Howard & Wilmer - and Rathbone too

Managed to catch a few early Holmes episodes. The American series Sherlock Holmes was produced 1954-55 and ran for 39 episodes. The British series Sherlock Holmes (named with equal inventive boldness and sparkling wit) was made 1964-65 and there were 13 episodes.

In the former Holmes is played by Ronald Howard, son of the legendary Leslie Howard, and Watson by H. Marion-Crawford. The series seems quite cheaply produced, there are only a couple of guest actors per episode and virtually all the scenes are indoors, in sets that bear remarkably little or no resemblance at all to Victorian rooms. The scripts are straightforward and tend to lean, very heavily, on redundant banter between Holmes and Watson and Lestrade. Very likely to save money. The crimes are nothing to write home about and seldom seem like cases that would merit the involvement of the great Sherlock Holmes. And what's more, nary a whiff of the Canon is to be observed, but for one or two exceptions. No - new cases for a new Televison Holmes. Lestrade is of course a dimwitted bungler who, upon receiving a case, immediately sets off for Baker Street.

This sort of thing always annoys me greatly. Where's the glory in outwitting Lestrade if the man is so blatantly unfit to tie his own shoe-laces? I ask you.

The best episode of the ones I've so far seen is The Case of the French Interpreter. It is of course The Greek Interpreter but for some mysterious reason done with a French one instead. The script follows the original pretty faithfully, a shrewd move that. Now for once we get genuine tension and excitement, interesting characters and bizarre situations, there's a dynamic in the episode and even some welcome outdoor shots, so the look of this one is far fresher and more lively than is usual. Even the acting seems superior. Of course they've cut corners here as well, no Mycroft for instance, but the result is by no means to be frowned at.

Howard as Holmes looks startlingly like a young Rathbone, or to be even more precise, like a cross between Rathbone and a young Roddy McDowall. He's tall, he's got a profile and is obviously upper crust. It is, however, dashed hard to say if he's a good, bad or indifferent Holmes. This is because the scripts give him precious little to work with. He doesn't dazzle but neither does he stink. Compared to Rathbone he lacks energy and that wonderfully superior attitude, the scathing wit that makes Rathbone's crisp delivery enjoyable even when he's at his hammiest. One does rather suspect that Howard was given the role for his looks, and famous name. Alas.

The Steinbrunner-Michael book on Holmes films calls H. Marion-Crawford's Watson one of the best Watsons. At first this baffled me slightly as I found him a sort of lighter version of Nigel Bruce - less stupid and annoying but still of no use whatsoever to Holmes. And that's what he is, quite frankly, but when he does the narrative bits he's a different man altogether: he's intelligent, sharp, alert and he's got a beautifully mellifluous voice. A pity that he's made to play Watson as a Brucean buffoon the rest of the time. A great pity.

In the UK Douglas Wilmer is considered to be a very fine Holmes indeed. As I've only seen the two first episodes of the series, I have a very incomplete grasp of his performance and of course of the series as a whole.

The first episode, The Speckled Band, I find poorly written and rather boring. It opens with the events leading to the death of Helen Stoner's sister in mysterious circumstances, on the eve of her marriage - and then jumps ahead a couple years to Miss Stoner getting engaged. And we have the stepfather acting suspiciously all over the place, playing the heavy for all he's worth, bullying and intimidating the poor girl at every turn. At which point I'm almost ready to give up. The Speckled Band is always a sure thing. How is it even possible to muck it up? Well we get Holmes, eventually, and the brilliant scene with the sinister Dr. Grimesby Roylott barging in at Baker Street and bending pokers. Then there are more tedious bits with Holmes and Watson discussing the case, and touching upon nothing of remarkable interest or everlasting brilliance. After which they travel to the Hall. And solve the mystery and save the day. Blimey. Hooray for Captain Spaulding.

Not a particularly good episode nor a felicitous beginning for a series. The script drags and both Wilmer and his Watson Nigel Stock are clearly not at ease with their roles. But mostly it's the script. The script doesn't give them anything interesting or worthwhile to do until the very end. And the indoor sets are stuffy and look cheap. The camera work is primitive and doesn't exactly enhance the mood, quite the contrary.

The second episode, The Illustrious Client, is a great improvement. The script is tighter and follows the original story more closely. The sets are lighter and more airy but don't really look like authentic period rooms. Well, that's what Television was like in those days, one supposes. Wilmer and Stock are more comfortable with their parts and seem to have more confidence both in themselves and the production. There's a lively scene in a music hall - which does go on for rather too long and does seem a bit self-indulgent, to be honest, but who's complaining - and one in a Turkish bath. So we have scenery and location which is always nice.

Wilmer as Holmes seems merrier than Holmes usually is depicted as, a man of good cheer and excellent spirit. His profile is perhaps less aquiline than might be and his nose not quite as imperial a beak as Paget would have us believe. Still, those things are secondary. Unfortunately both these episodes prove to be rotten when it comes to judging Wilmer's performance or the perspicaciousness of his Holmes as he isn't given enough Holmesian things to do for one to pass the sentence. In this episode much of the action is given to Watson as Holmes is viciously beaten up by two thugs.

