Stretching the Blackmailer
IT WAS EDWARD HARDWICKE who told me that Granada had, for some time, been thinking about 'two-hour Sherlocks before they actually took the plunge'. There had even been talk of a movie but it seems that is all it was—talk. Ostensibly, the thinking behind extending the showing time from one hour to two was so that the stories could 'breathe more': the atmosphere of London could be captured to better effect in the longer time and the Holmes and Watson relationship could be explored in greater detail. (This aspect certainly never materialised.) I suspect the real reason concerned the commercialism of a two-hour package.
Of course, there was also the Morse factor. The very successful detective series featuring Colin Dexter's grumpy but erudite Oxford Chief Inspector was shot in two-hour episodes. This series began quietly in Britain in 1987, but by the time the second series was transmitted the following year it was required viewing. Viewers were cancelling their arrangements for the evening to sit down at eight o'clock and immerse themselves in the world of Oxford crime, real beer, classical music, and convoluted puzzles. Despite the obvious differences between the two sleuths, and their disparate settings, it can be supposed that they appeal to similar audiences. This must have been part of the thinking at Granada. If Central (the TV company which produced the Inspector Morse series for the ITV network) could grab fourteen million viewers with a two-hour Morse, surely Granada could do the same with a two-hour Sherlock? The problem was, of course, that the Morse films were based on tightly-plotted novels of two hundred pages or so; all that Granada had left were bottom-of-the-barrel Conan Doyle tales averaging around twenty pages.
There was also another shift of emphasis at this time: Michael Cox had left the scene altogether. He had gone off to set up another detective series based on the Maigret books, but it was an unhappy experience for him, and he left Granada shortly afterwards. The Holmes series was now totally in the hands of June Wyndham Davies. She saw her role as a film maker and she would, I think, be the first to agree that she never had quite the affinity with Sherlock Holmes that Michael Cox had. She saw her mission with the two-hour shows as 'making feature films for television'. She was also under instruction from the top to make 'pretty pictures' and 'to cut down on the dialogue'. The latter instruction, regarding a Sherlock Holmes film, reveals a crassness and an ignorance that is as astounding as it is stupid.
Jeremy was never quite sure how he felt about the two-hour shows. His reaction to them depended on how he felt on the day. Broadly he approved of them when he was filming them, but in retrospect he thought they did not work. On the set of The Eligible Bachelor, the last of the three two-hour movies, he told me: 'Two hours give you a chance to breathe real details into the plots and, of course, Victorian England is loved by the world and we're able to show more of it in two hours.'
However, in our last interview together in the spring of 1995 he had revised his views:
'The two hour ones were a mistake. Not the Blackmailer. I thought the Blackmailer one was good, apart from my kissing scene, which was all wrong. But in the two hours we got too far away from Doyle. They had Holmes becoming someone else. I had to pull back some of the writing, but a lot of things got through which I now regret.'
I would certainly agree with Jeremy that The Master Blackmailer, the first two-hour film, was the best; and indeed it is a good film.
The Master Blackmailer is Charles Augustus Milverton, 'the king of all the blackmailers', who is probably Conan Doyle's greatest villain. Unlike Professor Moriarty, he really does get the better of Sherlock Holmes, forcing him to abandon brainwork and deduction and assume the role of common burglar. Although this is an entertaining story, one of the most popular in the canon, 'The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton' is not one of Sherlock Holmes's shining hours; yet it was the one case which Brett admitted to me in 1988 that he really wanted to do. He got his wish.
