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Sherlock and the Sexual Revolution: Holmes on screen in the 1960s

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Photographer unknown. Courtesy Paul Diamond collection. On location for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Left to right in foreground: I.A.L. Diamond, Colin Blakely, Geneviève Page, Robert Stephens, Billy Wilder.

Perhaps the most ’60s thing to happen to Sherlock Holmes was the 1966 poster for James Hill’s 1965 thriller A Study in Terror. Below the say-it-like-it-is tagline, ‘SHERLOCK HOLMES MEETS JACK THE RIPPER!’, is a painting of John Neville’s Holmes touting a pistol, Inverness cape flapping, next to the secondary tagline, ‘Here comes the original caped crusader!’ Round him are half a dozen of those jagged sound-effect bubbles that used to appear in comic books, most of them containing something onomatopoeic: ‘POW!’, ‘BIFF!’, ‘BANG!’. But the last is a bit different—‘elementary, my dear Watson’, it proclaims.

That poster is the nearest thing the ’60s came to giving us a contemporary Holmes—an equivalent to Rathbone fighting Nazis in the 1940s, or Cumberbatch tackling a Jimmy Saville stand-in earlier this year. The movie itself has the sort of vivid Victorian setting that audiences had grown used to through the Hammer brand of Gothic horror, of which there’d been an abundant supply since 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. And although this Holmes is perhaps more physical than we’re used to—he’s involved in couple of real dust-ups, even sporting a sword stick in one of them, which inexplicably does absolutely no harm whatsoever—there’s never any threat of him taking time out to dance to the latest beats. The truth is, it’s a poster that almost entirely misrepresents the movie it’s promoting.

But not quite. In its bottom-left-hand corner is the image of a young woman bent forward, the better to reveal an ample bust, screaming ‘AIEEE!’ through another one of those spikey bubbles. Despite the poster’s transparent attempts to lure children who have become addicted to the phenomenally successful Batman TV series (ABC, 1966-1968), it’s clear that, in its subject matter at least, A Study in Terror is going to be a grown-up piece of exploitation cinema.

And so it proves to be. What’s more of a surprise, perhaps, is how well executed it is. Inevitably, given the elements of the film that are drawn from history—namely, the number and identities of the Ripper’s victims—Holmes is entirely unsuccessful in preventing any murders. Early on, we go on a tour of Shepperton’s Whitechapel set with Barbara Windsor’s Annie Chapman, who fails to find a safe harbour for the night, even from Terry Downes’s Chunky (Downes was a former middleweight boxing champion, whose role here as a butcher is a bit of misdirection that’s never followed through). When she meets her end, it’s as a vulnerable woman we’ve grown to care about. Not so the final murder victim.  By the time we meet Edina Ronay’s Mary Jane Kelly, the camera has become the eyes of the Ripper. What follows after Kelly throws the Ripper her keys—in effect, throws them to us—owes a clear debt to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). It’s still disturbing now, despite the fact that the fearsome violence is only implied.

I can’t claim that A Study in Terror is an innovative film in the manner of Powell’s. It’s other really effective cinematic moment owes a debt to another great filmmaker: the establishing montage of the bustling East End pub at the film’s centre might be a colourised off-cut from David Lean’s Oliver Twist. But where it does do something new is in marrying an overtly sexual theme to the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, and a Sherlock Holmes who is in many ways ‘canonical’. The screenwriters, Derek Ford and Donald Ford (not related) mix epigrammatic bon mots straight from Conan Doyle with some convincing additions, and John Neville is assisted by the make-up team in creating a disguise that’s nearly as good as Basil Rathbone’s in 1939’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (I don’t want to spoil either of them for anyone by saying more about them here). John Neville, it should be said, is very well cast, and I for one would have been happy to watch a whole series of films or TV episodes starring his Sherlock Holmes. Donald Houston’s Watson is turned out from the same old-duffer mould as Nigel Bruce, but at least he’s given a proper role to perform in the plot. It’s a genuine shock, then, to hear them discussing prostitution, and to actually use the word ‘prostitute’. It would be absurd to say that sex doesn’t exist in Conan Doyle’s stories—one of the most famous cases, after all, is centred on a sex scandal involving the Prince of Bohemia and an opera singer; and look at Dr Watson’s description of Beryl Stapleton in Hound of the Baskervilles if you doubt his sensuality—but the constraints of the time meant it could only be dealt with through dark hints and euphemism.