Stock's Watson seems pretty much all right. He isn't a stupid man nor a silly duffer, and neither should he be. Watson is a man of action, a soldier, a doctor and an author. He is an asset to Holmes, otherwise why should Holmes keep him around and rely on him? But in most productions Watson is only kept around for Holmes to show how jolly clever he is compared to Watson. Here the same goes as for Lestrade - where's the merit in being cleverer than a dunce? There is no merit. It only makes Holmes seem a pretentious show-off and, well, a bit dim himself. The stupider the Watson, the stupider the Holmes.

Interesting fact about Douglas Wilmer: he went to Stonyhurst. Stonyhurst is of course the Jesuit school to which Doyle himself went.

And lastly a bit of Rathbone and Bruce. Roy William Neill's The Pearl of Death (1944 - the seventh entry in the Universal series and Rathbone's ninth appearance as the wizard of 221b) is ostensibly based on The Six Napoleons and parts of it actually are, too. As Rathbone movies goes this one isn't too bad. It definitely has its moments, I'll grant you that. It does, however, make Holmes look like a pratt. On several occasions. Which is quite unforgivable.

In order to show how vulnerable a museum's electric system guarding a priceless pearl (a pearl having once belonged to the blood-thirsty Borgias and with an equally bloody history) is, Holmes switches it off on the sly. Purely to demonstrate the folly of the museum's manager. The villain, who is lurking about, just outside the door, of course, hears this and goes off and pinches the unprotected pearl. And Holmes ends up with egg on his face. Now this is a really bad move by the script writer. Why on earth does it have to be Holmes's foolishness that results in the theft? It's utterly pointless and weakens Holmes immeasurably. For what purpose, I ask? And answer there came none.

Well anyway, the thief hides the pearl - and this is where the motif of the six Napoleons comes in - and we have a race between Holmes and the villains as to who will find it first. The best thing in the movie are definitely the villains: head villain Giles Conover (played by Miles Mander - who was the murderer in the previous Holmes movie The Scarlet Claw), his fetching helpmate Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers) and especially the gang's gorilla known as The Creeper (the grotesquely misshapen Rondo Hatton).

The Creeper's modus operandi is ghastly. When the villains have established the location of a Napoleon statue,The Creeper breaks in, breaks his hapless victim's back with his bare hands, always at the third vertebrae, then smashes all the china in the house in a maniacal frenzy. The Creeper is as terrible an apparition as one may ever wish to see; this because of Hatton's inhuman affliction, acromegaly, which transformed him inch by inch into something unpleasantly akin to Frankenstein's monster and - a few years after the film - finally killed him. The genius of the film is that we never really see the creeper except for a few shady glimpses and quick shadows - until the very end, that is.

The ending is a bit silly and again makes Holmes look bad. He has Conover at gun point and still manages to loose his gun to the criminal in an extremely silly way. Making him look like a right amateur. Holmes then, somehow knowing that The Creeper carries a torch for Naomi who's in police custody, gets Conover to say that he doesn't care that she goes to prison, she or her fate are of absolutely no importance whatsoever. Whereupon The Creeper breaks Conover's back and Holmes shoots The Creeper.

There is some amount of Sherlockian sleuthing in the movie but mostly it's thrills and dramatic trickery. The atmosphere and scenery are rather better than in an average Rathbone film and The Creeper is obviously a great asset - quite unforgettable in his exquisite hideousness and tragic deformity. It is really he who makes the movie. Or breaks it, if you'll forgive a foolish pun.

But The Pearl of Death does make Holmes look like a fool. And that's no good neither to man nor beast.


Rue Morgue goes Ape

Robert Florey's 1932 movie Murders in the Rue Morgue is a quite curious movie. The Poe connection is, to put it bluntly, tenuous - not to say sporadic. There is a Dupin in the movie, there is an ape, there are killings. However, Dupin isn't Poe's Chevalier Auguste Dupin but a medical student Pierre Dupin. The murders aren't really murders at all, not actually, but the unfortunate result of ill-guided medical experiments. The ape isn't an orangutang but a gorilla. And the gorilla, brilliantly, is "played" by a chimpanzee. And sometimes a bloke in a skin. Obviously.

Paris, 1845. Dr Mirakle, played by Bela Lugosi with menacing simian eye-brows, displays his gorilla at a side-show. Really his ambition is to prove that man and ape are close relatives, that there's such a thing as evolution. This he tries to do by abducting young and particularly pretty women and mixing their blood with simian blood. Unfortunately his experiments tend to go awry and the young ladies loose their lives. He gets rid of their corpses in the Seine. Dupin has noticed that there's something fishy about the young women that turn up dead in the river. He wants specimens of their blood. At the same time Dr Mirakle has his eye on Dupin's beloved.

Dupin and his beloved Camille have been to the side-show and seen Mirakle's gorilla. The gorilla even snatched Camille's bonnet, so Mirakle had to send her a new one.

Dupin seeks up Mirakle an questions him. Mirakle doesn't want to talk about his experiments and claims he's just off to Munich. Dupin finds out that this isn't true and follows Mirakle to his lair on, wait for it - the Rue Morgue. He hears Mirakle converse with his gorilla (this time played by an actor in a gorilla skin, not terribly convincingly). Later that evening, when Dupin's at Camille's, Mirakle stands down in the street stalking them. When Dupin's gone Mirakle knocks her up and tries to lure her out but she refuses. Mirakle returns to his carriage where the gorilla awaits him. The gorilla isn't pleased. It seems like the gorilla gives him his orders!

