Director – David Attwood, Teleplay – Allan Cubitt, Based on the Novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Producer – Christopher Hall, Photography – James Welland, Music – Rob Lane, Visual Effects – Framestore-CFC, Special Effects – Mark Holt, Animatronics – Crawley Creatures, Creature Design – Colin Shulver, Production Design – Donal Woods. Production Company – BBC/WGBH Boston/Tiger Aspect/Isle of Man Film Commission.
Richard Roxburgh (Sherlock Holmes), Ian Hart (Dr John Watson), Matt Day (Sir Henry Baskerville), Richard E. Grant (Jack Stapleton), John Nettles (Dr Mortimer), Neve McIntosh (Beryl Stapleton), Geraldine James (Mrs Mortimer), Ron Cook (Barrymore), Liza Tarbuck (Mrs Barrymore), Paul Knyman (Selden), Danny Webb (Inspector Lestrade)
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson receive a visit from Dr Mortimer, a physician from Dartmoor. Mortimer tells how he autopsied the late Sir Charles Baskerville and determined that he died of fright. Mortimer also speaks of a curse on the Baskerville line – a supernatural hound that supposedly kills all the Baskerville men. He believes the hound was responsible for Sir Charles’s death. Mortimer hires Holmes to protect Sir Henry, the new heir to the Baskerville line, as he arrives in the country to claim his inheritance. Holmes sends Dr Watson on ahead to accompany Sir Henry to the Baskerville estate on the forbidding Dartmoor moors. There Watson becomes embroiled in a mystery involving an escaped convict and the fearsome, seemingly supernatural Baskerville hound that is claiming victims on the moors.
This BBC production is something like the twentieth adaptation made of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). (See below for other versions). Certainly, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a peculiar choice for so many film adaptations. It was the third of only four Sherlock Holmes novels that Arthur Conan Doyle would write, Sherlock Holmes is off-stage for most of the story and Dr Watson becomes the lead character, yet, unlike Conan Doyle’s other Sherlock Holmes novels – A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1890) and The Valley of Fear (1914) – which barely seem able to muster three adaptations apiece, The Hound of the Baskervilles has surprisingly become the most popular of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels to be adapted to the screen.
Even though it is based on a story that has become overly familiar through various other film versions, this BBC adaptation still holds a number of surprises. Allan Cubitt’s teleplay plays all the usual twists with considerable suspense. Cubitt also dramatically widens the story considerably – the film opens with the escape of the convict Selden through the moors and we see other scenes that usually take place offstage like the attack on Sherlock Holmes during his investigation of the coach.
Cubitt also brings out many aspects that other adaptations do not such as Beryl’s warnings and Holmes’s pursuit of the mysterious bearded man in the hansom cab who gives his name as Sherlock Holmes. We even see Holmes casually shooting up cocaine within the first few minutes. There is also the addition of a seance scene, which is interrupted with a considerable jolt as the hound slams up against the window. The hound is made to seem unearthly and its appearances are directed with an undeniable ferocity.
There have certainly been a number of changes made to the story. The big mid-story twist revelation about Holmes being in disguise on the moor all along has been dropped – he is merely lurking hidden. The adaptation also eliminates some of the minor characters from the book such as the litigious crank Frankland and his daughter Laura Lyons, as well as Beryl Stapleton’s Costa Rican origin.
The biggest change is to bring Stapleton out of the shadows at about the three-quarter mark rather than at the end and to then to build him up into a super-villain – as Holmes says at one point: “We have never had a foe more worthy of our steel.” As Stapleton, Richard E. Grant plays with a calculating intelligence and cold-blooded danger, especially in the scenes where we see him toying with Neve McIntosh. On the other hand, the film’s failing is that The Hound of the Baskervilles is not the sort of story that is suited to a Moriarty-like super-villain and Richard E. Grant’s Stapleton never gets the time on screen that one feels he should considering what the role has been inflated into.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the casting and reconceptualisation of the central roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. As Holmes, there is the excellent Australian actor Richard Roxburgh who came to prominence as the villainous Duke in the hit Moulin Rouge (2001). Roxburgh seems determined to stamp the role of Sherlock Holmes as his own, playing the part with a mellifluous booming voice as though he were still performing in theatre and having to project to the back of the audience.
Even more radical is the film’s presentation of Dr Watson. Dr Watson is a role that is usually cast with an actor in their fifties, whereas here Ian Hart is age 38 (which is possibly, with the exception of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), the youngest age that Watson has ever been played on screen, at least up until the casting of the 37 year-old Jude Law as Watson in Sherlock Holmes (2009), which similarly revised the Holmes-Watson relationship). Ian Hart plays Watson with a peppery crossness and forthright imperturbability. The film also puts a spin on the relationship between the two, which is traditionally characterised as their being the best of friends. At the climax of the film, Watson stands up against Holmes in an outburst of anger and in the very last line tells Holmes that he does not trust him. As Sir Henry, Matt Day, another Australian expatriate, plays with a dashingly boyish handsomeness.
Like the previous best version of the story, Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), this version makes much of the period detail. Although, where Hammer’s version was rich in setting and colour, this version plays everything the opposite way for an austere and darkly gloomy realism. The moors (actually the Isle of Man rather than Dartmoor) are shot with a sense of dismal, weather-beaten inhospitability. The film also makes scrupulous effort to litter the background with period detail – including the Victorian era’s fads for naturalism, spirituality and amateur archaeology, with Stapleton even shown to be a phrenologist at one point. This feels as though it is the first Sherlock Holmes adaptation to be taking place in a period setting rather than a series of cosy Victorian drawing room sets. The result is one of the best Sherlock Holmes screen adaptations to date and arguably the best of all screen versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles that we have.
The same production companies went onto make a further original Sherlock Holmes tv movie with Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004), also from writer Allan Cubitt. Ian Hart reprised the role of Dr Watson, however Richard Roxburgh was absent and the role of Sherlock Holmes was recast with Rupert Everett. Although not as good as this production, Silk Stocking challengingly put Sherlock Holmes alongside modern forensic psychology as he tracks a serial killer.
Other adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles include:- a series of six German films released under the same title between 1914 and 1920, which were made by two different companies when one director defected and both companies kept making rival sequels. These soon abandoned the Conan Doyle material and developed the story out like a complex serial, even went back into the history of the Baskerville family. One of the directors Richard Oswald attempted a further German remake The Hound of the Baskervilles (1929). Other versions include a lost silent French version The Hound of the Baskervilles (1914); the first American version, the silent The Hound of the Baskervilles (1920) with Ellie Norwood; a lost British sound version The Hound of the Baskervilles (1931), written by thriller writer Edgar Wallace; another German version The Hound of the Baskervilles (1936); The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), the first of the series of Sherlock Holmes films featuring Basil Rathbone; the celebrated Hammer version The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) with Peter Cushing as Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry; a two-part adaptation as part of the tv series Sherlock Holmes (1964-8) also starring Peter Cushing; a tv adaptation The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972) with Farley Granger as Holmes; the unfunny comedic version The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978) with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore respectively as Holmes and Watson; a six-part BBC mini-series adaptation The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982) with Tom Baker as Holmes; The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983) with Ian Richardson; and a routine Canadian-made tv movie The Hound of the Baskervilles (2000) with Matt Frewer miscast as Holmes. The story was also given an interesting modernisation in the BBC’s Sherlock (2010– ) tv series, which set it around a bacteriological research facility, and in the Hounded (2016) episode of Elementary where it is set around the murder of a financier by a ghostly hound.
(Nominee for Best Actor (Richard Roxburgh) at this site’s Best of 2002 Awards).