Since the dawn of the early silent motion pictures, Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories and novels about Sherlock Holmes, the perhaps most famous detective in the history of literature, had always been a favourite of many filmmakers. One Sherlock Holmes' first appearances on the silver screen still happened during the lifetime of his creator - in 1900 a short film had been produced and in 1914 A Study in Scarlet was filmed. In the same year there was a German adaptation of The Hound of Baskerville, which was continued in several films until 1920. Between 1921 and 1923 the british Stoll Picture Company produced altogether 47 movies after the original stories starring Ellie Norwood in the lead role, but Arthur Conan Doyle, who unfortunately died in 1930, did not live to see his detective speak on the silver screen. Only in 1932 did Raymond Massey portray Sherlock Holmes in a sound film adaption of The Speckled Band, but it remained his only appearance as the master detective.
The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes
With the invention of sound film a whole new wave of Holmes movies started, because Arthur Conan Doyle's dialogue-heavy stories had always been difficult to master as a silent movie. During the 1930s, there were a lot of new productions which ranged from brilliance to trash, but were mostly made for quick money. But in 1939, one actor finally made a lasting impression as the detective: Basil Rathbone, who together with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, became one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes actors in film history, although the film adaptations starring them often were very far removed from Conan Doyle's originals.
In the 1950s, there were several television series in England and the USA and even German television had tried a few adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. Cinema appearances of Sherlock Holmes were, however, comparatively rare, but during a big horror movie wave the first and only Holmes movie from the british Hammer Studios, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was produced in 1959. Despite the distinct focus on horror elements, Peter Cushing and André Morell were the best incarnations of Holmes and Watson yet and came surprisingly close to the author's original ideas. Almost ten years later in 1968, Peter Cushing reprised his role as Sherlock Holmes in a BBC television series, taking over from Douglas Wilmer, but this was never able to reach the popularity of his earlier movie appearance.
A Detective gone astray
In the 1970s, the best Sherlock Holmes adaptations were mainly those who did not adhere to the written originals at all. In 1970, Billy Wilder had elaborately filmed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Stevenson and Colin Blakely as Holmes and Dr. Watson - a satiric, but atmospherically true to the original parody of the classic Holmes stories, from which many elements were respectfully incorporated. There was also Herbert Ross' film adaptation of Nicholas Meyer's novel The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution with Nicol Williamson and Robert Duvall, which dealt with Holmes' old demons in the perhaps strangest way the character has ever been treated.
Less successful, but still somewhat amusing were Roger Moore and Patrick Macnee in the American television production Sherlock Holmes in New York, while in 1977 Christopher Plummer and Thorley Walters appeared as Holmes and Watson in a british television movie based on the story The Silver Blaze. It was again Christopher Plummer who appeared alongside James Mason in the high-profile cinema production Murder by Decree in 1978, which was maybe the best Sherlock Holmes movie of this decade, even though it was not based on Conan Doyle's works, but instead made use of the legend of Jack the Ripper. Combined with a gloomy and sinister portrayal of victorian England, this was surprisingly effective and had less satirical than political undertones.
Because the copyrights of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories had started to expire in the early 1980s, many movie and television producers began to get interested again in Sherlock Holmes. The BBC had already made 29 episodes with Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing between 1965 and 1968 and decided that another try would not be worth the effort - but this opened the doors for the competition. The program makers of the british television production company Granada, one of the suppliers of the private television channel ITV, explored the possibility of bringing Sherlock Holmes back to the small screen. Michael Cox, one of the producers mainly responsible for historical drama and literature adaptions, was very enthusiastic about the idea and proposed to make the first Holmes adaptation completely true to the original.
Competition and Copyright
But before the first preparations were able to begin, the crucial matter of copyright had to be resolved. Michael Cox contacted Dame Jean Conan Doyle, the last living relative of the author, who told Granada that the copyrights of the Sherlock Holmes stories had expired in 1980 fifty years after the creator's death. This was, however, only the case in England, but not the USA, where some of the later stories were still in copyright. Granada thought that the copyright law was the same all over the world, prompting a legal dispute with an American company called Lorindy Productions, who had bought the US rights of Conan Doyle's material. A legal battle started and Granada's plan had to be shelves temporarily.
During this dispute, Lorindy seized the opportunity to go ahead with their own productions and made two Sherlock Holmes movies in England. With The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles two of Conan Doyle's full-length novels were produced as feature-length movies with the british actor Ian Richardson in the lead role, who was a brilliant choice and embodied the character perfectly. The stories were a bit sensationalised and americanised, but thanks to careful casting the movies still became two of the better adaptations. Because of the legal problems, they were first shown only on the American pay-tv channel HBO and only found their way much later to England and Europe, where they were even shown on German television.
