Sherlock in the Seventies: A Wild Decade of Sherlock Holmes Films (2021) by Derham Groves

I have not been having the strongest of reads lately, so I decided to read something a bit different to get out of this particular reading rut, and I am very glad I did. Today’s read comes from a relatively new imprint called The Visible Spectrum, which is an offshoot of Verse Chorus Press, who you may know have been reprinting the crime novels of Australian author June Wright. (The next of these reprints is due to appear in November with the title Faculty for Murder.) The Visible Spectrum, describes itself as ‘a book series devoted to a new and inventive work in fiction, graphic art, poetry, and cultural criticism, plus forgotten classics, bottom-drawer masterpieces, and oddball experiments.’

I am no one’s film buff when it comes to Holmes dramatisations, though certain names in this book ring a bell. Consequently, I was keen to find out more about 9 of them from the 1970s – and what a weird and bizarre collection they are!

Synopsis

‘Every era has had the Sherlock Holmes it wanted or needed—except the 1970s. In that wild decade, all bets were off . . .

The popular image of Sherlock Holmes in any given period derives as much from the actors who portrayed the detective as it does from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and Sidney Paget’s famous illustrations. In earlier and subsequent decades this image was defined by a single stage or screen actor (from William Gillette and Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey Jr.), but the nine Sherlock Holmes films made in the ’70s re-imagine the detective in starkly divergent ways, from the boldly inventive to the flat-out irreverent. Holmes is variously portrayed as gay (Robert Stephens), crazy (George C. Scott), pompous (Stewart Granger), petulant (Gene Wilder), vulnerable (Nicol Williamson), camp (Roger Moore) wrong-headed (John Cleese), silly (Peter Cook), and socially conscious (Christopher Plummer). Yet all these films contribute in their own way to casting new light on the legend.

In Sherlock in the Seventies, Derham Groves offers an entertaining and absorbing account of these films, packed with shrewd analysis and insights, background details, numerous illustrations, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes.’

Overall Thoughts

In the introduction, Groves includes this quote from Nicholas Meyer: ‘About once every 10 years [Sherlock Holmes] gets rediscovered by everybody, as opposed to that relatively small group of two million or so who are always buying and reading his books.’ Groves endorses this viewpoint, yet adds that:

‘…in any given period most people agreed what Holmes was like and who they liked best to portray him on stage and screen. In the early 1900s he was William Gillette. In the 1940s he was basil Rathbone, whose interpretation of the detective in fourteen films cast a very long shadow indeed. In the 1960s he was Peter Cushing. In the 1980s and 90s he was Jeremy Brett. And in the early 2000s he was Robert Downey Jr. In the 1970s, however, the image of Holmes was all over the place…’

Having now read the book this opinion certainly seems well founded given how mad some of the films are. Yet perhaps this versatility is an example of Vincent Canby’s exclamation that: ‘I can’t believe that any other fictional creation has been at once so adaptable, so impervious to change and so capable of accommodating the audiences of such different eras, as this remarkable eccentric.’

The book is divided into 9 chapters, with each one looking at a different Holmes film made from the 1970s. The writer shows a great dedication to providing thorough and engaging research, with lots of personal details about the films and the people involved being included. The use of interviews and contemporary newspaper criticism definitely feed into this. Dotted around the book are Holmes themed illustrations, done by Groves himself, using a variety of different mediums, from computer programmes and watercolours to linocuts and etchings. I felt these images gave the book an inviting and friendly quality, which is not something you expect from a non-fiction work.

Here are some highlights from the chapters. It goes without saying that they are all packed with far more information than I could possibly go into in a review.  I have also tried to not say too much about the plots of the films.

Film No. 1: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Director: Billy Wilder Sherlock Holmes: Robert Stephens Dr Watson: Colin Blakely

  • Billy Wilder had been wanting to do a Holmes film for many years before he got the chance and is recorded as saying that: ‘The greatest figures in fiction for the screen are Robinson Crusoe, Tarzan, and Sherlock Holmes, and there’s never been a decent movie about any of them.’
  • Work began on this film in 1963, but it took many years to come to fruition, with there being some casting difficulties. At one point Wilder even thought about starring Ringo Starr as Watson!
  • The uncut version of the film features four unrecorded cases of Holmes, but the version that was shown in the cinema reduced that number to 2. The premise of the film is that these cases could not be told until 50 years after Holmes’ death, as suffice to say they do not show him at his best.
  • One of the cases which survived the cut was ‘The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective,’ which was a problematic one to shoot due to the scene involving a lot of canaries. Would it surprise you to learn that ‘Canaries don’t take direction’? Wilder is said to have remarked that he would ‘never work with canaries again’!
  • Groves found a lot of interesting details, from a 2018 published romantic novel, about the filming that took place for this case, in Scotland, as one aspect of the plot involves the British government hiding a submarine in a Scottish loch, making it look like the Loch Ness monster. The original prop sunk to the bottom during filming. This use of unusual and surprising sources appealed to me.

