People have been playing Sherlock Holmes almost as long as the stories have been in print. He has been portrayed so many times that he’s entered the Guinness Book for most portrayed detective with upwards of 250 times on screen! With so many iterations of the Great Detective, that it’s hard to know who to watch, and depending on your mood, there are any number of good ones. Want some action, go for Robert Downey Jr. Comedy? Try Ronald Howard. Modern, you can’t beat Cumberbatch. And of course there’s the ever-famous Basil Rathbone. But for my money, none have done it better than the late, great, Jeremy Brett. He lifted the character off the page in ways no one has done before or since! In April of 1984, Brett premiered with the first of the short stories, bringing to life one of the most unique stories in the canon. Unique because, for his first adventure, Holmes fails!
Holmes and Watson have a mysterious guest. Revealed to be the Bohemian king himself, the guest asks Holmes to find some compromising photos in the possession of the adventuress, Irene Adler. She has been waylaid, her house has been burgled, and the King has arranged all sorts of methods to obtain the compromising images, but all has been for naught. So he employs Holmes and offers a handsome sum for obtaining the pictures.
What makes this episode so unique for our first outing is that there is no “crime” per se. Or more specifically, the crimes committed are by the king himself and later by Watson and Holmes. He wants to avoid bad publicity at his pending marriage and feels Irene will ruin him. Irene, ironically, feels wronged by the King and refuses to give them over to him, in fear of what he might do. They are her insurance against any sort of action the king might take. Holmes comes up with a clever plan to have Irene show him where they are hidden.
The biggest mistake for Sherlock is that he underestimates his target. He is so accustomed to being a step ahead of his adversaries that he fails to consider that one of them might be able to beat him. After a number of disguises and a misadventure bearing witness to the marriage of Irene Adler and Godfrey Norton, he still ends up failing in his mission. Watson concludes that Holmes was defeated by a woman’s wit. In the end, Holmes’ mistake was underestimating Irene Adler.
But while Holmes loses in the end, the fact that he did succeed in getting Irene to show him where the documents were should not go unnoticed. He knows a person will always go for their most treasured possession in the event of a fire, so he constructs a situation wherein he will be in her home when a fire breaks out, albeit in disguise. So good are his disguises that she falls for the trick. Had Holmes been a bit less full of himself, he might have won the day, but instead he decides to come back “tomorrow” to get the photos, giving his prey time to escape.
There are so many classic moments in this first story. Whether Holmes refers to the “7% solution” or Watson narrates the first few lines of the actual short story, this comes to life gloriously. Among the great quotes, “It is a capital mistake to theorize without facts,” he tells Watson. He also insists Watson accompany him as he is “…lost without my Boswell.” But my favorite moment is the one that shows the friendship between the two men.
Sherlock: “You wouldn’t mind breaking the law?”
Watson (without missing a beat): “Not in the least!”
Irene leaves a letter for Holmes, referring to him as “too formidable an antagonist” which does imply that she is not gloating over her victory, but fears that she could not have stayed a step ahead of him for long. Nevertheless, she does an audacious thing at the end of the story: dressed as a man she walks by him and says “Good night, Mr. Sherlock Holmes!”
Watson perhaps gives me the greatest laugh, though. The King leaves them $1000 to use in the pursuit of the target and Watson’s first thought is how well they can eat! David Burke plays a fantastic Watson. Perhaps it leans a little heavily on a sense of comedy, but I loved this Watson and was delighted to see that he was the one upon which most of the early Frogwares games were based.
This is a classic adventure and Brett captures the performance brilliantly. Watching him scorn the King with barely hidden jibes, ignoring societal niceties like bowing and failing to shake the King’s hand at the end of the adventure is all marvelous stuff. While I confess to never seeing Gayle Hunnicutt as the image I had in my head of Irene Adler, she comes across with immense grace, cunning, style, caring, intellect, bravery… she is indeed The Woman. It is no wonder Holmes thinks of her in a very different class to all others. It might be unconventional to start a series with the hero losing, but it’s an outstanding adventure. ML