A&E and it's subsidiary station, "History" love box sets. They also love re-releasing old material in box sets that look new and exciting. Often, especially when it comes to stuff from "History" these box sets collect various series that fit a specific theme and in the end, are a great value. A&E has now tried their hand at squeezing the money from the wallets of mystery fans with the "Great Detectives Anthology" which is full of previously released material, but not necessarily great material. The biggest problem is the pairing of the mid-60s BBC television series of "Sherlock Holmes" with the original 80s production of "Miss Marple" and a handful of "Poirot" films. They may all entail mystery, but not all mysteries are created equal.
The BBC's "Sherlock Holmes" is actually quite a treat to have on DVD, despite the series not being all that great. Produced in 1965, it brought Peter Cushing back to the role he hit a grand slam with in 1958 alongside Christopher Lee in Hammer's feature-length adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles." The series ran for 16 episodes, but as was the case with many old BBC productions, the original tapes were reused and all but five episodes were lost to time. "Dr. Who" fans are no strangers to this sad period in BBC history, but sadly, "Holmes" fans haven't been as lucky, as no other copies have turned up. Previously released, this collection collects all five stories, over six, 45-minute episodes.
I honestly feel sad to report, that despite the presence of the great Peter Cushing, this adaptation of Sherlock Holmes just doesn't cut it. Only "The Hound of the Baskervilles" gets a more feature-length outing, covering two, full episodes, but those who saw Cushing's earlier efforts will not be impressed. For those relatively new to Holmes (I myself have had limited exposure to the character over the years), it could very well kill any desire to finish the series. Holmes himself is a limited part of the story, leaving early in the first episode and arriving in the final act of the second, leaving Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson to carry the weight of the story. Stock is adequate as Watson, bringing more dignity to the character than some adaptations or characterizations, where Watson is often painted as comic relief. Even with double the runtime, the series doesn't feel like it does Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel (he wrote four Holmes novels and numerous short stories featuring the character) justice, often adopting a hurried pace, where the actors feel like they are rushing to finish the scene.
In terms of the supporting cast, they are passable at best, often times overacting or straining for enthusiasm. I've always hated the notion of people viewing TV acting differently from film acting, but here, Cushing aside, everyone supports the stereotype that TV acting is the "minor league." Cushing on the other hand does the best with what he's given. Even though the remaining four stories are based on Conan Doyle's short stories, 45-minutes just isn't enough to tell a compelling mystery and make the character of Holmes standout. Cushing is often forced to rush through scenes and merely spout out observations and deductions. There's no evidence this is one of the most beloved detectives in literary history.
Production wise, the series is extremely dated, with the interior scenes often feeling cramped and manufactured. In comparison some of the location footage does breathe some life into the stories, but the jump back to studio footage is even more jarring as a result. The design team does their best to capture a period look, but falls short. Hurting matters even more, is the occasional hokey sound design, with revelations punctuated by a dramatic chord that instantly recalls memories of something no one expects...The Spanish Inquisition. For a series based on serious source material, it only undermines the tone that already struggles from occasionally hammy acting.
At the end of the day, I am thankful at least five stories of this series exist, but the quality doesn't meet the expectations one has when it comes the source material. Peter Cushing is the highlight here and even though it's far from his best work, he still makes every episode worth watching, just because he refuses to resign himself to phoning it in.
A refined older woman solving mysteries in a quiet town. No, this isn't "Murder, She Wrote," but fans of that famous American mystery series, unfamiliar with the obvious inspiration for Jessica Fletcher, Agatha Christie's "Miss Marple" are in for a treat. The 1980s production of "Miss Marple" featured Joan Hickson filling the shoes of the title character and over the course of 12, roughly 90-minute episodes, left a solid impression on viewers, earning two BAFTA nominations in the process. "A&E" owns the home video rights to nine of the 12 stories, with "Warner Bros." holding the other three. While "A&E" has released all nine twice before in a standalone collection and alongside a variety of "Poirot" episodes, here, they have chosen to only include eight, with the episode "They Do It With Mirrors" remaining absent. It's a frustrating omission that forces fans who are introduced to the character in this set to track down a lone DVD of that episode or re-buy the entire collection outright, in the end it's a move that firmly hurt's my ultimate recommendation of this set.