What is amazing, however, is how this slight, twelve-page story became a two-hour Sherlock Holmes special. Screenwriter Jeremy Paul observed that, in essence, it is a three-scene story: the Milverton visit to Holmes, the burglary and murder, and the Baker Street denouement. Looked at in these terms it is not much on which to base one hundred minutes of screen time. Paul certainly had a difficult task to stretch the material, while attempting to stay close to the spirit of Conan Doyle. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider how so many of the episodes of the Granada series have reflected the rhythm and structure of the original stories, even when they have been altered. Much of this is due to the genius of Conan Doyle's writing. However, 'Milverton' is, in many ways, an exception. As already noted, it is short and disappointing in terms of Sherlock Holmes's detective work; but embedded in the text there are tantalising hints of untold tragedies and scenarios surrounding this master blackmailer. Paul decided to tell the untold. He teased out threads from the original to weave into a new, broader tapestry—a tapestry that presents graphically the full effect of this evil genius on the lives of his victims. Set into this tapestry is the story of the lady who finally ends the life of this monster Milverton by firing five bullets into his 'marble heart'. We witness the commencement of her tragedy and see how her resentment and hatred ferment, finally bubbling over into fury and murderous intent. It is very satisfying to understand the reason for the tears and anger in her final confrontation with Milverton; so much so that, as I am sure Conan Doyle intended, we pull the trigger along with her.
Paul's dramatisation allows us an insight into the dark side of Victorian life. Colonel Dorking, for example, is betrayed by his homosexual lover on the eve of his marriage to Lady Charlotte Miles. Dorking has refused to pay Milverton for his indiscreet notes and consequently his secret love is revealed, forcing him to take 'the soldier's way out'. 'All these scenes are new, yet they have germinated from Conan Doyle's text,' Jeremy Paul observed. 'I have added nothing that is not hinted at in the original story.'
With these developments, the writer was able to expand Holmes's involvement with the case, actually creating a mystery for him to solve. Therefore as the film opens, the Great Detective is completely unaware of the vile creature who is blackmailing several noble families. This is a challenge for his racing engine of a brain.
Interestingly, however, the two outstanding scenes in the show which ripple with excitement—Milverton's visit to Baker Street where Holmes has to physically restrain Watson from attacking the blackguard, and the blackmailer's death at the hand of the veiled lady—are pure, unadulterated Conan Doyle.
In his research for the script, Jeremy Paul learned that at the same time the story was written there was in London society an ambivalent character, a friend of Ruskin, Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and other artists. His name was Charles Augustus Howell, and there were many who believed him to be a blackmailer. It is most probable that Arthur Conan Doyle knew of him, and it is not pressing supposition too far to believe that he based his Charles Augustus on Howell. Jeremy Paul certainly followed this line of reasoning, which is why he presented Milverton as an art dealer—an ideal occupation which allowed him to move with ease in high society, gaining access to the secrets of the wealthy and vulnerable.
Paul let us know some new, if incidental, quirks about the Baker Street lodgers. 'I can't stand the smell of cabbage,' rants Holmes as he orders Mrs Hudson to take a plate of the offending vegetable away. On being handed a book of poetry, Watson smiles and observes, 'I do rather like Tennyson.' Throughout the whole film the Holmes and Watson relationship is nicely balanced, often by touches that the two men bring to their roles. Of this particular venture Brett said, 'If it was not in the script, I tried to put it there.' A case in point is when a frustrated Watson moans, 'There must be some way to fight this devil.' Holmes gives a curt nod and then places a hand of solace on his friend's shoulder. Similarly, there is that fleeting beam of pleasure on Holmes's face when he observes Watson enjoying the dancing at the Earl of Dovercourt's ball.
Holmes and Watson act as a team, both in the burglary of Milverton's house and when the blackmailer visits the Baker Street rooms. It is perhaps the last time in the series that there is such a strong sense that these two men live together, work together, and actually like each other. With the help of Jeremy Paul's dialogue, Hardwicke's Watson emerges not only as an intelligent, reliable, and sophisticated companion, but a perceptive one too. Particularly telling is his description of Milverton 'as a boy, brought up in lonely isolation, starved of parental affection....' No wonder Holmes blanches at this, for it seems that Watson has unwittingly described Holmes's own childhood.
