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This is a double bill of Sherlock Holmes adaptations starring Peter Cushing as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Dr Watson. They were part of a colour 1968 BBC Sherlock Holmes television series but (sadly) although they shot sixteen of these only six remain in existence today. This series - or what is left of it anyway - is rather hit or miss with a sometimes stilted atmosphere and the strange mixture of film and tape doesn't exactly make it look lavish these days but Cushing is always tremendous value as Holmes and once you settle into these they are cosy and enjoyable for the most part. You get two adaptations here - The Sign of Four and The Blue Carbuncle. The Sign of Four is maybe not the best example of this series but The Blue Carbuncle is certainly enjoyable and might even be my favourite of the remaining Peter Cushing capers. The Sign of Four was directed by William Sterling. This was one of the few Holmes novellas and perhaps the weakest of the Cushing Sherlock episodes because it feels truncated, discarding parts of the book as it sees fit. Conan Doyle's story was interesting and ultimately gripping and exciting but this doesn't really do it justice and is rather dated in its depiction of foreigners (the novella is not exactly the most politically correct of the Holmes stories to read today). The story revolves around Mary Morstan (Ann Bell), a young woman who visits 221b Baker street with a most unusual case. Each year following the strange disappearance of her father, Morstan has received the gift of a rare and precious pearl. Now she has been asked to meet her mysterious benefactor and has been permitted to take two people with her - so long as they are not policemen. She of course chooses Holmes and Watson and the game is soon afoot again.
The Sign of Four saw Conan Doyle borrowing some of the Indian mysticism of a laudanum and opium lashed Wilkie Collins' classic and delirious 1868 novel The Moonstone, the key character of which, Sergeant Cuff, was more than likely a big influence on Holmes. "If half the stories I have heard are true, when it comes to unravelling a mystery, there isn't the equal in England of Sergeant Cuff!" This quality adds a nice injection of the bizarre into the story but is never quite bottled in this television adaptation in the way one wants it to be. I don't want to give one of the big twists away but the depiction of one of the key characters in the story late on is jarringly risible when we see the make-up. Very poor stuff indeed. There is also one of the most arthritic boat chase sequences ever committed to film here. If you went to the canal and filmed a couple of pensioners rolling past at glacial speed while sipping tea from a thermos flask the end result would be almost the same as watching this chase scene. I suppose it's unfair to criticise a modestly budgeted sixties television series for not being Die Hard 7 but The Sign of Four is fairly lifeless at times and is clearly one Conan Doyle story that demands a bit more money and scope if you are going to bother to turn it into a film. It's a shame really because Cushing is terrific again and Nigel Stock has his finest hour as Watson because of the vague romance between his character and Mary Morstan.
Some great little moments where Watson is love struck and the Vulcanesqe unemotional Holmes really doesn't understand and almost can't bear these outward signs of affection and Watson becoming tongue-tied. You can see Holmes' frustration at these emotional interludes and he really can't stand it. While Stock is not the greatest Watson ever (I thought André Morell in Hammer's 1959 version Hound with Cushing was much better) I did find myself warming to him more and more as these episodes progressed and some of his reactions and facial expressions are amusing. He had good timing I think. The Sign of Four is definitely worth watching for Peter Cushing alone but I don't think this is one of the best of these remaining episodes. It definitely could have been better. The second of the Cushing episodes here is The Blue Carbuncle - directed by Bill Brain. This is a nice way to end the series and might be the most purely enjoyable of the sixties Cushing adventures. This is a festive story and as someone who always watches the Jeremy Brett version on Christmas Eve it was fun for me to see a slightly different incarnation with Cushing and Stock. The story revolves around a £20,000 Blue Carbuncle jewel stolen from Lady Morcor (Madge Ryan). The prime suspect is John Horner (Neil Fitzpatrick) - one of the hotel workers where it was stolen - but perhaps all is not what it appears to be on the surface. When a late night spot of fisticuffs is interrupted by a policeman (Frank Middlemass), he takes a goose and hat left at the scene to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes uses his extraordinary deductive skills to paint a profile of the man who owns the hat and gives the goose to Peterson.
This is merely the start of this Christmas tinged goose themed mystery. Will Holmes solve the riddle of the stolen Blue Carbuncle? This is not as Christmassy as I'd hoped it would be but it's still charming at its best and stacks up fairly well against the Granada version. The restrictive interiors become increasingly cosy as you settle into and get used to this series and that's certainly the case here. Cushing is fun of course in the famous scene where he deduces all manner of facts about a man just from his hat and then invites Watson to do the same. Madge Ryan is a bit ripe as Lady Morcor but the supporting cast does some good work here and there are a couple of familiar faces. Michael Robbins (Reg Varney's sarcastic brother-in-law from On the Buses) as the trader Albert Breckinridge and Dad's Army star James Beck (the spiv one with the tache who sadly died very young in real life) as James Ryder, a key character in the unfolding events of the story. Both are excellent. I think the reason why The Blue Carbuncle works here is that the story is a more intimate, almost whimsical one, and this suits the nature of the production on this series. The cosiness factor is amped up to a mug of hot chocolate and two crumpets by a crackling log fire and you don't really care about the fact that they clearly had precious little money to make this series. The Christmas overtones are of course delightful too and I wish they had expanded this somewhat into a full blown Victorian Christmas heavy caper.
The Blue Carbuncle is very pleasant and watchable and a good note on which to say farewell to Cushing and Stock. If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes or Peter Cushing you should enjoy these adventures quite a bit although The Sign of Four definitely could have been better. At the time of writing you can buy this double bill for a few pounds (don't expect any extras). Look out for the BBC Sherlock Holmes collection and the Cushing Holmes collection as they'll give you these and more and are often available at a very modest price.