Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Red-Headed League

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Holmes is distracted from the pursuit of a daring young criminal called John Clay (David Andrews) by the arrival of Jabez Wilson (Toke Townley) who has a most curious tale to tell.

Wilson makes a decent, if not particularly profitable living, as a pawnbroker.  But then his young assistant Vincent Spaulding draws his attention to the following newspaper advertisement.

On account of the bequest of the late Ezekiah Hopkins, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., there is now another vacancy open which entitles a member of the League to a salary of four pounds a week for purely nominal services. All red-headed men who are sound in body and mind and above the age of twenty-one years are eligible. Apply in person on Monday, at eleven o’clock, to Duncan Ross, at the offices of the League, 7 Pope’s Court, Fleet Street.

Wilson and Spaulding duly apply and Ross (Trevor Martin) is most impressed with Wilson’s fiery red hair and offers him the position on the spot.  His duties are quite straightforward – each day he has to copy out pages from the Encyclopedia Britannica.  But he has to remain within the offices of the League the whole time (if he leaves for any reason, then he forfeits his position).  Spaulding tells him that he’d be happy to run the shop whilst Wilson is working at the League, so all seems well.

For a while, everything is fine.  But then, without warning, Wilson arrives one day to find that the office is shut and nobody else in the building has ever heard of the Red-Headed League.  Was it all just an elaborate practical joke or is there a more sinister purpose at play?

The Red-Headed League (originally published in 1892) is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories, although I do find this adaption to be a little flat.  This is partially because it’s a tale that works better on the printed page than on the screen, but there are other problems.  The story rests on the notion that Jabez Wilson has such a head of fiery red hair that Duncan Ross, once he sees him, instantly sends all the other applicants away.  It’s difficult to show this in black and white though!

The major difference between Anthony Read’s teleplay and Conan Doyle’s original is that in Read’s version we know about John Clay from the start, whereas in the Doyle original we open with Wilson’s strange story and it’s only much later that Holmes realises that Clay is involved.  I’m not sure whether Read’s embellishment is an improvement or not, but it helps to bulk out the running time somewhat.

Toke Townley (best known as Sam Pearson from Emmerdale Farm) doesn’t look much like Doyle’s description of Wilson (he described him as a stout, florid-faced elderly gentleman) but he has decent comic timing and is quite a sympathetic character.  Although Carla Challoner (as Wilson’s maid) only has a small role, she’s rather striking and coincidentally one of her other 1965 television appearances (as Zenna Peters in the Out of the Unknown episode Thirteen to Centaurus) was also recently released by the BFI and is well worth a look.

This is a wholly studio-bound production which is competently handled by Peter Duguid, although the opening scene does have some quick cuts which maybe don’t quite work as well as they should.  Whilst this episode has a certain charm, for me the later Granada version with Jeremy Brett is far superior.

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