Thursday, July 11, 2013

"The Observation of Trifles" - Fine Detail in Granada's Series with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes.

David Burke & Jeremy Brett in "The Dancing Men" 1984 Granada Television.


"You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles." (BOSC).

I know I am not alone in often spotting some little treat I hadn't noticed before in a repeat viewing of one of Granada's classic episodes of Sherlock Holmes. They are truly evergreen.

The artistry of Jeremy Brett has much to do with this, but honours must surely be shared with some inspired screenplays and production values. Together they created what are at times masterpieces. As Holmes observes in the Epilogue to Valley of Fear: 'You can tell an old master by the sweep of his brush.' The closer you look at this series the more authentic and well-executed it appears.

With this post I am opening a place to collect some of this fine detail. I'll add to it as and when, advertising new entries.

Please feel free to contact me with contributions (especially perhaps if you don't blog). You'll retain copyright and I'll acknowledge you with the name or handle you choose.

As a working guide I'm simply looking to record little gems that are too long to deal with in tweets or on Facebook but don't warrant a full blog post. For example:

Trifle 1. The Curious Incident of the Page in The Resident Patient.

Dr. Trevelyan has sent urgently for Holmes, having found Blessington hanged in the night. Please watch on Youtube beginning about 30.00 noting Holmes' words and actions upon entering the dead man's hall.

There is no mention of the page at this point in Conan Doyle's original story. Granada has inserted a beautifully nuanced (and acted) piece of dialogue:

Brett as Holmes: 'Where is the page?'

Trevelyan: 'Nowhere to be found.'

Brett's business with the hat is crucial to the naturalness of his question. He takes it off, as is the custom, and, for an instant, holds it out, automatically expecting a page to take it. Another moment. His arm feels about for a surface on which to place the hat. Only then...realization in a fleeting sequence of superbly reproduced natural observations - his unconscious movements; the hat still in his hand; no page; why no page? Question uttered.

It's a tiny moment both of consummate acting and period authenticity. Pages were (ironically) constant invisible presences in such houses in this period. Subtly, the Granada team depart from Doyle to catch the very life of these people in this finest of detail.

The artistry of this moment lies in its sharpness of observation that mirrors perfectly a Holmes who (upstairs) will be on top detective form as, detail by 'trivial' detail, he reveals the true narrative of the night's events.


Eric Porter as Moriarty by M. Sallier Gallicher 2007 (Wikimedia Commons).

Trifle 2. The Foreshadowing in The Red-Headed League.


Of the sixteen short stories and two novels missing from Granada’s project on the Canon, the absence of STUD and LAST is especially regrettable. To have seen Jeremy Brett portray the first and last of the chronological Holmes ranks as a pipe dream with viewing William Gillette in performance.

That Granada made no version of VALL disappoints for a different reason: only in the Canonical FINA and VALL does Professor Moriarty feature in person ( face to face with Holmes only in the short story).

There is much compensation, however, in John Hawkesworth’s dramatisation of  REDH (effectively Part 1 to his FINA).

REDH was Conan Doyle’s 2nd short story (pub Strand August 1891.
FINA was his 12th (pub Strand December 1893).

Granada broadcast them as episodes 12 and 13 to close The Adventures series (1984-5).

Departing from the Canon. Hawkesworth introduces Moriarty in REDH attributing to him  John Clay’s plan to steal the French gold and forward-planning the (non-Canon) theft of Mona Lisa enacted in Granada’s FINA.

These apparent departures from the Canon (order and content) exemplify filmic adaptation at its most inspired.

The adaptation is chronologically valid. Doyle’s Holmes speaks (on April 24, 1891) of (at the very least) three months trying to track down Moriarty; REDH is set in October, 1890.

The Foreshadowing.

Eric Porter’s Moriarty is woven seamlessly into REDH. He makes five appearances, graduated to a double-climax.
1. Just his hands (like claws) grasp the bank document dropped for his henchman by the inside man.
2. In profile only we watch him receive news that the business of the Red-Headed League is concluded & watch him study a map of Paris.
3. Briefly we see him by the bird of prey statue in his window as Holmes enjoys Sarasate; then check the bank plan as Holmes examines Watson’s identical blackboard sketch.
4. His full face is lit for the first climax- the reaction to Ross’s news of failure: “It won’t do”.
5. The episode’s final shot is of Moriarty spying on Holmes. The lizard neck moves in hatred, the live image intensifying to a permanent iconic pen-drawing as background to the final credits.

BUT I maintain he ‘appears’ a 6th time -  in the bank vault.

The trifle to observe in REDH is the use of shadow by the lighting director and Jeremy Brett as Holmes, Watson, Athelney Jones & Mr. Merryweather listen for Clay.

Please view this scene on Youtube from 33.00.


We are perhaps first aware of the dramatic value of sharply defined shadows when Holmes inquires whether there might be a special reason for choosing this bank to rob. It’s ominous.

There is an amusing, yet deadly serious moment where Brett retains one gold Napoleon in his black gloved hand while he presses an ear to a pillar. We recall with a smile how (similarly) he takes private pleasure in pocketing the Blue Carbuncle and the Borgia Black Pearl - so characteristic given Holmes’ repeated boast he would have made a formidable criminal.
More seriously, the single Napoleon pre-figures the Napoleon of Crime who will be described in the next vault scene.

Watch most carefully as Brett takes up his lecturing position against the whitewashed brickwork: ‘a mastermind has been at work.’

We now see the reasoning behind Brett’s choice of costume - he is at his most Dracula-esque as he describes Professor Moriarty, the script drawing on two paragraphs from FINA and ending with a Hawkesworth invention: ‘We shall not see the Professor tonight.’

But the viewer has. Throughout Brett’s monologue in close-up Holmes’ own shadow has effectively manifested Moriarty. The two men are as inextricably connected as Holmes is with his own shadow. The detective is momentarily near possessed (the Dracula image) by his arch enemy.

Brett is completely aware of the significance of the shadow business - watch his right hand as he ends the speech, raising the watch and masking the shadow. End of wonderfully trifling moment.

 © raywilcockson 2013 All rights reserved. All Markings posts are copright raywilcockson 2012 and 2013.

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