In the 1980s, the private television channel ITV and its production company Granada had surprised the british television industry with the first really true to the original adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about the master detective Sherlock Holmes. Between 1984 and 1988 24 episodes and two full-length movies had been made with a brilliant Jeremy Brett in the title role and very carefully written scripts, adapting the books perfectly. The broadcast of second series had been completed in August 1988 with the second movie The Hound of the Baskervilles, which unfortunately brought the first negative reviews of the series because budget limitations had prevented a needed elaborate production. The mixed reactions to the movie were, however, not the only problems that caused an almost three year long gap until Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke would return as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson to the television screens.
Retreat to the Stage
For a long time, Jeremy Brett had thought about combining his television appearance as Sherlock Holmes together with his passion for the theatre stage. During the shooting of the second series, the actor had asked Jeremy Paul, one of the script writers, to write a stage play just for Edward Hardwicke and himself. Under the title The Secret of Sherlock Holmes a story was developed that mainly revolved around the friendship between Holmes and Watson and also playfully alleged that Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty are possibly one and the same person. The play was especially tailored for the two actors, who started their joint performance in September 1988 in London's Wyndham's Theatre.
The Secret of Sherlock Holmes proved to be so successful that the play ran a whole year instead of the originally planned six months and then went on a two-month tour through eleven British theatres in October 1989 before the final curtain was drawn. For Jeremy Brett, the hundreds of performances, which happened on an almost daily basis over the course of one year, were an enormous strain for his already fragile health because he did not only have to battle with his depression, but also with a heart condition. But being on stage was more important for the actor, who hated nothing more than disappoint his audience and also began to really like his character again, which he almost had abandoned before the unique opportunity of the stage play had come.
A Problematic Return
The new decade meant a lot of serious changes for ITV and Granada Television, which were caused by the Broadcasting Act of 1990, which lifted a lot of restrictions of the British television industry and reformed the regulatory authorities, but also imposed many new rules. The result was a much harder competition among the television channels and production companies, where now quantity instead of quality ruled and low budgets were the new standard. Granada's Sherlock Holmes had never been one of the most economical productions and now everything hinged on how the series' production was able to survive with a restricted budget.
Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke were, of course, interest in continuing their roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but producer Michael Cox had been a victim of Granada's restructuring and was dismissed. Fortunately, David Plowright, who had started the series together with Cox and John Hawkesworth in the early 1980s, was now the president of Granada's board of directors and was able to get the producer back on board as a freelancer. Only John Hawkesworth had been eliminated from the team as a permanent script supervisor and only wrote one more script himself, because Granada thought his job was superfluous and replaced him with a corporate watchdog, who saw to it that the scripts did not become to lavish, i.e. expensive.
The production team had, however, suddenly a much worse problem than a balanced budget. Jeremy Brett had collapsed during a holiday voyage because his medicine for his heart condition and depression had become out of balance. Especially Michael Cox as the producer worried about his actor, because Brett's health was of the utmost importance for the production of the new episodes and a delay would probably cost so much that Granada would have cancelled everything. But Jeremy Brett assured his producer from his sickbed that he would be fit again for the rehearsals and Michael Cox fully trusted in his actor, who had never let him down before. And indeed Jeremy Brett had recuperated in time to resume his role as Sherlock Holmes.
The Book of Cases
Granada had already filmed 26 of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and already cherry-picked the best ones, so that the choice became more and more difficult. For the six new episodes, which were to be broadcast at the beginning of 1991 under the title The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, not only material from the story collection of the same name was used, but also from other books. One leftover story from The Adventures... was chosen, four from The Case-Book... and a sixth one from His Last Bow.
This time, the producers had not exactly picked the easiest stories, making quite a few alterations and revisions necessary to fit them to the televisions screen. Responsible for this task was now a smaller team of four authors, of which the Holmes-experienced Jeremy Paul, Gary Hopkins and John Hawkesworth each tackled one episode and the newcomer Robin Chapman took two. The adaptations were much more removed from the original as before, mainly because some of the short stories would have been completely unfilmable otherwise. Despite the heavier changes, the authors still managed to transform Arthur Conan Doyle's stories in the same distinct style as the previous episodes.
The Repeat Return
In the second half of 1990, the production of the six new episodes of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was finally able to start. It was the first time in two years that Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke had stepped as Holmes and Watson in front of the cameras, but thanks to the stage play, they had not lost the connection to their characters at all, still playing them as brilliantly as before. Jeremy Brett, however, was visibly affected by his illness and seemed to have aged at least ten years, but this did not keep him from portraying the master detective with the same vigour and energy as before. They were joined by a brilliantly selected supporting cast, who were often the main focus of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories.
