A Sherlockian Christmas

Updated: Nov 16, 2018

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

(contains spoilers)

Illustrations based on the Granada production by Richard C Plaza.

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I leaf through the contents of the battered, red-lacquered o-bento box in which I keep my reminiscences of the mid-eighties of the last century, when I was working at a university in Japan, and I recall that I was re-introduced to Sherlock Holmes (after school examination texts) through the kindness of a friend in Britain who sent me recordings of TV programmes he thought would interest me. In the summer of 1984, he recorded an episode of the ITV Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes, and David Burke as Watson. The series was produced by Granada, the Manchester-based ITV company then basking in its immense success with ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and the growing acclaim of ‘The Jewel in the Crown’.

The episode, ‘The Adventure of The Blue Carbuncle’, is a delightful, fast-paced story, featuring a dazzling tour-de-force of deduction at 221B, a hunt across wintry, gas-lit London following a chain of clues from a homely lost goose to a stolen jewel of immense value, and a succession of penetrating Holmes interrogations culminating in the unmasking, condemnation and release of the hapless thief: the butler, naturally. Jeremy Brett’s Holmes is in sharp form, witty, cerebral, energetic and in the end an avenging angel of justice, with the cringing culprit at the point of his judicial sword.

At that time, before the Internet, YouTube and satellite TV, very few Western TV programmes were screened on Japanese TV, and Western festivals were not celebrated (unlike now, when even Halloween decorations are ubiquitous in the shops). Christmas for British ex-pats in Japan was a do-it-yourself affair, depending on relatives’ and friends’ care packages of crackers, brandy butter and Christmas puddings to eke out our pot noodles. For ten years or so, until the tape self-destructed in a cascade of rust during a particularly torrid summer, the Betamax recording of ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ was a traditional focus of my and my friends’ celebrations.

After Christmas, I re-read the Strand Magazine story, keen to compare the TV version with the original and determine how well the canonical plot was transferred to the TV screen. I was fascinated by the way the visual medium fleshed out backstory references and mere hints of characterisation and motivation, and how the Yuletide atmosphere was developed by a change of date (to Christmas Eve), fabulous scene settings and above all by the musical score. I was also puzzled by changes in the plot that seemed odd, unnecessary and even downright confusing.

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‘The Blue Carbuncle’, published in January 1892, was the seventh Holmes short story that Doyle wrote for the Strand Magazine. London locations feature prominently, and Doyle conjures a convincing evocation of the city on a wintry night, although, endearingly, he mixes up Covent Garden vegetable market with Smithfield, the meat market. The story is set just after Christmas, and begins, as so many fine stories in the Canon do, in the sitting room at 221B Baker Street.

The telecast, the final episode of the first season of ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, opens with a sombre, back-story tableau of scenes implicit rather than fully described in the original. Through the refracted prism of the cursed Blue Carbuncle, we see a succession of grisly murders and assaults associated with the jewel, leading to its presentation to the enraptured Countess of Morcar by a lover or husband. We cut to Christmas Eve, and the present-day countess appears wilted and dejected as she returns to her hotel in the solitary splendour of her carriage from an obviously tiresome Christmas shopping trip.

In the Doyle story, the Hotel Cosmopolitan is mentioned in passing in a newspaper report, but Granada brings that and several other wonderfully-realised locations to vivid life. We first see a magnificent 1890s hotel façade, then we follow the countess and her train of pages through a lobby swarming with porters, maids and flunkies and into her opulent apartment with its somewhat forlorn Christmas tree in the corner of the sitting room. She is met by her butler and maid, who we know from short interpolated scenes, though she does not, have been up to no good on the sofa.

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The teleplay, focussing on Holmes’ characterisation of famous gems as the ‘devil’s pet baits’, contrasts the younger countess who receives the gift of the gem with ardent pleasure with the listless, and indifferent older woman, now a widow and alone apart from her clearly disaffected servants. Listless, that is, until she discovers that the Blue Carbuncle has disappeared, when the Countess of Morcar is instantly re-animated in a blaze of rage and recrimination.

Although suspicion immediately falls on an ex-con plumber, John Horner, who has been doing a small repair job in the room where the jewel was kept, Inspector Bradstreet (the police presence in the original story is confined to newspaper reports) suggests the countess post a reward for information. She is indignant, and must be wheedled into offering a reward of one thousand pounds, not, as Holmes later sniffs, a twentieth of its value.

The scene is then set, as in the original story, at 221B, but not in the sitting room. We see Holmes in bed, being woken by Mrs Hudson, and then in his nightgown, hair awry, still half asleep, scrabbling blearily along the mantel of the sitting room for a match to light his first cigarette of the day, while Peterson, the goose-bemused commissionaire, blinks at him from across the room.

