The Granada Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)

by Mark Wallace

The  late 1980s- early 1990s Granada series adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories provide a nice contrast to the more recent efforts, showing a contrary approach to the source material and to the aesthetics of the classic adaptation. They also have good central performances from Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson and Jeremy Brett as Holmes.

The ITV Holmes is, firstly, motivated by a fairly strict, but not absolute, fidelity principle. Of course, as an essential property of an adaptation, fidelity has long since been judged a “chimera” by Robert Stam and other adaptation theoreticians. Yet as an operating principle, it is very much alive. I was recently reading Adaptations (Guerilla, 2007) by Ronald Harwood, screenwriter of, among other things, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2001) and Oliver Twist (2005), for the former of which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Harwood is in no doubt:

They [i.e. Adaptations] should always be faithful to the heart of what is being adapted […] I don’t think one should change genders for the sake of modern tastes. I don’t think one should invent relationships that would not have existed historically at the point or in that kind of novel, which people do all the time in adaptations. […] I think the author is the servant of the source material. I really do believe that, otherwise there’s no point in adapting it. (170,177)

It is a similar fidelity principle that operates in the Granada Holmes. This consists in the use of almost all of Conan Doyle’s dialogue. Non-Doyle dialogue is limited to purposes of expanding the meaning or running-time, rather than establishing new functions or indices of importance. Certainly in this very simplistic sense of using Conan Doyle’s dialogue, the Granada Holmes can be said to be faithful to the letter of the source, and thus to be operating by a principle contrasted to that of Sherlock, which updates the milieu to 21st-century London, alters plot points, and does not use Conan Doyle’s dialogue. Both are, in this sense, typical of the adaptations of their eras.

A second feature of Granada’s Holmes and of 80s-90s adaptations on English TV in general is the spectacle of privilege, as analyzed by Andrew Higson in “Re-Presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film”. This directorial style is characterized by long takes and deep focus, long shots, fluid camera movement dictated not by movement of characters but by “a desire to offer the spectator a more aesthetic angle on the period setting and the objects that fill it” (117). This is undoubtedly a prevalent mode of representation in Sherlock Holmes. The examples are numerous, but I’ve captured a couple from the feature-length film of The Sign of Four:

Athelny Jones enters Thaddeus Sholto's house

Athelney Jones enters Thaddeus Sholto’s house

"Well, well, well. Quite a nice little place you've got here."

“Well, well, well. Quite a nice little place you’ve got here.”

In this scene, Jones stops and looks around to take in the grandeur of Sholto’s possessions, his dialogue drawing the reader’s attention to the opulence. That is what is happening in this scene; there’s no narrative motivation for Jones’ admiration. This dialogue is not taken from Conan Doyle; a relative rarity, showing that the fidelity principle can be occasionally subordinated in the interests of the spectacle of privilege. Taken together, these two features characterize the classic adaptation made for English TV in the 80s and 90s.

The Granada Holmes has since its inception been highly regarded. With this estimate I wholly concur; Brett and Hardwicke make a good team. Initially, David Burke played the role now more associated with Hardwicke – Burke quit for a mix of family and professional reasons after the first season. As the producers naturally opted for some of the best stories in this initial run, season one includes some of the best episodes, but I prefer Hardwicke as Watson. Hardwicke is relaxed and avuncular. Brett, with his bloodless pallor, keen eyes and mobile mouth, and his twitchy movements which belie his age, is a great Holmes. Some interesting changes are also introduced: particularly interesting in this regard was The Master Blackmailer, the feature-length adaptation of “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, an aside by Doyle about Holmes’s seduction of a parlourmaid for the purposes of extracting information is turned into an intriguing meditation on Holmes’ secret side: his emotions. As Holmes worms his way into this young lady’s affections, an ambiguity is well maintained as to whether this is the real Holmes coming out, or just good acting on his part. This adds interest to a rather unremarkable plot which alone could barely sustain a 100-minute treatment, and I have written about this episode at greater length elsewhere.

Splendid day

A moody shot of Brett from the closing scene of The Master Blackmailer.

In short, points of interest are not lacking in this series, nor is general excellence. I can heartily recommend this, and put it forward as the best Holmes – even, in a sense, as definitive as one can expect.

  • Higson, Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film”, in Fires were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (London: Wallflower, 2006), pp. 109-129