Simultaneously Dupin has an astonishing breakthrough - it's the blood of a gorilla! The girls died because a gorilla's blood was injected in their veins! (Which seems like a slightly unlikely discovery in 1845. Or do I mean utterly impossible?) At the same moment he realises Camille is in danger! (Which also seem a bit unlikely - what on earth is the connection, one wonders?) So he rushes off.

Meanwhile Mirakle stands on the street and watches how his gorilla scales the wall of Camille's house. (Which seems highly illogical as all the previous victims have been procured by Mirakle for scientific experiments, but apparently - this time it's personal.) Like a miniature King Kong the gorilla heaves himself up on Camille's balcony and enters her bed chamber. Camille sees the gorilla (now again it's a chimp), screams her head off and faints. Camille's mother rushes to the room. But, oh no, the gorilla is still there. Not to worry, Dupin's on his way.

But it's too late. When he breaks down the door the gorilla has already made off with Camille. Oh the anguish! Oh the agony! Why will no one believe that this is serious? our hero moans to the thick gendarmes. Does nobody understand that she's in danger?

Now we come to bastardized Poe country, something actually from the original story, with witnesses being questioned about what language the abductor spoke. Was it Italian? Yes, says one witness, a German, absolutely Italian. Or was it Danish? Yes, says another witness, an Italian, definitely Danish. No, says a third witness, a Dane, it was in fact German!

At last our hero is brought out to be heard by the prefect. He's in chains, an obvious suspect. He knows who committed the murder: an ape! What murder, the prefect says. Dupin explains that there were two women in the room and the door was locked and bolted. Therefore, Dupin explains, one woman was carried away and the other murdered (which seems like an utterly unreasonable deduction on the face of it). What ho - the room is searched and Camille's mother found stuck up the chimney.

Still nobody believes Dupin. An ape? No. He must be crazy. Before the gendarmes drag him away he discovers the hair the old woman has clutched in her fist - not human hair but ape hair! Look! Therefore he must be telling the truth. The prefect nods his head in perfect agreement. Yes, it must be an ape.

Back in Mirakle's secret lair the doctor makes a happy discovery: her blood is perfect for his experiment! The chimp, behind bars again, goes ape with joy and extasy. But Dupin has already led the gendarmes there. No! Dr. Mirakle shouts to his simian assistant - hold them off till I'm ready!

The gorilla breaks out of his cage. Back in to your cage! Mirakle orders. The gorilla attacks Mirakle, apparently in an attempt to protect Camille. The gendarmes break in. The gorilla picks up Camille and carries her off, again, now to the roof. Somebody spots them and the gendarmes and the rabble start following them. Lots of shots of the gorilla transporting Camille King Kong like over roofs.

There really is no escape for the ape. Or is there? Our hero Dupin grabs a pistol off a gendarme. The gorilla is in a cul-de-sac. Dupin climbs up on the roof. The gorilla drops Camille and goes for Dupin. Dupin fires and the gorilla is hit and rolls off the roof into the Seine. Hooray - the day is saved by our brave and resourceful Dupin!

What can one say? Want rubbish dialogue, childish plotting, hammy acting, sloppy sets? This is your movie. The ape that falls in love with the beautiful woman and abducts her. How very original. But if they wanted to rip off King Kong why did they have to soil Poe? Then something starts nagging me, a little odd feeling somewhere at the back of my skull. So I check my facts. This movie was in fact made before King Kong! Amazing. So is it King Kong that rips off Murders in the Rue Morgue? Now there's a thought.

An interesting little fact: Florey and Lugosi were originally slated to do Frankenstein, Florey to direct and Lugosi to play the scientist Henry Frankenstein. As the directing job went to James Whale and the role to Colin Clive, Florey and Lugosi were given this picture instead. Frankenstein was a hug hit and became a classic, this one wasn't and didn't. Another interesting little fact: additional dialogue was supplied by none other than John Huston. Yet another interesting little fact: the cinematographer Karl Freund had previously shot such classics as Der Golem and Metropolis. And he would soon direct The Mummy with Boris Karloff. Maybe it's due to him that certain portions of Murders in the Rue Morgue remind one a bit of Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari. But, honestly, I don't understand the claims that the film actully seems like a piece of German expressionism. It doesn't. It truly doesn't.

Worth noting too, perhaps, that Florey directed the first Marx Brothers film Cocoanuts and wrote the screenplay to the 1933 Sherlock Holmes movie A Study in Scarlet with Reginald Owen as Holmes.

Any which way one looks at it, Murders in the Rue Morgue is definitely worth a look. But not much more. There's nowhere near the emotional impact of King Kong or the intellectual impact of Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue. This movie is sheer exploitation, not even clever exploitation, but still somewhat amusing.


Sherlok Kholms (i doktor Vatson)

A Russian Sherlock Holmes? Or, to put it bluntly, a Soviet Sherlock Holmes? That doesn't sound very promising.

Surprisingly enough it works. Jolly well, in fact.

