The Brettish Empire


Chapter 3: The Problem of Thor Bridge

by Lisa Oldham

Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.
--Bridge Over Troubled Water (Paul Simon)

Granada's The Problem of Thor Bridge isn't just an intriguing mystery. It's also a trivia buff's delight:

Thor Bridge begins on the sprawling Hampshire estate of J. Neil Gibson. Gibson is a former U.S. senator nicknamed "The Gold King" because of his success as a miner. He's a very wealthy man. And, a very busy one. He has little time for his Brazilian-born wife, Maria.

Like a tropical flower transplanted into foreign soil, Maria is very much an outsider. Her husband has stopped loving her, and her children are devoted to their young governess, Grace Dunbar.

One night, Maria is found dead on Thor Bridge, which crosses a lake about half a mile from the estate. She's been shot in the head. No weapon is found. However, a note is clutched in Maria's lifeless hand:

Thor Bridge - Nine o'clock - G. Dunbar

The next morning, a recently fired pistol matching the caliber of the bullet that killed Maria is found in Grace's wardrobe. The governess is taken into custody. She faces an almost certain death sentence.

Despite the overwhelming evidence against Grace, Neil Gibson believes she is innocent. He writes to the one person he thinks can clear her: Sherlock Holmes.

Before Gibson arrives for his consultation, Holmes is in a contemplative attitude, his eyes closed and his hands folded.

"You have a case, Holmes!" Watson deduces.

"Ha! The faculty of observation is certainly contagious--it has enabled you at once to probe my secret," Holmes answers. "Yes, I have a case. After a month of trivialities and stagnation, the wheels move once more."

Holmes summarizes the Dunbar case for Watson. He ruefully concludes, "I can discover facts, but I cannot change them!"

When little Billy, the page, enters, Holmes and Watson assume Neil Gibson has arrived. They're surprised to learn that it's not Gibson, but Gibson's all but ex-estate manager, Marlow Bates, who is on his way upstairs.

Bates tells Holmes that Gibson is an "infernal villain" who mistreated his late wife. He warns Holmes to beware of the "plausible and cunning" Gold King.

Bates departs, and Gibson arrives. His motorcar instantly captivates every kid on Baker Street (including one named Sherlock...) ;->

Neil Gibson storms into 221-B like a hurricane. He informs Holmes that he must clear Grace Dunbar. He tells Holmes that money is no object. Holmes answers that he's not in it for the money.

Gibson then tries to appeal to Holmes' ego: "If you pull this off, every newspaper in England will be booming you--you'll be the talk of two continents!"

"I don't think I'm in need of 'booming,' Mr. Gibson," Holmes wryly replies.

Holmes asks Gibson for the facts. He inquires about Gibson's relationship with Grace Dunbar. Gibson assures him it was merely professional.

Holmes suddenly turns his back on Gibson.

"Do you dismiss my case?" Gibson bellows.

"No, Mr. Gibson--I dismiss you," Holmes says flatly. "This case is quite sufficiently complicated without the added difficulty of false information."

Gibson rages, "Meaning that I lied?"

"I won't contradict you."

Gibson raises his hand to strike Holmes. The detective stops him: "Don't be noisy, Mr. Gibson--after breakfast, I find any argument most unsettling." Gibson leaves, but not without a parting shot: "I've broken stronger men than you, Mr. Holmes. Nobody crosses me and gets the better of it!"

Holmes calmly replies, "So many have said so--yet, here I am."

Once Gibson is gone, Watson asks Holmes how he knew about Gibson's true feelings for Grace.

"Bluff, Watson--bluff."

Holmes tells him that Gibson must return, so they can work on clearing Grace. When Gibson doesn't, Holmes despairs. He tells Watson not to bother writing up the case.

However, Watson points out that Gibson's letter can be used to secure a prison visit with Grace Dunbar. A fortuitous meeting with Grace's barrister, Mr. Cummings, smoothes the way.

Holmes and Watson visit Grace. She's about to explain how she got along with Mrs. Gibson, when Neil Gibson suddenly bursts in. He demands that Holmes and Watson be removed from the cell, as they are there under "false pretenses."

