Greatest Sherlock Holmes #8: Jeremy Brett climbs a tree
Watson calls Sherlock Holmes a big fat “egotist” in Conan Doyle’s “The Copper Beeches”, a trait that accurately describes Holmes as friendly as a cold fish. Holmes is in a bad mood at the beginning of this story, and Jeremy Brett plays out this state of mind pretty well, having been set off by a telegram asking him for help regarding a rather petty problem, according to him. ‘There are no petty problems’ is not the sentiment this time around.
Miss Violet Hunter consults with Sherlock Holmes regarding an invitation she received to be a governess for a rather dubious gentlemen named Mr. Rucastle. After a strange meeting with the man, Miss Hunter asks Holmes if she should take the job. This is an old literary trick where a small problem develops into something big and dramatic. Granada’s production of “The Copper Beaches” starring Jeremy Brett and David Burke follows this standard.
Violet Smith was played by Natasha Richardson in this episode. She does a pretty good job. She was 22 at the time of the filming, which aired in 1985, about a year after the previous episode. The cast and crew were hard at work making a half-dozen more episodes for broadcast throughout the year, so they didn’t get a break although the schedule took a pause. We’ve already seen that many young actors and actresses featured on episodes with Jeremy Brett and this one is no different. Natasha Richardson continued acting until her death in 2009, from a freak skiing accident. That’s really a shame.
Having directed previous episodes for Granada, Paul Annett returned on this occasion and was the one to suggest Richardson for the lead role. He fills the episode with good cinematography, including good shots of the misty estate where Holmes and Watson travel. He is definitely a good TV director.
Joss Ackland stars as Jephro Rucastle, a really nasty and underhanded guy. Ackland has been in over 100 plays and television shows, and it shows here. He is a good character actor and he brings the eccentric Rucastle to life using a lot of color. His performance is entertaining to watch.
Unfortunately, David Burke’s presence suffers somewhat due to the time taken up by Ackland and Richardson. Burke shines in the opening scene, but disappears for the rest of the story. He is in the background though, as Holmes and Watson visit Rucastle’s estate to help Miss Smith.
What are the Copper Beeches?
The Copper Beeches are not beaches. They are trees, covering an estate owned by Rucastle in England. Rucastle describes his home near Westchester, which is situated amongst these copper beech trees. As a type of beech tree, the copper beech has purple or dark green leaves, and can grow upwards of 100 feet, making it a very large and imposing tree. The right kind can make for a great picture. Some of the dark green kind can be seen in the background of this episode, when they filmed the scenes around the estate.
Rucastle’s dubious plot was to pass off Miss Smith as his daughter, in order to drive away one of her suitors. Miss Smith and Rucastle’s daughter were both redheads, which is an alluring point stressed in the original story. Redheads have been the contraversial subject of literature for many, many years, dating back to the Greeks. Redheads are often portrayed as unlucky, devilish or sexual in nature. I’m not sure if the color red means anything in this story, but perhaps it is an allusion to the color of the leaves, who become red or purple in the fall.
Miss Smith is not devilish or sexual in nature at all, but she is somewhat unlucky. She doesn’t give up though. She is a strong woman and investigates her strange situation on her own, exploring about the Rucastle estate, before being threatened by Rucastle himself. More redheads were used by Conan Doyle in “The RedHeaded League”, and it has been said that Conan Doyle found redheads funny. Not sure why.
Jeremy Brett is very energetic in these early episodes featured in Grenada’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He leaps over chairs and bounds up stairs like an agile athlete, quite literally jumping about. He is much more subdued in his final episodes from the 90s and I wonder if that contributes to a poor opinion of the late episodes. We’re not short on Brett in this one though, as “The Copper Beeches” has a tremendous amount of Holmes dialogue, but there are a lot of flashbacks to break up this spotlight on Brett. This is good, as he and the cast had been working straight through the last episode, which was shown in 1984. This is a tremendous effort and pace.
All in all, this episode is another solid one from everyone involved. The style and professionalism of Paul Annett makes this episode look good, and all the actors deliver. I think this is yet another Granada episode with an extraordinary supporting cast. Joss Ackland undoubtedly has the best time out of everyone, but there are a few moments between Brett and Burke to enjoy too. Granada tacked on a new ending not in the original story to resolve the argument between Holmes and Watson that began this episode, and it works well.
In conclusion, there is something to be said about the themes in this story. First, this is not your typical damsel-in-distress story, as you might expect from the progressive Conan Doyle. Miss Smith does not wander around Rucastle’s house in a nightgown, like you might see in many horror movies. It does have a Gothic, foreboding element to it, and Ackland plays this theme up the best, as he demands Miss Smith cut her hair short and do any little thing they might ask. Ackland says this with a little smile and a devilish smirk, as if to hint at the foreboding nature of the situation. It is no wonder Miss Smith asks for help from Holmes. Jeremy Brett brings him to life to save the day, once again proving his acting quality.