Mrs St. Clair (Anna Cropper) has travelled to London to conduct some business. On her way back to the train station, she passes through Upper Swandam Lane (home to a notorious opium den). Mrs St. Clair is astonished to see her husband briefly at the upper window of this disreputable place – but a second later he vanishes (as if pulled back by some unseen hand).
Neville St. Clair is a respected journalist who would have no reason to visit such a dive – unless he was a secret opium addict. When Mrs St. Clair returns with the police they find no trace of her husband, although in the upstairs room they do discover a box of children’s blocks. Mrs St. Clair collapses, as her husband told her he planned to buy such a toy for one of their children that very day. Mr St. Clair’s clothes are also discovered.
All the evidence suggests that a well-known beggar, Hugh Boone (Anton Rodgers), was with Mr St. Clair when he was spotted by his wife. Boone is quickly picked up by the police, but he’s saying nothing. Holmes is convinced that Boone holds the key to Neville St. Clair’s disappearance – which he does, although Holmes’ solution is a most unexpected one.
The Man with the Twisted Lip was one of the original batch of Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in the Strand Magazine in December 1891. Jan Read’s dramatisation is pretty faithful to the source material, but it’s a pity that the original, striking, opening wasn’t used. In Doyle’s story, Watson travels to the opium den to extract a friend of his, Isa Whitney, who has fallen under the thrall of the drug. When he’s leading his friend outside, he’s accosted by an old man (who turns out to be Holmes in disguise). Holmes then explains that he’s investigating the disappearance of Neville St. Clair. In Read’s adaptation, Watson does discover a disguised Holmes, but it sits rather uneasily in the middle of the story (where it makes less sense).
Although his screen-time is quite limited, Anton Rodgers is very effective as the disfigured beggar, Hugh Boone. Anna Cropper, as Mrs St. Clair, is the latest stoic beauty to turn to Holmes for help. A sign that retakes were only undertaken in the gravest circumstances is demonstrated by the scene where Mrs St. Clair visits Baker Street. After lifting the veil from her hat, it falls down again and she simply has to push it back up and carry on.
Given the small pool of ethnic actors working in the UK during the period, it was very common to see British actors playing characters of every nationality. Here we see Olaf Pooley (as the villainous Lascar) browned up. To modern eyes it may seem strange, but it wasn’t an unusual occurrence at the time.
The Man with the Twisted Lip benefits from some atmospheric location filming in the East End. The story could have been shot entirely in the studio, but the real locations certainly add something to the end product. Within a few years redevelopment would have changed the locations beyond all recognition, so they were used at just the right time.
The first story of the series to be made (it was recorded in September 1964) it’s a very efficient production. Given that the majority of the stories adapted for this series were later also adapted for the Granada series, it’s difficult to avoid comparing the two. It’s slightly unfair though, since the Granada series had a much larger budget and therefore it would always score highly, particularly in a visual sense. But whilst the Wilmer series has more modest production values, it can certainly hold its own performance wise, and in the end it’s the performances that really matter.