The new Faces of Holmes and Watson
In the end, Granada was able to settle our of court with Lorindy and Jean Conan Doyle, but not without allegedly spending a lot of money. With the legal problems sorted out, Granada's Holmes endeavour was finally able to start, but first an overseas partner had to be found because the studio executives insisted on an American pre-sale. WGBH Boston, a public television station belonging to the PBS network known for their Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! series of sophisticated literary adaptions, signalled interest in the project and wanted to shoulder 20% of the production costs, but still hesitated until a lead actor was chosen. This, fortunately turned out especially crucial for the collaboration in a surprising way.
As early as 1981, producer Michael Cox had made contact with the clasically-trained actor Jeremy Brett, whose long career had begun in the mid-1950s in British theaters and later took him to television and into the cinema. While he had taken part in a few previous Granada productions, the producer had not met him yet, but he was sure that his aristocratic and slightly excentric style was the perfect choice for the role of Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy Brett was also married to the American television producer Joan Wilson, who coincidentially happened to be the drama producer for WGBH Boston. At first she was reluctant to have her husband appear in a series she would be commissioning, but Michael Cox was able to convince them both. Despite reservations of being typecast in the future, Jeremy Brett was very excited about the unique opportunity to bring Sherlock Holmes to life as close as Arthur Conan Doyle himself had imagined him.
For the role of Dr. John Watson, the important decision was made to create the character exactly as in Conan Doyle's works and not as a bumbling older man like in many previous adaptations. Holmes' integral sidekick and, even more important, chronicler, was cast with the british actor David Burke. About the same age as Jeremy Brett, he proved to be the ideal companion for the excentric Sherlock Holmes, but despite the closeness to the original stories, the character still provided a subtle source for humour. Burke played the retired military doctor very correctly as an amiable, open-minded and well-traveled physician with a lot of patience and intelligence. His incarnation of John Watson is sometimes even Holmes' equal and is only in matters of logic and deduction a little behind his friend and flatmate.
Although Arthur Conan Doyle had made Dr. Watson as a married man after the second novel The Sign of Four and before the events of most of the short stories, the producers decided to make him a bachelor again for the television series to let him take permanent residence together with Holmes in Baker Street. For this reason Watson was denied a wife and family life, but since his private life was only alluded to very infrequently in the short stories, this was of no great consequence for the adaptation. Quite the contrary, Holmes and Watson living together gave the television series the opportunity to explore the complex relationship between the two friends much further than ever before.
Jeremy Brett and David Burke were an ideal choice for Holmes and Watson and the first actors who were able to play their roles really true to the original. Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes is a difficult character, who often irritates his clients with his unpredictable behaviour and even sometimes manages to exasperate his friend Dr. Watson. As a former military doctor in retirement, Watson is, however, not easily fazed by Holmes' excentricities and knows how to handle his friend very well. David Burke's Watson exhibits the important human factor of the pair, which the thinking machine Holmes completely lacks when it is in full action. Despite this, Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes is very likable especially because of his excentric traits, while David Burke's Dr. Watson is a refreshing change from a character who is much too often portrayed as bumbling and incompetent.
There were only few returning secondary characters, because save for Holmes and Watson, the stories were always dominated by their own protagonists, who were always portrayed by mostly unknown, but always very competent British television and stage actors. Actually present all the time, but only seen in eight of the episodes was the stage actress Rosalie Williams as Holmes' and Watson's patient, but long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, while Holme's brother Mycroft only appears in one episode, but makes a lasting impression in the form of British actor Charles Gray. Inspector Lestrade, often overutilized in many other Holmes adaptations, only appears once played quite perfectly by Colin Jeavons, who, like Charles Gray, also returned to his role a couple of times in later episodes. There was also a changing cast of policemen, who are not portayed as completely dumb, but most of them still all share a tendency to be very arrogant towards Sherlock Holmes.
From Book to Script to Screen
For the script adaptations, Michael Cox called in the producer and writer John Hawkesworth, who had developed many british television series and movies since the 1960s and had often worked for Granada previously. While Cox took care of the overall organization and logistics of the series, Hawkesworth was responsible for the choice and adaptation of the stories and was the only crew member credited in the opening titles with "Develeoped for Television by". He was assisted by a team of hand-picked authors, among them many experienced writers like Jeremy Paul, Alfred Shaughnessy and Derek Marlowe, who were only glad to have the opportunity to work on famous material like Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories.
