The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1990-91) is a six-episode miniseries of mostly inferior stories given superior adaptations. Star Jeremy Brett had already played the world's most famous consulting detective in 24 one-hour shows (based on short stories) and two feature-length productions, as well as on stage in an original theatrical production. He had recently suffered both heart problems and a long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which affected both his personal life and his performances, but here he's back in top form.
As mysteries none of the six 50-minute shows is especially impressive, but after honing their characters for so long Brett and co-star Edward Hardwicke (as Dr. Watson) are a joy to watch even in stories as minor as "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" and "Shoscombe Old Place," or as absurd as "The Creeping Man." The relationship between Holmes and Watson has always been the heart of their lasting appeal. In these episodes, set in the early years of the 20th century, Watson has moved out of 221b Baker Street and his medical practice keeps him busy. Several of these episodes have little moments where Holmes has to ask Watson to join him on a case, and these mini-reunions are both poignant and work well in showing the youthful sense of adventure instilled in these now middle-aged men.
In a way, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (the hyphen is on-screen, if not on the packaging) is among the most interesting of the Brett/Holmes adaptations. Unlike the first series, which pillaged some of the best short stories -- "The Red-Headed League" and "A Scandal in Bohemia," for instance -- and in so doing simply had to remain faithful to their source to be successful, Case-Book's writers and directors really had to stretch to make these stories work as 50-minute television dramas. Several mysteries are quite thin, predictable and formulaic, others have elements reworked from superior, older stories. The best adaptations in this series are "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," "The Problem of Thor Bridge," and "The Illustrious Client," the latter pitting Holmes against an especially formidable, Moriarty-like intellectual lady-killer.
As with the series at large, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes has a fine roster of guest actors, including Cheryl Campbell (Pennies from Heaven), Michael Jayston, Julian Curry (Claude Erskine-Brown on Rumpole of the Bailey), Daniel Massey (looking very much like father Raymond), and, in a small role, Jude Law. Semi-regulars Rosalie Williams (as Mrs. Hudson) and Colin Jeavons (as Inspector Lestrade) make their expected appearances.
Note: Some episode guides to the various Brett/Holmes shows include "The Master Blackmailer," "The Last Vampyre," and "The Eligible Bachelor" as part of Case-Book's run. However, these were TV movies made back-to-back nearly a year after the official Case-Book series had ended and thus are not included in this set. They are available on DVD, however, also as MPI releases.
Video & Audio
MPI has steadily improved the quality of its transfers for this series. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes looked quite bad, turning many Holmes fans off to MPI's subsequent DVDs, but Case-Book looks great, with especially good color and as sharp an image as the production format (Super 16mm?) will allow. That said, MPI's optional English subtitles are still awful, always badly-synched to the dialog and usually many beats behind. The stereo sound is okay if unexceptional.
MPI deserves credit for also beefing up the supplements on their Sherlock Holmes titles. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes includes several features certain to delight fans of the series. First is a nine-minute, undated interview with Brett and Hardwicke on a British chat show called Daytime Live. It's not especially substantial, but fascinating nonetheless to see Hardwicke, wearing glasses and without his toupee, looking the spitting image of father Sir Cedric; and Brett, sporting a giant Long John Silver earring, discussing their characters. Brett talks about his initial trepidation toward playing Holmes (he says he always had thought of him as a "damaged penguin") but now confesses, "I'm enjoying every giddy minute of it." They also talk at some length about The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, the not very good play which had a shaky run in London's West End.**
Also included is a Sherlock Holmes Museum Short which bears the title card The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Also undated, this black and white newsreel excerpt appears to date from the late-1940s or early-1950s and runs about two minutes. Another famous Holmes, Arthur Wontner, appears at an exhibit held at the real 221 Baker Street, along with one of Arthur Conan Doyle's sons. Finally, "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" includes an audio commentary track featuring that episode's director, John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). The track mostly discusses his efforts to adapt the material (and its atypical, very effective conclusion) into series television form, though it includes several nice production anecdotes as well.
Fans of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series should be delighted with this package. If the stories themselves fall several notches below those in previous shows, Brett and Hardwicke are, as almost always, a delight to watch, and MPI's transfers and extra features are much-improved from earlier releases. Highly recommended.
**This reviewer stumbled upon the play while visiting London around 1988. I happened upon the theater minutes before curtain time, but still managed to get a front row seat in the second (?) balcony. Though the angle was a bit odd, the theater was so intimate (and appropriately period) that Brett and Hardwicke never seemed more than 20 feet away. My vague memory of the show is that Brett's Holmes was far more emotionally naked than he ever was in the TV series, but the play's "secret" was a bad idea, one so absurd as to make the resolution of "The Creeping Man" positively reasonable by comparison.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.