 

On the whole, films such as A Study in Terror are exceptions to prove the rule that Sherlock Holmes was no longer a cinematic force by the 1960s. There had been a German-language film starring Christopher Lee and Thorley Walters as Holmes and Watson—Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), which is pretty much universally reviled, not least by its star—but mostly this was the era where the detective found his natural home on TV. The BBC produced two series based on the original stories, comprising 29 episodes in total. The first, following a pilot adaptation of ‘The Speckled Band’ in 1964, was broadcast in 1965, and starred Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock. Most of these survive, and I can recommend them: faithful and careful adaptations of the original, well-played and boasting atmospheric photography that’s only partly down to the black-and-white videotape and film stock. In 1968, the series was revived in colour, and this time Stock’s Watson was to answer to an older but more stellar Holmes. Peter Cushing, no less.

Cushing had already played Holmes in a genuine Hammer horror (A Study in Terror is a Compton/Sir Nigel Films production). His performance in 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is a fine one, though it stands in opposition to much that happens in the film, which is more interested in horror-movie shocks than detective work. There is also some overt sensuality, but it’s less seriously handled than in A Study in Terror, and Holmes isn’t required to address it directly. The film is most notable for introducing the best cinematic Watson yet, in André Morell (also the best-ever Professor Quatermass, but that’s a subject for a different blog). Nigel Stock in the BBC series is well-regarded, but to my mind retains too much of the blustering nincompoop of Watsons past. Morell is having none of that: his Watson is a clear-minded medical man who has been in the wars and out again, and thus knows a thing or two…

Nine years later, at 55, Cushing is really too old to be returning to the part of Holmes. The character was retired by that age, tending his bees on the South Downs. But it barely matters, because the attention to detail and contained energy Cushing brings to the role make his personation by far the most authentic to date. What a shame the production can’t keep up with him. Under heavy pressure from the BBC to deliver episodes quickly, the schedule was soon scuppered by the English weather, and the rush to catch up is embarrassingly evident in every surviving episode (there are only six). Sometimes the studio camera looks as though it’s actually in a hurry, rushing from one actor fluffing his lines to the next, as though prodding them along. It was the practise at the time—and remained so till surprisingly recently—to shoot studio footage on videotape and location footage on film. As always, this means the location footage is better, and less severely dated. There are some decent scripts, but also some cack-handed ones. Why begin your adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles boldly, with a dramatization of the legend followed by Sir Charles’s death, and then start all over again with the business about Dr Mortimer’s walking stick in Baker Street? On the whole, and despite Peter Cushing’s best efforts, this series is not a triumph. It would take another 16 years before an attempt at a TV adaptation really worked, with Granada Studios and the peerless Jeremy Brett.

 

Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was released in 1970, but shot through the summer and autumn of 1969. At the end of a decade which had been starved of much cinematic Sherlock, this was set to be a bonanza. Wilder and his collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, had worked on different ideas for the project over many years, and had arrived at something spectacular. They would produce a roadshow movie, like The Fall of the Roman Empire or The Sound of Music: something unabashedly theatrical, with which TV couldn’t hope to compete. It would boast an epic running time, enormous sets, grand vistas, and all the stars you could cram onto 70mms of film. What’s more, it would present us with the most grown-up depiction of Sherlock Holmes yet. The premise of the movie would be the discovery of a sheaf of papers in Dr Watson’s old dispatch box containing accounts of those cases he judged too delicate for the Victorian reading public. Not only would Holmes be seen to deal directly with cases of a sexual nature—‘The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners’, for instance—but we would learn something at last about his own transgressive sex life.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out like that. The movie as it was written was shot, but then a jittery United Artists—mindful of the poor receipts for recent examples of the roadshow format, such as Richard Fleischer's Dr Doolittle—ordered it cut to more conventional length.  Most of the cases were lost—those honeymooners, for instance, plus ‘The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room’, and a flashback to Holmes’s student days, where he has a formative encounter with a prostitute. Wilder and Diamond were devastated. The resulting movie wasn’t a success, either financially or critically. It would be churlish to conclude that United Artists got their comeuppance when they released Heaven’s Gate 10 years later—but churlishness isn’t the worst of sins, is it?  

