case. It is a shame that 10 of these episodes were lost to political nonsense and penny pinching.
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The image looks rather good for 41 year old videotape. The exteriors were shot on film so there’s a major texture change between the mixed media. There’s no major glitches in the tape. The audio is Dolby Digital Stereo. Because the video segments had to be shot live onto tape, there are moments when the microphones aren’t quite near the speakers. The levels are fine for the elementary deduction moments.
Sherlock Holmes The Great Detective (46:14) is an A&E Biography hosted by Jack Perkins. For a viewer interested in the character, this special gives a through background using clips from various movies and TV shows featuring Holmes. There’s plenty of experts giving background on the books and his impact. Vintage footage has Doyle discuss his creation.
The Sherlock Holmes Collection condenses down five of Doyle’s detective tales for a classy BBC series. Peter Cushing owns the character instead of merely playing him. He embraces the attitude instead of expressing a cartoonish ideal of the legendary sleuth. For fans of the man from Baker Street, this series is one of the finer productions.
A&E presents The Sherlock Holmes Collection. Starring: Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock. Boxset contents: 6 episodes on 3 DVDs. Released on DVD: December 15, 2009. Available at Amazon.com
Tags: BBC, Hammer Horror, Peter Cushing, Sherlock Holmes, Star Wars