It is Conan Doyle in a charmingly Chekovian setting; the pace is leisurely, there's no hurry, there's never any hurry, and the mood is gentle and dreamy and unmistakably Slavic. Mrs. Hudson doesn't serve the tea from a samovar and they don't take it from tall glasses, not quite, and they do drink whisky instead of vodka, or at least profess so to do; yet one rather expects the next client to walk in to be, not Miss Morstan or Dr. Mortimer, but Arkadina or Trigorin. And the hapless detective in desperate need of Sherlock's assistance not to be Lestrade but Porfiry Petrovich.

St. Petersburg does not a London make - a Leningrad even less so. Still, the odd thing is, somehow it doesn't disturb one. Not a bit. Having all these obviously Imperial Russian and supremely Baltic buildings as the backdrop of Holmes and his investigations just adds to the atmosphere, making it even more cosy. And the Neva really does present an acceptable and suitably foggy substitute for the Thames.

The core of the piece is Vitaly Solomin's Watson - a starry-eyed and emotional creature who weeps silently when he thinks he's lost the love of his life, but who's brave and trustworthy when the need arises. Vasily Livanov's Holmes is acerbic and quirky and softer by far than most of his western colleagues, though not too soft. There is steel in him, and a lot of humour too. He's quite the merry prankster and really a child at heart. Which is interesting and does justice to Doyle. Holmes is indeed the imperfect man: in some ways over-evolved, in others still a child.

The scripts are usually quite dependable and true to the original tales, sometimes fusing together two stories. The first episode starts off as A Study in Scarlet and ends up as The Speckled Band. It works, A Study being such an uneven piece with the dreadful back-story spoiling all the fun in the end. Better just scrap it. The Agra Treasure is basically The Sign of Four with A Scandal in Bohema thrown in somewhere in the middle - probably to balance the thing. In the first story Watson falls in love, in the second Holmes does, which in its way works out quite nicely. There is one serious drawback. The script focuses so intensely on love that the crime of Major Sholto and Captain Morstan is never explained. Nor are the original circumstances of the Agra treasure and how it fell into the hands of Jonathan Small and his companions. In this version Jonathan Small is just an escaped convict who turns up in London claiming that the treasure belongs to him and his fellows. A bit shabby that.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is an odd little piece. For me it steers too near downright parody, especially in the form of Nikita Mikhalkov's Sir Henry Baskerville. The relation between Sir Henry and Barrymore is pure comedy and sabotages the dramatic element of the plot. It becomes embarrassingly campy. The same goes, basically, for Dr. Mortimer. Apart from that it isn't a bad version of the book even if there is precious little suspense or even dramaturgy. Not glorious but adequate. The setting is eerie and a bit off, though not necessarily in a bad way. But Devon it ain't. Nor a mire.

The Final Problem works extremely well and the shots of the raging waterfall are stunning. Moriarty is icy and sadistic and has a frightening hump. Sometimes he's over the top but by and large it works. Moriarty's henchman who's always around shadowing Holmes and Watson is a lurid cross between Mr. Hyde and Lon Chaney's Wolf Man. The King of Blackmail (based on The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton) is a delightfully reverential version of the original story. Good stuff.

By and large the Russian Sherlock Holmes series is a little gem and truly a breath of fresh air after the occasionally over-heated and sometimes suffocatingly histrionic Granada series. Its strengths, however, are its weaknesses. Its strong on mood, atmosphere, leisurely pacing. That means that there isn't always time to develop the plot as it ought to be developed. So things have to be cut or ignored. Important things. But the things it does it usually does remarkably well and sincerely. And with its heart in the right place.

I especially like the neoclassical semi-Prokofievian or mock-Stravinskian theme music by Vladimir Dashkevitch. Somehow it manages to fuse Victorian London with Imperial St. Petersburg and set the mood perfectly, not forgetting a slight measure of healthy irony.

Oh, back to The Final Problem. I'd previously heard some radio plays with John Gielgud as Holmes and Ralph Richardson as his Watson. Not bad, I quite like the pair even if Gielgud sometimes may come across as a bit academic and prissy and Richardson occasionally half sounds as if he's having a nod at his club. The Final Problem is hugely interesting because Moriarty is played by none other than the suave and urbane Orson Welles, who pours a out a sound dose of venom and concealed menace with each and every one of his softly spoken words. He's the real star of the piece. The more genteel he sounds, the more dangerous one senses that he is. Which makes Orson Welles's Moriarty very dangerous indeed.

On the face of it Gielgud and Welles are an unlikely couple of mortal foes. Actually seeing them struggle to the death would probably convince no one. Hearing them do it works beautifully. And Welles makes such a lovely villain. He's much better as Moriarty than as Holmes. The effect of the play is somewhat tempered by Richardson in the end. Reading his eulogy he sounds a bit as if he were reading about a cricket match in which he wasn't particularly interested.

But Welles's Moriarty - ah 'tis a rare and beautiful thing indeed!



When he was in hospital in Baltimore, in a state of great confusion, slowly but surely dying, Edgar Allan Poe kept calling out for Reynolds. The resident physician John Moran described his end in the following manner: "When I returned I found him in a violent delirium, resisting the efforts of two nurses to keep him in bed. This state continued until Saturday evening when he commenced calling for one 'Reynolds,' which he did through the night up to three on Sunday morning. At this time a very decided change began to affect him. Having become enfeebled from exertion he became quiet and seemed to rest for a short time, then gently moving his head he said 'Lord help my poor soul' and expired."

