Greatest Sherlock Holmes #12: Redheads are funny
This episode of “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” is hilarious, but it also uses a mix of the bizarre and the ordinary to introduce Professor Moriarty. I say ordinary because the crime is not unique and not original, but it’s a ridiculous distraction to make you think something else is going on in this episode. It certainly makes everyone else think the same thing. In the end, Sherlock Holmes is the only one who can see past the bizarre and root out the criminal. “The Red-Headed League” makes Holmes and Watson laugh, but there is more to it than simple comedy.
Some people I know think this story is silly and unrealistic. I don’t think they’re thinking about it correctly. It’s supposed to be silly. It’s supposed to be over-the-top. That’s why it’s a distraction and a front for a bigger crime. Jabez Wilson visits Sherlock Holmes and reports that he was a victim of this silliness that I’m talking about. He asks for help because he can’t figure out why these guys made a fool out of him.
Jabez Wilson recounts this tale in a classic Holmes interview segment. The episode uses a lengthy flashback to explain the whole thing. After hearing about an opening in “The Red-Headed League”, Wilson’s business assistant takes him down to the League’s offices and he gets a silly job. The silly job is to copy out the encyclopedia britannica in a small office on the premises. Why does he accept? Who knows, but he says in the episode that he didn’t want to turn down the money.
While Jabez Wilson busies himself copying, the assistant lets his pals into Wilson’s Pawn Shop and they start digging a tunnel to the bank. That’s the crime. A simple bank robbery. The story goes to great lengths and uses a lot of time explaining “The Red-Headed League”, but there was nothing to it at all, except as a distraction set up by Professor Moriarty.
“As a rule,” said Holmes, “the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.”
Just imagine all the trouble Professor Moriarty had to go through. We are told that the bank had extra funds on hand, so the time of the year was particularly unique. Moriarty first had to learn about the extra money and when it would be on hand in the vault. How does he learn this? The story never explains, which is sorta silly. He needs a way to steal it though. To do it, he had to plant John Clay next door at Wilson’s Pawn Shop, where he could dig the tunnel. He wasn’t even worried about drawing attention with the silly “Red-Headed League”. No one asked any questions, except Sherlock Holmes, which was a big problem for him. Maybe if Moriarity had made his plan a little more understated, he would have gotten away with it. As it was, Jabez Wilson found himself so humiliated when his copying job closed down that he went straight to Sherlock Holmes. That’s not very good criminal masterminding if you ask me.
The reason why Moriarity looks silly in this episode is that he was never supposed to be in it. The script writers changed the original story to include Moriarity as the mastermind and build toward the season finale. The mistakes in the story were silly, but they were written as John Clay’s mistakes, not Moriarity’s. Furthermore, why not just keep the League open? Why close it anyway? Neither the story nor the episode say why this was done, except to explain that the front was no longer needed, because the tunnel was done, which really makes no sense. It is a convenient way to shoehorn in Sherlock Holmes to investigate, but it’s ultimately a little lazy.
Roger Hammond played Jabez Wilson in the episode. He began acting in the 60s and appeared in TV as well as film before passing away in 2012. He does a great job with the part and makes me believe in the story’s plot, despite its masterminding weaknesses. He plays Jabez Wilson like a simple man who is not very sharp and is maybe a little greedy too.
Eric Porter is probably the best incarnation of Moriarity I’ve seen. His face and his expressions are just about as classic as it gets. He speaks in a slow, determined way and gives stresses the pronunciation of many words, but it’s not as distracting as a William Shatner monologue. Porter appears in the next episode too and he has a bigger part there. His take on Moriarity is that he’s pretty much an evil guy who is rich and smart too, which is a deadly combination. Porter was a veteran stage actor, like Jeremy Brett was, and did a lot of Shakespeare. Early pictures of him remind me of Sean Connery, but his hair is all grey here and his lined face is perfect for Moriarity, an aged criminal boss who knows his stuff.
Tim McInnery plays John Clay and he does okay, but his performance is overshadowed by everyone else. His acting is also a little too over-the-top and I didn’t care for it. That’s not to say everyone else isn’t over-the-top too, but when he did it, I just didn’t buy it. John Clay is supposed to be this elitist criminal from a royal background and he’s working in a pawn shop digging a tunnel to rob a bank. Kinda silly. Clay should have been the guy in charge of the dig, but because of the change made from the original story, he’s now only Moriarity’s lackey. Building toward “The Final Problem” is more important I guess.
Ian McKellen’s pal Richard Wilson plays Duncan Ross and he has to carry the beginning of the episode. He’s the one in charge of “The Red-Headed League” in the flashbacks and is obviously working with Clay to set up the front. He looks a bit tepid and apprehensive to report what Sherlock Holmes did to Professor Moriarity. He’s not a very good lackey. My guess is that he must have taken a long walk off a short pier for failing Moriarity. Richard Wilson is from Scotland and is another stage actor.
The ending tries to build suspense and it works well, but I think the interaction between Holmes and Watson does the same thing. David Burke narrates one scene and reports that he fears what is soon to come, which is a reference to “The Final Problem”, the death of Sherlock Holmes. That just builds the season climax all the more. When Holmes is listening to a violin performance, Watson notes that he’s never seen Holmes so happy and lost in thought, but considering what they had learned about Moriarity, Watson has a right to be concerned.
All in all, this is a great episode. Jabez Wilson stands in as a literal red-herring, the redheaded distraction that tries to draw attention away from the real crime. The distraction doesn’t succeed, but we can see in the next episode, Moriarity sorta holds a grudge. It’s too bad Granada and the script writers make Moriarity look a little silly with his choices in this episode, because it just weakens his character. The humor in this episode comes from the flashback and it causes Jeremy Brett to burst out laughing, so I couldn’t help but chuckle too. This episode was shot on set because they left the majority of their money to film the next episode on location in Switzerland, but the budget does afford this episode some good actors and great stage-crafters. There’s no good conclusion to this episode, but we get that in spades next time in the season finale.