The Granada Sherlock Holmes: An Imagological Reflection

by Mark Wallace

This blog has recorded in a prior post its predilection for the Sherlock Holmes series broadcast by Granada TV company in the 1980s and 90s, as well as opining that the said series is primarily motivated by an aesthetic of fidelity blended with an aesthetic of spectacular privilege: it sticks close to the dialogue and storyline of Doyle’s originals, but with loads of shots and camera movements motivated by the need to catalogue and linger on the sumptuous settings which predominate. I have also been struck by the series’ use of stereotype and willingness to accentuate Doyle’s “othering” of non-English and especially non-European characters, and by the “dynamics between those images which characterize the Other (hetero-images) and those which characterize one’s own domestic identity (self-images or auto-images)” (Beller and Leerssen, xiv) – the Imagology of the series, in a word.

A small but rather striking instance of the 19th-century approach to ethnicity in the series occurs in the adaptation of Doyle’s second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four (1890). The character of “the Islander” in Doyle’s novel is only really represented by his racial characteristics. The characteristics of his race include, according to Holmes (referring to a gazette in his possession):

The aborigines of the Andaman Islands may perhaps claim the distinction of being the smallest race upon this earth […]. They are a fierce, morose and intractable people […]. They are naturally hideous, having large misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features […]. So intractable and fierce are they that all effects of the British official have failed to win them over in any degree […]. Their massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast. (Chapter 8)

Armed with these generalizations, Holmes orders Watson to “Fire if he [the Islander] raises his hand” (Ch. 9). Before it comes to that, though, Watson finally gets a glimpse of the Islander’s face (from a boat, in another boat), and, as Holmes had suggested, it’s not a pretty sight:

Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty. His small eyes glowed and burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with a half animal fury […]. [T]he unhallowed dwarf with his hideous face, and his strong yellow teeth gnashing at us in the light of our lantern. (Ch. 9)

The Islander does then raise his hand, and Watson does shoot, and the unfortunate Islander is knocked overboard:

[W]e flashed our search-light in every direction, but there was no sign of the Islander. Somewhere in the dark ooze at the bottom of the Thames lie the bones of that strange visitor to our shores. (Ch. 9)

The Islander is definitively Other, then; even his name, when we finally are given it after his death, emphasizes his status not as individual but as representative of a certain geographically defined type of humanity – it is Tonga, another aboriginal island somewhere in the dark and unknowable depths of the Orient (in the critical theory rather than geographical sense of that term). He does not speak for himself, but is defined and categorized by the words of Holmes, which are later confirmed empirically by Watson.

In Granada’s take on this novel, not much is changed in terms of the dialogue in which the Islander is defined by Holmes. Watson’s description of the Islander’s face is missing, of course, but we do have what is perhaps the filmic medium’s equivalent for this description – a close-up shot of the character’s face. Some signifiers of sub-humanity are, I feel, present in this image, most notably the huge teeth, irregularly arranged within the mouth and uncommonly sharp (seen later in the film, he appears, though I’m no expert on hairstyles, to have both dreadlocks and an afro!).

The I

The Islander

What really caught my attention in this scene, though, was a small detail that was not taken from Doyle. The body of the Islander, here too, is not recovered, but not because they couldn’t find it. Instead, when Watson’s head-shot knocks him from the boat, he floats right by them, and they just stand by and watch, with expressions of disgust on their faces, letting him float off down the river and into the darkness, not even attempting to retrieve the body.

Death of the Islander

Death of the Islander

Watching the River Flow

Watching the River and the Islander flow by

The end of the Islander is metaphorical: he is a child of darkness, and thither he returns, but that metaphor only exemplifies the degree to which the Islander has been dehumanized, till he can become a piece of detritus on the river. Can you imagine an English gentleman (in top-hat and tails, let us say) coming to a similar end, howsoever evil he be? No, that moment, in its generic rightness, is only available for a certain stereotype, and implies in its audience (or its implied audience) a less than total realization of the humanity of the geo-ethnic other. It is a touch of which Conan Doyle, keen patriot and imperialist that he was, might have approved.

Manfred Beller and Joep Leerssen, Eds., Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National Characters (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007)

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