You don't realize what you do to me, And I never realized what a kiss could be; ...Never knew what I missed 'Til I kissed you.--'Til I Kissed You (Don Everly)
The Master Blackmailer seems to be one of the most liked--and the most loathed--episodes of the Granada Sherlock Holmes series. I personally love it. In fact, you wouldn't be reading this if it wasn't for The Master Blackmailer, because this episode stirred my interest in Jeremy Brett (the actor himself, aside from his Holmes) and thereby inspired me to create The Brettish Empire.
Why is TMB so controversial? Two words: "The Kiss." Yes, this is the episode where famous bachelor Sherlock Holmes gets his first (and apparently only) full-on-the-lips kiss.
Now, JB's Holmes had plenty of opportunities to kiss before this, if you ask me. For instance, there was Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia (I mean, he got this close to her). Or, Violet Hunter in The Copper Beeches (Holmes could scarcely keep from touching her luxuriant locks). Or Violet Smith in The Solitary Cyclist (the sleuth seemed to deduce more than just Violet's occupation from her fingers...)
But, I digress. Actually, Holmes' first kiss came late in the Granada series courtesy of an infatuated housemaid. Since Doyle mentioned Holmes' dealings with the maid only in passing (and said nothing about a kiss), some Holmes purists were dismayed by this "liberty" taken with the original material. However, I had quite a different reaction (more about that later).
The plot: Thanks to a network of informants, a shadowy blackmailer has a safe full of incriminating letters to use as leverage against his victims, leaving them little recourse but to pay him. Resistance is futile...When a secretly gay soldier, Colonel Dorking, is threatened with "outing," he refuses to pay. Dorking is beaten, and his fiancée receives a bundle of damning letters from the blackmailer. Disgraced, the Colonel commits suicide.
Holmes learns of the blackmailer's existence when an ancient dowager enlists him to discover the name of the man who ruined her grandsons' lives. The only clue to their blackmailer's identity is a terse inscription in a book: "CAM devil."
Later, Holmes receives a note Colonel Dorking wrote before his death. It reveals the name of his blackmailer: Charles Augustus Milverton--CAM.
Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the exterior of Milverton's heavily fortified mansion. When Holmes remarks that Milverton has "built his own prison," Watson answers that Milverton is "a man who loathes the human race."
In an interesting role-reversal, Holmes seeks clues from Watson: "What circumstances might have brought him to that?"
Watson theorizes, "A boy brought up in lonely isolation, starved of affection--probably in one of London's outer suburbs."
Since this sounds distressingly like Holmes' own childhood, he challenges Watson's assertion.
"'Outer'? Why not Soho or Leicester Square?"
"Because my dear Holmes," Watson explains, "these places, with all their vices, teem with warmth, generosity of spirit, and humanity."
Holmes needs access to the inner sanctum of the "fortress." Thus, "Ralph Escott," a plumber with "a rising business," is born. Holmes musses his hair, dons ragged clothes, tones down his toffee-nosed accent and ambles over to a pub near Milverton's mansion. There, he ingratiates himself with Stokes, one of Milverton's servants. "Ralph" also catches the eye of Agatha, who is Stokes' girlfriend and Milverton's housemaid.
The pretend plumber shows up at Milverton's door, ostensibly to fix some pipes. (Of course, we know Ralph is really there to case the joint.) While talking with Aggie, he discovers Milverton's modus operandi--enticing the servants of the rich and famous to squeal on their employers.
Back as Holmes, the detective realizes the only legal way to stop Milverton is to find the blackmailer's next victim and offer them protection. Holmes and Watson visit a dive run by Milverton's oily associate, who reveals the name of Milverton's latest target: Lady Eva Blackwell. Bride-to-be Eva will be scandalized--and her engagement shattered--unless she pays Milverton for some "sprightly" letters she wrote to a former flame. Unable to meet Milverton's demands, she accepts Holmes' help.
After days of tinkering with Milverton's pipes (and being closely scrutinized by Milverton's gimlet-eyed butler), Holmes/Escott is waiting in Milverton's yard for darkness to fall when Agatha plops down on him from a tree. With Aggie straddling his chest like Tigger atop Winnie the Pooh, Holmes is literally a captive audience. He makes the best of his situation by carefully pumping Aggie for information:
"What time do they go to bed in this house, Aggie?"
"What you wanna know for?"
"So I'll know when it's safe to come visit you."