Robert Hardy as Milverton steals the show. He portrays Milverton exactly as Conan Doyle described him: '. . . a round, plump, hairless face, a perpetual frozen smile and two keen grey eyes, which gleamed brightly from behind broad, golden-rimmed glasses.' For the first part of the drama, he remains a vague figure casting a shadow over the lives of his victims: we hear his smooth, oily voice, we catch a back view of him, but it is only when Watson encounters him in an art gallery that we first see this smiling damned villain face-on. It is a chilling sight.
As an experiment in doubling the length of a Sherlock Holmes episode, The Master Blackmailer was a success. However, there are several weaknesses. For example, if Milverton is as evil, powerful, and destructive as we are led to believe, and has been plying his foul trade for at least twelve years, surely Sherlock Holmes would know of him, just as he knew of Moriarty and his organisation. Similarly, the detective-as-plumber episode simply does not work. Here Holmes, disguised as a plumber, visits the Milverton household on the pretence of 'fixing the pipes'. His real intention is to learn the layout of the house and the habits of the inmates. He is aided and abetted in this by the young maid Aggie, who takes a shine to Sherlock in his guise as 'Escott the plumber'. I use the word disguise lightly: all it amounted to was Brett with uncombed hair, a vacant demeanour, and a strange country accent. Surely Holmes, even in disguise, would not have been able to prowl around the Milverton household as freely as he seems to do; and can one believe that Paul penned Escott's line, 'We plumb the depths—that's our firm's motto', or was it Jeremy Brett in a whimsical mood on the day of shooting?
The Aggie and Escott 'romance' is most interesting. In the original story it is dealt with briefly. Holmes discusses the episode with Watson:
'You will be interested to hear that I am engaged.'
'My dear fellow! I congrat——'
'To Milverton's housemaid.'
'Good heavens, Holmes!'
'I wanted information, Watson.'
'Surely you have gone too far?'
'It was a most necessary step. I am a plumber with a rising business, Escott by name. I have walked out with her each evening, and I have talked with her. Good heavens, those talks!'
To become engaged, even in the decorous Victorian days, one had to go further than simply talking. Holding hands and kissing must have been part of the process. It is difficult to imagine Holmes in any kind of amorous situation. Conan Doyle wisely presented the situation as a fait accompli and passed over it in less than a page. Unwisely, Granada dealt with it in some detail. It is true that Aggie, charmingly played by Sophie Thompson, did all the running, but Holmes was obliged to respond to her hugs and sighs. The shy Escott confesses that he does not know how to kiss, and no doubt we are meant to believe that this is also Holmes's real predicament. It is left to Aggie to show him how. Once the kiss is over we see Escott emotionally overcome—or is it Holmes? The whole thing does not work. Jeremy Brett thought so too, afterwards:
'We should have left all that to the viewers' imagination. The kiss business was a mistake. Holmes was inexperienced with women, but he wasn't inexperienced as a detective and he shouldn't have reacted in the way I did. I wish that scene wasn't in the film.'
At the time of filming, Brett made this observation:
'Ah, yes, the kiss. If I say it's bending the willow in terms of what Arthur Conan Doyle originally intended, then I only hope it doesn't actually break it.'
Of course, for the press, Holmes's kiss was the only thing of interest about the film. The report in the Sun newspaper for 20 December 1991 is hilarious. Headed 'Sherlock shows he's no Holmo!', it reads:
Sherlock Holmes is to be seen in a sexy clinch for the first time.
The strait-laced sleuth romps with a busty serving maid in a £1 million TV special being screened by ITV in the New Year.
The plot of the new two-hour drama, The Master Blackmailer, also involves gays and transvestites.
In the episode Holmes, played by Jeremy Brett, pretends to be a randy plumber to get into the blackmailer's house. But he is cornered by a serving wench Agatha and ends up on his back kissing her—to the relief of fans who have wondered about his bachelor life-style.
