I loved reading the Sherlock Holmes stories and I push them like a dealer on a street corner, trying to get members of my family to read them like I get a commission from Conan Doyle’s estate! But one thing I tell people all the time is to read the short stories first. If you like them, go on to the four novels. Don’t try to start with the novels because, no matter how good they are, there’s always a section that leaves you high and dry where Holmes goes missing. Three out of four of them make Holmes take a backseat to go into exposition and backstory. The Valley of Fear is by far the worst offender. The Sign of Four does it to a lesser extent, but when the creators of this magnificent series made this one, they had little choice. It becomes a bit like Inception, with a story in a story. She’s telling the story of him, and midway, he tells the story of them… before long, you wonder how deep into the stories you are! So huge swathes of The Sign of Four is backstory and that’s tedious. Another big chunk is given over to the slowest boat chase in history. And yet, the scenes with Holmes are fantastic.
Thaddeus Sholto, also known as Nervous McNelly of the Bad Hair clan, has sent a note to one Mary Morstan claiming he will right a wrong done to her over a decade ago. Conveniently he says she could bring two companions to meet him and he will reveal all. How unexpected! Holmes and Watson are two people! They can go…
Well this is a tiered story, so the initial crime isn’t the one we learn about first. Instead we learn that Thaddeus’s brother Bartholomew has been murdered and is frozen in a rictus of pain. This leads to the discovery that Mary’s father was murdered and a vast treasure was taken by 4 criminals. To be honest, the story gets tedious too quickly! It’s so layered with past deeds that the big crime is in finding the stolen treasure that has resided in the Sholto house for so long.
There were four men who entered a pact; they would split a treasure 4 ways. This goes wrong and Sholto absconds with it for himself. Two of the others hunt him, kill him and take the treasure back.
Asking an actor to remain frozen is tough, but made worse when he has to hold a smile and extend his fingers in a most unnatural way! Another mistake is doing a hyper-closeup with a person wearing a fake bald cap; even though the makeup is good, you can see the line.
Still, that’s not the sort of mistake we mean here. The mistakes are allowing Holmes to get involved at all. He sees clues and attributes meaning to them. A footprint on a window ledge means something to him while the official investigators arrogantly think there’s nothing in it because the window was locked. It’s actually immense fun watching Athelney Jones as he comes up with some really lame ideas while Holmes is miles ahead of him the whole time.
Holmes: “How often have I said to you when once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
This episode may be a tedious movie-length affair but it has the benefit of many of the most iconic moments in the canon. Whether we are meeting Toby, who turns out to be a wonderful dog, or Wiggins, who is one of the Baker Street Irregulars, this episode wins a lot of points with classic moments.
Then there’s Tonga. What a piece of work is Tonga; a native of the Andaman Islands, his short stature and alarming teeth make him a sight to behold. The production crew knew to make his appearance a shock. His accuracy with a blowgun is impressive, though not quite as impressive as Holmes’s aim with a revolver. Kiran Shah played the frightening fellow for all he was worth!
Holmes: “I assure you the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money, and the most repellent man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor. … Ah. I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule.”
This might be the exception that disproves the rule then. I love watching Holmes solve cases but this one spends too much time on backstory. It had to be, with a running time nearly at 2 hours. It was fun watching Ronald Lacey play the Sholto brothers, considering he’s probably best known for his role as the villainous Toht, in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s a very different character here. This episode also misses the boat with the relationship between Watson and Mary Morstan which leads to marriage in the books. It’s a bit of a leap and is only implied that Watson found her a “very attractive woman” but never does anything about it. I’m guessing that the age gap between the two actors would have been uncomfortable. This might be ameliorated by the opening of the story where Holmes berates Watson for turning his tales into something fanciful, comparing them to love stories. Perhaps when Watson publishes, he adds the marriage for the sake of adding that fantasy to his life. I’m not convinced of Mary though. When she leaves, she makes no attempt to offer Holmes money or any form of compensation for his efforts.
In any event, this was a bit of a slog and not one I would quickly go back to, no matter how much I like Toby, Wiggins, Mary, or Tonga… ML