For Generations, the Baskervilles have been haunted by a curse - at least that is what Dr Mortimer thinks, a friend of the family, who have their estate in lonley Dartmoor. A local legend tells of a ghostly hellhound wandering the moors, who is said to have killed an ancient forbear of the Baskervilles. When Sir Charles, the last descendant of the Baskervilles, dies under mysterious circumstances and the footprints of a gigantic hound are found, the puzzled Dr Mortimer seeks the help of Sherlock Holmes. The doubts and fears around the legend of Baskerville have to be eliminated before the last living heir, Henry Baskerville, arrives from America. Although Holmes is too busy in London to work on the case himself, he sends off Dr. Watson to Dartmoor to keep an eye on Sir Henry...
When Sherlock Holmes is mentioned, the name Baskerville is often right around the corner. The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most famous of Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories and novels about the british master detective, Originally, Conan Doyle had buried his detective after two full-length novels and 24 short stories in 1893, but when he heard about a legend of a ghost hound in Dartmoor, he was searching for a new protagonist for a crime novel happening in the eerie location. Sherlock Holmes fit the bill perfectly and when his publisher and the Strand Magazine were enthusiastic about a new story with the master detective, he began to write The Hound of the Baskervilles with Holmes and Watson after all.
In many respects, The Hound of the Baskervilles was a big exception in the Holmes canon, because Conan Doyle had originally planned to write the story without the detective and initially hesitated to bring back the favourite character of his readers. He even emphasized that this novel would not mark the resurrection of the detective, but was only one of the untold stories from before his death at the hands of Professor Moriarty - something which would, of course, rapidly change after the success of the book. While The Hound of the Baskervilles is a genuine Holmes story, over half of its plot does without the detective himself, thrusting his faithful assistant Dr Watson - Arthur Conan Doyle's own alter ego - into the foreground, from whose perspective the story is told as usual. Although there is much emphasis on a scary atmosphere and there are many subtle and not so subtle horror elements, The Hound of the Baskervilles was also one of the more complex Holmes stories with an almost double-digit amount of characters.
Despite the complex plot and the long absence of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles became a big success and even during Arthur Conan Doyle's lifetime the first film adaptations were made, among them a multi-part version in Germany. Altogether, over twenty cinema and television versions were created over all the world, making it the most-filmed Holmes story of them all. The most famous are the 1939 production with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce and the 1959 Hammer adaptation with Peter Cushing and Andre Morell, but in the 1980s there were two remarkable television productions. Ian Richardson as Sherlock Holmes and Donald Churchill as Doctor Watson were hunting the hound in 1983 and five years later Granada and ITV also followed with their version within the television series starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke.
At the end of 1987, Granada had produced The Sign of Four, the first feature-length movie of the series after 24 hour-long episodes as a successful contribution to the 100th anniversary of the first publication of a Holmes story. In 1988, the last half of the second series called The Return of Sherlock Holmes was continued with four more episodes and a double-length movie, for which The Hound of the Baskervilles was chosen. Unfortunately, the sparse budget had been dangerously exhausted even after the four episodes, because two of them almost broke the bank with costly location shooting. In the end, the story which suffered the most from it was The Hound of the Baskervilles.
While the actual production was not in danger, many concessions had to be made to the shrunken budget. Because of the nature of the plot, there was no way around extensive location shooting, so that other means of saving money had to be devised. The first sacrifice was a technical one, because because an expensive 35mm production like The Sign of Four was just not possible anymore and 16mm had to be used like for the hour-long episodes. This was not necessarily a disadvantage, because the format had proven to be very useful despite the much smaller image area and although it did not provide as much detail as 35mm, it was still more than sufficent.
The location shooting was not done in Dartmoor, which is located in the Southwest of England between Plymouth and Exeter, far away from the Granada headquarters further north in Manchester. But instead the North Yorkshire Moors, only two hours by car from the production base, had been chosen for the backdrop of the story, providing an authentic moorland scenery quite similar to Dartmoor. The area also had an historic steam railway, which was well known to the producers because it had been used before for filming previous episodes. The fictional country estate of the Baskervilles was not shown as a grandiose castle, but as a gloomy mansion, for which the Heath House in Staffordshire had been found as an excellent scenery with lots of rustic and eerie charme. Further location shooting was also done in Croxeth Hall near Liverpool, which had also been used before in an earlier episode.
There was, however, one enormeously important element of the production which was hurt the most by the unfortunate budget misery: the eponymous hound, which should have had utmost priority considering the many popular previous adaptations for the story. Sadly, the tiny budget made the ghostly dog a huge disappointment, because the appearance of the hellhound had to be reduced to a few fleeting glimpses during the story, to which some very rudimentary rotoscope animation had been added. For the closeups in the big climax at the end of the story, an animatronic dog was used, but this also did not look as frightening and terrifying as it should have.
This particular adaptation of Arthur Conan Dolye's story was created by Trevor Bowen, who had already written two excellent previous episodes and was also working in parallel for the BBC's Miss Marple series starring Joan Hickson, so he was well tuned in for complex detective stories. His version of The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably the one staying most true to the original, because no other adaptation used so much of the novel than his. Only the extensive search for the threatening letter and the assassination attempt on Henry Baskerville in London were left out, probably because it would have involved a very complicated street scene with many extras. This would have strained the budget even further and because the scene is not particularly relevant to the plot, its absence is of no great consequence.
