Today marks the 100th birthday of the brilliant, and quite literally prolific actor, Peter Cushing. This week droves upon droves of bloggers around the world are taking part in the “Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon.” This post is my humble contribution. It will certainly be of no surprise to my readers that I’ve chosen to share my thoughts and ramblings concerning his Sherlock Holmes related work. Cushing as Holmes, I feel, should not be overlooked or underestimated. Yet it can very easily be overshadowed by Cushing’s more, legendary, roles.
Cushing appeared in well over 100 films. He was Baron Frankenstein and Dracula’s arch enemy, Dr. Van Helsing. Speaking of ‘doctor‘ he was also Dr. Who, Dr. Terror, Dr. Blyss, Dr. Maitland and Dr. Perry. He fought The Mummy and he pursued The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. He was the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sherlock Holmes AND Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. On television, he was Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 and he appeared in Space: 1999 as well as The New Avengers. Also, let us not forget that in the first Star Wars film, he was the cold Grand Moff Tarkin who ran the entire Death Star and one of the only people to ever tell Darth Vader what to do. Peter Cushing was P R O L I F I C to say the least!
Cushing didn’t trade quantity for quality either, his portrayals are captivating and enormously adored. He poured himself into each and every role and it shows. From his first film job in 1939 to his narration of a documentary about Hammer Films a week before his death in 1994, the man never stopped. But I digress, we’re here to take a look at his portrayal of the legendary consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.
Peter Cushing’s first appearance as Sherlock Holmes was in the critically acclaimed 1959 Hammer Film production of “The Hound Of The Baskervilles.” It was directed by Terence Fisher and also stars Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville and André Morell as Doctor Watson. This was also the FIRST Sherlock Holmes film to ever be seen in color!
In true ‘Hammer‘ style this adaptation had a very gothic/horror feel to it. In my opinion Cushing and Lee are absolutely magical together. They appeared side by side quite often throughout the years, most notably in the Frankenstein & Dracula movies also by Hammer Film Productions. Their real-life friendship and mesmerizing chemistry was quite clear in this rather dark adaptation of “The Hound Of The Baskervilles.” This was the first film I saw Cushing in as Holmes, and remains one of my very favorites to this day.
Worthy Of Note:
Peter Cushing was an aficionado of Sherlock Holmes and brought his knowledge to the film. It was Cushing’s suggestion that the mantle feature Holmes’ correspondence stabbed into it with a jack-knife as in the original stories by Conan Doyle. Now that is a man after my own heart! If you have by chance, NOT seen this film, then please forget this blog post altogether and go see it straight away. It is well worth your time.
The Game Is Afoot…
Nine years after Hammer‘s classic take on The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Peter Cushing reprised the role in the second season of the BBC Sherlock Holmes television series. Cushing filmed sixteen episodes, two of which were a new interpretation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, this time with Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson.
This series started out as Sherlock Holmes in 1964 with the pilot being an adaptation of The Speckled Band which was aired as part of the series called ‘Detective.’ In it we have Holmes played by Douglas Wilmer and Watson played by Nigel Stock. It was a wonderful production which returned as a full series in 1965 starting out with The Illustrious Client.
Wilmer played Holmes for the entirety of the first season spanning 1964-68, appearing in 13 episodes. While this post is dedicated to Cushing I would like to take a moment to comment on Wilmer’s version. Wilmer was no less than brilliant in the role as Holmes, setting a very high bar for Cushing (and all others) to later follow. Also worthy of mention is how much Wilmer uncannily resembled the drawings of Sherlock Holmes from Conan Doyle’s original stories, illustrated by the great Sidney Paget.
However wonderful his rendition was and still is, the truth is Wilmer absolutely hated the part. Do not misunderstand though, Wilmer loved Holmes and is to this very day a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. His problems lied in the scripts of the series, which he and Nigel Stock often rewrote. He also had a major issue with the amount of time given to rehearse for each episode (as did Cushing actually) and when BBC asked Wilmer if he wished to do more, he declined. It was sad to see him go yet without his leaving we would not have the tremendously exciting appearance of Peter Cushing in the second series.
Worthy Of Note:
Wilmer played author Jacques Futrelle’s Holmesian detective Professor Van Dusen in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes for ITV. In 1975 he once again appeared as Holmes (albeit in a supporting role) in Gene Wilder’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, with Thorley Walters as Dr Watson. For all of you BBC SHERLOCK fans, Wilmer made a camero in the final episode of the second season titled The Reichenbach Fall!
The Lost Cushing Episodes, A Blunder Of Epic Proportions…
As I stated above Cushing appeared in sixteen episodes of this wonderful series. Sadly back in the 1960s Britain’s BBC television network routinely and arbitrarily degaussed (erased) all video recordings of its own programs, in many cases failing to preserve even a SINGLE archival copy. Do to this EPIC lack of forethought only SIX of the SIXTEEN Cushing episodes survive. Those are as follows: A Study in Scarlet, The Hound of the Baskervilles (parts 1 & 2), The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Sign of Four & The Blue Carbuncle.