They agree to leave. Watson whispers to Grace, "You must put your faith in Sherlock Holmes!"

Holmes makes an appointment to meet with Gibson the next morning. (He hopefully asks Gibson's secretary if Gibson will send the motorcar for him, but is coldly informed, "There's a train.")

The next morning, before meeting with Gibson, Holmes visits Thor Bridge, accompanied by Watson and Sergeant Coventry, a local constable. Holmes scours the bridge (even lying down to get Mrs. Gibson's perspective). The only potential clue is a nick in the bridge's railing.

Holmes and Watson arrive early at Gibson's estate. Gibson is busy and can't meet with them yet. While waiting, they're set upon by Bates, the estate manager. He warns them again that Gibson is a brutal man. He tells them that Gibson sleeps with a revolver.

"Our 'Gold King' does not seem to shine in private life," Holmes remarks.

Gibson shows up and dismisses Bates. He informs Holmes and Watson that Bates' outlook is clouded by his infatuation with the late Maria.

Gibson asks Holmes, "What is it you want?'

"The truth," Holmes replies.

Gibson finally obliges as he, Holmes and Watson stroll the grounds of the estate. He explains that he met Maria while prospecting for gold in Brazil. Their marriage was passionate at first, but Gibson soon realized that he and Maria actually had nothing in common. He fell out of love with her. However, Maria never stopped loving him.

Along came Grace Dunbar. Gibson admits that he never wanted anyone more than Grace.

Holmes chides him for wanting to take advantage of someone he was supposed to protect. Gibson reminds him that they're discussing evidence, not morals.

"All the world cannot be bribed into condoning your offenses," Holmes answers.

Gibson assures him that nothing happened. Grace rejected his advances, and Gibson promised he would never bother her again. Grace agreed to stay for his children's sake. Gibson adds that she was a good influence on him. She urged him not be so arrogant, to treat the world as tenderly as he treats his children. Gibson gives Holmes permission to interview Grace again.

Before doing so, Holmes and Watson visit Thor Bridge once more. Holmes asks Watson to imagine what he would have done with the weapon if he was Grace Dunbar and had shot Maria Gibson. Watson answers that he would have thrown the gun off the bridge, rather than take it back to the house where it would surely be found.

Interviewing Grace, Holmes asks how she felt toward Mrs. Gibson. She says she felt no animosity toward Maria, but she knew Mrs. Gibson was horribly jealous of her. Maria couldn't comprehend that Grace's relationship with Neil Gibson was platonic.

Grace explains that she received a note from Maria, asking to meet with her. She was instructed to destroy Maria's note and to leave her reply in the sundial. She agreed to meet with Maria at 9:00 p.m. on Thor Bridge.

At the bridge, Maria savagely cursed Grace. Grace was so upset, she ran back to her room. She didn't hear the shot that killed Maria. However, she later awoke to see Maria's body being carried into the house. She could tell that Neil Gibson was very troubled by Maria's death.

Grace tells Holmes that she knew nothing of the pistol that was found in her wardrobe. The pistol (which was one of a pair) was obviously planted in the room while she was away.

The interview ends. Watson privately theorizes to Holmes that Neil Gibson could have fired one of the pistols and planted it in Grace's room. Then, he could have killed Maria with the other pistol and tossed it off Thor Bridge. Thus, Gibson could get rid of his possessive wife and incriminate the woman who rejected him.

Watson's words have an epiphanous effect on Holmes. "Watson, I have been sluggish in mind, and wanting in that mixture of imagination and reality which is the basis of my art--you have put me entirely to shame!"

Holmes promises Grace "a case that will make England ring!" He and Watson hurry to Thor Bridge with Sgt. Coventry, some twine, and a grappling hook. Holmes borrows Watson's trusty revolver and re-enacts the killing of Maria Gibson.

BANG! Holmes demonstrates that neither Neil Gibson nor Grace Dunbar killed Maria. After planting one pistol in Grace's wardrobe, Maria apparently anchored the other pistol to a rock with twine, and shot herself. The weighted pistol then fell from her hand and sank into the lake. Voila--a suicide that looks like murder.