Michael Cox, now as a freelancer, was again responsible for the production in Manchester, while June Wyndham-Davies worked more in the background from the Granada branch in London, but in contrast to the previous six episodes, she was mentioned in the closing credits now. The six episodes were directed by the four directors Michael Simpson, Patrick Lau, June Howson and Tim Sullivan, who, except one, were new to the team, but as seasoned Granada filmmakers they all did solid work every bit as good as that of their predecessors.
One Final Time
With the broadcast of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, Granada and ITV were able to show once again that even in the 1990s high-carat, very stylish adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories were still possible. After the disappointing reactions to the second full-length movie The Hound of the Baskervilles, the six new episodes were able to fascinate and enthral both critics and viewers again. Especially Jeremy Brett, despite not being able to fully disguise the effects of his failing health even with heavy makeup, got a lot of praise and compliments for his still fascinating portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
The actor was very glad about the overwhelmingly positive feedback, but nevertheless announced that his appearance in The Case-Book would be his last as Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy Brett had always hoped that the series would be followed by a cinema outing, but although Granada had already started a few projects for the big screen, there were no plans yet of a Sherlock Holmes movie. Disappointed by this, the actor vowed to look for other engagements in theatre, television or cinema - a resolution that did not hold for very long.
Almost a Finale
Michael Cox had meanwhile looked for other work as a freelance producer for Granada and received an irresistible offer: the adaptation of George Simeon's Inspector Maigret stories with Michael Gambon in the title role. What could be better than to bring another famous classic criminal investigator to the television screens after Sherlock Holmes? Unfortunately, for Michael Cox this proved to be a complete failure, because the bookkeepers of Granada would only let him shoot the series in Hungary for budget reasons, which he wanted to prevent at all costs. In the end, Michael Cox resigned his contract with Granada and was replaced with another producer, who shot the series cheaply in eastern Europe after all.
At the same time, ITV had developed a taste for the two-hour format with the Inspector Morse series and suggested to Granada to try the same with Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy Brett, who previously had turned his back on the master detective, was ecstatic about the idea, making the production of new Sherlock Holmes stories possible again in the first place. Michael Cox had, however, fallen out of favour at Granada through the Maigret affair and was unfortunately no longer a part of the production team. His duties were taken over by June Wyndham-Davies and Sally Head, the drama executive of Granada, became executive producer. From now on not only artistic value was important, but first and foremost the budget.
The Two Hour Holmes
The idea of adapting Arthur Conan Doyle's works into two-hour movies was not a bad idea at all and had previously proven to be at least partly successful. The two previous productions of The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles were, however, based upon two of the only four long novels of the Holmes canon and the other two, A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear were not really suitable for adaptation because Holmes and Watson did not feature in about half of their respective plots. So the only possibility was to make three short stories into feature films, which was tackled by a small team of two authors and directors. But even veteran Holmes writers Jeremy Paul and T.R. Bowen were only able to master the expansion into the two-hour format with many difficulties.
In January 1992, The Master Blackmailer was premiered on British television, a movie based loosely on Doyle's short story The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. It featured Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke in top form, but the unnecessary expansion of the relatively short original was not really able to convince the viewers and critics. Despite mainly negative reactions, ITV and Granada held on the the format, but due to Jeremy Brett's fragile health, the next two movies were only finished almost a year later. The Last Vampyre and The Eligible Bachelor, based on The Sussex Vampire and The Noble Bachelor, suffered even more of the same problems as their predecessors and were also not able to create much positive feedback.
The Detective's Memoirs
Although the television audience had become less and less interested in further Sherlock Holmes adaptations, ITV and Granada were still able to generate enough financial revenue to justify the existence of the series even after the lukewarm reception of the three full-length movies. But by then, the Granada program makers had finally realised that the expansion into the two-hour-format had not been a good idea and decided on the return to the old one-hour format. For early 1994, ITV ordered six new episodes under the umbrella title The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, once again from another of the original short story collection.
As usual, the stories chosen were again taken from several different books, so that only one was used from The Memoirs..., while two stories each from The Case-Book... and His Last Bow and another one from The Return... made it into the final choice. The six episodes were adapted by the three veteran Sherlock Holmes writers Jeremy Paul, T.R. Bowen and Gary Hopkin, who had all been in the team since the first and second series and were able to work much closer to the originals than before. The episodes were directed by newcomer freelance director Sarah Hellings and old hand Peter Hammond, who became somewhat famous for his complicated dramatic shots.
