Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – Charles Augustus Milverton

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Lady Eva Brackwell (Penelope Horner) has become the latest victim of master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton.  Milverton has acquired a bundle of rather indiscreet letters that she wrote to a young army captain.  If they fall into the hands of her intended husband,is the preferavle version.the Earl of Dovercourt, then there’s little doubt that their forthcoming marriage would be in serious jeopardy.

Holmes agrees to act for Lady Eva, but when Milverton holds all the cards, what can he possibly do?

Charles Augustus Milverton was originally published in 1904.  It’s a rather interesting story, mainly because Holmes doesn’t provide any resolution to the tale – a third party does – and therefore he needn’t have appeared at all.  Plot-wise, it strongly resembles A Scandal in Bohemia (both revolve around an incriminating item, which Holmes decides to retrieve via burglary).

Barry Jones’ Milverton isn’t demonstratively villainous.  Since he knows that his position is unassailable, he’s able to project a relaxed persona (although there’s little doubt of the evil that lurks beneath).  Holmes is well aware just how formidable a foe he is, as he tells Lady Eva.  “You have fallen into the hands of a very dangerous man. Charles Augustus Milverton is far from commonplace. In fact, one may safely call him the king of blackmailers. There are hundreds in this great city who turn white at his name.”

Holmes quickly discovers that Milverton can’t be threatened or intimidated and he won’t negotiate.  His price is seven thousand guinees – no more, no less.  When Holmes tells him that surely it’s better to accept a smaller amount than to expose Lady Eva for no personal gain, Milverton replies that it would suit his purposes very well.  If it become known that he had ruined Lady Eva, then his other victims would be all the more anxious to settle.  Penelope Horner’s Lady Eva is the nominal central figure, but it’s Lady Farningham (Stephanie Bidmead) who brings the story to its conclusion.  She had previously suffered at Milverton’s hands and we see her return to exact a measure of revenge.

If the main plot is quite linear, there’s a great deal of incidental business (mostly centered around Holmes and Watson) which make this one very enjoyable.  Nigel Stock is on fine form from the start – he’s disgusted with Milverton’s treatment of Lady Eva (indignantly calling him “a blackguard”) and later picks up a chair to attack him!

When Holmes decides that the only course of action is to burgle Milverton’s house, Watson insists on coming with him – despite Holmes’ protests.  Eventually Holmes agrees and tells him that “we have shared the same rooms for a number of years, my dear fellow. I suppose it might be amusing if we ended up by sharing the same cell.”

Wilmer has some lovely comic business when he’s disguised as a plumber who’s been courting Milverton’s maid (he later tells a shocked Watson that he’s become engaged to the girl) .  The pair enjoy a kiss and it’s obvious how discomforted Holmes is.  He gingerly places his hands on the girl and then shortly afterwards attempts to break free of her tight embrace.  Once they’ve finished, his first thought is to check that his false moustache is still in place!

The Granada adaptation was extended to two hours (and was broadcast under the name of The Master Blackmailer).  It kept the same basic plot as the original short story,  but the two hour running length ensured that a great deal of additional material had to be added.  This means that the Wilmer adaptation does bear more direct resemblance to Conan-Doyle’s original and so, for me, is the preferable one.

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4 thoughts on “Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – Charles Augustus Milverton

  1. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the Granada version altogether. Actually it was very faithful to the original story (pointless title change aside). Pretty much everything in Conan Doyle’s story was also in the Granada adaptation. It’s just that, due to the increased running time, there was also a lot more additional stuff too.

    It’s true that the Granada version expanded greatly on the source material, but it doesn’t deviate from it. It’s all either derived from the original story, or fits in with it. There’s nothing in the Granada film that contradicts the Conan Doyle narrative, as far as I remember. It just broadens it all out.

    It’s actually one of the better Granada films – very nicely shot. And it was the last ‘faithful’ adaptation for a little while. There’s some excellent performances in it too.

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  2. Fair point. I do confess that it’s been a long time since I saw the two-hour Granada Holmes adaptations and I may have been confusing The Master Blackmailer with The Last Vampyre (which was an undeniable hodge-podge!)

    I’ll make a little adjustment to my post.

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  3. The Last Vampyre was indeed a terrible script, I agree – bloody awful. In 1993, Granda seemed to completely drop the idea of faithful adaptations and just did two original one-off films instead that year (with no more than passing inspirations from Conan Doyle). The other one-off they did was ‘The Eligible Bachelor’. Both films were dire in their own slightly different ways.

    Happily the madness didn’t last long and Granada soon returned to the idea of faithful adaptations again (or as faithful as was practically possible) for the next series. I always tend to ignore those two 1993 films, when looking at the Granada series, as they were just so at odds with the whole central thrust of the Brett programme. Horrible things both of them. They’re more akin to the approach taken with the Rathbone films of the 40s – just cherry-picking a few good ideas from Conan Doyle and then spinning a new story around them. However, at least the Rathbone’s were honest about what they were doing and a lot more fun too. ‘Vampyre’ and ‘Eligible’ were just a stodgy mess.

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    • Yes, totally agree. I have to admit that I skip them too – so I haven’t seen them since their original transmissions.

      At least with the Memoirs they were able to end the series in a more dignified way, although it did suffer from various problems (Brett’s illness, Hardwicke’s absence, etc).

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