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Priclucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona

Its chastening to realise that some of the finest Sherlock Holmes adaptations ever broadcast on television have languished in almost total obscurity for a quarter-century; and were it not for the advent of internet shopping, the 11 episodes of Priclucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona might never have found their way to the West from the former Soviet Union at all - remaining at best a footnote where the details of such minor works as The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It have been faithfully transcribed. For the record, then: the pairing of Livanov (1935-) and the late Vitaly Solomin (1941-2002) ought to figure in the higher reaches of the Holmes/Watson pantheon - up there with Rathbone and Bruce, Brett and Burke, Cushing and Stock - and their five series of Adventures can stand alongside both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (1968) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-5) as examples of sympathetic-but-never-slavish adaptations, perfectly in tune with their audience of the time, but still rewarding to the viewer of today.

Russia was never immune to the Great Detectives charms, Doyle's works having always available in translation - but nothing is known of any film or television adaptations prior to the early 1970s, when a version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES was first broadcast on state television . Featuring Nikolay Volkov (1934-2003) as Holmes alongside Lev Krugly (1931-) as Watson and Oleg Shklovsky (1947-) as Sir Henry Baskerville, this two-and-a-half hour production was apparently repeated several times over the next decade.

The Livanov/Solomin episodes aired to far greater acclaim. The first two instalments, broadcast in 1979, conflate A STUDY IN SCARLET with THE SPECKLED BAND. Here, we are privy to Watsons rarely-filmed first encounter with Holmes when the rightly youthful, red-headed ex-military doctor pitches up at 2216 Baker Street in search of lodgings. He soon begins to suspect, on the evidence furnished by the comings and goings of several strange visitors, a set of skeleton keys and a murder victim's eyeball found dropped in a glass of water, that his peculiar new room-mate is no less than 'the brain of the criminal world!' -and challenges him to a boxing bout. The essential parts of Holmes' nature are all on display, his wilful ignorance of anything outside his immediate sphere of concern bringing out Watson's latent romanticism: 'How awful it would be to live in a world where you can't talk to anyone about poetry, about art or politics.' As with all these Lenfilm adaptations, the takes are long and the pace languorous, almost solely dependent on the on the two leads' performances; indeed, a full half-hour goes by before Holmes' true profession is revealed, and they take up their first shared exploit with the arrival of the mortally-afraid 'Ellen Stoner' [sic] at 2216.

DVD copies of the films are plagued by a number of quirks in their English subtitling, the most evident of which comes as Miss Stoner of 'Sarray' regales Holmes and Watson with the terrible tale of what transpired to her (twin) sister Julia in the house of Stock-Moron, concluding with her immortal description: 'A ribbon! ... A motley ribbon!' At least the building that stands in for Stoke Moran might plausibly be situated in leafy Surrey; throughout, the series' producers struggle to find locations evocative of nineteenth-century England, giving rise to the use of a cramped, curving Baker Street exterior, its walls painted ochre yellow; not to mention the Steppes of Dartmoor on display throughout Sobaka Baskervilej. A charmingly silly error is made in the Series II adaptation of THE EMPTY HOUSE, where 'Sir Ronald Ader' returns to his house in London's Park Lane - which is, quite reasonably, a grand detached residence situated amid a green country park! (Meaning that there can be no villa opposite from where Colonel Moran is required to shoot the unfortunate Sir Ronald ...)

But these are minor difficulties, and much is translated with great clarity. The next instalment opens with Holmes shooting a 'VR' crest in the wall of 221b, and sees the room-mates conducting a game of speed-chess as a prelude to the SIGN OF THE FOUR business in which Holmes surmises the sorry tale of Watson's elder brother from the state of his pocket-watch. Livanov and Solomin play this sequence with heart, Watson's hurt being palpable. The sophistication and depth of characterisation here is clearly comparable to the approach taken by Jeremy Brett and David Burke in the Granada Adventures, made some five years later; indeed, Solomins fastidious, tidy, nattily-dressed Watson is, on occasion, a dead ringer for Burke's. (In a later episode, Holmes will wound Watson again, laughing at the doctor for failing to see through one of his many disguises. Solomins Watson blinks, blurry-eyed, and hurries away, ashamed more of his 'friend' than himself.) Once the business of A STUDY IN SCARLET is concluded, the killer Jefferson Hope being led away, nobly, to his self-determined fate, Watson vows to be Holmes' chronicler, a self-reflexive note being struck in his closing declaration: 'Yes, they'll read my stories in all the different languages - in Austria, in Japan ... in Russia!'

