Carry On Secret Service

How could one not love a film in which John Gielgud plays the action hero?

Quite impossible.

And as an added bonus the film has Madeleine Carroll and Peter Lorre. Need one say more? I'm very much afraid one does.

Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936) is based on W. Somerset Maugham's splendidly bleak and realistic spy novel (or maybe it's a collection of short stories, I'm not entirely certain) Ashenden (1928). The script is by Charles Bennett and Alma Reville and makes a pig's ear of everything. (The movie is not to be confused with Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel The Secret Agent - which Hitchcock also, slightly confusingly, filmed in 1936 as Sabotage).

Gielgud plays an officer and erstwhile novelist who returns from the front, only to find himself officially dead and enrolled in the secret service as "Ashenden". Then, with no training and precious little instruction, he's sent off to Switzerland to bump off a spy. To make him even more conspicuous he's given a partner, known as The Hairless Mexican (because he's neither hairless nor Mexican!) alias the General, played flamboyantly by Lorre.

The General is a fellow who manages to cause commotion and make scenes wherever he goes - obviously an invaluable asset and the perfect companion for the secret agent who wishes to remain inconspicuous.

And to top everything off the head of the Secret Service, R, spuriously has decided Ashenden ought to be a married man because the novelist was a bachelor, so in his Swiss hotel room Ashenden - much to his surprise - finds a wife.

Clearly a well oiled piece of machinery this British Secret Service.

The first thing Ashenden and the General do is eliminate the naughty enemy spy. But, turns out they get the wrong fellow. This causes the hysterical Mrs Ashenden to go right off the whole spy business. She leaves Ashenden and inadvertenty goes off with the real spy.

Ashenden and the General dashes off after her and the spy. They catch the spy on the train and are about to do away with him when the silly goose Mrs Ashenden again gets hysterical; she will have none of this killing stuff. She even threatens to expose Ashenden and the General to the Germans soldiers aboard the train, which of course would mean instant death to them all.

Then the train is bombed by the British. Our protagonists pull through, unscathed. Ashenden finds the severely wounded spy among the debris and is about to strangle him but at the last moment he can't do it. The General has no scruples. He'll shoot the spy. But first a cigarette. The spy snatches the gun and shoots the General, then expires.

Ashenden and Mrs Ashenden embrace. The wicked have been punished and love vanquishes all. The end.

Not much is left of Maugham's extremely fascinating moral ambiguities and the realism with which he depicts the slightly dreary life of a spy. It's all a bit seedy and grimy. The things one has to do are nasty in a banal way, nasty and sordid and remarkably unglamorous. Hitchcock, like always, is content with a brainless pot-boiler that's just a poor excuse for an insipid romance.

However, I'm right fond of the film. Lorre gives one of his very best performances as the randy and slightly ludicrous little hit man with no morals whatsoever. He'll as soon cut your throat as shake your hand. Lorre is positively chilling when he smiles - this, surely, is a man to watch out for. At the same time there is innocence in the performance, a certain childlike naïveté, as he wasn't really aware of the fact that he does perform nasty deeds. He whines, he tries to seduce every woman he meets, he plots his cunning little plots whit the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, he gets angry and pulls a tantrum when a woman is denied him. In a curious way he is, at the same time, lovable and lethal, slimy and seductive. Quite clearly he is the star of the show and justly so.

Madeleine Carroll's role is just stupid. She, on the other hand, is a delight, as ever. There seems to be very little romance between her and Gielgud but she radiates with such luminance that one hardly even notices just how spinsterish Gielgud manages to be in the romantic scenes. Such a great pity she didn't do more films.

One thing has to be said about Hitchcock's movies. Mostly the scripts make absolutely no sense whatsoever plot-wise. Yet somehow he manages almost to obfuscate that crucial fact and still make the films work, at least on other perhaps more visceral levels. One scarcely even notices that the plot is absolute rubbish and wouldn't fool a child. But it does fool most everybody. Most of the time. Perhaps one is unreasonable in one's foolish demands for a non-idiotic plot fit for a mentally adult audience. Probably one is.


