Greatest Sherlock Holmes #6: Jeremy Brett makes a garter snake look scary
Granada’s “The Speckled Band” has a snake that doesn’t look too imposing, but this episode has great performances by Jeremy Brett and David Burke to make up for it. Arguably one of the most popular Holmes stories, “The Speckled Band” is remembered as “that snake story” by all casual Sherlock Holmes fans throughout the world. Producers Michael Cox and John Hawkesworth both lined up this tale for adaptation even as the Jeremy Brett series went into production. They commissioned Jeremy Paul to complete the adaptation and it was done with great skill.
This story is a preposterous tale about a doctor named Grimesby Roylott, who trains a snake to climb a bell rope using the reward of milk and come back at a whistle, both of which cannot be done. Although these things are beyond reality, the gothic tone from the original story still works and shows up heavily in the adaptation. Much of the ending to the episode features dark environments and suspense not equaled by other episodes. The darkness used in the episode masks some of the action, but I think the suspense still works.
This episode fits in nicely with the pace and the structure the series has set up. It seems like a middle adventure, but it was really one of the first Sherlock Holmes stories published in The Strand magazine, in1892. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle considered it one of his favorite Holmes stories. Conan Doyle must have been quite a religious man, because again we see influence of Catholicism in this episode. Violence recoiling upon the violent is a theme in Psalms and throughout the Bible, which is evident in the snake killing Roylott at the end.
“The Speckled Band” was also adapted as the pilot for a Sherlock Holmes series in the 60s starring Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock. Much like the Brett episode, it has some of the exact dialogue and details from the original story. Wilmer as Holmes plays it pretty well, but I think he’s a little stiff compared to Jeremy Brett.
Dr. Roylott is played by Jeremy Kemp in the Granada episode and he does an excellent job. His presence is very intimidating and I think this matches what Conan Doyle was going for. He is a big bully and Kemp portrays this quite well, with outbursts of anger, some of them physical. Roylott tosses a man into a river at the very beginning of the episode, and the audience gets the idea that he is dangerous right from the start. This is a perfect way to begin the episode.
Former child actress Rosalyn Landor plays Helen Stoner and she also does a good job. She was only 26 at the time of the filming, but comes across as mature and more than capable of holding her own during a scene. Helen lives in a huge manor house with her step-father, the real life Adlington Hall found in the Cheshire countryside of England. It has 2000 acres worth of property and this makes a very striking place for the story to take place.
Some of the locations in the Granada series are well-suited to the story and feel very authentic, so Adlington Hall is no different. The attention to detail is continued throughout the episode, and all of the set design is good. The only blemish on the story is the overly dark rooms at the end, but this is a minor complaint. They tried shooting with an infra-red camera, but the shots don’t look very good. They were cut out of the final cut, but are included after the credits for posterity.
As in “The Solitary Cyclist”, Holmes comes to the aid of a damsel-in-distress, and he dives into the case like a great protector. There are a couple of flashbacks, but not as many as in “The Crooked Man” and I think they work better in this episode. The flashbacks build Helen’s character and give her some motivation, but also paint her as close to her sister, who is played by Denise Armon. Holmes is not as emotional, describing the sister merely as an “unfortunate lady”, but this does well to contrast Helen. In the end, Helen seems quite strong to cross her father, so once again, Conan Doyle builds his female characters into something more than at first glance.
I think the ending to this episode is its highlight, which fits in with the build to the climax. The build starts with mere dialogue, as Holmes and Watson discuss the case while they stake-out Roylott’s manor. They realize the danger Helen is in and Brett emphasizes this point with much slower, more intense dialogue delivery. Some eerie music comes up if we weren’t in the mood already. Jeremy Brett plays it quite well, but I think David Burke adds a lot to this scene too, giving some reactions that match the driving concern in the scene.
Once inside, Holmes and Watson sit in Helen’s room to find out firsthand just what is going on. Holmes whispers to Watson and tells him not to fall asleep in the dark, because he already knows Roylott is planning to use the snake to kill Helen. Thankfully, Helen is sleeping in her sister’s room and there’s a short shot of her to remind us she’s okay. She has her eyes wide open though, cause this scene is too tense.
After a few silent moments, the brooding tension is broken suddenly by Holmes leaping to action, striking the snake with his cane and yelling out to Watson. They don’t show the snake, which is unfortunate, but the drama isn’t hurt by this. They show it a few minutes later anyway, as Holmes puts it away for safe-keeping. The snake recoils back through the vent and Roylott can be heard screaming, because he has now become the victim of his own evil.
Michael Cox had this to say about the snake:
“…Our snake was a harmless one but I imagine that most human beings have an instinctive aversion to reptiles, so I have enormous admiration for Jeremy Kemp and Denise Armon, who allowed the creature to crawl over them. I remember asking Mike Grimes if the snake had a name. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s called Kevin.’ I was expecting something out of Rudyard Kipling and thought that Kevin was an unusual name for a snake. ‘Not at all,’ said Mike, ‘I gave it to him because he reminds me of someone I once worked with….'”
All in all, this is a tightly paced episode and it has some good flavor. It is not merely absorbed with Holmes parading around with endless amounts of dialogue, instead it shares the script time amongst all the characters. I would say Jeremy Kemp is the utmost highlight to this episode, as he looks like he’s having fun acting like a brute and a bully. A memorable scene is when he tries to intimidate Holmes at Baker Street, but it doesn’t work. Holmes does not stop until things are set right, even in the face of a vicious looking garter snake.