“Holmes! How the devil is this possible?”
“There are at least nineteen indications about the animal which render the identity of his owner quite plain, the indentation upon his collar makes it clear that he is handled often by a man in possession of a new minted wedding ring. The strands of Persian rug upon the backs of the beast’s hind legs are suggestive of furnishings owned by a…”
“Not the blessed dog! How the deuce have you come to be here?”
A priest recieving vaguely threatening poison pen letters comes to Watson for assistance, resulting in a return to 221B Baker Street. But is it mere nostalgic melancholia? Or the start of a solo adventure for the erstwhile companion and chronicler of the exploits of Sherlock Holmes?
A swirling, convoluted skein of interweaving plot threads brings a reluctant Watson and his new bride kicking and screaming into the midst of a large scale conspiracy – one that is willing to stop at nothing to draw forth the current whereabouts of Holmes from his old friend. But Holmes is dead, fallen in final struggle with his greatest nemesis over the Reichenbach Falls…
On the other side of the globe, a certain Mr. Sigurson is accosted by a suspiciously ingratiating innkeep into investigation of a gruesome murder…of a man she insists is none other than Colonel Sebastian Moran. But is he?
Who are The Society, and why do they inspire a cultlike frenzied devotion in their members? And what does Holmes’ father have to do with all this?
“They are zealots, and such people are invariably more dangerous. For they are not subsceptible to the exercise of reason.”
Things really turn ugly here. From the framing story set by a cozy fireside over a fresh bottle of scotch to the rather bucolic scenes of Watson and wife working through the loss of Holmes, matters progress to the point where Holmes finds himself and a Tibetan Lama subjected to torture, with Mary Watson and even Mycroft Holmes afflicted with a slow acting, debilitating poison, Watson discredited and jailed, and Inspector Lestrade stripped of office. It’s bad.
Filled with twists and turns, numerous characters playing double agent and assuming multiple roles and more high level chess-style maneuvering than you can shake a stick at, The Judgement of Sherlock Holmes is less Conan Doyle style mystery than a grim, government-toppling bit of intrigue in the vein of a contemporary spy or political thriller…albeit one with a strong focus on its principal players and a small group of antagonists.
And did I mention that in many respects, this entire series can be looked at as a sort of John H. Watson solo adventure?
As one ongoing four part story from the pen of a single author, there’s little point in addressing the chapters individually, but I’m sure you can gather the basic gist of the matter from the aforementioned. And trust me, there are a plethora of further surprises in store for those who elect to dive in…
Richard Earl delivers an excellent, quite familiar take on Dr. John H. Watson, eschewing any acononical Nigel Bruceisms in favor of a more properly Doyleian iteration. He’s believably stuffy and bourgeoise in the course of his daily life and work, both distracted and clearly affected by the loss of his old friend while retaining an accurately Victorian sense of propriety and “face” throughout…until his wife becomes endangered, and matters begin to turn more desperate. Then the emotional undercurrent spills out, with virulence…it’s an impressive performance all around, kudos are much deserved.
Nick Briggs offers a singular Holmes, one entirely lacking the sort of stentorian imperiousness and sense of command of the situation found in the somewhat defining performances of Rathbone, Brett or even Christopher Lee, yet retaining the manic logorhythmia and laser focused-yet-distracted aspects of the character in a rather more subdued variant thereof. The only actor I can think of to adopt a similar approach to the role is the late Peter Cushing, and yet, as with the late Hammer and BBC teleseries veteran’s own take on same, it works.
While it’s a bit of a stretch to picture Conan Doyle’s self-assured to the point of arrogance detective willing to submit to the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism (for however practical a reason), the very vulnerability of Briggs’ take leaves his Holmes among the most human in his intrinsic failings if not frailty. For every strength, a weakness…what better an assessment of the human condition than that?
John Banks delivers an appropriately earnest if none too imaginative Cockney Lestrade, and Tim Bentinck a similarly apropos Mycroft, though author Jonathan Barnes (Charlotte Pollard, Frankenstein) does stretch the accepted parameters by involving the famously lethargic Diogenes regular in a more active if not physical sense than we’ve encountered hereto.
Gemma Whelan gives us a somewhat conflicted Mary Watson, at first a bit emotionally domineering and pouty to demanding, then more intelligent and something of an asset in relation to the case. Again later, she becomes somewhat endearing, and finally tragic…and this is all in the course of the first episode, mind! It’s an interesting performance, and one which I’m sure derives just as much if not more from the actress herself than the script per se.
In many ways, this is not what I was expecting from the Big Finish version of Sherlock Holmes (of which this, it should be noted, is my first experience).
Having a lifelong familiarity with both the original texts and an assortment of media over the past century (from early Arthur Wontner talkies through the Universal series and their long running old time radio successor through the Ronald Howard teleseries and two actors’ takes in the BBC run of the 1960’s, two runs by Christopher Lee and finally the much lauded Jeremy Brett iteration), one finds most or all run close to template, with particular variations of each scripter or actors tending to remain vaguely in the same ballpark. And to some extent, several characters here do the same – Watson, Lestrade and aside from the unusual physicality, Mycroft.
But Briggs’ interpretation is something very different from what’s been seen before – a far less commanding, less central and attention grabbing performance. And yet, many aspects of it are familiar enough – the mania and clipped, rapid fire speech patterns, the distractedness.
It’s close enough to what’s come before to retain a measure of comfort, while altering the focus entirely. And it is this very fact, the balancing act of old and new, familiar and odd that makes the Big Finish variant of Sherlock Holmes interesting.