Marketing issues aside, Joan Hickson's run as Miss Marple definitely lives up to the hype. "Miss Marple" is not a lively series by any stretch of the imagination and having grown up in a house where "Murder, She Wrote" reigned supreme, I definitely have my biases when it comes to mystery programming. I fully respect the place Miss Marple has in the pages of history, coming to life on screen from a series of Agatha Christie stories. Having seen Miss Hickson's portrayal of the character only makes me appreciate the tremendous difference in style Angela Lansbury brings to her own iconic character; interestingly enough, Lansbury played Marple herself, in the 1980 film "The Mirror Crack'd."
Unlike "Murder, She Wrote," "Miss Marple" more often than not, focuses on the supporting cast allowing for the mystery to unfold throughout the town with Miss Marple herself sometimes showing up late into an episode and acting merely as an underlying force, rather than the focal point. Yes, she eventually solves the mystery, but you can never tell for certain how things will actually play out. With each episode running around 90-minutes this can strain the patience of the casual mystery fan, I myself had difficulty adjusting to the slow pacing of the series and in the end, can't say I'm a full-fledged Marple convert.
Each episode follows the same skeletal structure. We are introduced to our characters, a murder occurs, and nothing is as simple as it initially seems. Relying often on supporting characters is a gamble, but unlike in "Sherlock Holmes" the supporting casts are often much more engaging than one would expect. Donald Pleasance turns up in one episode and is fun to watch him as the complete opposite of Hickson. Additionally fortunate is pleasant cinematography and production design; the entire series is pleasantly filmed and never detracts from the performances, while the sets themselves feel much more natural and subdued in art design. It's a huge step-up from other series' and pushes when the cast and stories are on fire (as the episodes "Nemesis" and "Murder at the Vicarage," which were not surprisingly the episodes Hickson received BAFTA nominations for) near film quality.
Saving the best for last, what more could one say when it comes to Joan Hickson's consistent performance as Jane Marple. Miss Hickson effortlessly brings the character to life and there are often times when her performance goes unappreciated merely because it feels like Marple is real person playing herself. Hickson brings a quiet dignity and refined sensibility to the role, getting under the skin of investigators, often underplaying her own knowledge of events to further her quest in uncovering the truth. It's said that Agatha Christie herself desired Hickson to play the character, and if that isn't ringing endorsement of how perfect Hickson is for a role that could easily fall apart at the seems, I don't know what more to say.
If understated best describes Joan Hickson's portrayal of Jane Marple, than one wouldn't have to look any further than David Suchet's now legendary run on Christie's other famous detective, Hercule Poirot. Suchet has become synonymous with the character, having played him in countless adaptations of Christie's novels. Suchet is only a year or so away from achieving his goal of filming every story, a truly monumental task. The release of "Poirot" is quite complicated, with A&E having owned some episodes, while "Acorn" handles all current releases. Five of the episodes (in reality, feature-length films), the entirety of season 10 finds its way into the set, as well as a season nine episode, "Death on the Nile." While all the films are of high quality, I would have preferred a wider variety of episodes chosen, if only to show how Suchet's performance has evolved over 21 years.
Chances are if you enjoy "Marple" you'll enjoy "Poirot." The series truly captures a period atmosphere and if it weren't for the occasional restrained acting from supporting players from time to time, some episodes would belong on the big screen. 'Death on the Nile" is a prime example, Suchet, like Peter Cushing in "Sherlock Holmes" is always firing on all cylinders, but the female lead, Emily Blunt, just isn't up to snuff. It's a shame considering the production actually filmed partially in Egypt. Fortunately, the stories themselves are always sharp and Suchet keeps things moving at a good pace. While I previously stated I found "Miss Marple" sometimes slow paced, despite similar running times, "Poirot" keeps you on your toes and the character's more over-the-top character traits never grow old.
