cast: Christopher Lee, Patrick Macnee, Joss Ackland, Jenny Seagrove, and Claude Atkins
director: Bill Corcoran
187 minutes (PG) 1991
Revelation DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
No, it’s not the one in which Holmes dies. Sherlock Holmes: Incident At Victoria Falls is a curious beast. Penned not by Conan Doyle but two veteran TV writers from either side of the Atlantic (Gerry O’Hara wrote for The Professionals and Bob Shayne wrote for Knight Rider), this two-part TV movie boasts some recognisable faces and a number of truly surreal moments, but at the end of the day it lacks the intelligence and the directness of the original Holmes stories and unsuccessfully replaces them with pretty scenery and postmodern jiggery-pokery.
While in the process of clearing out his Baker Street flat before moving to Sussex in order to raise bees, Holmes (a Christopher Lee who seemed far younger and spry in the Lord Of The Rings films despite their appearing ten years after this series was made) is summoned to meet King Edward VII who entrusts him with one last mission; to collect the world’s largest diamond from Cape Town and safely return to London. However, before Holmes can take possession of the diamond a gang of jewel thieves dig their way into the vault and crack the safe, forcing Holmes to work out not only who stole the diamond, but also who killed the Indian locksmith found at the scene of the crime.
After this fairly sturdy introduction, the drama settles down into a rather despondent rut as there are a number of chases involving carriages, some train journeys and some encounters with historical figures both real and fictitious. The end of the film comes with a big special effects set piece in a cave but curiously nothing is resolved in this confrontation, leaving Holmes to catch the murderer and partly unravel the case in an epilogue set back in London.
There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought regarding how to deal with a traditional detective story (as opposed to a variation on the genre such as the police procedural). The first approach is complete honesty; it involves peppering the story with clues in such a way as to make it possible for the reader or viewer to work it out at the same time as the detective. The TV series Monk uses this approach leading to Monk being hailed as a genius for working out something long after the TV audience has. The second approach is complete flummery, it involves the author playing his cards so close to his chest that the audience never has enough data to draw a proper conclusion about the identity of the murderer until the genius detective reveals all the missing data and how the crime was committed. The Maigret stories are prone to this technique and while this makes them a less flattering read for the audience, it definitely preserves the mystique of the genius detective who sees things that us mere mortals cannot.
I say that there are two techniques ‘broadly speaking’ as most authors and stories tend to borrow from these two extremes. The works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are good examples of books that sit between the extremes as both include plenty of clues but ultimately rely upon the superhuman capacities of their protagonists to move from clues to perfect understanding of the crime. In the Christie novels this superhuman skill manifested as an ability to spot the cracks in the apparently ironclad alibi that all of Christie’s murderers possess and in the Holmes stories, the skill is manifested as Holmes’ ability to read facts about a person from various facts about their appearance.
The main problem with Incident At Victoria Falls is that its version of Holmes does not occupy the same space along the previously mentioned technical continuum as the Holmes of the original stories. Oh sure, we get occasional acts of deduction but for the most part this Holmes plays his cards firmly against his chest, keeping the audience entirely in the dark throughout the show’s running time. As a result, there’s no impression that Holmes is slowly working things out and, as we move forward through the plot, we are given practically no clues and so the audience does not learn anything at all. The result is a programme that really does rely upon chase sequences and pretty photography to keep an audience interested throughout its massive three hour running time. This makes for a very poor mystery and it results in a very slow pace indeed. No one would call this series exciting.
However, despite the fact that Incident At Victoria Falls fails as a piece of Holmes fan-fiction and as a detective story, it is difficult to really hate this series. Funded by Silvio Berlusconi and cursed with a theme tune that might well have been stolen from some piece of clown-based porn film, the series is full of incomprehensibly surreal moments. For starters, the series is packed with historical figures such as Lilly Langtree (Jenny Seagrove) and Theodore Roosevelt (Claude Akins) as well as fictional characters such as the jewel thief Raffles (Alan Coates) who has apparently returned and is now running a hotel in South Africa. It isn’t even as though these historical characters serve any purpose… they are simply on holiday so consider any hopes you might have of an Edwardian ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ well and truly dashed.
The series also has bizarre attempts at humour such as when a leopard wanders into Holmes’ bedroom only to be sent packing with a lamb chop and a Roger Moore-style one-liner. But even stranger is the fact that we can move from animal slapstick to moments of gritty realism as the South African setting prompts a scene where a South African policeman brutally mistreats some black people. Much like Michael Winner’s version of The Big Sleep, Incident At Victoria Falls feels a lot like a hastily cobbled-together production that lured some big names with the promise of a paid holiday somewhere pleasant. Never entirely convincing and bland enough to make it impossible to really hate, this series is probably best forgotten.