In my opinion Cushing is brilliant as Sherlock Holmes in these five surviving stories. He brought to the role his trademark brand of class, elegance and air of authority. His captivating voice and seemingly chiseled from stone facial features were perfect for the role in my honest opinion. Truth be told I still get a fuzzy feeling when i hear him pronounce ‘Trichinopoly Cigar’ in A Study in Scarlet. Yet again I must digress.
I considered doing a break-down of each episode for this article yet decided not too. There are plenty of articles that exist with that very purpose and my mission here is to focus on Cushing as Holmes overall, rather than write an article about one particular adaptation alone. In my opinion these five remaining stories spanning six episodes are among the finest Sherlock Holmes portrayals in history. Of course there will always be those would disagree with this, considering the deviations taken from the original texts. Yet is that not what an ‘adaptation’ is free to do?
Even Cushing himself was not particularly happy with his performances overall. He stated that the hectic schedule along with his wife’s failing health were a constant distraction to him and affected his performances. However in my opinion, and in the opinions of legions of others, he did a truly remarkable job given the circumstances. At the end of the day it’s about what the viewer thinks, especially considering there is no higher critic of ones work, than oneself. Peter may have felt he could have done better, yet this Mentalist/Blogger protests that if those episodes were Cushing-off-his-game, then I can not even begin to imagine what Cushing-on-his-game would have looked like. I watch this series on DVD at least once a month to this day and it is always, always, a thrilling experience.
I only wish all of the episodes could have survived to this day, I would give nearly anything to see them. In my opinion someone at the network deserves a damn, good, lashing. Having said that we’ll move on…
Worthy Of Note:
Prior to Cushing’s role as Sherlock in this wonderful series, he played CREATOR of Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1976 film “The Great Houdini.”
Later in life, Nigel Stock who played Dr. Watson opposite Wilmer & Cushing portrayed the mentor of Sherlock Holmes in the 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes written by Chris Columbus.
The Return Of Peter Cushing As Sherlock Holmes…
In 1984 at age 70 Peter Cushing once again dawned the deerstalker in “The Masks of Death.” Masks was directed by Roy Ward Baker and featured John Mills as Doctor Watson.
Executive producer Kevin Francis had originally attempted to raise funds for a new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. He intended to cast Cushing as Holmes which would be Peter’s third take on the Doyle novel. Funding for the film collapsed and led to Francis discussing an original tale with writer Anthony Hinds. Cushing considered Sherlock to be a favorite role but his age required the part to be written for a much older Holmes.
“The trouble is that I’m 70, far too old to play Holmes as he appears in the stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” said Cushing.
The film takes place in 1913. Sherlock is in virtual retirement and is persuaded to take on a baffling case by Alec MacDonald of Scotland Yard. Three corpses have been found in London’s East End with no visible cause of death. But, judging by the expressions on their faces, they died in conditions of unspeakable terror. Despite Cushing’s age in this film he YET AGAIN delivers spectacularly in my opinion.
Cushing appears to be as razor sharp as ever. His age seems to be of no consequence to him, this is truly a man who gave every role his all, to the very end. To this day when I think about Sherlock Holmes in retirement, moving to the country and taking up beekeeping as a hobby as outlined by Doyle in the original stories, I envision Cushing from this film. We always knew Holmes had one day retired, yet never lost his insane drive for adventure and mystery. To me this film captures that very premise splendidly, and of course Cushing drove it home with a breathtaking performance. As I sit here writing this I am reminded that it has been a while since I saw this film last, and have now made it a point to watch it tonight. It really is a very well written and exciting Sherlock Holmes adventure. Well done Peter, as per usual.
Worthy Of Note:
This is also the first Cushing-Holmes film to feature the character of Irene Adler, a name which every Sherlockian knows very well. The only female to ever best the sleuth, and the closest thing to a love interest Holmes ever had.
There were plans for a followup entitled The Abbot’s Cry but the film never materialized due to Cushing’s declining health.
I have been obsessed with Sherlock Holmes my entire life. I’ve watched more Holmes films than the average person would even imagine exist. From Gillette, Wontner, Massey, Owen, Rathbone, Brett and even Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes has been played by some of the greatest actors in history. Peter Cushing stands tall among them.
Generation after generation every actor has brought their own flair to the role, setting the bar higher and higher for the next one to fill those shoes. Cushing certainly catapulted that bar high into the air every time he put on that famous deerstalker hat. He is a force to be reckoned with among this legion of giants. His style and charisma never fail to transport me to a magical place. Thank you Peter Cushing for doing such justice to my lifelong hero, Sherlock Holmes.
“You have to have a sense of humour, darling, to be alive. Even a bit mad. It helps to be mad.”
Joe’s book (raising funds for Save Undershaw) ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes‘ is available all good bookstores including Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and in all formats including Amazon Kindle and now on the iPad too. Fans outside the US and UK can get free delivery from Book Depository.