The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991) as produced by Granada Television is from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (Season 1, episode 1) which, in publication terms, represents the final twelve short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring our famous detective. In total, Granda adapted some forty-two of the Holmes stories into thirty-six episodes. More would probably have been made had Jeremy Brett not fallen seriously ill. When he died, the series was ended. The actor had rather made the role his own and although it was possible to recast Dr Watson (David Burke was replaced by Edward Hardwicke), it was not thought appropriate to recast Holmes for the remaining stories.
There are times when an original short story can be enhanced when adapted for the screen and, on this occasion, T R Bowen has produced a dark and quite powerful adventure on a limited budget. To understand the scale of the problem arising from the story as written, it has Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) too busy to leave London so, when Lady Carfax is reported missing in Switzerland, he sends out Dr Watson (Edward Hardwicke) to investigate. Initially, this is an honest decision and not a smokescreen as in The Hound of the Baskervilles. As a result of his inquiries, he follows the trail to Baden but there’s no sign of her after that. In fact, Watson’s regular reports have alarmed Holmes who arrives in time to save Watson’s life — a rather tedious piece of melodrama. Together, they return to London and, for the most part, the television script follows the original plot. To shoot period railway scenes and a Channel crossing to show Watson’s adventure in Switzerland and Germany would be an unnecessary expense. The actual location for her disappearance is irrelevant so long as the right people are present at the time. Hence, the decision was made to focus the main location work in the Lake District around Applethwaite which, if nothing else, is wonderfully picturesque and a suitable place for Dr Watson to be having a holiday. He’s been feeling the pain in his leg and shoulder, and finds fell-walking a good therapy.
This gives us a chance to meet and be impressed by Lady Frances Carfax (Cheryl Campbell) who’s shown to be physically active and very daring for a woman of that time. The point of this is, of course, to build up our sympathy for her. To add fuel to this fire, for all the bravado, she’s shown to be vulnerable. She sails across the lake to the church without a problem, but falls in when coming back to the hotel. Note the voiceover from Watson commenting on the upper body strength of Albert Shlessinger (Julian Curry) who rescues her. No questions about his ears, it seems. She’s also shown bullied by her brother and apparently threatened by the clichéd dark, bearded man on a horse. All this is reasonably within bounds. We know from the title she will disappear so it’s as well we invest our emotions in her safety. Quite why Victorian and Edwardian women should inexplicably fear glowering men on horses has never been satisfactorily explained to me. I suppose it must be in their DNA. We then have an additional fear reaction when she runs from Sherlock Holmes in the London bank. This is an unnecessary scene. Worse, even in those days, there would be no unlocked backdoor through which she could leave. It would be impossible for her to avoid Sherlock Holmes or the inevitable security guards.
I suppose the backstory of the woman being lost at sea and the subsequent headlines in London newspapers does give a plausible reason for her to panic when she sees cuttings in her temporary London home and so force the hand of those who have lured her to London. The pawning of some jewellery and the viewing of the coffin are also nicely handled. However, what marks this dramatisation out as being something rather more interesting is the ending. Arthur Conan Doyle has Lady Carfax recover from her ordeal. T R Bowen prefers greater realism and her Edgar Allan Poe experience leaves her in a psychologically damaged state. This is brave and probably justified. It gives much greater weight to Sherlock Holmes considering this case to be one of his failures. So put all this together and The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax is a winning way to start this series.