Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon: Sherlock Holmes

The Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon is well underway and features much of interest. Many thanks to our esteemed host Frankensteinia's Pierre Fournier.

Waiting in line at a coffee shop I overheard a fellow complain to his friend that "all of a sudden that Sherlock Holmes character is everywhere and it's getting annoying". I so wanted to mention to the stranger that the phenomenon was not "all of a sudden", but simply the result of having been born in the last 100 years. However, his companion settled things by giving the raised eyebrow and a succinct "people like that guy".

Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes in 1954

People do like that guy. They can't get enough Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's four novels and 50-odd stories have never been enough. The characters of the brilliant consulting detective Holmes and his friend and chronicler Dr. Watson have appeared in further adventures, homages, and pastiches that include encounters with Jack the Ripper, a frozen incarnation in the future and even an animated mouse.

Since William Gillette wrote and performed his play Sherlock Holmes in 1899 innumerable actors have brought Holmes to life on stage, radio, and screens large and small.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a television series from 1954 starring Ronald Howard whose Holmes is not only a brilliant man of action but charming with a wry smile for the world. My sister describes him as a Doctor Who sort of Sherlock. The mind wanders. 

Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes in 1964

The imposing Douglas Wilmer played Sherlock Holmes in a BBC production of The Speckled Band in 1964. Versatile Nigel Stock was the embodiment of Dr. Watson. Here our Watson is not the bumbler as was increasingly required of Nigel Bruce in the Universal films of the 1940s, but more of a befuddled companion. No more befuddled, I dare say, than the rest of us when we first read the Holmes stories. Like Watson, it is after the mystery has been cleared that it all seems perfectly obvious.

The BBC planned to continue the series, this time in colour, in 1968 and while Stock was on board as Watson, Wilmer had other career fish to fry.  Fortunately for fans, Wilmer never entirely left Holmes, playing the detective in 1975s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother, recording audio versions of the stories and making a cameo appearance in The Reichenbach Fall episode of 2012s Sherlock. The BBC in 1968 had to look to another Holmes. John Neville was first choice having earned his Holmes stripes hunting Jack the Ripper in 1965s A Study in Terror, but he declined. Happily, Peter Cushing accepted the gig. What took them so long?

Terror Stalks the Moor!
Horror Fills the Night!

Cushing first became Holmes in Hammer Film Productions 1959 lush and lurid Technicolor version of the popular The Hound of the Baskervilles. Andre Morell (TVs Quatermass) is Watson and Christopher Lee is Sir Henry. Was there a busier actor than Peter Cushing? Classic roles in television plays and in movies with names like Mr. Darcy, Sir Robert Morton, Victor Frankenstein, and Van Helsing dot his resume, and now Sherlock Holmes. Here we had a Holmes in colour and looking every inch as he should. The brilliant observations fall naturally in his clipped speech. The impatience with incompetence, yet the patience to see a thing through. Ah, what a Holmes indeed.

Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes in 1968

Only a few episodes of 1968s Sherlock Holmes survive for our viewing pleasure and they are all adaptions of original Conan Doyle stories. The plots adhere to the stories with necessary cuts for time and compression of events. Much of the dialogue, particularly the explanations from Holmes come straight from the page. The sets are much more than serviceable but not as rich as we would find in productions of today. Much use of location shooting is made when necessary.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is presented in two parts with a fine supporting cast and works as a public service announcement to stay away from that Grimpen Mire. A Study in Scarlet is a lot of story to tell in 50 minutes, but they manage nicely even throwing a music hall entertainer into the mix. The adaption does not delve into the first meeting of Holmes and Watson, but features their established personaes.

The Bascombe Valley Mystery is another that benefits greatly from location shooting. The Sign of Four loses none of its inherent excitement despite the truncated version. There are some very nice touches concerning the attraction between Dr. Watson and Miss Morstan. Sir Arthur favoured us with one mystery set at Christmas and you'll want some eggnog when watching The Blue Carbuncle which is currently available on the inestimable YouTube. Reminder:  I've never tried goose. I wonder if it tastes like chicken.

The theme music to the series promises we are about to see something chilling and mysterious. However, I find the program more comforting than anything else perhaps due to familiarity with the stories. There is also a comforting familiarity to seeing Peter Cushing as Holmes almost a decade after he first took on the role. The audience slips into the show the way he slipped into the dressing gown and settled into 221B Baker Street.

Holmes and Watson
Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock

Beyond the stories, it is the characters of Holmes and Watson that tie generations of fans together. The continuity of Nigel Stock's Watson is a boon for this program. Peter Cushing is the jewel in the crown. The planes of his face, his sharp features, and those piercing eyes continually draw you to him. His thoughtful and natural delivery leaves no doubt as to who is in charge and the smartest one in the room. When he has inadvertently dismissed Watson's efforts or assistance, Holmes "My dear fellow!" is honestly contrite. He just doesn't seem to understand why Watson should be hurt, why he doesn't get the joke. We should all have such a friend as Watson who will put up with our foibles.

Holmes and Watson
Peter Cushing and John Mills

Peter Cushing was 46 when he first played Holmes in the feature The Hound of the Baskervilles and 55 when he starred in the television series. At the age of 71, Peter Cushing was directed by Roy Ward Baker as Holmes in the 1984 TV movie The Masks of Death with John Mills co-starring as Dr. Watson. Here is something unique in representations of the world's most popular fictional character. An actor portraying a character through a span of his lifetime. Here is a Holmes altered by age. Still with the same intellect and ferocious need to solve a puzzle. Still with the steel in his backbone. Still our Holmes. Still our Peter Cushing.


  1. It's now on the "must see" list.

    Thank you for such a wonderful blog. I want to hug both you and Mr. Cushing!

  2. Thank you very much, Miss McCrocodile. It's always a good time for tea or Sherlock Holmes.

  3. Thank you, Patricia for an interesting essay. Now I'm anxious to see Peter Cushing play Holmes in the television episodes and The Masks of Death. He put a lot of thought into every part he played. It would be nice to how he handled Holmes over time. I will dig deeper into your blog.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Joe.

  5. I'm a big fan of Cushing in Hammer's "Hound of the Bakservilles", but found it a real chore to sit through those TV adaptations. He was fine, as always, but the shows themselves didn't do anything for me.

    But because of the Hammer version, Peter Cushing will always be my second favorite Holmes, right after Basil Rathbone.

  6. Quality varied with those episodes to be sure, Kevin, but I applaud the effort and the preserving of Cushing as Holmes.

  7. Thanks for sending me this (sorry it took me so long to read it all the way through), and you're absolutely right--people never get tired oF Sherlock Holmes. And Peter Cushing is amazing--he's so imperious.



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