The Brettish Empire


Chapter 6: The Devil's Foot

by Lisa Oldham



I've noticed that Granada's version of The Devil's Foot brings out the devil in some critics:

And, those are some of the least outlandish comments I've read about this episode.

There's more to The Devil's Foot than JB's funky headgear. Frankly, I can't understand why critics harped on such trivial details. JB wore the "teapot" get-up in only one or two scenes, and is glimpsed wearing the headband for one very brief moment. He wears his traditional homburg in most of the episode.

Overall, The Devil's Foot is a gripping tale of madness and murder--never mind the muffler.

The teleplay opens on a dark and stormy night (and, no, Snoopy didn't write it; Gary Hopkins did). A shadowy, black-gloved figure breaks into what appears to be an apothecary and sprinkles powder from one of the bottles into a silver snuff box.

Welcome to bleak, mysterious Cornwall! Not exactly Club Med, but the perfect place for a London detective who needs a holiday, now. As in The Musgrave Ritual, Dr. Watson accompanies a mopey Sherlock Holmes on an enforced vacation. Harley Street physicians have warned the detective that he risks having "an absolute breakdown" if he doesn't get some rest.

When Watson enthuses that the sea air will do Holmes "a world of good," Holmes grouses, "I should have traveled alone."

"Nonsense...we're on holiday!" Watson heartily answers.

After the pair arrives in Cornwall, Watson takes a moment to survey the jagged cliffs. He returns to the lodgings and is greatly perturbed to find Holmes shooting up (which is one of the reasons this vacation is so desperately needed).

Later, Vicar Roundhay pays a welcoming call and promptly mistakes Watson for Holmes. But, he's quickly introduced to the real Holmes, who enlists Watson's help in gathering clues about the Vicar's life: "Deduce, Watson, deduce!"

Watson spies mud on the Vicar's shoes and hand, and guesses that he's interested in archaeology. Holmes deduces much more, concluding that the Vicar is a left-handed gardener.

The Vicar is amazed, and wants to know how Holmes could make such accurate deductions.

Well, you know: it's his superior intellect, his years of detective work...and, oh, he'd just read all about the Vicar in the parish magazine!

Okay, so Holmes "cheated" a little. But, this little prank makes Holmes laugh, obviously the first time in a long time, because Watson says with a sigh of relief, "It's been ages..."

The Vicar assures Holmes and Watson they will encounter "Cornish hospitality" during their sojourn in Cornwall. But, while the pair is out walking, Watson encounters a stern figure who stonily brushes past him.

"Cornish hospitality," Watson mutters.

Despite the sea air, Holmes remains in the doldrums. He remarks to Watson that many ancient tombs are scattered about the area.

"I suppose death is always with us," Watson observes.

A pensive Holmes replies, "Quite so."

In the next few days, Holmes wanders alone among the eerie tombs and dolmens that dot the landscape. He examines artifacts and seems to be searching for something. Perhaps inner peace...

While on the beach, Holmes pours out his "seven percent solution." Then, he buries his syringe in the sand.

However, the greatest boost to Holmes' morale and mental stability suddenly appears at his doorstep: A case!

Of course, Watson objects. Holmes is supposed to be convalescing. But, there's no stopping Holmes once he's on the scent, and he tells Watson, "Save your protestations for later...much later."

And, the game's afoot:

A nearby resident, Mortimer Tregennis, has lost his sister, Brenda. She died a sudden, horrible, inexplicable death the night before. And, his two brothers (George and Owen) were driven mad by the same insidious force that caused Brenda's death.

Mortimer explains that he'd visited with his family, and when he left, they were playing cards. The next morning, they were discovered still sitting around the card table, but Brenda was dead and her brothers were babbling insanely and frothing at the mouth. The family housekeeper, Mrs. Porter, had slept soundly through the tragic event.

Holmes questions Tregennis. Was his family nervous by nature? Had he noticed anything suspicious the night before?

Tregennis says that George had seen a face at the window. Mortimer looked out the window, but didn't see anyone, although he thought he saw something moving.

Holmes, Watson, and Tregennis set out on foot to examine the Tregennis estate, where the tragedy occurred. Tregennis admits that, due to a family quarrel over the division of tin mining property, he didn't live at the estate with his siblings. He lodged at the vicarage with Vicar Roundhay.

At the estate, Tregennis points out the window where the face had appeared. Holmes backs up to take in the scene, and--crunch!--steps on Tregennis' foot.

"Dreadfully sorry," Holmes apologizes. (Although he purposely stepped on Tregennis' foot to make a good impression of it in the ground. Clever...)

Inside, Tregennis sets the scene for Holmes. He describes how he and his siblings were sitting at the table, peacefully playing cards.

Then, Mrs. Porter (whom Tregennis introduces as "his" housekeeper, even though he doesn't live at the estate), enters and announces her resignation. She is so distressed by the tragedy that she plans to return to her family in St. Ives.

However, Holmes gently coaxes her to tell him about the events of the previous evening.

Mrs. Porter reveals that Mortimer Tregennis was there playing cards, all right, but an argument had ensued before he left.

Watson wonders why the Tregennis' fireplace was being used during the card game. Mortimer Tregennis says it was because the night was chilly, but Watson remembers it as being warm and humid. Tregennis replies that he has a "mild blood disorder" that makes him susceptible to chill no matter what the weather. (Watson later expresses his doubt about this to Holmes--after all, instead of staying in the nice warm house, Tregennis walked out into the night air.)

Holmes examines Brenda's corpse for clues and finds a ring on a ribbon around her neck.

