As far as I can remember the Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle is the only tale in the canon with a Christmas setting. In fact the story opens two days after Christmas, though throughout there is a Christmas feel about it. It is not surprising that the producers of the two television versions I want to look at here, set their productions before Christmas day. The Blue Carbuncle is, for me, a seasonal tale which ranks alongside the great Christmas stories of Dickens. It has been served very well by the television writers who have adapted it for the screen, and by the wonderful casts that have brought Doyle’s story to life.
The Blue Carbuncle is an early Holmes story, featuring amongst the first short stories that Doyle wrote for the Strand magazine. It made its first appearance in January 1892, and has always been a favourite yarn for many Sherlockians. It appears in the first collection of Holmes’ stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is very much a London tale. It is interesting to note that Doyle was still relatively unfamiliar with London at this early date, though he conjures up the atmosphere admirably. There is an occasional slip. Covent Garden Market which features heavily in the tale was better known for selling fruit and vegetables than poultry. But these are minor matters. Few writers have ever captured London on a wintry night with such fidelity.
I have recently watched once more two splendid television versions of The Blue Carbuncle. The 1960s version featuring Peter Cushing as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson, and the 1980s production with Jeremy Brett as the detective and David Burke as Watson. I love them both.
Peter Cushing had already played Holmes in the Hammer film of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1958, before taking over from Douglas Wilmer for the BBC television series a decade later, inheriting Nigel Stock as Watson. The production was very studio bound and was probably made on a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, the acting and the very intelligent script are superb, the rest of the cast giving great support to the two leads. Madge Ryan gives a scene-stealing performance as the Countess of Morcar, whose jewel is stolen at the beginning of the story. It is interesting that the Countess doesn’t actually appear in the original story, simply being referred by Holmes and Watson. This shows how well television scriptwriters can draw out elements of a tale so that the viewer may see the back story.
Frank Middlemass, a fine English actor, plays the commissionaire Peterson in this production. Interestingly, he reappears in the Jeremy Brett take on the story as well, as Mr Henry Baker, who loses his goose and hat in Goodge Street. From this 1960s version I would single out James Beck (better known as Private Walker in the TV series Dad’s Army) for his role as the hotel under-manager James Ryder. This actor, who died far too young, had a tremendous gift for playing rogues. His portrayal of Ryder, one moment bold, then shifty, then cowardly, is a masterpiece of acting. In the detective’s room at Baker Street, he quite steals the scene even from the talented Cushing and Stock.
The 1980s version of The Blue Carbuncle had greater production values than the BBC’s, very convincing sets and more use of film. It has, in David Burke, a very good Dr Watson. But above all else it has Jeremy Brett. If anyone was born to play Sherlock Holmes it was Brett. His portrayal remains, for me, definitive. I don’t believe that any actor has ever come closer to the character Doyle created. He brings out the lethargy in Holmes’ moments of boredom, the humour of the character – for very often in the original stories Holmes laughs and is amused – the urge to dismiss people, when some character has told all that Holmes needs to know. And then again there are the sudden bursts of energy and physicality, for, like the Holmes of the stories, Brett reminds us that this is a man of action as well as a man of the mind.
Jeremy Brett’s performance as Holmes is so terrific that I am running out of superlatives. Watch him carefully. See how he not only acts but re-acts. Notice the tiniest gestures and the expressions that cross his face. One of the greatest examples of television acting that I can remember.
Brett is supported by a great cast. Here his Watson is David Burke (Edward Hardwicke in later series). Burke was a wonderful foil to Brett; the way they act off each other is a master-class of how good actors should interrelate. The other stand-out performance is Ken Campbell as James Ryder, very different from James Beck’s, but very much playing the character that Doyle intended – the weak man tempted to cross a boundary and who is then not able to deal with the consequences. Maggie Jones (Blanche Hunt in Coronation Street) plays Ryder’s sister, provider of the goose, in a interesting cameo.
I am sure that Arthur Conan Doyle would have been thrilled with both versions. So, if you can, before Christmas, do try to read or re-read The Blue Carbuncle. And if possible try to see these two excellent television versions of the tale.