The Brettish Empire


Chapter 5: The Musgrave Ritual

by Lisa Oldham

Don't know much trigonometry...
--Wonderful World (Sam Cooke)

You've probably heard that Jeremy Brett didn't like Granada's adapters tampering with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original Holmes stories.

"Do the Doyle!" was JB's battle cry.

JB (and good sense) often prevailed. Doyle's original plots were usually retained, and in many instances, so were his original words. In Granada's The Musgrave Ritual, for instance, much of the actors' dialogue came straight from Doyle's pen.

Invariably, though, the stories still had to be altered somewhat for television. As Eleri Arden noted in her monograph Sherlock Holmes Observed--A Field Guide to the Granada TV Series, "Granada TV [recreated] the world of Holmes and Watson meticulously, but [took] liberties with the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle...We must forgive Granada for their embellishments, for the stories were never meant to be staged. Consequently, Granada's cadre of dramatizers [had] to do a little reworking--sometimes a lot of reworking..."

For example, Doyle's The Musgrave Ritual opens with Watson describing domestic life at 221-B Baker Street. Holmes may be the world's greatest consulting detective, but as a roommate, he's a regular Oscar Madison. When Watson suggests that Holmes help tidy up the sitting room, Holmes distracts the doctor with his recollection of an old school chum's curious family "ritual."

If Granada "did the Doyle" and just filmed Holmes telling Watson a recollection (a partially second-hand recollection, at that--Holmes was told part of the story by Reginald Musgrave), it would have made very dull viewing, indeed. So, adapter Jeremy Paul wisely made both Holmes and Watson participants in The Musgrave Ritual.

In fact, Paul skipped the Baker Street beginning completely. After some introductory scenes at Hurlstone Manor (Musgrave's estate), we first glimpse Watson and Holmes in Granada's TMR as they ride in a dog-cart, bound for a relaxing weekend at the manor. Watson is alert and enthusiastic; Holmes is inert and uninterested.

"Splendid air!" Watson cries.

Holmes, bundled in a shawl, comically coughs as a counterpoint.

Watson reminds Holmes of what they have to look forward to at Musgrave's:

"Some rough shooting...perhaps a little fishing...the best cook in the county of Sussex..."

"And Rrrrrreginald Musgrave!" Holmes adds, sarcastically rolling his "R's".

(A triumph, by the way, for an actor whose speech impediment kept him from making "R" sounds until he was 17!)

"If you feel so uncharitable, why did you accept his invitation?" Watson asks.

"To escape my lethargy--and your constant bullying to tidy our room in Baker Street!" Holmes retorts.

"Hardly 'constant'," Watson objects.

Actually, Holmes has taken Watson's "bullying" to heart. He's brought along a tin box of "pretty little problems" (early cases) to file. Holmes' mere description of these pre-Watsonian puzzles is intriguing: "A record of the Tarleton murders; the case of Vanberry, the wine merchant; the adventure of the old Russian woman; the full account of Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife; and the singular affair of the aluminum crutch."

As they finally reach the house, Holmes reminds his traveling companion, "Watson, we must behave ourselves!"

Holmes promptly makes a faux pas himself. Greeting his host, he asks, "How is your dear wife?"

"I'm not married," Reginald Musgrave replies.

"How wise!" Holmes remarks.

That evening, Watson goes to fetch Holmes for dinner. The now-cheerful detective is washing up and doesn't see Watson enter his room. Watson starts to sneak up on Holmes, but is stopped cold by the sight of his syringe and "seven percent solution" lying on the table. A troubled Watson silently leaves the room.

An aside is in order here: When TMR airs on US cable television, the scene above is usually deleted in the interest of family viewing and/or time constraints. However, the next sequence showing a giggly, coked-up Holmes is usually left intact. Without the "syringe" scene, it looks as if he's inexplicably gone goofy. No, folks--Holmes is high.

As Jeremy Paul wrote in his forward to the published script of TMR,"Two early scenes depict Holmes clearly under the influence of drugs, to Watson's evident dismay. This is not emphasized in the existing text, but we saw a chance to lay the groundwork for the moment in a later episode [The Devil's Foot -LO] when Holmes is seen to discard the cocaine and clear the matter--contentious in these present times--for good."

The next morning, Rachel, a wraith-like housemaid, suddenly goes to pieces as she serves breakfast to Holmes, Watson, and Musgrave. She wails that Brunton, the butler, has disappeared.

Quite a fellow, this Brunton. A widowed former schoolteacher, he once spent hours explaining the history of the piccolo to Holmes--in French. When he's not holding forth on arcane subjects, he romances local lasses, including Rachel. (He was actually engaged to Rachel at one time, until he dumped her for Janet, the gamekeeper's buxom daughter.)