Jeremy, 58, said yesterday: 'I was worried about the kissing scene. I took toothpaste and mouthwash on the set. I was concerned about the scene. I thought we might be infringing on Sherlock's sexuality, given that he is such a private man.'
There are other less-than-satisfying elements in the film, such as Holmes's brusque and cavalier manner with Mrs Hudson, dismissing her as though she were an errant chambermaid. The saving grace in these scenes is the smile that lights the landlady's face, as though to indicate that she knows Holmes really doesn't mean it and that his apparent rudeness is part of a game he plays with her.
Some Sherlockian viewers complained of lost moments from the story, particularly the scene near the end in which Lestrade arrives at Baker Street to enlist Holmes's assistance in tracking down the two intruders whom he believes murdered Milverton. In response to Lestrade's description of one of the fugitives, Holmes observes, 'Why, it might be a description of Watson.' The scene was scripted and filmed, but was cut from the final print. Both Jeremy Paul and director Peter Hammond thought that the sly humour inherent in the scene tended to trivialise the strong drama that preceded it and reduced the power of the Milverton death scene.
The closing episode, featuring the auction of Milverton's objet d'art, is based on what happened when Charles Augustus Howell's goods and chattels were sold off. A whole array of noble names sent minions to bid for certain pieces in the hope of snapping up items which might conceal evidence of their indiscretions. Thus when Holmes sees Bertrand (Nickolas Grace), supplier of secrets and, in essence, Milverton's successor, bidding for the bust of Athene, the detective suspects that it contains evidence of some indiscretion. Back at Baker Street he smashes the bust, only to discover that he is wrong; but as he gazes at the shattered fragments in the grate, he glimpses a burning ember lighting the eye of the goddess. It glows brightly for a brief moment, the symbol of blackmail, the parasitic force which still lives, still survives, despite the death of one of its most powerful agents, the most dangerous man in London, Charles Augustus Milverton.
The press, by now a little bored with Sherlock Holmes films, and needing to nit pick, was in the main only grudgingly complimentary, although Susan Young's comment in the Daily Express summed up what a lot of us were thinking when she wrote, 'That is not to say it didn't pass a fairly enjoyable two hours, but there was definitely a feeling of things being stretched.' Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian was more generous:
The film itself is a gorgeous business. Thickly buttered, not to say jammed with mist and mirrors, greenery and tapestry, reflections of reflections. And a group of girls like a Fragonard on the grass. The Master Blackmailer, Charles Augustus Milverton lives in Hampstead in premises of unparallelled grandeur, with his own rain forest which suggests that his business is encouragingly brisk. As Sherlock Holmes remarked there are hundreds in this great city who turn white at his name.
Jeremy Paul who expanded the story, Chris Truelove who designed it, and Peter Hammond, who directed it, beautifully conceal the fact that there is no story there at all. The Master Blackmailer is melodrama with knobs on. The sum total of Holmes's contribution is to become engaged to Milverton's housemaid and burgle the Milverton house to very little purpose. While Holmes and Watson are shut in a cupboard, Milverton is dispatched by the Miss Otis of her day, who shoots him six times, crying ringingly 'Vile creature, I will free the world of a poisonous thing.' Robert Hardy succumbs at some length to some poisonous writhing.
There was little actual press comment about Jeremy Brett's performance as Holmes (or indeed Edward Hardwicke's as Watson). Probably it had all been said before—the series had been running for eight years, after all. But this sense of omission was indicative of how Jeremy Brett's performance as Holmes was now being marginalised by the critics. To be fair, they left him alone and had digs at the thin plot, the over-indulgent camera work and the lack of actual detective work required to set matters straight; but to be ignored in this way is as damning as an out-and-out critical attack. The truth is that Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, beloved by the fans, has never been accorded the appropriate accolades it deserved. As we move towards Jeremy's final performances, this is a subject I shall touch on again.