“The Sign of Four” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1983)

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By Scott Ross

Two Sherlock Holmes adaptations written by Charles Edward Pogue for British television, shot simultaneously and starring one of my very favorite actors, the peerless Ian Richardson. If you don’t know his Francis Urquhart in the original House of Cards  you are missing one of the great, sly characterizations of the modern age. There was much more to Richardon’s career than Urquhart, of course: Fifteen years with the RSC; Jean-Paul Marat in the original Marat/Sade (and the subsequent filmed edition); the first Henry Higgins in a production of My Fair Lady to more than challenge Rex Harrison, for which performance he won the Tony Award and in which role you can savor him on the 1976 revival cast recording; Bill Haydon (“Tinker’) in the Alec Guinness Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; a superb Anthony Blunt in the television movie Blunt: The Fourth Man; numerous small roles in American movies, dozens of English television performance and likely hundreds of appearances on the British stage. Pogue’s teleplays take more liberties with Conan Doyle’s novels than is required, even inventing sub-plots, especially in Baskervilles. But Richardson is so savory and the pair of movies so well mounted (by Desmond Davis and Douglas Hickox respectively) and thick with Victorian atmosphere, they may be forgiven these unwarranted alterations. And Richardson is such a treat in each that he alone more than justifies the making of both pictures; as well as luxuriating in that mellifluous voice of his and reveling in his unerring dramatic instincts, I particularly relish his unexpected displays of wry humor, winking at Watson or choking back a guffaw at a galumphing police inspector.

The Sign of Four - Ian Richardson and David Healy

The Sign of Four: David Healy (Watson) and Ian Richardson (Holmes) in the Sholtoes’ attic.

The Sign of Four boasts the less apt of the two Watsons in David Healy’s overripe (and over-aged) portrayal, although at least we are spared the May-December pairing that would have ensued had Pogue hewn more closely to Conan Doyle’s plot and driven Mary Morstan (the lovely Cherie Lunghi ) into the good doctor’s arms.  But the scenarist seems to have understood that Doyle based Thaddeus Sholto (Richard Heffer) at least in part on Oscar Wilde, giving him a home filled with Indian exotica and making the character a languid dandy. I don’t know why he felt is necessary to have the poor man killed by Jonathan Small (Joe Melia), or to have Small kidnap Miss Marston, but Pogue is otherwise reasonably true to the novel, and to its introduction of the redoubtable Toby — although that noble beast is once again portrayed in a movie by a bloodhound when Doyle, through Watson, specifically states that he is not of that breed. There’s also a surprise ending worthy more perhaps of O. Henry than A. Conan Doyle, and it’s rather a shame more isn’t done with the story of the Four in India. But the Thames atmosphere, as photographed by Dennis C. Lewiston, is almost palpable, Terence Rigby gives a fine account of Inspector Layton and John Pedrick as Tonga presents an image calculated to haunt the dreams of any young Holmes fanatic.

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Baskervilles: Denholm Elliott, David Churchill and Ian Richardson

Pogue takes even greater liberties in Baskersvilles than he did with The Sign of Four, what with adding a role (the mercurial, drunken artist Lyons, essayed here in typically swaggering style by Brian Blessed) merely alluded to by Doyle, and beefing up another, that of Lyons’ wife Laura (Connie Booth), estranged from him in the novel but here living unhappily with him on the moors. The scenarist further muddies the waters (or the bog, if you prefer) by having the strange bearded man in London not merely shadow Sir Henry Baskerville (David Langton) but take a shot at him on the street; making Laura a murder victim and Lyons a red herring; by having Jack Stapleton (Nicholas Clay) take pot-shots at Homes, Watson (Donald Churchill) and his sister Beryl (Glynis Barber) before running off to his death; and by Inspector Lestrade (Ronald Lacey) showing up to seek the escaped convict Selwyn. Most of these are unnecessary diversions, presumably added because Holmes would otherwise be off-stage for as long in the movie as he is in the novel… although the latter scene at least gives the viewer the unexpected pleasure of hearing Lestrade tell a heavily disguised Holmes to bugger off. (Richardson has a high old time of it in his gypsy make-up, telling fortunes and twitting a prototypically unsuspecting Watson on the moors.) In the flashback to the origins of the Baskerville curse, the midnight sight and sound of a horse being sucked down into the Grimpen Mire is a terror worthy of Goya, or at least Arch Oboler; Ronnie Taylor’s cinematography throughout is appropriately drear and unnerving; Denholm Elliott provides a characteristically warm and pleasing Dr. Mortimer; Churchill is a far less fustian Watson than Healy; Eleanor Bron and Edward Judd are an excellent pair of Barrymores; the hound is a ghastly sight; and the picture benefits from a truly inspired musical score by the perennially underrated Michael J. Lewis, a major composer perpetually toiling at minor projects. The ending suffers from a deep character lapse, however, when for the sake of conventional romance Sir Henry forgives Beryl Stapleton for conspiring against him with her mad brother Jack. Not bloody likely.

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Elliott, David Langton, Glynis Barber

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross