Greatest Sherlock Holmes #4: Sherlock Holmes gives the greatest advice ever
I don’t know why Sherlock Holmes doesn’t have more female fans, because “The Solitary Cyclist” shows him giving free career advice, helping with relationships, and catering to young women. As you might expect, he does these things the hard way, in between bouts of apathy or through condescending comments.
By now, Jeremy Brett was working hard on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and this episode was no exception. It was the fourth episode shown on UK, US, and Canadian television, in May of 1984, a week after the prior episode. Despite the television schedule, this was actually the very first episode ever filmed by Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke as Watson. It was directed by Paul Annett, who brought out the best in the actors and discouraged some bad habits, such as exaggerated performances and over-the-top reactions.
Despite it being their first filming, Jeremy Brett and David Burke seem like old friends. They play off each other pretty well in this episode, especially when Holmes interviews Miss Violet Smith. Watson takes up Holmes’ methods, as in the last episode, and correctly deduces many true things about her. Very impressive. Holmes gives him a compliment and a golf clap. Maybe they threw Watson a bone at the beginning of the episode, because he was really raked over the coals later on.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle talked about Sherlock Holmes in a short 1928 film and said that he received letters addressed to Watson as “Holmes’s rather stupid friend”. Conan Doyle evidently found this quite amusing, but you have to admit, a doctor isn’t exactly the stupidest guy on the block. I think this interview is what people point to when they defend Nigel Bruce or any ham-fisted portrayal of Watson. They say, “Yeah, Conan Doyle himself said Watson is stupid!”. No, that’s not what he says, but either way, Watson doesn’t help his case in this episode.
My defense of Watson kind of makes me look pretty silly considering how dumb he acts in this episode. You might not think so at first glance, as he is sent off by Holmes to investigate Miss Violet Smith’s story. She’s being stalked on her bicycle by another cyclist and no one will help her. She says she’s engaged, but we never meet the dope, even after she’s caught up in conspiracy to steal away her Uncle’s fortune. Poor girl!
Watson confirms the girl’s story and observes the solitary cyclist, but Holmes criticizes every point about his investigation. As a viewer, I didn’t think he did that badly, but each of Holmes’ points are correct. Watson failed and Holmes tells him so, like your elementary school teacher berating you about getting that math problem wrong. “Wrong! Get back up to the board and do it correctly!” she says. But Watson doesn’t have a chance, because Holmes takes over and goes into the country himself to find out just why anybody would want to stalk a lady like Miss Violet Smith in the first place.
Violet Smith is played by Barbara Wilshere and it is her very first appearance on television. She went on to act in many other UK television shows and still has a career in TV today. Her performance is a little stilted, but I think it’s fine. Her dialogue is pretty well-suited to her character and she gives the best facial expressions ever. There are a couple of scenes she has to carry with some other inexperienced actors, but she comes off pretty well, I think.
Thankfully, John Castle as Bob Carruthers gives an air of professionalism to this episode because he was an acting veteran. He was also a UK television regular like Wilshere, but most people remember him as Paul McDaggert from Robocop 3. He killed Robocop’s partner Lewis, so he’s not the most likeable guy in that movie, but he comes off as pretty sympathetic in “The Solitary Cyclist”, despite stalking Miss Violet Smith for most it.
When I watched this episode, I wondered just how a respectable man like Carruthers got mixed up with a jerk like Jack Woodley. This is an example of the many shades of grey in the Holmes stories that makes Conan Doyle great. Carruthers is not quite a bad man, and not a good man either, considering his temper and his associations. Woodley is the arrogant jerk, always acting like a southerner who has had too much brandy. His character is not deep, but he’s not the focus of the story, so that’s okay. He’s only there to stand around like a jerk and be an antagonist, which Michael Siberry does quite well.
Who was Violet Smith?
I would say Violet Smith was a typical woman of her period, although perhaps more independent than most. She is definitely portrayed as intelligent in the episode, being a teacher. Since we never meet her fiance, I can only imagine who is really in charge of this relationship, since she moves to the country without mention of a discussion with him.
Her character is portrayed as innocent for good reason, as she is more sympathetic that way. She is given the title of Miss throughout the episode, as if to distinguish her more as a damsel-in-distress. This is perhaps due to the dated nature of Doyle’s story, as she is not a power woman of the 21st century, that’s for sure, although I think she is not a stereotype at all. She’s very independent, fearless and she speaks her mind, outspoken enough to say what she thinks. She does have the stare of death down pat, so there is that.
Sherlock Holmes goes out of his way to listen to Miss Smith, and deal with her problem. I think he does care, even though he says he does not, and he seems drawn to her strength. Some of Conan Doyle’s stories do have strong women, but it may be that Holmes was charmed by Miss Smith most of all. I think this is why he admonishes Watson so harshly. He’s a hero! So celebrate ladies, Sherlock Holmes is your knight in shining armor.
The Solitary Drama
This is the only time that “The Solitary Cyclist” has been dramatized to my knowledge. It is a good fourth episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and fairly straightforward. It follows Doyle’s story almost exactly, which is a testament to Jeremy Brett and his confidence in the source material. “The Solitary Cyclist” was published in 1903 under The Return of Sherlock Holmes, but the story takes place in 1895, which makes it an early Holmes adventure, not a late one. This is an obscure detail to remember, so I complement the producers, and I think it is one of the best episodes made by Grenada, which is surprising, considering it was the very first one ever filmed.
Bicycles were very popular during the 1890s, so this is yet another example of popular trends in Sherlock Holmes. You can see them being used in other Granda episodes as well, such as “The Priory School”. Bicycle travel typifies Miss Violet Smith’s character. We can tell that she is athetlic and youthful, given the five or six miles to the train station she had to travel every week to visit her mother in the city. Bicycles of the 1890s were probably a stiff ride, being made without modern conveniences. To complicate matters, she wears the uncomfortable lady-like attire of the period.
Races on bicycles also began around this period, in London and in Paris. Anyone into trends probably would have read about these races or watched them firsthand. The twenty-one day Tour de France began in 1903. We can see from the illustrations that Miss Smith’s bicycle was a “safety” bicycle, which ensured more rider safety than earlier models by having two wheels of the same size and pedals in the middle. These were first sold around the late 1890s, which is about right for this story. Miss Smith may also have been a member of a Bicycle Club, a social organization that fits her young and independent character.
The effort put into this episode makes it one of the best of the series. Everyone does a good job, even those first-time actors who appeared alongside Jeremy Brett. There are some amusing moments and the mystery is pretty original. This is probably one I’d show to a newcomer to Jeremy Brett because of its outstanding quality, which is a credit to everyone involved.