So, who was this Reynolds? Nobody seems to know. Jeffrey Meyers, in his biography, suggests Poe meant Jeremiah Reynolds whose book he reviewed in 1837 and later used as a source for his own book about the travels Arthur Gordon Pym. Meyers goes on to suggest that during his last hours Poe probably hallucinated along the lines of the last sequence of Pym: "And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow." Poetic but a bit far-fetched.

Peter Ackroyd, in his A Life Cut Short, observes that there was indeed an election official called Reynolds at the very Hotel in front of which Poe was discovered. There has been much speculation on Poe's involvement in some kind of election scam. Possible, but a bit uninteresting.

The Norwegian author Nikolaj Frobenius (who a few years ago wrote the quite excellent screenplay to the film Insomnia) comes up with a far more fascinating solution in his novel Jeg skal vise dere frykten. In the book Reynolds is in fact a slave belonging to Poe's foster father John Allan, an albino shunned by the other slaves, a man without a place in the world. In that respect much like Poe himself, an eternal outsider. Poe befriends the slave Reynolds, who in fact, unbeknownst to Poe, is Allan's bastard son. Poe reads the lad his early stories and young Reynolds, with his twisted and tortured soul, finds great relief in them.

Poe teaches Reynolds to read. They run away together, escaping the clutches of the tyrannical Allan. Reynolds idolizes Poe but very soon there comes the inevitable parting of the ways. Their friendship does not end well. Poe gets on with his life, such as it is.

Later, when Poe's grisly tales of murder and madness start appearing in national magazines, Reynolds begins his murder spree based on Poe's stories. The bloodier the story, the better.

There is an interesting theme of doppelgangerism in the novel, with Reynolds as Poe's evil twin (and in a way they are brothers, both being Allan's "sons"), his very own William Wilson, whose skin may be white as snow (the image at the end of Pym) but whose soul is blacker than black. Poe is the day, Reynolds is the night. What feverish nightmares Poe sublimates and exorcises by putting them on paper, Reynolds performs and realizes. Poe is the mind, Reynolds is the flesh. Reynolds is Poe's nightmare personified, his fears and anxieties come to life, running amok and causing destruction and wreaking havoc.

Ingenious idea.

It is eminently clear they cannot both exist. Not ultimately. Therefore Poe attempts to shoot Reynolds and bury him alive. Reynolds doesn't die. Reynolds uses subtler methods to try to kill Poe. He starts hiding bottles of whiskey among Poe's belongings. Poe cannot resist. In the end Reynolds and the bottles get him. His mind cannot protect itself against the attacks of his flesh.

Despite its many good qualities Jeg skal vise dere frykten isn't a frightfully good book. I found it curiously bland and it left me slightly confused, as if it didn't quite know if it wanted to be a literary novel, a biographical novel, a tale of horror or a plain thriller. Probably it wanted to be all of them at the same time, but not really succeeding in being any of them. Of recent novels delving in Poe's demise I much prefer Matthew Pearl's The Poe Shadow. A rather good literary novel about the latter days of Poe is John May's Poe and Fanny.

Though of course none of them solve the mystery of Reynolds. Neither did Frobenius but his take on the mystery is by far the most interesting I've come across.

On the other hand, taking into account Poe's state, it's quite likely that the name Reynolds is merely the confused rambling of an extremely delirious mind, signifying absolutely nothing.


Tog på värjan och stötte henne i Hjorten

När man läser J.J. Wecksells Daniel Hjort är det svårt att inte tänka på Shakespeare. Eller kanske man borde säga Hagberg. Daniel Hjort fick sin premiär 1862 ("Första gången uppfördt å Nya Teatern i Helsingfors den 26 november 1862", som min upplaga av pjäsen - K.E. Holms Förlag, Helsingfors 1901 - har det på titelsidan), Carl August Hagbergs Shakespeare-översättningar kom ut mellan 1847 och 1851 (en rasande takt - även om själva arbete tog honom längre säger Nordisk familjebok:"Enligt hans egen utsago medtog detta arbete nära elfva år af hans kraftigaste mannaålder").

Wecksells Hjort är främst Hamlet, men även Jago (i en förrädisk replik citerar han Jago: "Jag är ej, hvad jag är"), och till en inte ringa grad bastarderna Edgar och Faulconbridge. När Hjorts älskade Sigrid tar sitt eget liv dränker hon sig naturligtvis. Det måste hon göra för att det gjorde Ofelia. Och som en sann shakespearesk hjälte dör Hjort en tragisk död i slutet.

