The Master BlackmailerFebruary. 02,1992
For years, a blackmailer has been preying on the weaknesses of others throughout London. When Holmes hears of the utter misery this mystery man is creating, he adopts a campaign to thwart his evil scheming. The campaign astonishes Dr. Watson by its strangeness and finds Holmes falling in love.
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Robert Hardy died only 5 days ago at age 91, but here he shows his great talent by brilliantly playing the oily title character.It must be said at the outset that Charles Augustus Milverton was closely-based on a real (alleged) "master blackmailer", Charles Augustus Howell, a shady art dealer who now has his own Wikipedia page.In case anyone thinks the denouement of this episode is a case of "wishful thinking", Howell's end in real life was strikingly similar to Milverton's even though his real killer still remains unknown.The early scene in the Victorian gay bar is, of course, not suggested by Doyle's original and the drag singer is singing Debussy's early song (Beau Soir in an English translation) but it seems a logical scene to include in an updated episode about a blackmailer.
I've not ticked "contains spoiler" because I am working on the premise that a premature revelation that this episode (unlike all the others), is singularly bo**ocks, will be appreciated as it will save you from wasting 90 minutes of your life on it. Having conducted no small study of all the episodes, I can confirm with utmost confidence that this is the worst I have had the misfortune to encounter. The first half is disjointed, there is no deduction, everyone is out of sorts (perhaps Mrs Hudson slipped something in to the afternoon tea). There are only two key events, and rest is virtually irrelevant. For a while I was speechless with disappointment.
Doyle had never wanted to resurrect Holmes from his joint death with Professor Moriarty in THE ADVENTURE OF THE FINAL PROBLEM. However,financial considerations made him willing (in 1901) to write THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, which is still considered his best Holmes' novel and possibly his best novel. But it was a "memoir" of the great detective, written before his death. Only a greater outcry from his public led Doyle to fully resurrect Holmes in THE ADVENTURE OF THE EMPTY HOUSE, published in 1905.It is not that the new short stories (and the last novel) are really bad. Maybe three of the stories are really terrible, but even the terrible ones are very readable. Several of the later ones (like THE ADVENTURE OF THE SOLITARY CYCLIST) are really very good. But the unevenness of production (in particularly after the stories in HIS LAST BOW (1917)) become increasingly apparent. He repeats past story lines, and he shows really negative aspects of Holmes. In the story THE ADVENTURE OF THE THREE GABLES Holmes shows a sneering sarcasm at a character who is of African ancestry. SPOILER COMING UP:THE ADVENTURE OF CHARLES AUGUSTUS MILVERTON deals with Holmes trying to recover compromising letters from Milverton, a hugely successful blackmailer. It is an interesting example of how Doyle could make a highly readable story with a minimum of plot for there is little real detective work in the tale. Holmes is hired to try to negotiate with Milverton regarding the purchase of the letters, but to get them back no matter what! Milverton proves not only unwilling to consider a smaller amount for the papers but prepared to protect himself from Holmes attempting a search of his person. Later we learn Holmes has gotten into the household of Milverton by romancing a maid while disguised. At the end Holmes goes with Watson to burglarize Milverton's home. He and Watson are in the house when they find that Milverton is awaiting some new business deal in his study (someone with information that Milverton can use). Carefully hiding, Holmes and Watson watch as a woman comes in, who turns out to be a victim of collateral damage from Milverton's past activities, and who shoots the blackmailer to death. Holmes and Watson are able to set fire to Milverton's collection of compromising documents before fleeing the house, and subsequently discover (for themselves) the identity of the woman. The police (under Lestrade) don't discover who the two mysterious men seen running from Milverton's home are, and they are so disgusted by Milverton's activities (they never were able to bring anything home against him) that it is obvious the murder will never be solved.The tale is not one of the fascinating ones with real detective work involved like THE ADVENTURE OF THE SPECKLED BAND or SILVER BLAZE. It is a tale of mood and late action - the issue being will Holmes and Watson get the papers or will they be caught by Milverton? It is not one of the best stories, but it is in the bulk of the tales as being really well told and interesting.At the time he wrote CHARLES AUGUSTUS MILVERTON, Conan Doyle had an experience with the police regarding his sometimes activities as a highly respected amateur detective/crusader. An artist was found murdered in his studio in London, and Conan Doyle began writing his opinions about how the killing was committed. Then he stopped - apparently warned by his friends at Scotland Yard that the murder did not bare looking into. The victim had been a homosexual, and the police were certain that it was a lover's spat gone horribly wrong. For the sake of the family of the Victim (this was in 1905) Doyle dropped his interest in the case. So he was aware that sometimes the British police behaved with restraint on matters that did not seem to justify their full probing - as Lestrade's restraint towards whoever did kill the villainous Milverton in the story.Given the description of the story it could have been told in the normal hour long version of the series. But the teleplay for THE MASTER BLACKMAILER spent some time showing the horrible dilemma Milverton's victims (in Victorian/Edwardian England) faced. We see a promising young aristocratic army officer kill himself when faced with a homosexual exposure because of Milverton's extravagant demands, all at the start of the teleplay. And it is not only homosexuals. Men and women of good reputation in heterosexual marriages could be smeared by uncovering illegitimate children or past indiscreet relationships. Indeed, in the story, the woman who kills Milverton is avenging the destruction of her husband (a prominent nobleman) destroyed by the blackmailer. Milverton is well played at his most poisonous blandness by that fine actor Robert Hardy, who even when confronted by the unexpected furies he has unleashed is totally unperturbed (he looks like he will just have the angry woman showed out of his home in a moment). Brett and Hardwicke do quite well in their Holmes and Watson roles, as to be expected.How serious was the loss of character by rumor or innuendo in 1905? In 1898 one of the heroes of the various imperial wars, and the leader of the last victorious charge at the battle of Omdurman that destroyed the Mahdist army (see FOUR FEATHERS) was Sir Hector MacDonald. He was governor of Ceylon in 1903 when he suddenly, unexpectedly resigned. Sir Hector returned to London, and shot himself in a hotel while awaiting some sort of hearing. It later came out that "Fighting Mac", frequently considered the most popular army commander in Britain, had been caught having sleeping arrangements with native boys. Milverton would have eaten him up very quickly...or his real life counterparts would have.
The stand-out sequences from 'The Master Blackmailer', for me, are the ones between the brilliant Jeremy Brett (in disguise, naturally), and Sophie Thompson. Could it be the great detective has actually fallen for a lady?This aside, there's a intricate blackmail plot involving Robert Hardy (excellent), and plenty of opportunities for Holmes and Watson to get themselves in awkward situations before solving the mystery.Probably the best of the feature-length episodes, and a fine example of the work Brett and Hardwicke did to immortalise Conan Doyle's characters for the small screen.