Greatest Sherlock Holmes #7: Jeremy Brett Steals Christmas
It’s Christmas in July and I celebrate by watching the tale of “The Blue Carbuncle”, a story of murder, theft, greed, and anti-Christmas sentiment. This Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episode is set during Christmas, but was originally broadcast in June of 1984. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has written a story essentially about a MacGuffin, a central device to guide and drive the plot. And this blue gem certainly does that. It’s the subject of most of the scenes in the episode and acts as a source of true greed, like a literal cancer, that Jeremy Brett locks away to stamp out its evil.
The episode begins with a short montage that gives us the history of the Blue Carbuncle, which is a blue in color, not ruby red, which makes it quite rare and valuable. It has been the focus and center of crime for many years, as Holmes describes later, because of these valuable characteristics. Whether this episode contains social commentary is left to the audience, but Holmes curiously acts as judge and jury in this episode, as if to comment on the gem’s notorious history and on crime itself. He later dispenses his form of justice, which is quite lenient, as if unable to blame society for its weaknesses, however deliberate they may be.
The valuable Gem now belongs to a rich and snooty Countess, and it is stolen. Holmes is then asked to recover the jewel. That’s basically the episode. The case essentially falls in his lap, almost demanding that Sherlock Holmes become involved, as if no one else could. One of the best scenes in the episode occurs at Baker Street when Holmes and Watson trade deductions about a felt hat and a goose that was left behind by someone on the street, who was fleeing from the authorities.
These deductions are given way more importance when they discover the Blue Carbuncle hidden inside the goose a little later, which is a brilliant juxtaposition. I think Jeremy Brett plays it just right, balancing a good amount of casual restlessness with logic, as you might expect from Holmes. I don’t think Watson comes off as dumb in this story, although many have said so. However, he can’t get much right as far as deductions go.
Holmes and Watson investigate how the goose wound up with the stone, and wander about to different local locations. This was all done on set, constructed on a backlot, from the looks of it. It is not done on location. This is the only early episode that suffers quality issues in cinematography, as compared to much later episodes like “The Priory School”. It may be that their big budget episode was “The Final Problem”, the last episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and that’s where they blew all their money. However, I don’t really mind a smaller episode for this story. It doesn’t need a grand scale.
This episode’s ending has been changed from the original story and the changes work quite well, unlike in other episodes, like “The Crooked Man”. In the original story, it ends after Holmes proves that it was not John Horner, but one of the Countess’ servants who took the Blue Carbuncle. We never get to get to see the fate of Horner in the story, as he was locked up under suspicion of being involved in the crime. Holmes and Watson come to his aid and he is freed, and we are given a happy ending with some Christmas music. It’s a good improvement on the original story.
The man ultimately responsible for stealing the jewel and blaming Horner is James Ryder. Ryder was played by Ken Campbell, who was a good character actor. He also dabbled in writing, stage acting, and directing. He passed away in 2008 at age 67. He contributed to major Universities during his time and founded his own school in Liverpool, England.
As in other episodes, there are a great many flashbacks showing important events. Fortunately, these scenes don’t drag on for very long and offer a chance for the support cast to get some quality time in. There is still plenty of time for dialogue between Holmes and Watson, as they seem the best of friends in this episode.
It is still a wonder to me why Holmes simply lets James Ryder go. Whether because of the Christmas season, or by good virtue, no one is caught and convicted for the crime of the theft of the Blue Carbuncle. By the time this episode is over, we don’t even know if Holmes returned the jewel to the Countess. However, we can see from the themes in the story, the Countess doesn’t deserve the jewel, and no one else deserves to suffer by it either. Also, there is an argument for forgiveness and humanity.
Ryder begs for his life and Holmes dismisses him with a wave of his hand, showing the true character of both men. Holmes is aware Ryder is a sniveling coward, but also may have assumed he was forcibly put up for the crime by his lover, who was also a maid in the employee of the Countess. Since Holmes is not retained by the police, he has the freedom to forgive, or do whatever he wants. The police don’t have the choice to decide on a moral course of action, which is what sets Holmes apart. These events are hotly debated by Holmes fans, but it is interesting to think about.
All in all, this episode is a good one. It may not have the grand scale or the drama of other episodes, but the performances are still tight and well-done. This is the last in the first series of episodes, but the cast and crew continued filming under 14 hour days, to bring a new set of episodes 13 months later. Jeremy Brett commented on this grueling schedule, not out of selfishness, but in concern for the crew, which is admirable. Granada didn’t relent however, and ordered six more episodes for 1985.