Aggie agrees to answer the ersatz plumber's inquiries under one condition: "I'll only tell you if you promise to marry me, Ralph."
"Oh, Aggie," Holmes/Escott sighs, "You have such a way with words."
He asks so many questions about the mansion's nighttime routine that Aggie finally asks a question of her own: "Are you a burglar?"
The usually unflappable detective is suddenly overcome: "Oh, Aggie, you touch my heart."
"I'll give you the gift of mine," Aggie tenderly answers, and kisses him on the lips.
The "boy brought up in lonely isolation" collides with "warmth, generosity of spirit, and humanity." The detective who can make pinpoint deductions simply by vetting a man's hat is confounded by a simple act of affection.
However, before Holmes loses his wits (or his virtue), Milverton's lumbering mastiff appears--followed by an angry Stokes. Holmes and Stokes duke it out. Holmes vanishes after decking Stokes.
(Gee, and all this happened literally in Milverton's backyard--he could have hit the jackpot if he'd been more alert: "Impersonating a plumber? Trespassing? Dallying with my housemaid? Sprightly, Mr. Holmes! Very sprightly! Now pay up.")
Back in Baker Street, Holmes wryly confesses to Watson that he's engaged to Milverton's housemaid, adding, "It was a most necessary step--I needed information."
Watson is aghast. "What about the girl?!"
Holmes assures Watson that his "hated rival" (Stokes) will quickly replace him, so, no harm done. (Besides, while Holmes was using Aggie to get information, Aggie was using Escott to make Stokes jealous.)
Holmes takes "the brain before the cudgel" approach when Milverton finally comes to call at Baker Street. However, the blackmailer won't be reasoned with. Milverton callously believes his victims' behavior makes them fair game for blackmail. He's akin to today's paparazzi, tabloid writers, and "tell all" biographers: he sees nothing wrong with what he's doing--it's just his "job." (Never mind the misery caused by this gross invasion of privacy.) Milverton flatly refuses to turn Lady Eva's letters over to Holmes.
Holmes starts to overpower Milverton, but the blackmailer reveals a pistol: "I'm armed to the teeth at all times." He chides Holmes for thinking he'd be foolish enough to carry any letters with him. Holmes realizes a very different tack is necessary.
As Milverton scopes out potential victims at a dance celebrating Lady Eva's impending nuptials, Holmes and Watson daringly invade the blackmailer's fortress. Holmes cracks the safe and hurls handfuls of letters into the fireplace. Suddenly, the bold burglars realize Milverton has returned. They hide, and unwittingly witness Milverton's brutal murder at the hands of an outraged victim.
Later, Holmes buys a sculpture at an auction of Milverton's personal effects. Thinking the bust may contain evidence (hey, it worked in The Six Napoleons), Holmes smashes it to bits in front of a baffled Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson. Finding nothing, Holmes has Mrs. Hudson dispose of the rubble. However, part of the shattered statue's face lies on the hearth. As Holmes watches, an ember glows in the statue's eye, flaring and then dying, like a devilish wink from the late, unlamented Charles Augustus Milverton.
As Watson takes up his pen, Holmes wearily tells him to stop: "No, Watson. There are certain aspects of which I am not proud--please bury this case deep in your pocket."
Fortunately, Watson didn't listen to him.
From the very beginning, The Master Blackmailer is "different." Writer Jeremy Paul soups up Doyle's 12-page tale with sly humor, gripping suspense and startling violence. TMB glows with light and color, quite a change from the somber, muted hues of most Granada episodes.
It also contains the most chilling villain since Moriarty fell over the falls. Robert Hardy is probably best known as the jovial veterinarian in the All Creatures Great and Small series. I'm sure Mr. Hardy is actually a nice fellow, but after seeing him as the venomous Charles Augustus Milverton in TMB, he gives me the creeps. (Which is a tribute to his effectiveness in the role!)
And, speaking of effectiveness in a role: I never really noticed Jeremy Brett until I saw him in The Master Blackmailer.
I know--I said I "never missed an episode" of the Holmes series. So, how did I miss Jeremy Brett?
Well, as I also said: "Jeremy Brett became Sherlock Holmes, and, to my mind, Sherlock Holmes became Jeremy Brett." JB was so convincing as the detective, I hardly gave the actor a second thought. He could have been Soupy Sales for all I cared.