The Last Triumph
The production began, however, at an inconvenient time, because Edward Hardwicke was still unavailable for the first episode because he was still busy filming for Richard Attenboroughs movie Shadowlands. Instead, the writers risked a deviation from the original and substituted Hardwicke's Dr. Watson with Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft, played by the formidable Charles Gray. Despite the somewhat drastic and sensationalised interpretation of the story, this emergency solution had worked surprisingly well, giving Mycroft a well-deserved spotlight.
Unfortunately, the same concept did not work so well with The Mazarin Stone, in which Jeremy Brett was only able to briefly appear because he was simply too sick. Again, Charley Gray was drafted as a replacement and had to shoulder the episode together with Edward Hardwicke, which would not have been so problematic if the episode had not been made unnecessarily complicated, By injecting elements from another story, The Three Garridebs into it, the plot became untypically chaotic and while Gray and Hardwicke were still able to hold their own, in the end they were simply hindered by a very confusing story.
Even so Jeremy Brett was able to really shine in the other four episodes despite his fragile health and fulfilled his own wish to finally bring such classic stories like The Dying Detective and The Cardboard Box to life. Eventually, the return to the slower and calmer adaptations of the earlier episodes was at least partly successful and the excessive pathos of the movies was reduced to an absolute minimum. Granadas newest Sherlock Holmes stories were not able to reach the former heights of the series, but were able to shake off the many problems of their immediate predecessors.
A Farewell to the Master Detective
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes were first broadcast in March and April 1994 on ITV in England, but the great time of the master detective on the television screen was simply over. Neither critics nor viewers had forgiven Granada the mistake of the previous three feature films and now saw Sherlock Holmes as a redundant anachronism in the modern television industry. The ratings had dropped noticeably and the future of Granada's Sherlock Holmes was very much in doubt, but this did not deter Jeremy Brett. Despite his worsening health, he ignored the mixed reviews and together with the producers and writers planned to film the rest of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories.
Sadly, Jeremy Brett was not able to achieve his ambitious plan - he tragically died in September 1995 at the age of only 61 from a heart attack. Of the sixty stories from Arthur Conan Doyle, he was able to film 42, making him the most prolific Sherlock Holmes of all time and forever linking him to his character - something which he initially wanted to avoid, but later fully embraced, creating almost a sort of immortality. Even until today, Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes remains the best and most true to the original version of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories and Granadas production is rightly seen as one of the greatest achievements in British television history.
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (First broadcast on ITV in February and March 1991)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (from "His Last Bow")
Thor Bridge (from "The Casebook...")
Shoscombe Old Place (from "The Casebook...")
The Boscombe Valley Mystery (from "The Adventures...")
The Illustrious Client (from "The Casebook...")
The Creeping Man (from "The Casebook...")
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (First broadcast on ITV in March and April 1994)
The Three Gables (from "The Casebook...")
The Dying Detective (from "His Last Bow")
The Golden Pince-Nez (from "The Return...")
The Red Circle (from "His Last Bow")
The Mazarin Stone (from "The Casebook...")
The Cardboard Box (from "The Memoirs...")
The three feature-length movies The Master Blackmailer, The Last Vampyre und The Eligible Bachelor were broadcast between the two series at the beginning of 1992 and 1993 and are actually part of a separate season, which is often released by different companies outside the UK for rights reasons and not part of the German Boxset.
The Casebook... and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes never made it to the German television screens and had also never been released on home video, so that no German dub was in existence. After Koch Media had released The Adventures... and The Return... in 2005 and 2006 based on the restored British DVDs, the chances that the missing episodes would appear was very low because there was no German version available and a completely subtitled release was out of the question. But the first two box sets must have had such amazing sales figures that Koch Media decided to make an extra effort and dub the remaining twelve episodes into German and release them on DVD after all in collaboration with a television screening on the German-French culture channel arte.
In November 2009, the time had finally come and The Casebook... and The Memoirs... were finally releases as Series 3 & 4 in exactly the same style as the two previous boxsets in Germany. Koch Media had put the same effort into it as before - there were no disc-based bonus materials, but the real extra was again a printed excerpt of Michael Cox' A Study in Celluloid. The 77-page book has an enormeous amount of background information about the making of the series and is an invaluable companion to it, which is otherwise only available as a highly sought-after and extremely expensive collector's item, making this DVD release something very special.
The DVDs were again packaged into a very sturdy book-pack with the book pages, including some wonderful large-format photos, bound in the middle between two digipack trays. Although the cover design is still amateurish and disappointing, with the excellent image and sound quality and a surprisingly good German dub featuring Holger Mahlich as Sherlock Holmes and Bernd Stefan as Dr. Watson this set only deserves the highest marks and apart from the British releases is still the best way to view the series. Unfortunately the original version with the book has since gone out of print, but a disc-only re-release and a boxset of the complete series is still available.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | The Return of Sherlock Holmes