Before the End

The penultimate entry in the Granada Holmes series, The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes, isn’t half bad, actually. I recalled it being far worse.

The tricky thing is that by now they’re starting to run out of really meaty stories. I hesitate to call the remaining stories weak, but the incontestable fact is – by this time they’ve pretty much done the scorchers and are left with the more challenging stories.

In some of the stories there is no crime. This, obviously, makes it jolly difficult to structure them dramatically. Inevitably the viewer must feel at least slightly cheated by the anticlimax.

In these stories the script is crucial. Not to mention the directing and the acting. Mood and atmosphere may prevail where plot is absent. Fortunately Brett is still quite good, though some signs of strain are visible.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax is the archetype of a Holmes story: a damsel in distress and the villain trying to get at her money. The atypical feature of the story is that the villain is in no way a member of the family, nor does he attempt to marry Lady Frances.

The Thor Bridge is slightly more difficult. No crime, well none that can be prosecuted, so the story requires a bit of padding. The result is quite good, all things considered. There is melodrama but it is kept under control. There is no crime in Shoscombe Old Place either. Here too some considerable padding is required. So what the director does is that he shows a lot of the old lady in her veil. Which is a mistake. Put a veil on a young man and he still moves like an young man. This works admirably in a text, not so much when it is filmed.

The same applies to The Creeping Man. Here too we don’t really have a crime; it’s just the old professor taking simian hormones for purposes of rejuvenation. But when we see this old professor, actually see him, acting like an ape and swinging from trees from the effect of the hormones, it doesn’t work at all. The more we see the less we believe. Mere glimpses work, an old man beating his chest and running on all four simply makes one smile wryly, or erhaps wince. Otherwise the episode is very good. Pity that Doyle didn’t write more stories with natural science like this in them – this one has almost a feel of science fiction.

The Illustrious Client is, once again, archetypical Doyle: a lethal villain preying on a lady of means an entrapping her into a disastrous and ominous marriage. Quite splendid, especially the villain who’s played by the absolutely marvellous Anthony Valentine: a fellow who simply can’t help being delightfully shifty and untrustworthy, but in a quite delightfully gentlemanly and urbane manner. Valentine, by the way, also played Raffles in the 70s series about the gentleman thief and master cricketer. A couple of days before the Brett version I happened to watch the 60s version with Douglas Wilmer. In this one Baron Gruner was played by Peter Wyngarde, and in such a chilling fashion that one sincerely fears for Holmes’s life. Ripping stuff. Otherwise I have to say the newer version is superior. They had a lot more money to burn and it shows.

The Boscombe Valley Mystery is the only proper mystery of the lot, a hideous murder and a classic tale of Sherlockian detection. Peter Vaugh is a superb villain, a murderer for whom one almost feels sorry. The script is solid. It’s by John Hawkesworth and it shows. If only he could have scripted more episodes.

In all the aforementioned episodes Brett is still quite excellent, keeping his mannerisms under control delivering a solid and well crafted performance. Sometimes he may seem a tad too eager but probably the scripts are to blame for that. Having to pad they tend to overuse Holmes. So often Brett has nothing to do, only to emote. That’s never good.

The Case-book is concluded by three feature length episodes: The Master Blackmailer, The Eligible Bachelor and The Last Vampyre. They are not on the double DVD I just purchased and I can’t say I’m too distraught by the fact. These episodes mark, very clearly, the end of the series. They’re padded, punched up and perverted beyond belief. The first has certain qualities, the other two are just silly and have nothing to do with Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

After this – destruction. But even the next instalment has some remarkably good episodes, erratic in the extreme as the rest may be.



I know this is slightly ungentlemanly, but I can't help but wonder about the financial arrangement between Holmes and Watson.