Going back to the series' wonderful embodiment of the time period of the stories, one often might get visions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920s and 30s. The production design captures the feel from great period clothing, to interior design and lighting. The often-affluent characters that cross Poirot's path often display the self-centered excess that Fitzgerald so eloquently captured in his novels. For most viewers it's a minor aspect that might not catch their attention, but for me, it was an added bonus, being a fan of Fitzgerald. Poirot on the other hand, is definitely a product of another time period.
Suchet has rightly earned his accolades, bringing an eccentric but brilliant detective to life. Modern mystery fans will likely see some aspects of the character in Adrian Monk, especially in the way Poirot will reveal his solution to the mystery. Sporting a very unique mustache and a thick Belgian accent, Suchet works wonders, taking an outwardly goofy man and making you believe he's the best at what he does. Encapsulated in a nutshell, Poirot is a character that has something for everyone: the superior intellect of a Sherlock Holmes, despite having a much different approach to detective work, the class of Jane Marple, and the style and pizzazz more commonly found in the modern detective character. If there's one series in this set that can hook new viewers on classic mysteries, it's David Suchet's "Poirot."
Despite the age and treatment of the series, "Sherlock Holmes" boasts an above average 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer. Detail is of medium quality, while color levels are heavy on the earthen side. Technical hiccups are limited only to some light noise.
VIDEO RATING: 3.0/5.0
"Miss Marple" is presented in a 1.33:1 original aspect ration transfer and "ugly" is the best descriptor for this disappointing tape transfer. Detail is barely existent and only outmatched by a washed out transfer. Some minor tracking issues pop up, as does noticeable compression and subtle noise. It's on par with a medium quality VHS tape for a more solid comparison.
VIDEO RATING: 1.5/5.0
Poirot, presented in a 1.33:1 (which from my research appears to not be the original aspect ratio) transfer and suffers from some occasional compression issues as well as a slightly higher than desired contrast level. Colors do capture the wonderful period atmosphere and detail is far from outstanding but definitely adequate.
VIDEO RATING: 3.0/5.0
"Sherlock Holmes'" English 2.0 audio features some occasional high-end distortion and can sound hollow at times, but is otherwise perfect for the time period and production value.
AUDIO RATING: 3.5/5.0
"Miss Marple's" English 2.0 audio track is in far better shape than the video, perfectly mixed, and distortion free. Only occasionally does the sound wind up a bit muddled, but never to the extent that it detracts from the viewing experience.
AUDIO RATING: 3.0/5.0
"Poirot's" English 2.0 audio track is unremarkable, with dialogue heavier than the score and sound effects, but completely distortion free. The more modern production does feature a more rich aural presentation than the other series' but is ultimately, not spectacular.
AUDIO RATING: 3.0/5.0
Featured on disc two of the set, is an episode of "Biography" focused on the character of Sherlock Holmes as if he were a real person. It's a fun diversion and gives a solid overview of the character. On a more frustrating note, the packaging boasts biographies of David Suchet, Agatha Christie and indexes of all Poirot and Miss Marple stories. The biographies are merely text-based features and not feature length episodes of the "A&E" series.
Featuring three series' that might not appeal universally to every viewer, the "Great Detectives Anthology" doesn't fully live up to its potential for bringing in new viewers. Peter Cushing's "Sherlock Holmes" is ok across the board, while Joan Hickson's "Miss Marple" might be too dated and restrained for modern tastes. Only David Suchet's "Poirot" is a safe bet in sheer entertainment value, but the narrow scope of the episodes, all recent productions don't speak much for the history of the series. Adding insult to injury, "Miss Marple" is incomplete by one-episode, making a purchase of this set too much of a gamble. Rent It.