John Hawkesworth had put together the scriptwriting team from the best authors of the british television industry and even took on two adaptions himself, while the eleven remaining episodes were split up between nine writers, of which each one did not write more than two episodes, so that many stories were able to be worked on simultaneously. The episodes themselves were helmed by the five veteran british film- and television directors Paul Annett, John Bruce, Alan Grint, David Carson and Ken Grieve, who worked closely with the authors and developed a unique visual style. Fortunately the decision was made to produce the series completely on 16mm film and not, as was customary for many television productions of that era, on a mix of video in the studio and film on location, ensuring a very cinematic look of the whole series.
The Big Choice
Right at the beginning the producers had determined that the series would start with Arthur Conan Doyle's very first short story A Scandal in Bohemia and end with The Final Problem from the second short story collection Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in which the author had let the hero die by the hands of his arch-nemesis Moriarty. This had the advantage of providing a clean ending to the series in case no more episodes would be made, but in case a sequel was possible, Sherlock Holmes could simply be resurrected in The Empty House like Conan Doyle had done himself.
During the selection of the thirteen episodes, the original order they had appeared in print was mostly ignored and all of the first three short story collections were considered as a source, which was not a problem because of the almost nonexisting continuity between them. Five stories from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were used, another five from Memoirs of... and three from Return of..., because these were perceived as best material for a television adaption. One of the most important traits the producers were looking for in the stories were the joint appearances of Holmes and Watson, which automatically disqualified several of the stories. Another criteria of choice was a list of favourite stories made by Arthur Conan Doyle himself, from which also a few suitable ones were selected.
The adaptation of the short stories was extremely faithful to the originals, but minor narrative adjustemends were, of course, unavoidable, although they were made with the utmost care and with great respect to the originals. Because the majority of Conan Doyle's stories were exclusively told through the eyes of Dr. Watson, an independent perspective was necessary, prompting the idea of introducing each episode with a detailed enactment of the background story. Almost all of the crimes, in the stories mostly only recounted by Holmes, were also elaborately set into scene, making even the shorter stories suitable for a 50-minute episode. Also responsible for the very accurate adaption was Jeremy Brett, who took great care to keep the production as close to the original as possible and often annoyed the producers and directors with mostly correct suggestions, which were only declined when they were absolutely not feasible.
The Resurrection of Victorian England
The producers were fortunate that Granada had promised and provided a good budget for the production and scenery design. In the 1960s, the production company hat already built a whole street for the long-lived soap opera Coronation Street and for Sherlock Holmes they were willing to do the same with Baker Street. The goal was to show the home of the master detective not only from the inside in studio sets, but also from the outside, so that the closer environment of the fictional Baker Street could be used as a scenery. Production designer Michael Grimes achieved the impossible and built a life-size set of Baker Street on the Granada studio lot in Manchester with a level of detail that had never been attempted before and certainly surpassed the earlier Lorindy productions, who even had borrowed footage from Billy Wilder's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
The interior of 221b Baker Street was, of course, not constructed on the outdoor set, which consisted only of house fronts, but in a converted warehouse on the studio lot, in which most of the other sets were located. The set of the perhaps most regarded living room in the history of literature was designed far away from typical clichés, but still with many recognizable details. Mrs. Hudson's house looks surprisingly modern with bright and friendly rooms, quite different from the often dark and moody rooms full of antiquated furniture often visible in other Holmes adaptations. The producers had correctly realized that Sherlock Holmes does not live in the early victorian ages, but at the end of the quite modern 19th century.
The series was also not exclusively shot on the studio lot - there was ample room in the budget for location shooting because many of the stories did not only happen in London, but often out in the country. For some locations, impressive, but often gloomy old manors and castles were found, to which Holmes and Watson travel by coach and sometimes even by train. Although the train rides were filmed with a mock-up of a compartment on a lorry, some exterior shots of a historic steam train were created. Together with the often very beautiful, but also sometimes darkly menacing natural British countryside, a very convincing late victorian atmosphere was created.
The Television career of Sherlock Holmes
After the first seven episodes were broadcast between April and June 1984 in England on ITV, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes quickly became a huge success and even the American broadcast on WGBH Boston and other PBS affiliates was warmly received. Holmes conoisseurs and critics alike were enthusiastic about the faithful adaptions of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories and could hardly await the broadcast of the next episodes, which were only shown after a pause of more than a year in Summer 1985. The overwhelmingly positive response made sure that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was not the last appearance of Jeremy Brett as the master detective and Granada produced a lot more episodes for ITV. In 1986 The Return of Sherlock Holmes continued the series and altogether 36 episodes and five feature-length movies were made between 1984 and 1994 - a sizeable part of Arthur Conan Doyle's works.