Holmes does of course handle the most demanding aspect of the cases, the brain work, but Watson does chip in. He provides company, muscle, moral support. He provides a sounding board. He is in every sense of the word the great detective’s assistant. So what happens when the grateful clients whips out the old check book? Does Watson get his just cut? Or does Holmes hang on to the entire loot?

This is never mentioned by Watson. The subject of money is coarse and not to be mentioned in genteel society.

Watson has his practise, of course. However, it never seems to thrive. He's also willing to abandon it at a moment's notice, whenever Holmes has need of his help. This, surely, cannot be good for business. So it seems inevitable that he does need the cash, his cut of the loot; after all he is a family man.

Occasionally the cases are pro bono or Holmes chooses to waive the fee. At other times he collects in abundance. The prime example is in The Priory School where Holmes collects a cool £6000 from the Duke of Holdernesse

"The fact is, your Grace," said he, "that my colleague, Dr. Watson, and myself had an assurance from Dr. Huxtable that a reward had been offered in this case. I should like to have this confirmed from your own lips."
"Certainly, Mr. Holmes."
"It amounted, if I am correctly informed, to five thousand pounds to anyone who will tell you where your son is?"
"And another thousand to the man who will name the person or persons who keep him in custody?"
"Under the latter heading is included, no doubt, not only those who may have taken him away, but also those who conspire to keep him in his present position?"
"Yes, yes," cried the Duke impatiently. "If you do your work well, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, you will have no reason to complain of niggardly treatment."
My friend rubbed his thin hands together with an appearance of avidity which was a surprise to me, who knew his frugal tastes.
"I fancy that I see your Grace's chequebook upon the table," said he. "I should be glad if you would make me out a cheque for six thousand pounds. It would be as well, perhaps, for you to cross it. The Capital and Counties Bank, Oxford Street branch, are my agents."

£6000 is an enormous sum. Any of it going to Watson? Doesn’t seem like it.

"In that case," said Holmes, rising, "I think that my friend and I can congratulate ourselves upon several most happy results from our little visit to the North. There is one other small point upon which I desire some light. This fellow Hayes had shod his horses with shoes which counterfeited the tracks of cows. Was it from Mr. Wilder that he learned so extraordinary a device?"
The Duke stood in thought for a moment, with a look of intense surprise on his face. Then he opened a door and showed us into a large room furnished as a museum. He led the way to a glass case in a corner, and pointed to the inscription.
"These shoes," it ran, "were dug up in the moat of Holdernesse Hall. They are for the use of horses; but they are shaped below with a cloven foot of iron, so as to throw pursuers off the track. They are supposed to have belonged to some of the marauding Barons of Holdernesse in the Middle Ages."
Holmes opened the case, and, moistening his finger, he passed it along the shoe. A thin film of recent mud was left upon his skin.
"Thank you," said he, as he replaced the glass. "It is the second most interesting object that I have seen in the North."
"And the first?"
Holmes folded up his cheque, and placed it carefully in his notebook. "I am a poor man," said he, as he patted it affectionately and thrust it into the depths of his inner pocket.

What if the shoe were on the foot? What if it were Holmes assisting Watson in the surgery? Not doing anything terribly difficult but still being helpful and doing his bit? Would Holmes expect to be paid for his fair share of the work when the patients coughed up? I rather suspect he would. Even if he pottered around in the surgery merely to help his friend. I mean fair is fair, innit?

What about other famous detective duos? Does Hastings collect when Poirot gets paid? Mais non - not bloody likely. Nero Wolfe seems exemplary in this respect: he actually pays his minions steady wages no matter what. Raffles and Bunny also share the loot. In their case it is actual loot as they’re thieves and not detectives. Honour among thieves, eh what?

Maybe Holmes and Watson have another kind of deal. Maybe Holmes keeps all the dosh they get off clients, while Watson’s remuneration is the material he gets for his stories.