Nordisk familjebok hävdar, intressant nog, att Daniel Hjort faktiskt var verklig och verkar ha varit något av en fascinerande lurifax. Han vistades, som pjäsen påstår, på Åbo slott 1597 när hertig Karl belägrade det, "som informator eller sekreterare hos riksmarsken Klas Fleming", och "skall därvid ha öfvertalat besättningen att uppgifva slottet." Genast efter detta studerade han i Leipzig, "vann utrikes magistergraden och äfven titeln af kejserlig 'poëta laureatus'". Undrar vad det var för något han skrev? Man antar att alla hans skrifter är borta. Senare uppförde han skumma uppdrag i Lappland och bland annat "förde ett antal Lappgossar att uppfostras i Uppsala", vilket då låter ganska illa. Uppenbarligen handlade det om något slags etnisk rensning, som dagens term lyder. Andra skumma uppdrag innebor underhandlingar med danskarna och ryssarna. Han hade en position på Viborgs slott som hertig Karl Filips sekreterare och var inblandad 1613 när "underhandlingen bedrefs om hertigens mottagande af den ryska tsarkrkonan." Det blev ju inte av. Kunde ha blivit ganska annorlunda om det hade gjort det. 1615 blev han "ihjälstucken af en knekthöfvitsman Erik Nilsson."

Artikeln slutar med orden: "H. var fal för guld, men lärd och begåfvad." Någon borde faktiskt ta en ny titt på den verklige mannen Daniel Hjort - och kanske skriva en ny pjäs eller roman om honom?

Som bekant insjuknade Wecksell i schizofreni som 24-åring, precis inför pjäsens premiär och levde ut resten av sitt liv, 45 år, på Lappviken. Så här skriver Nordisk familjebok om pjäsens premiär: "Skalden var närvarande, men utan att mera kunna fatta hvarken det bifall, som stycket väckte, eller den hyllning, som kom honom till del. Han var då redan hemfallen åt en obotlig sinnessjukdom , af hvilken han sedan dess alltjämt led."

Av Wecksells produktion lever ett antal dikter vidare, särskilt som sånger. Jag tänker då på Sibelius-sångerna Var det en dröm? och Demanten på marssnön. Andra komponister som använt hans texter är Collan, Diktonius, Järnefelt och Melartin.

Men Wecksell-kompositionen primus inter pares är naturligtvis Selim Palmgrens enda opera Daniel Hjort från 1910, ett kraftigt och (tänker man på tidpunkten för uppkomsten) häpnadsväckande fräscht och rentav modernt stycke. Vilket är lite underligt eftersom texten inte alls känns modern (men inte, an sich, föråldrad heller, det vill jag inte påstå) och librettot respekterar texten och återger den nära på stavelse för stavelse. Så kan det gå ibland: man håller sig strikt till det arkaiska och slutresultatet är tvärt det motsatta. Metafysik.

Operan spelades in av Åbo filharmoniker under Ulf Söderblom. I CD:ns textbilaga skriver C.J. Gardberg lite mera om den historiske Hjort. Han föddes antagligen i Småland, adlades 1607 och fick ett nytt namn: Hjortvipa. "Han blev dock ingalunda nedstucken på Åbo slott; det ödet drabbade honom först 1615, då en knekthövitsman under ett dryckeslag i Stockholm hos psalmdiktaren och kyrkoherden Sigfrid Aronius Forsius 'tog på värjan och stötte henne i Hjorten, så att han stalp baklänges vidöppen'."

Ett par intressanta saker. Det hela skedde i Stockholm och hemma hos Forsius. Forsius var då predikant i Riddarholmskyrkan, en viktig befattning, men fick gå efter incidenten. Forsius och Hjort var gamla bekanta, hade träffats kanske redan i Finland. Det var nämligen därifrån Forsius var, närmare bestämt från Helsingfors, vilket då hans namn vittnar om. "1601 skickades F. jämte von Birckholtz och Daniel Hjort av hertig Karl upp till Lappmark för att verkställa geometriska jämte geografiska mätningar. Dessa utfördes med mycken omsorg, och resultaten voro af stor betydelse för den geografiska kunskapen om dessa trakter", skriver Nordisk familjebok.

Hjort är alltså tjänsteman, politiker, diplomat, vetenskapsman, poet, förrädare, agent provocateur, antagligen spion, poet. En tämligen mångfacetterad varelse. Hans slut får mig att tänka på Marlowes slut, a reckoning in a small room, när spionen och poeten Marlowe fick en dolk i ögat i ett bråk på ett värdshus. Bråket var mera komplicerat än det såg ut att vara (åtminstone om man får tro på Charles Nicholl och hans utmärkta Marlowe-studie The Reckoning, och det får man ju). Detsamma, antar jag, gäller bråket mellan Hjort och knekthövitsmannen.

Hjort var inblandad i så många intriger, så många skurkstreck, så många skumma affärer, att hans slut måste ha ytterligare dimensioner, det kan inte enbart handla om ett banalt fyllebråk. Författaren i mig kräver det.


Cracks in the Marble

As Holmes Jeremy Brett is one of the best. He's also one of the absolutely worst.

It begins well. The first episodes are solidly crafted, intelligently written, superbly acted by one and all. It is clear that the production team is serious and want to do justice to Doyle and Holmes (something that is far from self-evident in many nay most Holmes productions). It shows. And they're out to do the whole cycle, the entire Canon, all of Doyle's 60 Sherlock Holmes stories.

And one of the best features of the series: we get an intelligent Watson, the perfect foil for Holmes. In this series Watson is solid, steadfast and dependable. He has a strong moral sense as well as a deep understanding of how society works or ought to work. Holmes is the brain, Watson is the heart. Watson understands people while Holmes understands ideas and abstract concepts. And thus we get an interesting relationship between Holmes and Watson, an almost unique one: "a relationship in which, as Brett often stated, Holmes needed Watson more than Watson needed Holmes", to quote Brett's obituary by R. Dixon Smith in The Journal of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society. Together they form a whole, a complete human being. The one is useless without the other. But Holmes needs Watson more than we usually acknowledge.

