In recent months, if anyone mentions “Sherlock Holmes” and “BBC” in the same sentence, thoughts immediately turn to Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, pink suitcases, and blind bankers. But in 2002, the BBC launched the first of two new Sherlock Holmes made-for-television films, beginning with an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and two years later, an original mystery called Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking. Both scripts were written by Allan Cubitt.
Ian Hart, who is perhaps most recognizable from his roles as Professor Quirrell from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and, appropriately, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from Finding Neverland, appears in both films as Dr. John Watson. The role of Sherlock Holmes is filled by Richard Roxburgh in 2002, and Rupert Everett, in 2004.
These two films successfully conjure up the images of the young men that Holmes and Watson undoubtedly were at the onset of their partnership, unlike the old men as whom they are so often portrayed. Hart’s Watson is much more the iron-willed, former solider that most Sherlockians prefer to see, and both films make excellent use of setting and atmosphere. Therefore, the problems with both films hinge on the erratic and unpredictable interactions between Hart’s Watson and his accompanying Holmes; and also on Holmes’s likewise unpredictable and erratic drug use.
· The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002); Starring Richard Roxburgh and Ian Hart
Perhaps more than any other canon story, the dramatic tension in HOUN is dependent on setting and the 2002 adaptation excels immediately in this respect as it was filmed on the Isle of Man, in order to replicate the moody and atmospheric setting of Dartmoor. According to Jack Tranter, who was BBC Controller of Drama in 2002, “…[in 1901, when the film is set] London is welcoming in a new age of electric light and internal combustion engines while the moorland of Dartmoor is like the wild west—bleak, inhospitable, and lawless” (Davies 188).
Yet despite the film’s relatively close adherence to the plot of Doyle’s original novel, the film lacks something that is not directly related to the narrative. In effect, Roxburgh and Hart lack chemistry, and as a result, the film lacks the warm friendship between Holmes and Watson that is so often crucial to the success of Sherlock Holmes stories. According to David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, “This [lack of chemistry] is due perhaps to the way their relationship is presented in the script. It is laced with cynicism, mistrust, and constant bickering. Watson’s last words to Holmes in the movie are, ‘No, I don’t trust you’” (189). In portraying Dr. Watson, Hart is humorless and ill-tempered, and there is little about his attitude that explains why he would have put up with Sherlock Holmes and his antics for so many years. Hart’s Watson may have been long-suffering at one point, but at the time of this version of HOUN, he is a kettle about to boil over.
Richard Roxburgh’s Great Detective is similarly unpleasant, described in The Observer as “insipid and unlikeable.” His performance is often cold and confusing, an impression not helped by Holmes’s random drug use throughout the film. For example, he slams a door in Watson’s face before dosing himself (just after Dr. Mortimer’s initial visit), and later, injects himself with cocaine in the train station bathroom, just before the film’s climax. As Davies correctly points out, “This is in direct contradiction of Doyle’s use of the detective’s drug habit, which manifested itself only when he was bored and there was no mystery on hand to occupy his mind. While on a case, he needed no further stimulation” (188-9).
Indeed, if the writers were going to incorporate Holmes’s canonical drug use into the film, they couldn’t have chosen two more unlikely moments. In Eliminate the Impossible: An Examination of the World of Sherlock Holmes on Page and Screen, Alistair Duncan posits that these scenes were an attempt to keep Sherlock Holmes more in line with 21st century perceptions (that Holmes's drug use was casual, and not calculated), rather than the way the Detective actually was (15). The battle between modern perception and canonical reality would carry-over into the BBC’s next Sherlock Holmes film, in 2004.
· Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004); Starring Rupert Everett and Ian Hart
The London of this 2004 Sherlock Holmes film seems to be permanently enshrouded in fog. Whenever any character steps outside, they are enveloped in a thick peasouper that distorts all faces and scenery. However, rather than summoning the spirit of the Sherlock Holmes’s London, which appears to be the intended purpose, it comes across as a mere parody—the London that uninformed viewers expect, rather than what is true. The same goes for Dr. Watson’s American fiancé “Mrs. Vandeleur,” played by Helen McCrory (recently seen as Narcissa Malfoy in the latest Harry Potter films). She speaks with a non-regional American accent, and has a rather obnoxious habit of referring to the Great Detective as “Sherlock”; she freely discusses sexual deviancies over tea (under the auspices of her career as a psychoanalyst), and has committed the ultimate crime of convincing Watson to dress down for dinner. Perhaps the fog is a metaphor for the mystery in which Holmes is embroiled (Davies 192); and perhaps Mrs. Vandeleur is a stab at “English stuffiness or American informality” (Duncan 231). But the overall impression is more heavy-handed: London is drab and grey; Americans are boorish and unrefined.
Hart’s portrayal of Dr. Watson remains disagreeable and angry, and Everett, as the new Sherlock Holmes, often seems morally dubious—even slipping into a young woman’s bedroom as she sleeps when he needs her assistance. To his credit, “Physically, [Everett] has a look and manner of [Jeremy] Brett about him: he is tall, dark, handsome, with saturnine features and a prominent nose, but producer Elinor Day was of the opinion that he was more like [Basil] Rathbone” (Davies 192). Holmes and Watson seem to spend very little time on screen together, and when they do, a significant portion of their time is spent arguing, sniping, or largely ignoring each other.
Also at issue here, as in Roxburgh’s 2002 performance, is Sherlock Holmes’s drug use. The film opens with Holmes smoking in an opium den, a lascar at his elbow. We later learn that he had been absent from Baker Street nearly three days. Opium is not at all Holmes’s drug of choice, and in the canon only uses it one time as a part of a disguise: “I suppose, Watson…that you imagine that I have added opium-smoking to cocaine injections, and all the other little weaknesses on which you have favoured me with your medical views” (TWIS). Again, in this film we also see Holmes’s injecting himself with cocaine in the middle of a case, presumably when he would have the least need of it.
Making an appearance as George Pentney is Jonathan Hyde, who previously starred in the 1994 version of “The Dying Detective,” as Culverton Smith. In addition, Eleanor David, who plays Mary Pentney, was featured in the 1986 version of “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” as Mrs. St. Clair.
Ultimately, it takes more than a canonically accurate mystery, or even a compellingly original one, to make a successful Sherlock Holmes film. Dr. Watson isn’t likeable if all he does is bitterly follow Holmes around; he must, at least, do it with enthusiasm, not resentment. And the ability to be successful as Sherlock Holmes means more than being possessed of height, dark hair, and aquiline features (though it certainly doesn’t hurt, in my opinion). It’s about elements that sit outside the boundaries of plot structure.
It's certainly improbable, though not impossible, that a Sherlock Holmes film will ever be made that adheres to every single canonical detail that Sherlockians would love to see. But there is a measure of foundation that is required to keep such a film upright, if you will. The manner in which Holmes’s mind works (and the way he uses drugs to augment it) is part of that foundation. And the relationship between Holmes and Watson is undoubtedly the other part.
oOoFor more on this subject, see Alistair Duncan’s article on “Screen Chemistry & Canonical Fidelity.”