I regret that the exchange of presents at Christmas time is something about which I am notoriously lax.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
2.16: The Blue Carbuncle
The final episode of the 1960s BBC Sherlock Holmes series. It ran between 1964 and 1968 across two seasons, first with Douglas Wilmer and then Peter Cushing (Nigel Stock provided a sense of continuity, appearing as Watson throughout). Cushing played Holmes eight years earlier in Hammer’s full-blooded The Hound of the Baskervilles, of course, but this series is a decidedly less atmospheric affair, as might be expected of the less exotically budget BBC. Certainly, if the meagre seven surviving episodes are testaments.
Rather than the lavish location work and film stock of the later ITV Jeremy Brett series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was largely studio based and shot on video. Consequently, there’s no disguising that it’s on the cheap side, right down to obvious line fluffs from the leads. Nevertheless, there’s much enjoyment to be had from Cushing’s upbeat, empathic and spirited Holmes and the evident chemistry with his Watson (Stock is perfectly cast as a halfway house between Nigel Bruce’s duffer and the more legitimately Doyle-ian Edward Hardwicke and David Burke). And particularly so in The Blue Carbuncle, where Holmes clearly has no issues with endorsing the Christmas spirit.
Holmes: I know a thing or two about poultry.
Of course, a Holmes seasonal special has become de rigueur in recent years, in the fetid form of Steven Moffat’s increasingly horrendous Sherlock (like everything Moffat touches, it began promisingly and turned to convoluted mush as soon as success went to his head). There’s no grandstanding in this Blue Carbuncle, which is much to its credit but also simply the way literary adaptations were done back then.
Although, lest you assume otherwise, the production of the series – both series – wasn’t to either Holmes player’s favour. Cushing commented that the productions upset him “terribly, because it wasn’t Peter Cushing doing his best Holmes – it was Peter Cushing looking relieved that he had remembered what to say and said it”. Cushing’s doing himself down, of course, as any actor worth their salt is wont to, but there’s definitely a sense here that there’s no time for a second take.
In the script department too, there were issues. Donald Tosh, who previously did a stint script editing William Hartnell Doctor Who, recalled that he had to beef up Stanley Miller’s dramatisation: “If we had done Stanley’s it would have lasted about 25 minutes”. Although he stressed that his version used “…I must admit, great hunks of Stanley”. In keeping with the rather frantic pace of the production, The Blue Carbuncle aired on 23 December, a mere week after recording.
Henry Baker: To wear a Scotch bonnet is fit neither for my years nor my gravity.
There’s no doubt this isn’t as polished a piece of writing as the Brett version sixteen years later, even as one can compare and contrast almost identical scenes with verbatim Doyle dialogue in each. Tosh/Miller opt to have Lady Moycar (Madge Ryan) visit Holmes at the outset, imperiously demanding his services, in contrast to the original story, and the Brett version. There, commissionaire Peterson alerts the sleuth to the case (Peterson is played by Frank Middlemass, who slightly confusingly then played Henry Baker in the Brett version). This has the consequence of Peterson’s subsequent arrival rather too conveniently sparking Holmes’ interest, but the act of denying snooty Moycar is nevertheless an enjoyable one (Holmes brushes her off, telling her not a single aspect of the case is of any interest to him).
And while we’re discussing embellishments that work, having Watson visit Horner (Neil Fitzpatrick), framed for the crime and contemplating suicide, at least makes the character feel less tangential to the main plot. A littleless. Stock’s buoyant Watson also makes several worthwhile contributions. He rightly objects to Holmes’ comment about a large head suggesting a brainy man (he has known “some men with large heads who are congenital idiots”). He also makes much humorous capital from events when it is revealed that Holmes was wrong about the owner of the hat being Henry Baker; it is Harold (Richard Butler) who owns it, as Henry was his late brother. Watson volubly laughs at this error on the detective’s part and Holmes responds, after Baker has departed in a mock censorious tone: “You are developing a certain vein of porky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself”.
Also notable is James “Private Walker” Beck as hotel attendant James Ryder, a very different presence to Ken Campbell’s rather deflated, desperate presence in the Brett production. Beck, in contrast, plays a character who entirely fails to disguise his lack of sincere remorse for the theft of the carbuncle. Consequently, Holmes rebuke seems far more deserving, and his rationale for withholding official justice – “Oh, I am compounding a felony, no doubt. But I also am saving a soul” – slightly less legitimate. Which isn’t to say that his subsequent dropping of both Ryder and accomplice Catherine Cusack (Diana Chappell) in it when he reunites Morcar with her gem is any less peculiar or off-key as a result (“Your maid has run off with the man who removed it from you room”). It could, after all – and probably would, given her disposition – result in Morcar sending the Plod after the couple, which is hardly an act of leniency on Holmes’ part.
Holmes: My dear Watson, we must return to Baker Street. And undertake another investigation. In which also a bird will also be the chief feature.
The episode deserves demerits too for liberally dropping in references to Irene Adler and Sir Henry Baskerville. Generally, though, The Blue Carbuncle works more overtly as a warm Christmas episode than the Brett one. Holmes is genuinely overcome by Watson giving him some tobacco (and I rather like the way Watson requests to join him in a puff). The final line is also rather cute, as both look forward to tucking in to Christmas dinner.