But, mostly, Brunton paces the grounds, pausing now and then to stare quizzically. (One assumes that he eventually finds time each day to do his actual job.)

Rachel is so distraught over Brunton's disappearance that Musgrave dismisses her for the day. Dr. Watson quickly tends to her. (And almost needs a doctor himself after Rachel's "fiery Welsh temper" leaves scratch marks on his arms!)

A search of the house and grounds fails to turn up Brunton, and reveals that none of his possessions are missing. Later, Reginald Musgrave confesses that he had discovered Brunton studying a private Musgrave family document in the library the night before. Brunton also had what appeared to be a chart, which he quickly stuffed into his pocket as Musgrave entered the library. Musgrave fired the snooping butler on the spot. Brunton begged to be kept on for another month, so he could give notice and not be disgraced in front of his fellow servants. Musgrave agreed to let Brunton stay on for a week, and no longer.

Holmes asks Musgrave about the document Brunton had been studying. Musgrave says it was a copy of a curious "ritual" which has been in his family for generations. A kind of coming-of-age recitation, it reads:

"Whose was it?
His who is gone.
Who shall have it?
He who will come.
Where was the sun?
Over the oak.
Where was the shadow?
Under the elm.
How was it stepped?
West 8 by 8. South 7 by 7. West 6 by 6. South 5 by 5. And 2 by 2, and so--under.
What shall we give for it?
All that is ours.
Why should we give it?
For the sake of the trust."

[LO note: The Granada ritual is worded a little differently than the Doyle version. In his TMR forward, Jeremy Paul explained that the "stepping out" had to be changed slightly, because if they'd followed it exactly as originally worded, Jeremy Brett and company would have ended up in a thicket on the estate used for filming!]

When Watson remarks that the ritual sounds like a treasure hunt, Musgrave disagrees, explaining that no one has ever successfully followed the steps: "It leads nowhere."

Holmes thinks the ritual should be re-examined. It mentions two trees--an elm and an oak. And, it just so happens that a "patriarch among oaks" is visible from the window. Musgrave, Watson and Holmes visit the massive oak. Musgrave confirms that it's the oldest tree on the estate, but adds that it can't be the oak mentioned in the ritual. Generations of treasure-seeking Musgraves had dug up the field around it without success. Holmes wonders if there are any other large oaks nearby.

"Not within a mile of the house," according to Musgrave.

That night, a feverish Rachel slips out of bed. Obviously racked by some inner torment, she runs out into the rainy night, carrying a mysterious bundle. She doesn't return.

Now, two of Musgrave's servants are missing. A nearby lake is dragged in a desperate attempt to find them. No trace of the servants is found, but a strange sack is recovered. It contains rusted metal fragments and some pebbles. Holmes notices that although the contents are quite old, the bag itself is relatively new and unscathed, so it couldn't have been in the water long.

So, where is Brunton? And, where is Rachel? And, why was a bag of ancient junk in the lake? Holmes realizes that there are not three mysteries here, but one--and, as soon as its solution falls into place, the entire puzzle will be solved.

Holmes theorizes that Brunton had deciphered the ritual. He asks Musgrave more about Brunton and the ritual: "Did Brunton ever ask about trees?"

Yes, Musgrave recalls, he did. Brunton had asked about the height of a magnificent old elm tree which had once stood on the grounds. Musgrave instantly knew the answer: the tree had reached a height of 64 feet before it was destroyed by lightning. (It seems Musgrave's boyhood tutor was big on trigonometry.)

That's what Brunton's constant lawn pacing was all about--he was trying to calculate the length of the old tree's shadow!

Holmes spies an oak-shaped weathervane on top of the house and observes, "Now we must find where the shadow of the elm would have fallen when the sun is just clear of that oak."

"But that will be difficult, Holmes, since the elm's no longer there," Watson points out.

"If Brunton can do it, so can we--the answer lies in trigonometry!" Holmes assures him.

The detective has Musgrave and Watson gather up every fishing rod in the house. No, Holmes doesn't use them to play a king-sized game of pick-up sticks--he uses them to calculate how long the old elm's shadow was. He determines that the 64' tree would have cast a 96' shadow.

At last, the archaic instructions become clear. Holmes puts his cane over his shoulder, and, accompanied by Watson and Musgrave, jauntily begins to pace out the steps toward the treasure. The trio end up rowing across the moat, and...

...Hit a dead end.

Watson wonders if Holmes made a mistake in his calculation.

"Impossible!" Holmes insists.

Then Watson remembers: "You forgot the 'and under' part!"

Of course! Holmes asks Musgrave if there is a cellar beneath where they are standing.

Musgrave answers affirmatively: "As old as the house" (which incidentally, is said to be the oldest inhabited house in England).