The second series is the high-water mark, linking CHARLES AUGUSTUS MILVERTON to THE FINAL PROBLEM and THE EMPTY HOUSE to create a single epic adventure in three distinct movements. The tale of the 'King of Blackmail' takes in a few portions of THE GREEK INTERPRETER, where Holmes' brother Mycroft attempts to intervene in the matter of the disgrace of Lady Eva Brackwell (in the Diogenes Club, we are afforded a glimpse of a members' lounge resembling no less than a half-lit waxworks) - but the most daring of the screenplay's inventions is to connect Milverton to Professor Moriarty, whose monogram (made of four crossed swords) is seen among Milvertons papers. (A not-dissimilar trick would be pulled in Granada's Adventures, where The Red-headed League would segue into The Final Problem.) As the second episode progresses, it becomes clear that Holmes' intervention in Milvertons affairs is of the gravest concern to the Professor, for Holmes now possesses a coded document detailing the most secret workings of London's underworld. The Professor is utterly terrifying: a sneering, red-eyed hunchback whose key henchman, Price, is a fanged monstrosity with a startling similarity to Lon Chaney Jr as Universal Pictures' Wolf Man. (As an aside, an early glimpse inside Holmes' rooms shows a series of framed horror portraits all around - presumably models for Holmes' various make-ups - one of which is clearly a still of Lon Chaney Sr as a grinning, skull-headed Phantom of the Opera, from the 1925 silent version of the Gaston Leroux novel.)

And so to Reichenbach, where Holmes' 'demise' is realised in thrilling sturm und drang style, with the spiderish Professor scuttling and snarling around the brink of the abyss in his efforts to send Sherlock plunging to his doom. One minor conceit is to have innkeeper Peter Steiler Jr - now a reformed thief of Holmes' former acquaintance - return with Watson to the Falls, where Holmes' fate becomes clear. As Watson sinks to the ground in tears, Steiler Jr hollers a heart-felt eulogy over the roar of the torrent: 'What tragedy! What misfortune! Mr Holmes was the only one who treated me with respect. If not for him, I wouldn't be living here now. I wouldn't be admiring this beautiful scenery! ... Poor Mister Holmes!'

The final instalment picks up the thread one month later: the assassination of Sir Ronald Ader (Doyle's Ronald Adair) has been prefigured in the second episode, with Holmes' last request to Watson being to take care of the unlucky Hon. Watson, of course, muffs it - after disguising himself as an Italian padre with an all-too-English red moustache, the better to follow Aders movements, he succeeds only in becoming personally implicated in Ader's death. Re-enter Sherlock Holmes, who weeps after revealing to Watson his deception.

Perhaps the highest compliment one might pay the Livanov/Solomin series is that, bar the occasional cross-cultural hiccough, to watch them is to experience the adventures afresh: broadly untainted by 75-odd years of Sherlock Holmes films and television presentations, they carry no baggage. Their joys are many: Vlademir Dashkevich's mock-baroque theme music (performed by the Leningrad State Philharmonic Orchestra); Rina Zelenaya's Mrs Hudson, for whom the scriptwriters manage to find plenty of business (there's a lovely sequence where she practices her own version of Holmes' logical deduction, correctly discerning through untrained intuition that a messenger is a retired naval sergeant); a genuinely frightening Baskerville Hound, made horrifying by the simplest device (by painting a dog's skull over its own head) ... Livanov himself does not doubt what made the series work, telling a Russian magazine in 2000: 'The Conan Doyle stories had been made into many filmes before us, but, as I see it, our characters are remarkable in being very human and convincing. He went on to claim: 'This is probably why the British recognised our film to be the best European version of its kind.

Not yet, they havent. But in time who knows.



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