DVD Review: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes

Starring: Douglas Wilmer, Nigel Stock

This 4-DVD set collects together the first season of the BBC’s 1960s series featuring the famous sleuth, and between them these 13 episodes cover an impressive range – as well as lively adaptations of famous stories such as The Speckled Band and The Copper Beaches, you get tales of the macabre such as The Devil’s Foot (in which Holmes goes on holiday to Cornwall to recuperate, only to find himself investigating a case of some strange deaths during a card game); the frothy, lighthearted puzzle of The Six Napoleons (why is someone breaking into houses and smashing plaster busts of the famous French general?); and sturdy melodramas such as The Illustrious Client, in which a society girl is sucked into a relationship with a wily and twisted villain (played with gleeful relish by Peter Wyngarde), who gives as good as he gets and puts Holmes on the back foot.

Solidly entertaining though it is, however, you do have to make allowances for the series’ age – the pace is slow by modern standards, visually it’s hardly a thing of beauty, and you probably wouldn’t want to bother with it now if it weren’t for one very important factor – the genius of Douglas Wilmer. Aside from being slightly short, he’s the spitting image of the famous Sidney Paget illustrations of Conan Doyle’s detective, and in terms of looks and manner, never was there an actor more fitted to take on the legendary deerstalker and Meerschaum pipe. But that’s only the half of it, because he also brings something very special to his portrayal of Holmes – a sparkle, an affability, something that tells you that this guy is on the side of the angels, and yet at the same time touches of humbleness and human vulnerability.

In all of this, he’s well matched by the wonderful Nigel Stock – no other Watson has ever had quite such a comical look of eternal puzzlement. The various tete-a-tetes between the two are a total joy, and together they have to rank as one of the wittiest and most lovable Holmes-Watson pairings ever to have been put on screen. It goes without saying, then, that this DVD release will be of major interest to all those millions of Holmes fans out there. 8/10

The DVD transfers are taken from a 16mm version of the original 405 line videotape recording, and even with the benefit of high-def restoration techniques the results are still rather soft and grainy – rather less impressive, for instance, than the transfers of the BFI’s recent Out of the Unknown box set. On the plus side, the sound is clear and resonant, with no hiss or tinniness. 6/10

An interesting 21-min interview with Wilmer, in which he reveals that he didn’t do a second series because he was worn out by the BBC’s short rehearsal schedules. It’s not his only complaint about the show, and you get the impression that he wasn’t the easiest of actors to please. In addition, there are five audio commentaries. Those with Wilmer aren’t exactly chatty, but we also get to hear from various other cast and crew members, who provide plenty of insights into the difficulties of making TV shows in the mid-60s. 7/10


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