Holmes and Watson leave the estate and stop on a cliff to rest and theorize. As they are theorizing, they are surprised by Leon Sterndale, the same stern figure whom Watson had encountered earlier. Sterndale reveals that he's related to the Tregennis family and that he was enroute to Africa when he received a telegram informing him of the bizarre tragedy that had befallen them.

Sterndale presses Holmes to name a suspect, but the cagey sleuth merely says, "I can hardly answer that."

However, Holmes later assures Watson, "All will be revealed!"

But, first, another bizarre tragedy strikes: Mortimer Tregennis is found dead at the vicarage, killed in the same manner as Brenda.

This time, the authorities arrive and warn Holmes to "leave this investigation to the official police!"

"As you wish," he acquiesces (but he asks the Vicar to direct the policemen's attention to the window upstairs and to the table where Mortimer was found, because these might prove useful in their investigation).

When the going gets tough, the tough...go shopping? Holmes returns from a trip to the village with a lovely lamp. No, it's not a souvenir for Mrs. Hudson. Holmes' theorizing has led him to believe that what killed Brenda and Mortimer Tregannis and drove their siblings mad was a toxin dispersed in the air. He deduces that the toxin was administered to Brenda and her two brothers through the fireplace fumes (hence, the fire that night).

And, Mortimer? Holmes scraped a powdery substance from the lamp in the room where Mortimer died. And now, using the lamp he just bought, the detective intends to put his theory to the test by duplicating the way he thinks the toxin was dispersed into Mortimer's room.

You may remember animated TV advertisements for an insurance company that opened with the catchphrase, "We all do dumb things." A doofy little guy would then do something dumb like press a button and get shot by a cannon, or pick up a bone and get chased by a ferocious bulldog.

Well, Holmes could star in one of those commercials, because he does a very dumb thing. Instead of forcing Dr. Watson to leave the room, he tells him, "I can't force you to stay, but I mean to have the answer." Of course, loyal Watson does stay, and Holmes places some of the deadly toxin on the warm lamp, and...

POOF! Holmes flashes back to the Sixties...the 1860's, that is. But, instead of seeing pink elephants or hookah-smoking caterpillars in his hallucination, Holmes runs in slow motion, is terrorized by the spectre of Moriarty and mythological figures, and ends up with blood running all over his face and hands.

He's on the brink of insanity--and maybe death--when Watson's voice suddenly cuts through the haze. Holmes is so traumatized, he calls Watson "John" when he snaps out of it. (Yes, it was customary for Victorian men to address each other by their surnames, but I think Holmes can be excused for dispensing with social niceties at a time like this!)

Watson is justifiably upset by Holmes' reckless endangering of both of their lives, and Holmes is extremely contrite. He hurls the lamp over a cliff.

It was gained at a perilous price, but, Holmes finally has his answer. He summons Sterndale. Holmes reveals that he knows Sterndale didn't return home after he spoke to Holmes and Watson on the cliff. He went to the vicarage.

Sterndale asks how Holmes knew.

"I followed you."

"I saw no one!," Sterndale bellows.

"That is what you may expect to see when I follow you," Holmes calmly replies.

And, as Holmes had said, all is revealed:

Sterndale was a lion hunter and had quite a collection of African curiosities. He made the mistake of explaining one of these curiosities, the devil's foot root (a nearly undetectable poison used by West African medicine men), to Mortimer Tregennis. Greedy Mortimer stole the root (yep, he was the black-gloved burglar at the beginning of the episode) and used it to kill Brenda and drive his siblings mad so he could gain control of their fortune.

Sterndale had loved Brenda for years (it was his ring she wore around her neck), and he used the devil's foot on Mortimer to avenge her death.

Holmes, ever the softie, lets Sterndale go free.

Of course, Watson objects, but Holmes asks him, wouldn't he have done what Sterndale had if he'd been in his shoes?

Watson agrees.

Holmes then states that he's not the local police. And, anyway, as Watson keeps reminding him--he's on holiday!

All in all, The Devil's Foot is a rewarding episode of the Granada Holmes series. And, it garnered an "Edgar" award for mystery writing. But, you may not want to watch it alone on a dark and stormy night. Some of the scenes showing the insane Tregennis brothers are a bit intense, as are the scenes of Holmes' devil's foot induced "trip."

As usual, the actors are top-notch. Special kudos go to Edward Hardwicke and to Denis Quilley, who portrays the formidable lion hunter Leon Sterndale. Quilley reveals an unexpected tender side to the tough man who boasts about being a law unto himself.

Years later, when Quilley spoke at Jeremy Brett's memorial service, he fondly remembered singing show tunes with JB at dinner after a day's filming.

Of course, Jeremy was in the grip of bipolar disorder at the time, so perhaps he was a bit "up" during filming and some of that exuberance spilled over into his performance. (By this time he'd lopped off his hair.) But, Holmes was experiencing an emotional crisis of his own in the story, so the little "quirks" (such as the headband) fit right in.

Which is not to say that Jeremy's performance is all "tics" or kooky mannerisms in this episode. Actually, I thought he conveyed sort of a gentle sense of sweet sadness throughout the episode. I especially enjoyed the scene where he puts the shaken Mrs. Porter at ease. 

And, of course, Jeremy spotted an opportunity to tell modern audiences to "just say no." When Doyle wrote the original Holmes stories, no one batted an eye at cocaine use. It wasn't illegal, and people didn't yet realize the grave danger of it. (For more information about cocaine use during Holmes' time, click here.)

Jeremy realized times had changed. He sought and received permission from Dame Jean Conan Doyle to have Holmes "kick the habit."

So, that's my review of The Devil's Foot. If you don't like it--well, I was on holiday! (It was Memorial Day). ;->


Originally published: May 28, 2001

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