Jeremy Brett brought a frenetic energy to the role. On screen he burned. Not so much inhabiting a scene as consuming it. Basil Rathbone gave us authority and authenticity – even when he was fighting Nazis and fifth columnists. Ian Richardson’s Holmes, however, is a very different beast. Playful and whimsical, his take on literature’s most famous consulting detective is pleasingly nuanced. While, physically Richardson’s performance lacks the voracity of either Brett or Rathbone, his quieter, gentler Holmes is eminently appealing.
American producer Sy Weintraub had planned at least a half a dozen feature-length Holmes dramas, with Richardson playing lead. Granada Studios had plans of their own and an expensive law suit followed. Weintraub took a payout and Richardson had to make do with just two features: The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Sign Of Four.
The Sign Of Four is perhaps one of Conan Doyle’s most accomplished tales and makes a solid choice for Richardson’s second outing. Adapted by Charles Edward Pogue the plot sticks roughly to canon, with additions that are not so much jarring as odd.
In fact, much of the film plays out like a curious Holmesian homage. There’s a superfluous fairground scene which seems to have been added as nod to Rathbone’s The Spider Woman. There’s stock footage that seems to have been spliced in from Wilder’s Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. Clive Merrison – who plays Holmes in the Radio 4 audio series – makes an appearance, as does Terence Rigby, who played Watson to Tom Baker’s Holmes. Indeed, while we’re in Holmesian geek territory, Ian Richardson would later go on to play Joseph Bell who was the life inspiration for Holmes, in Murder Rooms.
All of which makes the Sign Of Four a fun watch, but is it any good?
It’s hard to go wrong with great source material and fine actors. It’s true that the direction is a little lacklustre. David Healy is a woeful Watson, playing the buffoon without any of Nigel Bruce’s affable charm. The script robs us of much of the exposition, rather than allowing us to unravel the mystery along with Holmes and Watson. But these are niggles. The Sign Of Four is fine, in a made-for-TV movie way.
Put on the kettle, break out the digestives and settle down for an unsurprising but watchable little feature.