Holmes is taken aback when he sees Peterson, but even in his shift, Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, the epitome of the courteous English gentleman, offers Peterson a chair and a glass of Yuletide refreshment. He listens drowsily to his story, and, once the commissionaire’s evidence is given, the no-nonsense sleuth-hound is reasserted as Holmes gently plucks Peterson from his chair and ushers him out of the door, dismissing him the instant he is of no further value as a witness.

“May I wish you the compliments of the season?” Peterson offers as he exits with the goose. “And to you and your good wife,” Holmes croons with patently false bonhomie, firmly closing the door.

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In the next scene, after fourteen or so minutes of airtime, the TV episode synchronises with the opening of the original story, and we are treated to a set piece display of Holmes’ prodigious deductive powers as he analyses the battered bowler hat and offers doubting Watson an astonishing series of suppositions concerning the character and morals of its owner.

My conclusion when I first saw the episode, unchanged to the present day, is that Jeremy Brett’s pitch-perfect delivery in this and later scenes, punctuated with David Burke’s supporting comic beats, fire Doyle’s dialogue with an energy and inevitability that I believe no other Holmes and Watson casting has ever done. From the moment I watched Brett and Burke’s alchemical interplay, I was certain that theirs are the authentic voices of Holmes and Watson, able to bring out the irony and humour inherent in the text and thus deepening the characterisations. Brett’s Holmes is breathtakingly multi-textured, and his partner is a truly rounded character, neither buffoon nor wide-eyed sycophant.

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The casting of the minor characters approaches perfection. Mr Henry Baker, played by Frank Middlemass, is totally believable as the downtrodden literary researcher who has fallen on hard times, whose wife has ceased to love him, but who finds a warm welcome in the cosy Alpha Inn, the headquarters of his goose club. There we meet another character whose fleeting appearance in the original is fleshed out on the screen and given a roundness and charm that makes him memorable. The host of the Alpha, Mr Windigate (Don McCorkindale), treats Mr Baker with fellow feeling and courtesy, and we later see him tending to a homeless old lady, inviting her in for a warm at his merry fire and a drink in Christmas fellowship.

In an exchange with the landlord, Henry Baker, accompanied by a wistful phrase from ‘Silent Night’ in the background, gives full, doleful weight to his expression of a sentiment with which henpecked Rumpole of the Bailey would have sympathised, “At this season of the year more than ever, we must not deprive those we love, or even those to whom we are married.”

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Holmes’ sinuous, predatory questioning of the unfortunate Henry Baker establishes his innocence, and a comic version of the same technique with stallholder Mr Breckenridge in Covent Garden Market elicits vital information from the reluctant goose vendor, played with wily intransigence by Eric Allan. These interrogations presage the cobra-like sleuth’s interrogation of the thief, Upper Attendant Ryder, in the final scene. Brett and Burke obviously enjoy their banter with Mr Breckenridge, before the plot darkens again with the appearance in the market of Ryder, still chasing his goose. Ken Campbell as Ryder, cornered by Holmes and Watson, displays a cascade of descending emotions, from a flutter of elation at news of the goose’s whereabouts, through confusion and fear, and then into the grovelling despair of the final confrontation as he begs mercy for his sins.

The Granada adaptation is set on Christmas Eve, rather than on the 27th, placing the story more firmly in the holiday genre, and Holmes, Watson, the countess and Horner, the suspected thief, are shown buying or carrying presents. It’s a freezing cold night, of course, and our suspicion that snow is on the way is confirmed in the last scene. These Christmas tropes are immeasurably enriched by Patrick Gowers’ mesmerising score. Classic Christmas carols are expertly weaved into the melancholy fabric of the main theme, with ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Bless ye Merry Gentlemen’ featured, the latter played on a street organ, and then by a slightly erratic Salvation Army brass band at Covent Garden and finally in a lush version as the credits roll.

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The resolution of the original story is reasonably straightforward. Holmes keeps the stone during his investigation, but he has informed the Countess by letter that it is found, and the story ends with Holmes’ refusal to do the work of the police and, presumably, the return of the stone. The fate of Ryder’s accomplice, Catherine Cusack, is left to our imaginations.

But in the TV version, after taking the carbuncle from Peterson, Brett’s Holmes informs Watson that he intends to keep the jewel ‘in his museum’, and in the final scene at 221B, he locks the carbuncle in a drawer, along with his photograph of Irene Adler and his cocaine syringe. This strange line of dialogue is not in the original, and we are given no clue with which to parse its meaning. Surely Holmes does not intend to keep the jewel, depriving Peterson of the thousand-pound reward and perhaps jeopardising the innocent Horner’s prospects of exoneration and release? I wonder (I merely speculate) whether this plot point was one of the issues that caused the original screen writer to bow out of the project and refuse to allow his name in the credits. The credited writer, ‘Paul Finney’, is a mere placeholder for the name of the actual dramatist.

