Blightyvision: “Sherlock Holmes” (1968)

Starring Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock
Produced by David Goddard and William Sterling

With all the mad hullabaloo going down concerning this ridiculous War of the Sherlocks coming next month, I’ve found myself looking more and more into older versions, through the kindness of Netflix and other various sources.  On the same fateful night I discovered Hobo with a Shotgun on Target’s bargain rack, I also stumbled across a DVD set of a thought-to-be-lost “Sherlock Holmes” series starring all-around-actor-person Peter Cushing.  Cushing played Holmes in the Hammer Films version of Hound of the Baskervilles, and one of the offerings on the DVD set was a two-part re-imagining of the same.

In point of fact, these six episodes are all that survive of sixteen featuring Cushing (who took over the role from the show’s previous lead actor, Douglas Wilmer, after thirteen episodes).  The “Doctor Who” fans among you will know that this isn’t as bizarre or uncommon as one might initially think — the BBC wasn’t always terribly sentimental about its own output, and so many shows from the 1960s were wiped to save money and space.  Because, hey, it’s not like Anglophiles half a century later will want our silly little shows, right?

The episodes we do have, though, are in very good condition, and can be watched independently of each other and without needing any access to the missing material.  Cushing is known for a goodly amount of Hammer films, as well as his stint as an AU Doctor in the Doctor Who films, so it can be easy to forget his prowess as a straight-up dramatic actor.

It’s hard to pin down what about Cushing’s Holmes makes him good.  He has no particular quirks or habits or oddities outside of the ones from Doyle’s original stories; everything here relies entirely on the actor.  I had a hard time trying to explain his personality to a friend recently, but I think I’ve managed at last.  Imagine you’re taking a college course you really don’t want to with a professor you really don’t care for.  He’s an insufferable smartass and you only barely manage to scrape by with a passing grade. Now imagine that, once you’re not taking a class from him, you actually start hanging out with him, and you discover he’s an okay guy and the insufferable smartassery is completely warranted.  That’s the closest I can come to describing Cushing in the role — likable in a roundabout way with genuine moments of warmth, and you get the impression that the people in his good graces have earned it.

Sadly, this version of “Sherlock Holmes” does fall into the old trap of having a cookie-cutter Watson.  And while Nigel Stock is enjoyable and engaging in the role (and has some downright adorable moments in “The Sign of Four” with regards to his future wife Mary), he is yet another pudgy moustached sounding board whose safety you fear for should he ever be forced to act without the subject of his narrative.  I’ve come to believe that, in a way, the depiction of Watson is just as important as that of Holmes, and can be a much better test if the quality of the adaptation.

That, however, is the fault of the writers, as you can see Stock is doing what he can with what he’s given.  The adaptations are straightforward, pulled directly from existing stories, and — while neither innovative nor definitive — are still enjoyable regardless of how into the original stories you are.  Would I recommend them as one’s very first introduction to the characters?  I’m not sure.  They’re entertaining, but they don’t grab as effectively as some others.  If you’re already a bit familiar with the stories, Cushing’s another great actor to watch in the role, and it’s a set that’s definitely worth owning.

What remains of the 1968 “Sherlock Holmes” is available in a three-disc DVD set.  Be like me and put it on your DVD shelf side-by-side with six other versions and watch your guests ask which is the one with that skinny Cucumberpatch kid in it.

  • Chris

    Did you end up buying Hobo with a Shotgun? It looks….interesting