Brett comes across as the Holmes to define the role (and maybe even the man). He looks absolutely right, he could have stepped out of a Paget illustration. He's tall, he's lean, he's hatchet-faced. He's a cold calculating machine, but yet volatile, impetuous, and still somehow an extremely well rounded character. And he's got a heart, hidden away, sometimes almost glimpsed at. It's not a particularly healthy heart, but it is a heart nevertheless.

In 1985 the problems begin for Brett, appropriately enough just as the filming of The Final Problem is through, and the great hiatus of Holmes is about to begin. Brett's wife dies and he himself goes to pieces. He may have had his fair share of mental problems in the past but now he cracks like an egg and has to be hospitalised. He's diagnosed as a manic-depressive and his ailment is not cured but treated with an abundant intake of lithium tablets.

He returns to active duty and starts filming The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Many of the episodes are brilliant: The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Priory School, Silver Blaze, The Six Napoleons. Then comes The Sign of Four, easily one of the best episodes in the entire production if not the best, a true gem. I'm ashamed to say, but only after I saw the production did I realize what a good book The Sign of Four is, only then were my eyes opened to its worth and charm. This is the way a Holmes tale really ought to be illustrated - for my money it may be the best and truest Holmes film ever made (and it is, by the way, one of the film length episodes so technically it can be called a film, I suppose). If there is a slight drawback it may be Watson's age - he may be a bit too old too woo Miss Morstan. So in the film he's more the avuncular Watson than the wooing Watson. Not entirely in keeping with the sacred text but works nevertheless within the context of the film. Having the lovely Jenny Seagrove play Miss Morstan as a young lady of intelligence, integrity and dignity lends the film gravitas and a solid emotional core. Having John Thaw - aka Inspector Morse - play the villain is a nice touch indeed, though of course Thaw's Jonathan Small isn't the villain at all, not the real villain. Thaw's Small is both likable and unlikable at the same time. Unlikable so we believe him as the ruthless avenger, likable so we sympathise with his reasons. While we don't exactly root for him, we're not dead against him either.

After The Return of Sherlock Holmes we get another film length episode. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the best film versions of the novel. It stays true to the novel, avoids all gimmicks and tricks, feels no need to amplify the tale or improve on it. The novel does, after all, stand on its own two feet very nicely, thank you very much, and really doesn't need improving. At all.

Brett takes his Holmes very seriously indeed. During breaks he is often seen perusing the Canon and he insists that the original dialogue be added to the scenes. He wants the episodes to be as true to Conan Doyle as possible. The producers (the later ones) don't always agree. Brett threatens to quit. The producers give in. Authentic dialogue is used. And then, after a while, conveniently, they again forget all about it.

But the strain is beginning to show. The medication is heavy and had nasty side-effects. Like retaining water. That's why Brett looks quite fat in the later episodes. It's all water his body has retained thanks to the lithium pills.

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes starts with quite decent episodes. By no way brilliant, but adequate. The Illustrious Client, The Creeping Man, The Boscombe Valley Mystery. Still, it has to be admitted, the best tales have already been shot. These are the more mediocre ones. They really don't inspire anyone, not the writers, not the directors, not the actors. Then things take a definite turn for the worse. The producer Michael Cox leaves. He's really the brains behind the whole project. It was all his idea, he was the one who envisioned a series that would be true to Doyle's stories, a series with a Watson who's like the Watson Doyle intended, a series with a Holmes who's got his dark and unpleasant side. He it was who wanted to film the entire Canon just the way it was written.

The new producers have rather different ideas. After Cox's untimely exit they do three long episodes: The Master Blackmailer, The Last Vampyre and The Eligible Bachelor. Now, ostensibly, these episodes are based on Doyle's stories - Charles Augustus Milverton, The Sussex Vampire and The Noble Bachelor - but the material has been stretched, altered and transmogrified almost beyond belief. The two latter episodes bear hardly any relation to Doyle's original stories. The annoying thing is that what has been added is deplorably trivial and crass. They never expand the original tales, merely sabotage them.

The Doyle originals aren't good enough for the new producers. They need to be improved on. They need to be boosted and worked over. Doyle just isn't up to par.

What is significant is how the standard of Brett's performance drops. Quite drastically. This is partly - mostly - due to the poor quality of the new scripts. They don't give Brett much to do and to act, his role merely seems to be to be and to emote. No wonder he starts hamming it. What choice does he have really?

Now there's no turning back.

The last episodes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Homes, are pretty rotten. The stories aren't first-rate, obviously, but when they're indifferently scripted they become absolutely ghastly. Brett doesn't act anymore, he simply exhibits himself, pulling out his worst mannerisms at the drop of a hat, chewing the carpet at every turn and killing every line with uninspired and extremely lazy over-acting. His heart is no longer in it. Also, Brett is uncomfortable with his bulk, ashamed of it, and it affects his performance. No longer does he cut a lean Sherlockian figure, he's no longer thin as a rake, taut as a whip, rather he's a bloated whale, an elephant. He tries but cannot hide it. It shows even in his face, the sad bloatedness. And his manic-depression is getting worse. Sometimes he doesn't even turn up so they have to have Charles Gray as Mycroft replace Sherlock as the detective of the piece. Not particularly convincing. Not really Canonical.

