Not to be confused with the upcoming release of Basil Rathbone / Sherlock Holmes films made in the 1940s, Artisan's "The Sherlock Holmes Collection" is a relatively new package of TV films from 2001 and 2002. Although the world's greatest consulting detective has been featured in movies for nearly a century, recent adaptations have all had to face the same problem: actor Jeremy Brett.
Brett portrayed Holmes in a series of British television shows made irregularly over ten years beginning in 1984. Brett's Holmes was the culmination of 15 years of reinterpretation of the character, which more or less began with Billy Wilder's superb The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and continued with such films as The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and even They Might Be Giants (1971), which successfully reworked Holmes as a modern-day paranoid. Brett's Holmes was unpredictable, manic-depressive, anti-social, mesmerizing. The creators of the series wisely gave Brett -- an actor as eccentric and troubled as Holmes himself -- considerable freedom with the character, while simultaneously sticking extremely close to the original short stories. The last Brett / Holmes shows were generally tedious and almost slapdash (this due to a combination of weaker scripts, lower budgets, and Brett's sadly apparent health problems), but the first few seasons were superb, definitive even, and one can only pity those who have attempted to visit the same material since Brett's untimely death in 1995.
Such is the case with "The Sherlock Holmes Collection," a set of four 90-minute TV movies: "The Hound of the Baskervilles," "The Sign of Four," "The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire," and "The Royal Scandal," all produced with Canadian moneys though shot in Britain. I watched "Hound of the Baskervilles" and bits of the others, and while they are by no means bad, they are resolutely undistinguished.
The DVD's packaging offers no credits at all, but the shows star Matt Frewer, best remembered as Max Headroom, the stuttering soft drink pitchman and star of at least three completely different television shows. (One of these, a British series called "Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future," is actually quite interesting.) Frewer's casting isn't all that surprising when one considers that he was both raised in Canada and worked extensively in British television. And, frankly, Frewer is an uncanny match for Sidney Paget's famous sketches that accompanied the stories as they first appeared in Strand Magazine.
That said, Frewer's interpretation of the character is not especially engrossing, either. In attempting to put his own stamp on the character, Frewer's Holmes lies somewhere between Brett's twitching mannerisms and Peter Cushing's erudite thinking machine. He is neither a sometimes genial Holmes in the way Cushing sometimes was, nor is he the misanthropic loner in the manner of Brett. Frewer's Holmes is just a mildly eccentric dullard.
Kenneth Welsh's equally undistinguished Watson is no better. The character, in the original stories certainly, was Holmes's link to humanity. The best Watsons were only a few steps, figuratively, behind Holmes and his methods, and warm and polite to Holmes's cold and frequent haughtiness. Welsh's Watson (who looks like a middle-aged Laurence Olivier) has none of these qualities. Where Frewer offers a meandering, unfocused, but sincere Holmes, Welsh is like a hole in the screen. Both in Welsh's playing and in "Hound's" script, the relationship between Holmes and Watson reveals the filmmakers' less-than-firm grasp of the material. Watson seems mildly irritated with Holmes throughout the story, as if growing impatient of his colleague's eccentricities. Moreover, the "Hound" script has the odd effect of making Holmes look rather incompetent during the final reel, surely not the intent of the filmmakers.
The four shows are adequately produced, with ample production values and all appear to have been shot in standard 35mm, unlike the Brett series, which made do with rather grainy 16mm. "Baskervilles," at least, is generally faithful to its source, in some ways even more than perhaps necessary. Although by far the best known of the Doyle stories, Holmes isn't actually in it very much, and other film versions fudged a bit to bring Holmes more into the action than he was in the novella.
The shows were directed by Rodney Gibbons, best known for such films as My Bloddy Valentine (1981) and Scanners II: The New Order (1991). Gibbons's work is competent, little more. There is a greatly annoying and cliched use of skip-frame slow motion for flashback and horror scenes, which only serves to make the shows look cheap.
Video & Audio
Spread over two single-sided discs, the four shows look fine in their full frame presentation. The 2.0 Dolby Surround was fine if unexceptional. There are no extras.
"The Sherlock Holmes Collection" deserves credit for not being nearly as bad as it might have been. All things considered, it's an honest effort, just not a very good one. The raw materials are all there, but the end result is lifeless.