REVIEW: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes – The Illustrious Client

  • Broadcast: February 20th, 1965
  • Character: Baron Adelbert von Gruner

“I should say there is no more dangerous man in Europe”.

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PETER as Von Gruner with Jennie Linden as Violet de Merville

‘The Illustrious Client’ is part of the BBC’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series, which was originally broadcast in 1963. Not counting the pilot (‘The Speckled band’) it shows all the hallmarks of ageing television productions; grainy film, simplistic camera staging, over-the-top acting and a rather rushed plot. Nevertheless, for all of that, it does have its own style, finer moments and some competent performances. Indeed, I found that I rather enjoyed the episode since I’m a sucker for a good villain!

Picture it: Victorian England at the end of the Nineteenth century. London backstreets; swirling mists… not caused by oppressive weather, but rather some water thrown on hot coals. Let me explain…

You see, Holmes and Watson are having a sauna. Now before you get your tablets out and start composing an email in complete disgust, I can assure you that their intentions are completely honourable. After all, this is the 1890’s filmed in the 1960’s, so we’re not quite at The Tudors era of production where anything goes, and goes at it all of the time! This is entirely civilized and above board. Right then, Holmes and Watson and some other chaps are enjoying their sauna when news reaches them that their services are required in a matter of some delicacy (are they always?!) Cut to 221b Baker Street.

It appears that Violet, the daughter of General de Merville, has become entangled with a certain Baron Adelbert von Gruner; a devious man and ‘one to whom violence is familiar, who will stick at nothing to gain his ends’. Sir James – the General’s aide, also adds: “I should say there is no more dangerous man in Europe”. The Baron’s intentions are, of course, not as honorable as he would have Violet believe. It’s said that’s just murdered a former wife and several others, which is all idle speculation, naturally, but the honour and life of poor young Violet must be saved at all costs. Does Violet not know of his deeds? I hear you cry. Well, as a matter of fact she does, but she’s heard an alternative and entirely fictional version from the Baron himself, and being hopelessly in love with him, that’s all she needs. The game is afoot!

In a club of ill repute, Holmes and Watson consult Shinwell Johnson – a crook who happens to have his ear to the ground. He agrees to put the word out for something to pin on the Baron – specifically something connected to his numerous female companions. This is a poorly-produced scene with blaring music in the background which makes it difficult to hear what’s being said. The singer, a Cockney girl, is dressed in something that wouldn’t look out of place on a Madonna tour (Jean Paul Gaultier has a lot to answer for!). For me, she seems to spend too much time on getting her London-in-the-1990’s accent right to be bothered with making the lyrics understandable. And I’m sure the lines were outrageously funny, but we’ll never know. However, Shinwell’s dark murmurings of the Baron set the scene.

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Von Gruner at home with Violet

Note: Von Gruner is the male equivalent of Basic Instinct’s Catherine Trammell (minus the lesbianism, of course!): a man who toys with women; was suspected of murder but deftly evaded capture, and is rich. We should be on our guard.

At last we have our first taste of Baron von Gruner and Violet de Merville. He is everything we suspected: intellectual, focuses, predatory, manipulative, and murderous. She is everything we feared: blinded by love, dominated, and more than a little bit stupid (I’ll forgive her for these later. Well, I’m allowed to change my mind, aren’t I?) The Baron is obviously not desirous of Violet, and makes a heart-felt attempt to strangle the poor girl for attempting to enter his secret study then, just as suddenly, loses interest. Despite this, Violet wants him to tell her that he loves her. All he can manage is: “I want you more than anything else in the world”, which is all Violet is going to get. Oh well, he is the star of the piece after all and can’t be seen to be too available, can he?

So why is the Baron so protective of his study? Why doesn’t Violet run to the nearest copper and cry ‘attempted murder’? Why is the Baron wearing the very same boots that Sir John Cleverly Cartney wore in The Avengers? All this and more in the next episode of Soap…

Sorry – I got a bit carried away there. Anyway, the scene is now prepared for Holmes to lock horns with our very own bad boy, and we’re not disappointed. He arrives at the Baron’s home and the pair size each other up while the camera wiggles to and fro to get a better angle. The Baron warns his foe to “draw off at once” and promises the Detective a damn good thrashing if he continues to meddle in his affairs. This is also the scene when we realise why his fiancé is being so daft – Post Hypnotic Suggestion! So the Baron is the David Blaine of Victorian England. It could be worse, but not for violet. But, still, I forgive her (I said I would, didn’t |I?). The Baron projects a confident exterior but we can tell that he’s at least respectful of Holmes’ investigative flair, if not threatened by it. He should be, though, since this is Holmes show after all and the ‘Baddie’ is bound to be defeated. I was a little concerned about the “au revoir” exit Homes makes. It’s not really as tough as a “just you wait!” or a “I’ll get you yet!”, is it? But on we go…