As for the scripts, the producers even consider doing un-Canonical stories, stories by others than Doyle. (At least that's what David Stuart Davies claims. He offered one, the producers almost did it, but turned it down at the very last minute, so Davies expanded his script to a novel - The Scroll of the Dead, if I'm not entirely mistaken.) Sacrilege. On the other hand, what's the difference, the last episodes bear precious little resemblance to anything Doyle wrote. Going outside for stories would not have made it any worse.

The last episode, The Cardboard Box, goes out in April 1994. In late 1995 Brett is dead. His heart gives out. Maybe the shambles that the series has become is part of the reason.


Words, words, words

Writing scripts can be a bother. It can be immensely frustrating. And I don't mean just the process of writing, which in itself may be a struggle, but what comes after that, what happens when the blasted piece is finished and turned over to others. I mean the production of the script.

The actors can be all wrong. Oh dear how wrong they can be. Or they can be right but they just don't get it. Or they can have their own ideas about how the lines ought to be interpreted. (Or indeed be unable to do the lines in a certain way.) Very often this brings new layers of meaning to the piece, sometimes it just kills it.

Very often, however, whole sequences of dialogue are written in such a manner that they may be spoken only one way. Speaking them in another way, interpreting them, quite literally destroys them, takes away the meaning, renders them without any sense whatsoever, just an incoherent jumble of arbitrary lines. And that makes the author look bad, through no fault of his own.

Then there's the director. They too have their own ideas. They read the script and are inspired by it. They too have their own ideas, their own vision of how things should be. Sometimes that's supported by what is actually in the script, sometimes it brings a wealth of riches to the structuring and the dynamic and the texture of the piece, at other times not so much.

But whatever happens - however the script is produced, whether magnificently and intelligently and with a great deal of tact and delicacy, or shabbily and not really giving a toss about what the script is about - one as the author does tend to have the same primary reaction to every production: why can't they just say the lines the way they're written on the page? Why can't they just speak them with a loud and clear voice (unless indicated otherwise) and as if they understood what they're saying? Surely that cannot be too much to ask?

But of course it is. Demanding that actors speak the lines exactly as they're written is foolishness. They lines aren't written in a certain way just because the author believes so. They have no inherent meaning as such. It isn't a question of their being open to interpretation. Everybody reads, understands and interprets them in a different way, quite automatically. The author's intended way is one of them and only one. Is it more correct than the others? Well that may be, at least if you consult the author, but it has no practical bearing on the case.

Unless of course the author directs the blasted thing himself.

Occasionally that seems like a very good idea indeed.

A few years ago in Berlin I heard a radio drama I rather admired. I cornered the Austrian author and complimented him on what I thought was a very interesting and effective production. The author, incidentally, had also directed the piece. I asked him about that, since authors directing their own material interests me (and also frightens me a great deal). It turned out he'd done the whole thing in a highly peculiar manner. The actors of the piece never met each other, he'd taped them all separately! Wasn't that a problem? I asked. By no means, he replied, I knew exactly how each line was to be said, how each line should sound, so I taped every line separately and did re-takes until it sounded like it should. Then he just put all the lines in their place and the drama was finished. Didn't even take too long.

I understood the author completely. To me it made all the sense in the world. He'd done it like music. When each line sounded a certain way the whole of it made sense. Only then. Each line had to have a certain inflection, a certain cadence, a certain nuance. Only then did it sound like it sounded in his head. (Otherwise it never sounds like it sounds in the author's head when he writes the script - never once. Not even close.) True directors will of course pale at the very thought of this, probably even faint, but I find it quite fascinating. When the radio play is understood as music, when every line ought to sound just so, it may be the only way. Would be jolly nice to have a go sometime.

One author who recently had a go at directing is Neil Gaiman. He too has had his problems with productions. In Neverwhere, for instance, he was greatly surprised to find that the director's (or possibly the producer's) interpretation of The Great Beast of London, that terrifying, absolutely horrific nether-worldly creature, was a rubber cow of some sort. Not quite what he meant, actually.

Ah, but to have the actors speak the lines exactly the way one wants them spoken. What absolute bliss! In his directorial debut, the short film Statuesqe, Gaiman didn't do quite that. In fact he went the other way altogether. He didn't use words, there wasn't a single line in the entire film. Not one word was uttered by anybody.

Which to me sounds like a stroke of genius. How liberating it must have been not to have to bother with words, just do away with them, just show everything and not tell about it.

If there's one thing in writing that often gets on one's nerves it's the words, the absolute and inescapable tyranny of words. How envious one is of actors and musicians and painters and film-makers who don't need words, who can just go out and do things. Concrete things, physical things. And be understood by most anybody, not just those who by some quirky chance are able to understand the remote and obscure northern language one happens to operate in.

On the other hand again, the writer is the only free man. His work depends on nobody else. He and he alone is his own man. (Or woman, as the case may be.) The work of a great many others depends on him (or on somebody else, anyway). So maybe it isn't such a bad deal after all.