When our PBS station first aired The Master Blackmailer, I was getting ready to go out and was only half-paying attention to the program. I hadn't encountered any advance publicity on the episode, so I had no idea what I was about to see.
The "kiss" scene came on. Suddenly, I forgot what I was doing and just watched. I was nailed by the vulnerability JB conveyed in this scene. I stared at the screen until an impatient car horn roused me from my reverie. I asked myself, "Who is this Brett fellow, and why haven't I paid more attention to him?" In no time flat, I made up for my ignorance of this fine actor by learning everything I could about him.
Jeremy was typically enthusiastic while filming the kiss. "'I'm disguised as Ralph, a plumber,'" he recalled for a LA Times reporter in 1991. "'He has to get into this house and this girl...says, 'Kiss me.' He doesn't know how. She eventually jumps from a tree, knocks him down and plunkeroos him. Holmes' eyes fill with tears.'
"Brett laughed. 'I went home after shooting to my little bar I go to in London and they (his friends) said, 'How are you doing today?' I said, 'Fine. I had to kiss (actress) Sophie Thompson all day. I'm exhausted.' They were all so jealous. Can you imagine going to work and being kissed by a 22-year-old at my age? It was magic.'"
Unfortunately, the carping of critics after TMB aired soured him on the scene. "It was all wrong," Brett later fretted.
Despite JB's backpedaling, the "kiss scene" remains a poignant moment. Reportedly, some U. S. viewers even wrote to Holmes producer June Wyndham Davies to confess that witnessing Holmes' unease with Aggie prompted them to deal with their own intimacy issues.
It's also an important scene for Brett fans because this is our last real glimpse (such as it is) of JB's "romantic, heroic" screen image, which was mothballed when he donned the monkish mantle of Sherlock Holmes. As Holmes listens to Aggie spill the secrets of Milverton's lair, he gazes intently into her eyes and gently strokes her hair. Pity this relationship couldn't have been explored further. Is the cagey detective really just play-acting to obtain information, or has this uncomplicated girl truly touched his heart? We will never know.
In addition to "the kiss," some critics have carped about Holmes' plumber disguise. Some disguise: It's just JB with his hair down, wearing tattered clothes and speaking somewhat like Benny Hill while acting vaguely like Stan Laurel. However, in my opinion, Holmes would have looked even more ludicrous (and obvious) if he'd worn a fright wig and a putty nose to infiltrate Milverton's house. The way JB did it, Holmes looks like an itinerant plumber instead of a disguised detective.
As director Paul Annett noted in Bending the Willow, D. S. Davies' study of Jeremy's Sherlock Holmes, "The character should come through behavioral patterns and attitudes rather than false noses and funny walks."
Also, being able to discern Jeremy's features in these scenes leads to some clever sight gags later on. Doused by Milverton's brackish pipes, mop-topped "Escott" cleans up at Baker Street. He submerges himself in the bathtub. When he emerges, his hair is swept back--he's Holmes again.
After his dust-up with Stokes, Holmes returns to Milverton's mansion as himself to divert the blackmailer with an invitation to Eva's dance. The impeccably groomed Holmes crisply greets the oblivious Stokes and brushes by the puzzled Aggie, who sees a dapper detective but hears a shabby plumber...
There are other sparkling performances in The Master Blackmailer. As usual, Edward Harwicke is superb as Dr. Watson. Watson is far more than a mere observer in this episode. While Holmes is off "plumbing the depths" of Milverton's mansion, Watson comes face to face with Milverton himself. The good doctor even becomes Holmes' reluctant partner in crime.
Sophie Thompson (who went on to supporting roles in Four Weddings & a Funeral and Emma) brings warmth and humor to Aggie, the earthy yet innocent housemaid. One of her funniest moments occurs when Ralph "accidentally" wanders into Milverton's den. The blackmailer haughtily upbraids the errant plumber. Aggie roughly shoos Ralph out, scolding, "This is Master's special room! Now he'll be off rations for a week!"
The Master Blackmailer was actually one of Granada's more successful two-hour Holmes "films," a format the series didn't seem to have much luck with. Yes, TMB was "different" (too different for some); however, I personally would have enjoyed more such films, if the quality could have been maintained. Unfortunately, Granada handled their next two Holmes films, The Last Vampyre and The Eligible Bachelor, so carelessly that both were savaged by critics and fans alike. This is a shame, because both films had interesting elements. I'll discuss one of these films in the next "TBE."
Next: TBE takes on TEB