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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Case of the Short Lived Holmes

Sy Weintraub, an American best known for a series of Tarzan films, paid a large sum of money to the Doyle Estate for rights to all sixty of the original Holmes stories by Sir Arthur. I’ve read that he was going to make anywhere between six and thirty films in the series. Ian Richardson was cast as Holmes and two films were quickly shot: The Sign of the Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Hound was being filmed when the earth opened up beneath Weintraub’s production.

What we have here is one of the great examples of failing to do your homework. The stories were about to enter into the public domain in England in 1980. Granada Films announced a television series which would adapt all the Holmes stories and be distributed in America as well as England. Weintraub, realizing that he had paid a lot of money for essentially nothing and was going to lose the monopoly on his American market, joined forces with Doyle’s daughter, Dame Jean, and took Granada to court. The argument was that though many of the stories were in the public domain, because Holmes and Watson continued to feature in stories still under copyright protection, the two characters were still under copyright.

The Granada production was put on hold for about two years (which actually let them tighten things up and prepare for filming, resulting in a stronger series). Weintraub settled the matter out of court and put his Holmes series to rest. Richardson said that the settlement was for “an extraordinary sum of money - something like two million pounds - which was enough for Weintraub to cover his costs on both The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles, and make a profit, too. And so he wrapped the project up.”

A third script, The Prince of Crime, had been written by Charles Pogue but it was consigned to limbo when Weintraub took his money and went home. It did resurface as Hands of a Murderer, starring Edward Woodward as a forgettable Holmes. Completely non-Canonical, it’s a Holmes vs. Moriarty duel. John Hillerman, playing Watson, was well-known from his recently ended stint as Magnum P.I.’s Higgins.

The two Richardson films debuted in the US on Home Box Office in November and December of 1983 and released directly to video the following year in the UK, airing quietly on television a few years later. Neither made any kind of splash, in the Holmes world or out.

Richardson was approached about replacing the ailing Peter Cushing in The Abbot’s Cry, a planned sequel to 1984’s The Masks of Death. However, nothing came of it, the film remained unmade and Richardson never played Holmes again. He did, however, star in the television series, Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes. Richardson played the real-life inspiration for Holmes, Dr. Joseph Bell, with Arthur Conan Doyle as his assistant.

To Richardson’s detriment, Weintraub refused to let the actor appear in Amadeus while the legal issues were ongoing. Thus, Jeffrey Jones was given Richardson’s role as Emperor Joseph II.

Had Granada not decided to take advantage of the copyright expiration, Richardson might well have made a dozen or more Holmes movies and be been remembered today as one of the finest portrayers of the great detective. He brought a controlled humor and a playful sense of pawkiness to the role. 

Who knows: with the legal difficulties, Granada might have simply abandoned their project and the world would never have seen Jeremy Brett, who is today regarded by many as the greatest Holmes. It had been over a decade since a Holmes tv series (Peter Cushing in 1968), then two financially sound projects arrived at the same time. Curious incidents, indeed.

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