Greatest Sherlock Holmes #11: How Watson Learned the Trick
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “How Watson Learned the Trick” many years after he stopped writing Sherlock Holmes fulltime, and some of this humorous story appears in the Jeremy Brett episode, “The Resident Patient”. Holmes and Watson trade witty banter just like in “How Watson Learned the Trick”, then encounter Dr Percy Trevelyan, so this episode is sort of a combination of two short stories by Conan Doyle. This episode is great, mostly because of Jeremy Brett, though that is no surprise. It involves striking creativity and drama, plus original elements that make it very memorable.
“How Watson Learned the Trick” is a very short story where Watson tries to deduce some things about Sherlock Holmes. As in the episode, he takes a stab at Holmes’ mood and disposition, but turns out to be wrong. This has been done in Sherlock Holmes adventures all the time and in all incarnations. It works here simply as introductory dialogue between two friends.
History of “How Watson Learned the Trick”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “How Watson Learned the Trick” for Queen Mary in 1923. It was a “miniature” book for the Queen’s doll house library, created to demonstrate this small size ingenuity. The book is about the size of a stamp, which is why it is so short. It stayed in the library until the publication of The Book of the Queen’s Dolls’ House. The story is just dialogue and Watson tries his hand at some deductions, as in this episode. The above picture illustrates this discussion.
Holmes and Watson return home after their discussion and meet their new client, Dr Percy Trevelyan. He was played by Nicholas Clay. Clay was a veteran TV actor at the time of the filming of this episode, but he also appeared in films. At the time, he was most well-known role was in Excalibur (1981), which I’ve also reviewed on this site. He played Lancelot. In this episode, he does a fine job, and his performance complements the other actors pretty well.
Trevelyan is having money problems, but he is helped out by Blessington, an older businessman. Blessington sets up the Doctor in an expensive office and makes a deal for the rooms, in exchange for a cut of his income and fulltime care. Blessington has ulterior motives though, as we learn, and he becomes desperate, despondent, and fears for his life. He ultimately commits suicide, and Holmes investigates, proving it was murder.
Patrick Newell plays Blessington and his performance is probably the best out of all the cast, even for the short time he is around. He has to sell the whole mystery and the desperate state he is in, which I think Newell accomplishes. You can read every emotion on his face and he seems very comfortable in the role. He was in another Sherlock Holmes TV production in 1980, where he played Inspector Lestrade in six episodes. He also appeared in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) as one of the secondary characters, so Newell certainly knew his Sherlock Holmes.
Jeremy Brett nicknamed one scene the Rififi scene, as he spent about two-and-a-half minutes examining a room without any dialogue. This nickname is a reference to a famous 1955 film by Jules Dussin, which features a twenty-five minute silent robbery sequence. Luckily, the scene doesn’t go THAT far, but Brett was inspired nonetheless, and remembered the film, and its emphasis on detail.
The camera centers on Holmes and follows him as he silently examines the room, picking up stray ash and powder, which are clues to the death of Blessington. It is only after, when the bystanders question Holmes as to what he found, does he explain. He seems lost in concentration until then, and Brett portrays this perfectly.
The problem with this story is that Holmes deduces everything after the fact and the criminals are never really apprehended. Holmes is reactionary, only jumping to action well after things are pretty much decided or in a sorry state. When Blessington first asks Holmes for help, the great detective knew right away the man was a liar, so he didn’t go out of his way to help him. That doesn’t make him responsible for Blessington’s death, but it doesn’t make him the most heroic guy in the world either. This is not the first example of Holmes being dismissive of liars and cheats. This theme can also be seen in other stories.
David Burke bookends this episode with a clever performance, which is probably due to the dialogue as much as his acting, but it works nonetheless. Both of these scenes are original elements perhaps written to add some color to the story. It is a fairly straightforward and dull story otherwise. These elements and the dialogue really save it.
This episode was directed by David Carson, and dramatized by Derek Marlowe, who also was responsible for “The Greek Interpreter”. He created the introduction, which is a dream sequence. Blessington has a nightmare and envisions his own death, where he lies in a coffin, overseen by some dubious individuals. He wakes up in a fright. The nightmares add color to his nervous and frightened characterization, so I think it is a nice touch.
The ending has the opposite tone, and features Watson complaining that Holmes’ violin playing is breaking his concentration. They paint Holmes as not the best violin player around, so it REALLY breaks his concentration. That is amusing, at least. Holmes leaves the room, but not after asking about Watson’s writing. This is the one and only time there is any reference to Watson’s writing about Sherlock Holmes. Holmes suggests a title for this adventure, once he hears the awful title Watson was going with. I like this light ending a lot. I think the original elements really do great justice to Sherlock Holmes and add to a great story.
All in all, this a good episode of Granada’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy Brett is in classic form, and really puts on a show, even while silently examining a room. There’s something theatrical about the whole thing, which adds some life to it, so the dialogue is not missed. Patrick Newell as Blessington stands out as one of the best guest-stars they’ve had on the show and he performs well. The story itself is a bit generic, but there are many moments for everyone to shine.