Film No. 2: They Might Be Giants (1971)

Director: Anthony Harvey Sherlock Holmes/Justin Playfair: George C Scott Dr (Mildred) Watson: Joanne Woodward

  • This film is one of three examples of an earlier dramatization of Holmes featuring a female Dr Watson, prior to the American TV show Elementary.
  • It was originally a stage play from the 1960s, which starred Harry H. Corbett (from Steptoe and Son) playing the character of Judge Playfair who believes he is Sherlock Holmes.
  • Like the first film this one too suffered from cuts for the cinema version, with one rather crucial scene involving a food fight in a supermarket being cut. Yet the scene was restored for its television debut as it was too short! You can’t win, can you?

Film No. 3: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972)

Director: Barry Crane Sherlock Holmes: Stewart Granger Dr Watson: Bernard Fox

  • It was ‘filmed by Universal Pictures for the ABC Television Network’ and became ‘one of three 90-minute pilot films for a new crime-drama TV series called The Great Detectives.’ The other two detectives were Nick Carter and Hildegarde Withers, who also got pilot episodes.
  • Barry Crane was an expert at bridge and sadly got murdered by a drug addict.
  • Within four minutes of the film beginning, it arguably reveals the solution due to inadequate costuming, on the part of one character.
  • In keeping with other chapters this section looks at the main actors, considering their history and their thoughts on the production itself.
  • It is suggested that Stewart Granger might have designed his own costume, as this was something he was really interested in.
  • William Shatner starred as George Stapleton and commented on the below freezing temperatures at night, which made filming difficult and at one point ice had to be cracked off the ‘simulated quicksand.’

Film No. 4: The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)

Director: Gene Wilder Sigerson Holmes (Holmes younger brother): Gene Wilder Orville Sacker: Marty Feldman

  • This is described as a 91 minute ‘romantic comedy thriller with music,’ which Wilder wrote, directed and starred in. He rewrote the script four times and ended up directing it since the others who were approached declined, believing it was very much Wilder’s baby.
  • Originally upon hearing about the film people unsurprisingly thought it was about Mycroft but is actually about a his supposed younger brother who by no means matches his brother in sleuthing.
  • Wilder had a camera set up so he could rewatch each scene he was in. As director he was kind to others, but much harder on himself.   

Film No. 5: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Director: Herbert Ross Sherlock Holmes: Nicol Williamson Dr Watson: Robert Duvall

  • This is one of the films I had heard of as I was aware of Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel that the film was based on. The book was far more successful than the film, staying on the New York Times best sellers list for 42 weeks. Meyer was also responsible for writing the screenplay.
  • Meyer was not the originator for the idea of combining Holmes and Freud together as in 1968 Dr David F. Musto, ‘an American psychiatrist and expert in American drug policy, had published an article titled ‘A Study in Cocaine: Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud’ in the Journal of the American Medical Association’. Musto tried to sue Meyer twice, but he was not successful.
  • Groves’ book is not just a repository of facts, but also includes some comments and opinions. I think Groves balances this well and at times it adds a note of humour. For example, when a man named Fowler commented that Duvall’s English accent was great, Grove follows this up with the sentence: ‘Fowler must have had a tin ear.’ I like it when there is some personal engagement with secondary sources in this way, as in some non-fiction titles opinions can be flatly accepted.
  • Professor Moriarty was played by Sir Laurence Oliver, and he was ‘battling cancer at the time.’ He ‘did his three scenes in two days, just after he had gotten out of the hospital.’
  • Groves mentions ‘a bizarre stunt arranged by Universal Pictures to publicise the film [which] involved fifty bloodhounds competing to find actress Sonia Roberts (who had nothing to do with The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) hiding somewhere on the studio lot.’
  • One scene required Nicol Williamson ‘to lie in bed in flannel pyjamas with 50 snakes crawling over’ his body, as part of one of Holmes’ hallucinations when he is trying to get weaned from cocaine. Suffice to say this was my reaction upon reading this:

Film No. 6: Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976)

Director: Boris Sagal Sherlock Holmes: Roger Moore Dr Watson: Patrick Macnee

  • Roger Moore turned down, with feeling, a cameo appearance in an episode from series 4 of Sherlock called ‘The Abominable Bride.’ He was quite upset by the measly one line he were going to give him.
  • This chapter also covers Moore’s thoughts on the differences between playing Holmes and James Bond, which I found interesting.