"I am glad to meet you, sir," said he, putting out a broad, fat hand, like the flipper of a seal. "I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler. (. . .)”

This is what Mycroft utters upon meeting Watson. Obviously the stories are well known, therefore they must sell and bring in money. But also they serve as a mighty promotional tool for Holmes: they’re in fact his best ads.

Or is it like this: Holmes is the professional, Watson the amateur. The professional gets recompensated for his efforts, the amateur gets to tag along.

The money clearly is an awkward topic. It makes one cringe. It isn’t at all gentlemanly to demand money for services rendered. And it’s quite shocking to demand it from a lady – a gentleman simply doesn’t accept money from a lady. Doing so would make the fellow a – dashed cad.

The ideal would be to be an real and true amateur; amateur in the sense of not charging for one’s services. But that is only possible for one of independent means. Holmes doesn’t have a fortune so he has to work. He has to live on something. Watson at least has his surgery to fall back on. Holmes has nothing else than his detective skills. I’ll grant that he could be an actor, he could be a musician, he could very well be a dozen other things if he so chose. That, however, would mean abandoning being a full-time detective. Then he’d be a mere hobbyist. A dabbler. Everything his malicious slanderers claim him to be.

Courtly ideals and filthy lucre go not well together. One cannot be a parfait knyght, save the damsel in distress from the fires-spewing dragon, and then turn around and grab the damsel's scrip.

Not cricket, old fellow.

Perhaps this is the way to see the partnership: Watson is in fact Holmes’s sponsor.

By not taking a cut of the profits Watson ensures that Holmes has enough money to keep going – to keep on solving the crimes and to keep on unmasking the villains. This isn’t a business. Holmes isn’t in it for the lucre. So the money is in fact irrelevant – it’s only valuable so far as it enables him to continue his work.

Being a detective isn’t Holmes’s profession – it’s his mission.


Sherlock 2100

Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century is a fairly curious illustrated TV series. It's science fiction, obviously, and doesn't shun a cliché. Any cliché. If one is able to ignore the fact that Holmes looks like a far too pretty escapee from the Backstreet Boys, that most Londoners sound either like Cockneys or Americans (and sometimes like American Cockneys), the police are all basically cretins, Holmes repeats "elementary" like a ruddy parrott at every turn, the plots are essentially redundant, and that the series clearly is aimed at an audience with the mental age of six and a half, one may even enjoy it. I rather do.

Moriarty has come back to terrorise New London. Actually it's his clone, but who cares. Inspector Beth Lestrade (the old Inspector Lestrade's great granddaughter or something) at once sees that only one man can vanquish such naughtiness: Sherlock Holmes. Good thing then that Holmes's body is preserved in honey (!) and stored in the cellar of Scotland Yard. And good thing too that a there's a boffin what looks exactly like Conan Doyle what knows how to quicken and rejuvenate Holmes. And as a Holmes must have a Watson, a Watson is provided: a robot who (or that? - or maybe we really must think of it as a whom) has been programmed to think of himself as Watson.

New London is a grim and surprisingly gothic place, very much out of Blade Runner with its sky scrapers, flying cars, nano technology and other cyberpunk mores: it's high tech yet also at the same time dilapidated and seedy, it's new and shiny and futuristic on the outside and has an underbelly that's a right heap of crumbling brick and rusting iron.

However, while the city may be straight from Blade Runner the car chases are straight from Star Wars and the dialogue standard fodder straight from a cheap comic book.

Holmes has his trusted magnifying glass while Watson has seemingly unlimited access to all data bases and has the ability to analyse any found substance on the spot. Very handy. Holmes status is not as independent as it once was. This time around he does take the occasional private consulting job but mostly he works for the police, with Lestrade as his supervising officer. Holmes isn't at all as distant as he used to be but Watson is still the more human one. Even if he is a robot or compudroid.