On the other hand, the rest of the plot had been adapted almost unchanged, with especially all the characters staying true to the original. Only the finale is happening without Inspector Lestrade, but in exchange with Dr. Mortimer, while otherwise almost nothing had been left out and only a couple of scenes were rewritten. As director, a relatively new member of the production team was chosen: Brian Mills was responsible for the successful adaptation of the episode Silver Blaze and was not really known for cinema work, but had been at Granada for a long time, working on countless television series and movies since the late 1960s.
The Hound of the Baskervilles had apparently been planned as the last production of the second series for a reason, because even in Trevor Bowen's version of the story, Sherlock Holmes is only present about half the time. This meant considerably less strain for the fragile health of Jeremy Brett, who in fact looks somewhat ill and aged in the film, but is still playing his character as brilliantly as before. His Sherlock Holmes now seems to be even more eccentric and unpredictable as in the earlier adaptations, although this is even somewhat present in the original novel and fits the dark atmosphere perfectly. Thanks to some well-placed inserts, Holmes is not completely out of the picture and almost seems omnipresent in the plot without appearing too often. It is also good to see that the producers have not given in to the temptation to put the detective into his deerstalker outfit, which he is only wearing very occasionally in the series.
The Granada adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles has the invaluable advantage of having the best Dr. Watson of them all in television and film history with Edward Hardwicke - here, he has one of his biggest appearances of the series. While many other versions of the story display Watson as an older, buffonish man with a tendency not to be very bright, here the good Doctor takes the same initiative as in the book and is not only a passive observer making a fool of himself. Hardwicke, who had been already very effective in the earlier episodes ever since taking over from David Burke at the beginning of the second series, now plays his role to perfection again and brings John Watson out from Holmes' shadow for the first time. Even the triumphant return of the master detective after about fifty minutes does not change any of this - The Hound of the Baskervilles in this version is a Doctor Watson story in every respect.
For every filmmaker, the casting of The Hound of the Baskervilles is a big challenge because of the large number of secondary characters, but the Granada version has done exceptionally well in this respect without having to resort to hiring big stars. For Henry Baskerville, the American actor Kristoffer Tabori had been cast, who played the role not as a sunburned cowboy, but a quite normal American businessman without a too conspicuous accent. Tabori, the son of director Don Siegel, had played many smaller roles in television and movies, but had his first big appearance in the British series London Embassy, for which Trevor Bowen had worked as a script writer, probably recommending the actor for Henry Baskerville. He portrays the American heir of the Baskervilles quite correctly as a still young and somewhat bewildered man who is more or less a passive bystander of the story, although even more present than Sherlock Holmes most of the time.
Almost as important as Sir Henry is the often neglected Dr Mortimer, who suffers from the Watson-Syndrome in many other adaptations, being portrayed as a bumbling older man. But Granada had made a good choice again and kept close to the original by making him a young and enthusiastic country doctor, portrayed by the scottish actor Neil Duncan. Previously, he had only played a smaller rose in the British television series Taggart, making The Hound of the Baskervilles his first big appearance, but this was not noticeable at all. Duncan played his character in a very relaxed and sympathetic way, having more screen presence than in most other versions of the story and many joint scenes with Dr. Watson in addition to being part of the big finale.
Also expertly cast was Jack Stapleton with the busy British actor James Faulkner, who portrayed his quite difficult role perfectly. Beryl Stapleton was cast with the dark-haired Fiona Gilles instead of a blonde actress like in many other versions of the story, making the spanish ancestry of the character apparent - she played her role with surprising intensity without being too dramatic, although this movie was her screen debut. Almost inconspicuous, but still succesfully cast were the Barrymores with Ronald Pickuip and Rosemarie McHale, two veterans of the British television industry.
Granada might have bitten off more that it could chew with The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the movie is not nearly as bad as producer Michael Cox and actor Jeremy Brett later often claimed it to be. The moody atmosphere, the wonderful cinematography of the moor and the excellent actors make this version of the story a very successful adaptation which is only unfairly maligned because it is mostly missing the sensational elements of many other versions. Instead of a horror-centric shocker, this movie is more a carefully staged drama with strong characters, keeping fully in line with Granadas Sherlock Holmes adaptations.
Because of the high expectations generated by Granada's first lavish, two-hour production of The Sign of Four, the premiere broadcast of The Hound of the Baskervilles in December 1989 on ITV had very mixed and even negative reactions. While only few praised the true to the original adaptation and the great acting, many were hugely disappointed with the weak climax and the unexciting appearance of the mysterious dog. Granada's Sherlock Holmes series had suffered its first negative blow, resulting in a long production gap. Instead, Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke had taken their characters to the stage with The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, written by series author Jeremy Paul. The play was performed almost a year long until the end of 1990, when Granada was ready again to resume production. Until then, The Hound of the Baskervilles was the last television appearance of the two actors as Sherlock Holmes for almost two years.
Unlike the last four episodes of the second series The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles seems to have been dubbed by East German television, because with Peter Hladik the voice of Sherlock Holmes was performed for the last time by one of the actors which had worked on the previous episodes. It is unknown if the movie has ever been broadcast in East Germany, but it has certainly never been shown in West Germany at the time and only appeared on some private stations in the mid-1990s. It was never shown together with the series itself.
Like the other four of Granada's Sherlock Holmes feature television movies, The Hound of the Baskervilles had been released in Germany by Polyband in 2004 before Koch Media's Boxsets of the series itself. This DVD is available either as a single disc or in a boxset with the other movies. The image quality is not as good as The Sign of Four because of the 16mm source, but on the level of the series episodes. In contrast to the British DVDs of the movie, the Polyband release has an interesting extra with a German-language commentary track by Sherlock Holmes expert Michael Ross.