Still, those original critics and audiences were wrong. As it stands, cuts and all, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a magnificent piece of work.

I’ve watched it many times, and it’s one of those movies that lets you wallow in anticipated pleasures (I never fail to laugh at the whispers going around the ballet corps, and their consequences vis-à-vis the dancing partners for Colin Blakely's priapic Dr Watson), before presenting you with subtleties you had missed the last time round. Many fans claim to have noticed something disjointed in the editing, but I must confess that I didn't see anything amiss until I knew about the cuts. I still feel that the two remaining cases—‘The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina’ and ‘The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective’—though discrete in terms of plot, dovetail nicely in terms of theme and character development. The tale of the ballerina who makes Holmes an offer she believes he cannot refuse is, for the most part, the feed for a joke, but it’s a joke that quickly cracks open the question of the detective’s sexuality. Watson is left to ponder his partner’s experience of women, before introducing the next tale as one that will bring further insight. A young woman, dragged half-naked from the Thames, is delivered to Baker Street by a cabman. This is the mysterious Madame Valladon, and her case leads Holmes into all sorts of revelations, and ultimately into dangerous levels of personal exposure… I’m holding back, but only because what I really want you to do is go away and watch the movie yourself, if you haven't already.

But there’s also a more direct connection between the two plots. Holmes and Madame Petrova, the great prima ballerina approaching retirement, are analogues. Both are driven, brilliant people whose great gifts set them apart from others, and prevent them from forming close attachments which might hinder their pursuit of excellence. Now ageing, Madame Petrova decides she wants a family, but tries to arrange it through her business manager. Her child, she hopes, will be another masterpiece, a eugenic mix of her beauty and Holmes’s brains. The idea is ludicrous, of course, and Holmes treats it as such; but in the following story, we see that Holmes, too, is missing something. It is this unspoken yearning that allows him to be diverted by another brilliant woman. In 'A Scandal in Bohemia', Watson says of Holmes that ‘grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.’ And so it proves: Holmes lets down his guard, falls for the femme, and the results are nearly fatal.

Wilder had wanted at one stage to make his Holmes unambiguously gay, and forced to cope with the social pressures that would entail for a Victorian by resorting to hard drugs. But this plan was blocked by the representative of the Conan Doyle estate, i.e., Sir Arthur's son, Adrian. Some insist that the Holmes in the existing film is still straightforwardly gay, but that requires a lot of reading against the grain. What is clear is that Robert Stephens’s Holmes is deeply troubled by sex and distrustful of women. Wilder is on record as saying that he cast Stephens because he looked like someone who could be hurt. He does, and in the movie, he is.

It's a performance that casts a longer shadow than either the director or the actor could have anticipated. Without it, it seems inconceivable that we could have had Nicol Williamson visiting Freud in The Seven-Percent Solution (1976), or Christopher Plummer’s pale frenetic ghost in the two minutes I’ve seen of Silver Blaze (1977), or Jeremy Brett’s iconic performance in the '80s and '90s. Brett's Holmes is particularly vulnerable, and sometimes seems entirely dependent on his two excellent Watsons (David Burke and Edward Hardwicke). And of course, Stephens's Holmes lives on most obviously in Benedict Cumberbatch’s 21st-century international sex symbol, and, I think, in Jonny Lee Miller’s recovering heroin addict.

In the end, then, the 1960s—the decade that in many ways seemed to abandon Holmes—begins to look like the decade that created the Holmes that has endured. 

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Publication date: Autumn 2017
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