They find a muffler--which Musgrave recognizes as Brunton's--tied to a flagstone. They raise the flagstone, expecting to find the treasure. Instead, they find Brunton's grotesquely contorted body. He apparently suffocated after becoming trapped in a secret compartment.

Watson and Musgrave speak to the local inspector about Brunton's demise. Janet, Brunton's lover, sees his body being placed in a police wagon. She screams, "Rachel! She done it! She killed him! That's why she run away!"

Watson and Musgrave return to the cellar where Holmes has been puzzling over Brunton's death. The case took a twist the detective hadn't foreseen: "I must confess that so far I am disappointed in my investigation. I had reckoned on solving the matter once I found the place referred to in the ritual, but now I am here...I am as far as ever from knowing what it was [the Musgraves] concealed with such elaborate precautions."

As Holmes stares trance-like at the scene, Watson explains to a curious Musgrave what he's doing:

"[Holmes] puts himself in the man's place, and, having first gauged his intelligence, he tries to imagine how he himself would have proceeded in similar circumstances."

Holmes adds, "In this case, Brunton's intelligence was first-rate."

Watson continues, "So you see, it is unnecessary to make allowances for the 'personal equation,' as the astronomers have dubbed it."

Holmes envisions Brunton's final actions: Brunton had figured out the treasure was beneath the floor, but found he couldn't retrieve it without help. Knowing he didn't have much time, he desperately secured Rachel's assistance by promising to marry her. Brunton lifts the stone and Rachel props it open with a log. Brunton lowers himself into the secret compartment. He excitedly finds a box with the "treasure." His excitement turns to disgust when he opens the box to find nothing but a tangle of moldy metal. Rachel laughs, and then realizes she's been had. After Brunton hands the metal fragments to Rachel in a sack, the supporting log suddenly gives way and the heavy stone slams shut. Brunton is trapped, but Rachel does nothing to help him. (Which would explain her bizarre behavior at breakfast the next morning...)

Holmes examines the box left by Brunton. It contains some coins, which Musgrave dates to the time of Charles the First.

Says Holmes, "We may find something else of Charles the First. The bag that was fished from the mere..."

When Holmes assembles the metal fragments back at Hurlstone, he surmises they are of great royal significance, indeed!

Well, that's two parts of the mystery solved. Now, what about Rachel?

"Very probably she is far away from Hurlstone and carries her secret with her," Holmes guesses.

Well, not exactly. We know where she is, and, as the closing credits roll, everyone on the Musgrave estate learns Rachel's whereabouts, as well (thanks to poor Janet...)

The Musgrave Ritual is another Granada great. Jeremy Paul did a splendid job of walking the tightrope between "canonical fidelity" and "dramatic license" in adapting the story. Such a splendid job, in fact, that his script for The Musgrave Ritual won the Edgar Allen Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

TMR was filmed in October and November of 1985 in Warwickshire. Jeremy Brett reportedly enjoyed the location because it wasn't far from his birthplace in Berkswell. However, he had a little trouble with the house used for "Hurlstone Manor." The house, Baddesley Clinton, was built in the days when people were smaller. Tall JB had to remember to duck every time he entered a doorway! (Leather strips were placed above the doors as a reminder.) 

Jeremy Paul also said that there was no real oak tree available for the "oak and sun" part of the ritual, but, remarkably, the house had an oak tree on its weathervane. Paul apparently believed that the handy stand-in oak had been there all the time. However, Michael Cox later revealed in A Study in Celluloid that the tree was grafted to the existing weathervane by "inspiration of a very gifted production designer." (So much for serendipity.) 

As usual, composer Patrick Gowers' score perfectly matches the mood of the story.

Director David Carson guided the actors through this rather spooky tale. And, the actors are all first-rate. Michael Culver is delightful as the tweedy, diffident Reginald Musgrave, a character who's a far cry from the relentless prosecutor Culver portrayed in the film A Passage to India (1984). James Hazeldine (who appeared with Kevin Spacey in the recent London and Broadway revivals of The Iceman Cometh) excels as Brunton, the greedy butler who's too intelligent (and too amorous) for his own good. And, Johanna Kirby is memorable as the tormented Rachel.

As always, Edward Hardwicke shines as Dr. Watson, who's kept rather busy during his "vacation." (At least he has something to write about when he returns to Baker Street!)

And, of course, Jeremy Brett is superb. As Holmes, he expertly switches from languid lethargy, to drug-induced giddiness, to the sheer joy of being on a case, all in the course of one episode. Watching his Holmes "step out" Musgrave's ritual is a treasure in itself. Commanding the rowboat, he stands as straight as an admiral, his noble face a model of deadpan determination worthy of Buster Keaton. JB should have won some sort of award for The Musgrave Ritual, too. Oh, well...

NEXT TIME: Life's a beach when Holmes just says "No"! :->

Originally published: September 19, 1999
Last updated: May 29, 2001

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