Greatest Sherlock Holmes #2: What stumps Sherlock Holmes?
Jeremy Brett and David Burke have said that “The Dancing Men” was a really fun experience to make, as it featured one of the most unique puzzles ever created by Arthur Conan Doyle, one with coded words and confusing symbols to stump Sherlock Holmes. This is a truly logical puzzle, and who’s the most logical man in the world? That’s right, Sherlock Holmes, but he cannot save his client from death because he can’t solve a coded puzzle in time! Was he stumped? Blasphemy, you say?
There is more than just a puzzle to this episode, as the friendship between Holmes and Watson is clearly on display. “The Dancing Men” was the second shown in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series in May of 1984. The script, full of wonderful dialogue, was written by Anthony Skene, who was only used once during the entire series run. This is a curious thing, as the chatter never seems more natural than in this episode.
In some ways, Holmes is embarrassed in this episode. He spends so much time on the puzzle that he puts his client at risk, which ends in the death of Hilton Cubitt, his client. Was Sherlock Holmes stumped? He certainly takes his time, but I think the delay is not due to his lack of intelligence.
As Holmes and Watson consult with Hilton Cubitt and learn about the dancing men at the beginning, Holmes is nearly empty of emotion, completely unmoved by the man’s story. He does not rush to action, like an emotional man desperate to help, as he sees it only as a logical puzzle. Puzzles are an everyday thing to him, but he does solve it too late in reality, although that’s not his fault because he doesn’t receive the last part of the puzzle until it’s too late. Cubitt continually sends the code to Holmes, which are a series of symbols written down on the doors of his estate by a mystery man.
The code is a substitution cipher as in World War I & II, with symbols standing for letters. This was a very popular story in The Strand magazine in December of 1903, and featured some samples of the cipher written down to interest readers. This is another example of Conan Doyle’s use of realistic history in his stories. There are elements of Africa in many of his other stories, a place he traveled to as a doctor in his youth, before he was a writer fulltime. He was a student of history, of India, and published a book about The Boer War.
The death of Hilton Cubitt has the side-effect of illustrating the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Watson comes to the defense of Sherlock Holmes, after they both rush belatedly to Cubitt’s home. “This is Sherlock Holmes!” Watson announces to the naive police inspector, demanding respect for his friend. Despite the death of Cubitt, Holmes stays around to seek some justice and finds the real murderer.
The filming for this episode took place on-location at a rich and wonderful venue called Leighton Hall. This place stood in as the home for Hilton Cubitt seen throughout the episode and it is where he found the coded “dancing men”. Many of the scenes are just outside the large, front door or inside the hall’s many rooms. The hall is located in Lancashire, open to the public during the summer, and also available to be rented out for special occasions.
Originally, this story was published under The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1903, so it is curious that it appears as the second episode ever shown on television. The unique puzzle may be one reason. Hilton Cubitt is played by Tanniel Evans, who gives a great performance, and this is another good mark for this episode. Evans was a veteran television actor by the time of the filming, having been on UK television since the 60s.
In fact, over a quarter of the running time is taken up by Tanniel Evans as Hilton Cubitt and Betsy Bradley as Elsie Cubitt, not Holmes and Watson. Perhaps this is because of the great on-location shots they were getting, but either way, it works very well in this episode. After Hilton Cubitt is killed, Holmes and Watson take up the episode on location and investigate the murder. Curiously, it is Watson who explains the solution to the mystery of the code to police, not Sherlock Holmes. You can see his pleasure as Watson explains the Holmesian methods to the police, and Jeremy Brett smiles in amusement.
All in all, this is a great second episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett. It stresses the detective work in the detective, something missing from other modern interpretations we see today. As an audience, we too can follow along with Sherlock’s deductions, as he uses a chalkboard to write out the code and its solution. The episode is mainly successful because it takes much of the story and dialogue straight from published story from The Strand, but Jeremy Brett wouldn’t have it any other way.
When was Sherlock Holmes stumped?
I don’t think I’ve ever truly read a story where Sherlock Holmes couldn’t solve a puzzle or mystery. He always seems to come out right in the end. Moriarty tries his best in “A Game of Shadows” to be an equal match for Sherlock Holmes and I think the movie shows that Holmes is just slightly better than the criminal. In the same way, Moriarty is featured in Jeremy Brett’s episode “The Final Problem” and drives him all over Europe before the end, but that’s for another review.