In Germany, the thirteen episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were first shown together with half of The Return of Sherlock Holmes at the end of 1987 in some of the local "third" public television channels. The series had actually premiered in East Germany shortly before, where also the only German version was made. The translation was very careful and accurate, but Jeremy Brett was dubbed by two different actors with Franz Viemann appearing as his voice in the first seven episodes and Arno Wyzniewski in the remaining six. David Burke was, however, dubbed by Werner Ehrlicher in the whole series. After only a handful of reruns at the beginning of the 1990s, the series had vanished altogether from the German television screens and many of the later episodes were never broadcast.
Thirty years after their broadcast premiere, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are still the remarkable beginning of one of the most successful literature adaptations in English television history. Over the course of t ten years, Granada and ITV brought the majority of Arthur Conan Dolye's short stories and novels to life in a way the author would probably have very much approved of.
First broadcast on ITV from April-Juni 1984
A Scandal in Bohemia - Ein Skandal in Böhmen (from "The
The Dancing Men - Die tanzenden Männchen (from "The Adventures...")
The Naval Treaty - Das Marineabkommen (from "The Memoirs..")
The Solitary Cyclist - Die einsame Radfahrerin (from "The Return...")
The Crooked Man - Der verkrüppelte Mann (from "The Memoirs...")
The Speckled Band - Das gefleckte Band (from "The Adventures...")
The Blue Carbuncle - Der blaue Karfunkel (from "The Adventures...")
First broadcast on ITV from August-September 1985
The Copper Beeches - Das Haus zu den
Blutbuchen (from "The Adventures...")
The Greek Interpreter - Der griechische Dolmetscher
(from "The Memoirs...")
The Norwood Builder - Der Baumeister von Norwood (from
The Resident Patient - Der Dauerpatient (from "The Memoirs...")
The Red-Headed League - Die Liga der rothaarigen Männer
(from "The Adventures...")
The Final Problem - Sein letzter Fall (from "The Memoirs...")
Although Granada's Sherlock Holmes has been and still is a constant fixture on British tv screens thanks to the reruns on ITV, the series has been absent from German television for more than twenty years. When Granada Ventures re-released the series on DVD in England with remastered transfers, it was very surprising that the German DVD studio Koch Media, which had previously attracted attention with DVDs of other rare film classics and tv series, took this opportunity to release The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Germany as Sherlock Holmes - Die komplette erste Staffel (The complete first series).
Koch Media was able to license the restored video masters from Granada and, of course, also the original English soundtrack in addition to the German dubs. There were no disc-based extras, but something even better: the studio reprinted a translated 96-page extract of producer Michael Cox' book A Study in Celluloid, which contained a lot of background information about the series and detailed production notes of every episode. Although only a German translation of the book was published, it was especially welcome because A Study in Celluloid had become incredibly rare and even today is still only available for high collector's prices. The book was part of the DVD packaging, which came as a book-pack, containing the pages between two digipack trays in a sturdy hardback cover.
The cover design was, unfortunately, not as elegant as on Polyband's previous releases of the five feature-length movies - the standard fonts and the layout looked somewhat disappointing, especially considering the otherwise very high-class packaging. The exterior of this DVD set should, however, not deter from a purchase, because with this release, over eleven hours of a classic television series in the very best quality are offered together with a fantastic printed supplement.
One year after the first thirteen episodes Koch Media had also released the eleven episodes of The Return of Sherlock Holmes in Germany, but nobody had seriously thought that the studio would also do the same with the last twelve episodes from The Memoirs... and The Casebook..., because these had never been shown on German television and no German soundtracks existed. But after the first two boxsets had sold very well, Koch Media had gone the extra mile and not only released the last missing episodes, but chose to dub them as well for a parallel German television airing.
Since autumn 2009. the whole Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett has been available on DVD in Germany, although the wonderful first editions containing the rare book have unfortunately since gone out of print and have been replaced by lower-priced DVD-only versions. The whole series is also available as an inexpensive boxset and apparently Koch Media is going to release The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in March 2014 on Blu-Ray, but since the source material is not really fit for high definition, this release might not be worth an upgrade.
If no German soundtracks are required, the recent british re-release from ITV video is also a good alternative to the Koch Media DVDs, especially because it contains some previously unavailable extras.