Greatest Sherlock Holmes #13: The Death of Sherlock Holmes
The death of Sherlock Holmes is probably the most infamous moment in Sherlock Holmes history and Granada splurges to make this episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes the best of the whole series. “The Final Problem” aired on TV September 29, 1985, a year after it had been filmed. It was David Burke’s final episode of the series and he bowed out with an extraordinary performance, putting some great emotion into his role. The episode was filmed on location in Switzerland, where Conan Doyle had placed the original story. As if on sacred ground, Sherlock Holmes faced his nemesis Moriarty for the last time.
Head writer and producer, Michael Cox worked overtime on this one. The final stunt shown in the episode is actually two stuntman suspended on a wire apparatus and lowered down the chasm in front of the Reichenbach Falls. The shot only lasts a few seconds but it is spectacular. It is what Watson pictures in his mind as he imagines Sherlock Holmes falling to his death. If you squint, you can see the wires carrying the men down below the frame. The stuntmen fell 375 feet in 25 seconds. No CGI.
Eric Porter as Moriarty is featured heavily in this episode. He does a great job. There is dread and fear of his actions, which all the characters carry with their serious reactions. Sherlock Holmes and Watson chase Moriarty across Europe and into Switzerland on train. The production team achieves this with fullsize trains of their own. Moriarty is given a little more background than in the original story, and that is a welcome addition. In a short flashback, Moriarty goes after the Mona Lisa, of all things, and Holmes stops him cold. This gives him the desire to hate and loathe Holmes by the end.
I have always felt that some of the performances of the earlier Moriartys lacked any real depth. He was just played as an unregenerate villain without any attempt at the real motivations of ego or pride that drove him to the confrontation with Holmes to prove which of them was a better man.
–Eric Porter, Bending the Willow by David Stuart Davies
David Burke was very sad to leave the cast of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He was good friends with Jeremy Brett at the time, but had a wife and a very young son at home who were missing him. Edward Hardwicke replaced him in later episodes, and it was Burke who recommended him for the part. Hardwicke has a more serious and formal take on Watson, while Burke seems more youthful and vigorous. I enjoy both takes and both interpretations.
Watson has plenty to do and react to in “The Final Problem”. David Burke’s best moment is the final ten or fifteen minutes, when he realizes he was tricked into leaving Holmes alone at the top of the falls. He later gives an emotional soliloquy to close out the episode, as he reflects on his friend. I’m not sure why Holmes did not keep his friend around when he confronted Moriarty, but perhaps he wanted to showdown against him alone or maybe he was being protective of Watson.
The letter that Holmes leaves Watson says:
MY DEAR WATSON,
I write these few lines through the courtesy of Mr. Moriarty, who awaits my convenience for the final discussion of those questions which lie between us. He has been giving me a sketch of the methods by which he avoided the English police and kept himself informed of our movements. They certainly confirm the very high opinion which I had formed of his abilities. I am pleased to think that I shall be able to free society from any further effects of his presence, though I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you. I have already explained to you, however, that my career had in any case reached its crisis, and that no possible conclusion to it could be more congenial to me than this. Indeed, if I may make a full confession to you, I was quite convinced that the letter from Meiringen was a hoax, and I allowed you to depart on that errand under the persuasion that some development of this sort would follow. Tell Inspector Patterson that the papers which he needs to convict the gang are in pigeonhole M., done up in a blue envelope and inscribed “Moriarty.” I made every disposition of my property before leaving England and handed it to my brother Mycroft. Pray give my greetings to Mrs. Watson, and believe me to be, my dear fellow
Very sincerely yours, SHERLOCK HOLMES.
Conan Doyle was serious about killing Sherlock Holmes in his 1893 story. He did not like Sherlock Holmes and “The Final Problem” was the final nail in his coffin. It was not until much later, that Conan Doyle caved in to fan pressure and his publishers demands for more Sherlock Holmes stories. He wrote Hound of the Baskervilles as a prequel of sorts, set before the death of Sherlock Holmes, but that didn’t satisfy anybody.
The highlight of this episode is its grand scale and great production value. The last ten to fifteen minutes are better than any I’ve seen in a Sherlock Holmes tale. It’s just right. Perfectly done. Jeremy Brett doesn’t even have to carry it by himself, because everyone is spot-on, although his performance is the best. This is the only time in the whole series where the demeanor of Holmes changes to anxiety and fear, and you can see in on his face. It’s great.
All in all, this is the very best “final” episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The series was picked up to continue thanks to the success of the finale, and the great performances of all those involved.