And it’s time for the introduction of the other good character piece of the episode: Miss Kitty Winter, played by Rosemary Leach. Kitty is one of the Baron’s earlier conquests and she’s out for revenge. She reveals that he is every bit as despicable as we feared and that she’d be quite prepared to warn Violet of his previous history. But Holmes needs something concrete to pin on the Baron. Kitty knows of a black book in which he keeps intimate details of his female conquests. So now we have something to work with. Yet as Kitty is leaving she tells Holmes that she doesn’t want payment from him for this or any other information, but would rather “like to see him in the mud with my foot in his cursed face”. Sounds like trouble to me, but Holmes is not at all concerned. OK, so we’ll pretend we didn’t hear that for the sake of the plot.

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Baron von Gruner quizzes Dr Watson on Ming-era pottery

Off we go to see Violet and to warn her that her husband-to-be is a bit of a lad… oh, and a homicidal maniac to boot, but the young lady is having none of it. It would appear that Baron von Gruner is quite adept at his hypnotism.

Kitty is incensed at Violet’s lack of attention to her warnings, and comments: “I don’t give a tinker’s cuss if you live or die”, and at this juncture I’m inclined to agree. There’s’ nothing more infuriating in a drama than to have a weak character, however heavily the plot depends upon it (I shall revoke my absolution – well, it is a gentleman’s prerogative to change his mind!). Surely Arthur Conan Doyle should’ve put more flesh on her? Anyway, we leave Violet for a moment with Kitty’s warning: “You’ll be sorry you didn’t listen to me, my fine lady!”. And she probably would, except that Sherlock Holmes is bound to win through seconds from disaster.

Outside on the street, Holmes has just seen Kitty off in a Hackney Carriage when two thugs see off Holmes in a rather tame tousle compared to today’s standards. (I have to admit that seeing Douglas Wilmer face down in a puddle of water rather pleasing, and he’s supposed to be the hero!). Something is surely amiss. Ah – I know what it is. Holmes is not dead after all, oh no! He was on his guard and put up a brave fight. Good ol’ Holmes!

In the interim, the Baron spots an article entitles “Murderous attack on Sherlock Holmes” in his newspaper, prompting a most evil smirk to appear across his face. We get the impression that he would’ve liked to have seen the attack at close quarters.

Meanwhile, Watson tends to Holmes, who evidently wasn’t quite as badly beaten as we’d been lead to believe. As a result of the attack, he sees to it that Kitty is taken into his protection in case the Baron should have any further murderous inclinations. However, the Showgirl is the last thing on von Gruner’s mind, as it appears he’s already taken steps to skip the country for the Big Apple. This decision seems rather strange to me, given that he’s still of the belief that Holmes has been dealt a fatal blow, and that his marriage to Miss De Merville can go ahead without a hitch.

Always hot on the Austrian’s heels, Holmes discovers that Baron’s plans and announces to Watson that they have three full days before he sails to the Colonies to sort him out (let’s hope they do better than Time Team!). But they do have a secret weapon: Watson is to become an expert in Chinese Potter – a passion of the Baron’s – in twenty-four hours. Oh dear, what was Arthur thinking…?

The cracks are now beginning to show in Violet’s hypnotism and the Baron has to give a little top-up before he sets off for the States, while Watson cries, “Ming, Ming, Ming!” It can only get better.

At last the final scenes. Kitty is “Prepared for anything”, and Watson has indeed become a pottery expert, although I don’t feel he’d fare well on Antiques Roadshow somehow, but he claims that he could hold an intelligent conversation on the subject nonetheless. Well, I’m all for confidence, and besides it’s in the interest of the plot to suspend our disbelief, isn’t it? Watson is to go undercover.

And so off we go with Watson to see the Baron, who suspects that the visitor is not quite what he claims to be. Watson, it must be said, does little to dissuade him; mumbling something about the Tang vase presented to him for inspection, and hastily moving on to the reason for his call, which is the Ming saucer he wished to sell to the Baron. After only a couple of shots at Watson’s amour, von Gruner discovers that he knows little about Chinese pottery, and that he’s indeed a spy. A revolver is produced. Is Watson about to be horribly dispatched?

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Sherlock Holmes confronts the Baron

A sudden noise from the study. “Ah, I see,” exclaims the Baron. “There is more than the one of you!”. Of course, we should’ve known; Watson was merely a momentary distraction whilst Holmes and Kitty attempt to find the infamous ‘Black Book’. The Baron bursts into the study. Holmes ducks bravely behind a curtain; Watson dashes to the rescue, whilst kitty saves the day by throwing her little acid concoction into the Baron’s face, leaving him writhing around in agony.

All rather grim, really.

Back at Baker Street, we’re rushed through the loose ends of the mystery. Kitty manages to escape with only a month in the slammer for melting the Baron’s face, whilst Holmes succeeds in evading the charges of burglary since he apparently has friends in high places. Good heavens! was British Law so corrupt even then?! I’m afraid so.

