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Watching Sherlock Holmes “The Master Blackmailer” (1992): Seduction and Guilt

The classic Granada series with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes was coming to the end of its run when they decided to tackle Doyle’s story “Charles Augustus Milverton”, a work which features “the most unpleasant villain in the entire Sherlockian canon” (David Stuart Davies, “Introduction”, The Best of Sherlock Holmes, Wordsworth, 2009). Rather than the standard 50-minute episode, they apportioned it a feature-length 100 minutes. How to make a 20-page story last 100 minutes? By simply expanding the acts, in this case, and not really complicating Doyle’s story at all. The story, about how Holmes and Watson decide to burgle the house of a blackmailer too smart to be defeated by legal means, and then witness his murder by an angry victim of his blackmailing shenanigans, is a simple and linear one. It’s notable, too, that there’s no mystery, no clever clues to be unravelled – rather, it gets by on suspense and drama. The reason why it’s a relatively popular Holmes story is not because it’s clever – it decidedly isn’t – but because, as Davies pointed out, it has a nasty and memorable villain.

Given the thinness of the plot, a simple expansion like that undertaken by Granada is going to find it hard to keep the attention. One move typical of this series and apparent in this episode is the use of the spectacle of privilege to create viewer engagement – principally in long shots that subordinate narrative progression to the visual splendour of the character’s possessions, as in the shot below where Milverton himself is in the background and the foreground is crammed with ornamentation and artworks.

Milvertons' House

Milverton’s house

This is a feature too of the non-Doylean scenes that are used in the film to flesh out Milverton’s victims. Rich, beautiful young people, lounging around country house on sunny days spouting mindless, poorly-written dialogue. The film sinks into mediocrity in the episodes in which neither Holmes nor Milverton are present, and makeweight characters fill the scene.

Another spectacle of privilege scene

Another spectacle of privilege scene with Watson meeting Milverton at a society gathering. The painting they’re viewing takes centre-stage in the shot.

But there are a few nice moments that make this, overall, worth watching. One of my favourites comes 26 minutes in, when Holmes and Watson (the avuncular and likable Edward Hardwicke) are inspecting Milverton’s house from the outside, and noting the emphasis on security: locked gates, high walls. Watson notes: “He’s a man who loathes the human race.” Holmes: “What circumstances might bring him to that?” Watson: “Hmmm, boy brought up in lonely isolation, starved of affection, probably in one of London’s outer suburbs.” Cut to Holmes, who’s grimacing uncomfortably at that description of Milverton, obviously relating to those circumstances himself. Then they move on to other things. It’s a lovely moment, nicely underplayed: no actual direct information given on Holmes’ mysterious pre-Watson life, just a bare hint conveyed in a momentary expression.


Holmes reacts to Watson’s characterization of Milverton

A further element of the plot which is well explored while being nicely underplayed is the whole Sherlock-Aggie situation. This comes from a rather infamous passage in Doyle’s story, worth quoting in full:

“You’ll 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! However, I have got all I wanted. I know Milverton’s house as I know the back of my hand.”

“But the girl, Holmes?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“You can’t help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table. However, I rejoice to say that I have a hated rival who will certainly cut me out the instant that my back is turned.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, “Charles Augustus Milverton”, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904)

Doyle doesn’t return to this revelation at all, so we don’t know what happens to Aggie. Does she marry the “hated rival” mentioned? But this short passage in Doyle becomes a main thread of “The Master Blackmailer”. There are several scenes showing Holmes and Aggie as they hug, kiss and mess around together. There’s a complex mix of emotions visible in Brett’s Holmes in the scenes: tender, awkward, humorous, but always perhaps still with an eye on the main prize of information about Milverton and his household. In the shot below is the moment when Aggie asks Holmes for a kiss, and he responds forlornly: “I don’t know how”.

Giz a kiss

Aggie: Giz a kiss  Sherlock: I don’t know how

Sherlock’s Guilt

And in some interesting scenes in the aftermath of the seduction scenes, Holmes’ feelings of guilt about his behaviour in seducing the maid are made clear. In the scene where he reveals the scheme to Watson, the contours of Doyle’s dialogue is followed, but Brett plays Holmes as testy and irritable when Watson questions him. At the end of the conversation, Holmes looks out through the rain-spattered windowpane, and pronounces in gloomy tones: “What a splendid day it is!”

"What a splendid day it is!"

“What a splendid day it is!”

Later, a new scene is added where Holmes visits Milverton at his house. This allows him to meet Aggie without his plumber persona. Milverton doesn’t recognize Holmes as his former plumber, but Aggie does. Holmes doesn’t acknowledge her – to do so would blow his cover, after all – but after she introduces him, there’s a long shot of her face as he walks away. Another great shot because of the slow and subtle build-up of emotion in Aggie (very well played in this episode by Sophie Thompson). One might also take this scene as a tacit rebuke to the Sherlock Holmes of the story, and to its author, who left this jilted housemaid as an uncharacterized plot-function.

Aggie sees her affianced lover.

Aggie sees her affianced lover.

And even then, they’re not finished. In the film’s closing scene, Holmes is once again seen in an unfamiliar light: subdued, depressed (Holmes does mention being prey to depression in Doyle, but it’s not really dramatized in the stories or in this series), and, it seems, torn by guilt.

No, Watson. there are certain aspects of which I am not proud. Bury this case deep in your pile.

Then the film ends on a couple of shots of Holmes looking tortured as he recalls something affecting, presumably the Aggie affair.

Holmes looking tortured in the film's closing scene.

Holmes looking tortured in the film’s closing scene.

Finally, then, though this is a very imperfect and sometimes boring film, it does have areas of interest that go well beyond the source text. A small hint in the source is used for an exploration of Holmes’ psyche: his tender side, and his conscience. The tacit and restrained way in which these issues are addressed is effective, and I think compares well to the more overblown explorations of character in recent episodes of BBC Sherlock (e.g. the “redbeard” explanation for Holmes’ oddities – simplistic cod-Freudianism). If not consistently entertaining, it is one of the most memorable adaptations of Sherlock Holmes that have yet been made.

At the time of writing, “The Master Blackmailer” in its entirety is available on YouTube. Embedded below:

The Granada Sherlock Holmes: An Imagological Reflection

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)

The Granada Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)

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

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