" revolver," Watson gloomily remarks.

Holmes fishes the poor doctor's gun from the lake. Then, he retrieves Maria Gibson's gun, proving his theory--and Grace Dunbar's innocence.

All's well that ends well: Grace is freed, and, presumably, she and Neil Gibson--"a remarkable woman and a formidable man"--live happily ever after.

Thor Bridge is a gem of storytelling and acting. Producer Michael Cox and adapter Jeremy Paul were careful to ensure that the script remained faithful to Doyle's original tale (with, of course, a few minor adjustments necessary for television).

As usual, Jeremy Brett strikes a masterful balance between thought and theatricality as Holmes. Holmes and Jeremy are quite active here, riding a bike, shooting arrows, and even balancing on the railing of Thor Bridge.

A still from Thor Bridge in Peter Haining's book The Television Sherlock Holmes is captioned: "Holmes receives archery instruction from wealthy magnate J. Neil Gibson (Daniel Massey) in The Problem of Thor Bridge." Actually, Jeremy Brett needed no instruction in archery for Thor Bridge because he grew up in a family of archers and was himself an accomplished bowman.

Jeremy was just a tot when he received his first archery lesson from his father. JB joined the historic Woodmen of Arden club at age 21, where he was named a "Master Forester" on his first day.

Although he was busy filming Sherlock Holmes much of the time, Jeremy did manage to practice his archery. According to a 1989 Evening Standard article, he would visit Clapham Common at dawn to aim arrows at "an enormous cushion placed at the foot of a tree." Jeremy could only practice about 10 minutes, because as soon as it became light people began strolling through the Common, and JB was very mindful of their safety (he remembered that his brother Michael had once accidentally winged a man while practicing archery). Jeremy kept his archery equipment in an unusual place--the loo! JB said, "Central heating may be marvelous to us on a cold day. But bows and arrows hate it." So, he kept his in the bath, where they could absorb steam.

Holmes' postprandial confrontation with Neil Gibson in Thor Bridge is a classic. Daniel Massey's portrayal perfectly matched Doyle's description of Gibson: "His tall, gaunt, craggy figure had a suggestion of hunger and rapacity. An Abraham Lincoln keyed to base uses instead of high ones would give some idea of the man. [More trivia: Raymond Massey was famous for his portrayals of Lincoln.] His face might have been chiseled in granite...Cold, grey eyes looking shrewdly out from under bristling brows..."

Daniel Massey was born in 1933. He was educated at Eton (where he reportedly first met JB) and at King's College at Cambridge. Massey won "fame in a night" after his West End debut in The Happiest Millionaire. He subsequently starred in many stage plays, ranging from the musical She Loves Me (1963) to the drama Taking Sides (1995).

Like JB, Daniel Massey battled depression. However, Massey traced his depression to his loveless childhood. His parents divorced when he was six, and he later said that his mother, actress/socialite Adrianne Allen, was cold to him, even going so far as to describe her as "an evil woman, a psychopath." Anna Massey didn't share his harsh assessment of their mother, and the siblings rarely spoke in the last decade. Fortunately, they reconciled before Daniel's tragic death from complications of Hodgkin's Disease on March 25, 1998.

After her brother's passing, Anna Massey told The Independent, "He was a wonderful, funny, irascible, passionate man who had a strange innocence that made people of all ages love him. At the painful times of my life, he was always there for me."

Granada's The Problem of Thor Bridge contains excellent acting and writing. And, Doyle's tale of the troubled Maria Gibson still tragically echoes today. As I was finishing this review, the U.S. news was filled with reports of a television star whose wife murdered him as he slept and then took her own life, all while the couple's two young children were in the house. Maria's vindictive suicide in Thor Bridge--and this recent, real tragedy that is repeated far too often--are somber reminders that violence is NEVER the best solution to marital problems.

Next: The Blue Carbuncle

Originally published (as TBE Vol. IV #4): May 30, 1998.
Last updated: May 2, 1999.

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"The Brettish Empire"/"TBE" Copyright Lisa L. Oldham.