The stories aren't particularly Holmesian, well not classically so, but at times they do follow the original plots, sort of, even give them a nice and novel twist or two. Or sometimes they merely use an old title. Like in The Resident Patient. Here there is no patient, resident or otherwise. Percy Blessington has invented a method to morph people's DNA, and the way they look. This will come very handy to Moriarty when he attempts to take over the world by substituting a world leader with his dead ringer dummy. But Holmes foils it.

In The Hounds of the Baskervilles there's a crime spree in New London and sightings of phantom hounds - on the Moon. Obviously this falls under the jurisdiction of the New London police, how else. Holmes doesn't go with Lestrade and Watson, he of course already is on the Moon. The hounds seem to be large wolf like creatures that jump on the Moon dome and howl mightily. This, Holmes observes, is strange as there is no atmosphere on the Moon and therefore the howling outside the dome shouldn't be heard. Holmes hacks into a Lunar mainframe and investigates. The howls seem to going directly into the emergency broadcast system.

Holmes ventures outside the dome and proves that the giant hound is nothing but an illusion. A virtual hound. But there is another one, one that attacks people and kidnaps children. Maybe it's the phantom hound of Lunar legend? Holmes seems sceptic. The villain turns out to be Moriarty who's taken over the Moon (by kidnapping a couple of children!) and is about to try to take over the Earth "by reprogramming the Lunar defence network to unload its firepower on Earth's major communication facilities". Holmes foils the plan and Moriarty flees, almost managing to destroy the Lunar centre Galileo City.

In the The Red-Headed League it seems that certain criminals want the police - and Holmes - to cotton on to the league. Mr Wilson, the newest recruit, owns a dingy chip shop and has a dodgy assistant - who indeed put him on to the league. This time around it's forgery and art theft from the National gallery. And Moriarty, as per usual, is behind it all. The ultimate scheme is to kidnap the wealthiest man in the world. Holmes dresses up as the intended victim and foils the dastardly scheme. Moriarty gets away, yet again, just by dashing off. In The Six Napoleons the Napoleons in question are flying cars, "the most sumptuous luxury vehicles ever built". The ornamental crystals on them are destroyed. Why? Turns out one of the crystals is a new and potent power source. In The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire Lot the vampire feeds on data. Moriarty wants to catch the data vampire for his own purposes. Turns out the vampire is a hacker - a young girl who is in fact trying to hinder Moriarty. Holmes foils Moriarty's villanous scheme and Moriarty flees.

In A Case of Identity a hacker pretends to be a police costable in order to gain access to New Scotland Yards mainframe. In the Blue Carbuncle the item in question is a talking blue gremlinesque doll that every child wants for Christmas. And there's one doll in particular that everyone is after - especially Moriarty. The storyline seems to owe more to Schwarzenegger's Jingle all the Way than to Doyle. Anyway, the doll makers have come up with robot intelligence and Moriarty wants the intelligent doll so he can build his own robot army and conquer the world. Which beggars the question: Isn't Watson supposed to be an intelligent robot? If so, what's the fuss about? If he isn't, well what bloody use is he to Holmes? Moriarty's plan is foiled by Holmes and the fact that the doll doesn't much like the idea of working. Definitely one of the better episodes. In The Crooked Man Mr and Mrs Barclay have a violent row behind closed doors. When the door is broken down by a household robot Mrs Barclay is found fainted on the floor and Mr Barclay has mysteriously disappeared. There's some strange fur found and ominous claw marks. Barclay is a genetic engineer, by the way. Everyone familiar with Doyle's story can guess where this is going.

The graphic work isn't bad. Some of the voice acting is pretty horrible, most of it quite competent. Moriarty is actually very good. The science fiction elements aren't innovative but reasonably fresh and well used. This being a kiddie show murders are of course out. Which sort of diminishes the Holmesian spectrum of cases.

Art it ain't. Canonical it ain't. Holmes it ain't. It's basically Punch and Judy. But it is tolerably amusing anyway.