In the original story, the thieves frame Horner convincingly by ransacking the room and leaving the jewel box open and empty, ensuring prompt discovery. In the Granada adaptation, the countess merely opens her jewel box to find the gem gone, and there are no signs of robbery.

Despite the lavish production qualities of the episode, the jewel is a let-down: it is plainly glass, with nary a twinkle or a Christmas glitter, and it is not set in a brooch or necklace and thus could not be worn. It merely sits in the countess’s jewel case, presumably to be gloated over by the Scrooge-like countess, patiently waiting to be stolen. The unromantic side of me can’t help wondering why she did not lodge the gem in the hotel strong room, or order a safe from Messrs Chubb & Sons.

The ending of the story poses another problem. The Doyle story ends with both Ryder and Holmes asserting that if Ryder vanishes abroad, the case against Horner will collapse and he will be released. In the Granada version, after Ryder is let go, warm-hearted Watson insists that he and Holmes immediately head to Scotland Yard to demand that Bradstreet release Horner on the basis of no other evidence than their word. Granada ramps up the stakes by having Horner married (he and his wife are buying Christmas gifts for their children when he is arrested), and after Holmes’ and Watson’s intervention at Scotland Yard, the innocent man is released and the telecast ends with Horner reunited with his family on a snowy Christmas morning as a jolly rendering of ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen’ segues masterfully into the Holmes theme.

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Another loose end is the reward. The commissionaire Peterson found the goose, and his wife discovered the Blue Carbuncle in the goose's crop. Peterson brought the problem of the lost goose to Holmes, and then returned with the gem, so he obviously has a claim on the reward. But in both versions we are left a little uncomfortably with the thought that Henry Baker gets nothing. It was in his goose’s disjecta membra that the stone was found, he is demonstrably at low water financially and the story treats him as a put-upon but dignified figure, well deserving of some part of the huge reward. Holmes too has gone to some expense – the second goose, newspaper advertisements, drinks at the Alpha and the bad bet with the goose seller (the fiver he lost, Watson gamely returns). Should he not have his expenses defrayed? The original story wraps up the dénouement in a few sentences, leaving the division of the reward, if any, unclear, and Granada follows suit.

And lastly there is the moral question, with which Watson takes issue in the TV episode. Holmes allows Ryder to flee abroad to save his soul, but we are also in the dark about how he will survive on the Continent with no funds, no work, and no reference from the countess to help him find legitimate employment. He will need a sou or two for expenses in Boulogne, or he might be tempted to return to his evil ways.

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I have carped at a few ambiguities, but I recall the first British National Theatre production of Hamlet, in the month of President Kennedy’s death, when Laurence Olivier, the perfectionist director of the play, strode onto the stage during the curtain calls of the final dress rehearsal and quieted the cheering audience of friends and colleagues of the cast. Turning to poor Peter O’Toole, knackered not only by the physicality of the part he’d played for several gruelling hours that afternoon, but also by the highly uncomfortable pair of creaking leather breeches he’d been issued by the prop department, Olivier addressed the audience and proclaimed that for the first time in living memory, they had seen the true Hamlet.

Since 1984, my own, far less experienced, totally unprofessional, personal but strongly-held view, has been that in the Granada series, Jeremy Brett, David Burke and his successor Edward Hardwicke, portrayed the true Holmes and Watson, and no earlier or later portrayal that I have seen has come even close to their fidelity to the spirit of the Canon.

The Blue Carbuncle

Dramatised by Paul Finney

Broadcast in the UK 5th June 1984

Directed by David Carson

Produced by Michael Cox

Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett

Doctor Watson, James Burke

Countess of Morcar, Rosalind Knight

Catherine Cusack, Ros Simmons

James Ryder, Ken Campbell

John Horner, Desmond McNamara

Jennie Horner, Amelda Brown

Inspector Bradstreet, Brian Miller

Mrs Hudson, Rosalie Williams

Peterson, Frank Mills

Henry Baker, Frank Middlemass*

Windigate, Don McCorkindale

Breckenridge, Eric Allan

Mrs Oakshott, Maggie Jones

*Frank Middlemass played the commissionaire, Peterson, in the December 1968 TV adaptation, with Peter Cushing as Holmes and as Nigel Stock as Watson, in which the loose ends of the return of the stone and the reward are tied with BBC neatness.

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