AFTER THOUGHTS:

Now I bet you’re dying to know what our very own MR WYNGARDE was like in this production. His accent was a curious blend of Gary Oldman in ‘Dracula’ and the late Alan Rickman, which sounds as if it would be quite distracting, but it actually works wonderfully. Well, apart from one phrase used when discussing the hypnotism: “No vinking lites and darkened rrrrooms” which, to me, sounded a bit like Jamie Lee Curtis doing her ‘Inge from Sweden’ bit in ‘Trading Places’.

It’s clear to me that PETER the most ability in the drama – showing a marvelously rapid progression of expressions during the close-up’s in headed exchanges, and creating particularly idiosyncratic gestures and movements when he, as the Baron, inspected his collection of pottery. Von Gruuner is one of those characters who, I assume, would be very difficult to play convincingly. An actor would either triumph or flounder disastrously in the rile and I for one am grateful that PETER carried it so well, since the only other outstanding performance came from Rosemary Leach as Miss Winter.

Douglas Wilmer as Holmes. Hmm. Not convinced at all. His mannerisms and body language were far too camp for my liking. I know that Holmes is supposed to be more than a little dramatic and rather conceited, but Wilmer made me want to give him a taste of the back of my hand. Give me Jeremy Brett any day!

Nigel Stock as Watson fared much better, but was written as too much of a bungling idiot. I mean, this man is supposed to be a doctor of medicine, and yet here he is, running around going “doh!” like Homer Simpson! No, it was a fine attempt, but again the scriptwriters needed a good kick up the rear.

The plot was fairly rushed, but did have some good twists and turns, such as kitty’s revenge and Holmes attempted murder, despite not really having a crime to solve as such. I feel this would’ve been much more impressive if Wilmer had been replaced and the duration extended somewhat, but at the time of production there was, of course, numerous constraints on the cast and crew.


ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR WATSON

Views on the Illustrious Client

“There is nothing more important than trifles!” Sherlock Holmes once said – and so, at the beginning of my short essay on The Illustrious Client, starring Douglas Wilmer, Nigel Stock, and with PETER WYNGARDE as the guest villain, I’d like to make two things clear: the title of this article is absolutely none-canonical, while the episode is. Holmes often said: “My dear Watson,” as well as “elementary”, but they were never said together. It’s one of the great misquotes of film and literature, as is “Play it again, Sam,” for example.

I was glad to read in the above piece by Ian Smith was a ‘review’ in its truest sense, since many articles on PETER’s film and TV work are merely re-telling’s of the story. However, as a Holmsian of many years, I had to chuckle at some of his comments.

There’s no doubt that he’s a good and amusing writer, so there’s no point in discussing that. But his knowledge of the world of Sherlock Holmes seems to be rather marginal – or he simply used some of his writing abilities to make fun of the episode, because he disliked it(?)?

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I certainly agree that PETER WYNGARDE made the best with the part of the “Austrian murderer”, von Gruner. In fact, his portrayal is more than a match for that of Eric Porter’s Professor Moriarty in the Jeremy Brett series. If you’ve seen the Anthony valentine version of von Gruner with Brett’s Holmes, you would see how well PETER delivers the character. He is charming and attractive, cunning, sadistic, deadly as a poisonous snake, whist moving almost cat-like around the room. Valentine, on the other hand, looked rather like an old gigolo who’s best times are behind him; you just couldn’t understand why Violet, or indeed ANY woman, would go for him. It couldn’t possibly be for his old-world continental; charm because he had none!

Valentine plays his game like a clever amateur. PETER is in full control of it. The scene where Wilmer’s Holmes confronts von Gruner is a delight, and both WYNGARDE and Wilmer show the best of their acting abilities; this alone is worth the whole film! By the way, as a German, I can say that PETER manages the accent fairly well.

I was surprised to read in Ian Smith’s review that he found Wilmer “camp”. This tag might fit the scene where Holmes leaves the Turkish bath like a Roman senator, but nowhere else. I won’t argue either who was the better Holmes; Brett or Wilmer. In my opinion, Brett was wonderful, but Wilmer was superb. There’s no doubt that the latter plays Holmes as the ‘Thinking Machine’ that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described, with all the mannerisms found in the books.

On the other hand, Jeremy Brett went quite over the top on a few occasions, and clearly went too far in some of the later episodes.

I still feel that Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing were the best Holmes, but Wilmer comes close.

I also agree with Ian Smith’s comments on Rosemary Leach’s performance as “that hell-cat” Kitty Winter. She gives a good performance, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t go for her myself, and I can’t see why von Gruner would be attracted to her either. She would clearly have no chance of winning a beauty context!

Written by Uwe Sommerlad


The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

 

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