Film No. 7: The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It (1977)

Director: Joe McGrath Arthur Sherlock Holmes (Holmes’ grandson): John Cleese Dr (William) Watson: Arthur Lowe

  • Parts of this film sounded familiar, but I did not realise that Cleese and Lowe were in this parody/pastiche of Holmes which is crossed with contemporary political satire.
  • Cleese was not that complimentary about the original Holmes, who he felt ‘was a bit seedy […] a very uninteresting character’ and this was his explanation for why they were ‘trying to buck him up a bit.’
  • Cleese had played Holmes previously in a 30-minute TV episode – Elementary My Dear Watson: The Strange Case of the Dead Solicitors (1973).
  • Lowe, who struggled to sleep at night and may have had some form of sleeping disorder was known for falling asleep during takes.

Film No. 8: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978)

Director: Paul Morrissey Sherlock Holmes: Peter Cook Dr Watson: Dudley Moore

  • This is a comedy version of this Holmes story.
  • Groves amusingly asserts that the greatest mystery of the film is why Morrissey was chosen to direct in the first place. In an interview in 2020 Morrissey was decidedly ‘testy’ about discussing this particular film. Bizarrely the descendants of Doyle, who held the rights to Holmes as a character wanted Andy Warhol to do a Holmes film, which never came about. Morrissey had worked quite a bit with Warhol, though looking back at this time he was far from complimentary in his interview last year.
  • Groves goes on to write that this is ‘by far the most criticised Holmes film of the 1970s – perhaps of all time – largely because most people had expected a lot more from the talented performers and filmmakers involved.’
  • I was surprised to learn that Penelope Keith and Prunella Scales were in this film.
  • I think the only place Groves and I part company is on the value of humour involving bodily fluids. Whilst Groves defends this form of comedy, I must say reading about those scenes in the film made me feel somewhat peaky.
  • This is a film with quite a few jokey references to other films such as Jaws and the Exorcist. Groves felt this were perhaps overused.
  • This was a far from tranquil film to be working on and it sounded like a particularly unpleasant experience for Kenneth Williams, whose difficulties are discussed in the book in more detail.

Film No. 9: Murder by Decree (1979)

Director: Bob Clark Sherlock Holmes: Christopher Plummer Dr Watson: James Mason

  • Groves felt this film was the second-best Holmes film ever made, with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes being the best.
  • Jack the Ripper is Holmes’ adversary in this film, but it transpires that he is no private murderous individual, but a much bigger government conspiracy and cover up. The plot elicited parallels from critics to the at the time still topical Watergate scandal.
  • President Ford was Mason’s model for the character of Watson.

Returning to the book as a whole I would say it has an aesthetically pleasing cover and the price is within the range of everyday readers, which is great news, as sometimes non-fiction titles on crime fiction can get priced outside of that comfortable price bracket. This work includes a lot of information, but importantly it is in a handy portable size, coming in at 246 pages. This means you’re not having to cart a doorstep around with you. Furthermore, Groves’ encyclopaedic knowledge of Holmes and the films is delivered in an engaging style, and it is something you can either read large chunks of in one go or dip into a chapter at a time. This is definitely a title that I can recommend.

Rating: 4.5/5

Source: Review Copy (The Visible Spectrum)

7 comments

  1. Of the movies, most of which I have seen, I like Private Life the best by a long chalk. Decree was also good. Giants just felt flat to me. I liked 7% a lot when I first saw it,but rewatching it a couple years ago it bored me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A Doctor Watson adventure (Holmes isn’t available so Watson fills in) from 1974 is Dr. Watson and the Darkwater Hall Mystery, with Edward Fox as Watson showing that he is more intelligent and competent than usually imagined.

    Liked by 1 person

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