Christopher Plummer: The Canadian Holmes
By Charles Prepolec
The recent appearance of Matt Frewer as Holmes in the new Canadian produced Holmes series started me thinking of previous Canadian connections to the world of Sherlock Holmes. While Canada may not be the first direction in which one turns looking for traces of Holmes, it is still a worthwhile pursuit. The most notable Canadian to be linked with Holmes must be Canadian born actor Christopher Plummer who appeared both on television and in a theatrical release as the Master Detective!
Christopher Plummer
Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer was born in Toronto on Friday, December 13, 1927 into an affluent, culturally aware and well-educated family. His father John Plummer was a secretary to the Dean of Science at McGill University, while his mother, Isabella Mary (Abbott) Plummer was the granddaughter of Primeminister John Abbott. Also amongst his relatives were the playwright Guy Du Maurier and the actor Nigel Bruce. His parents divorced early in his life, so he was brought up in Montreal in his mother’s care. There he attended Jennings Private School, and studied under Iris Warren and C. Herbert Casari. Under his mother’s guidance, young Christopher attended numerous plays, ballets, operas and other cultural events. He also took up the piano, and at one time thought to become a concert pianist, but after working as a lighting designer on a school play, his attention turned to acting.

After training with the
Canadian Repertory Company in Ottawa, he made his professional stage debut in a production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline at the ripe old age of 17. Roles on CBC radio followed and his first television appearance came in 1951 in the form of a CBC production of Othello. By 1954 he was appearing on Broadway, and while still a relatively young man, he was hailed by Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times as "a Shakespearean actor of the first rank". During the mid-to-late 1950’s, Plummer divided his time between leading roles in the Shakespearean Festival Company at Stratford and various television appearances. After a few minor film roles, he received instant recognition by appearing as Captain Von Trapp in the 1965 film The Sound of Music. A few years ago, he referred to the film in an interview as “The Sound of Mucus”.
Copyright ©  20th Century Fox 1965
In 1968, Christopher Plummer was invested by the Governor General as a Companion of the Order of Canada. Among his other awards are a Tony for Cyrano in 1973 and an Emmy for his role as Roscoe in Ross Hunter’s production of The Money Changers. He considers his appearance as the Aztec king in 1969’s Royal Hunt of the Sun as one of his best roles. In 1975 he appeared as Rudyard Kipling in John Huston’s production of The Man Who Would be King.  From playing a Victorian author, he shortly moved on to his first brush with a very different sort of Victorian…
Copyright ©  Cinema Center 100 Productions 1969
Copyright © Highgate Associates 1977
Copyright © Highgate Associates 1977
Copyright © Avco Embassy Pictures Corp. 1979
The idea of Sherlock Holmes tackling the Ripper case is hardly a new idea now, nor was it in 1978 when Bob Clark (Co-producer, story and director) started piecing together his story for Murder by Decree (click here for a synopsis and full cast list). This is first and foremost a Ripper film rather than a Holmes film as Holmes simply provides the vehicle for telling the story. We had last seen Holmes tackle the Ripper in the 1965 film A Study in Terror which featured John Neville as Holmes. In an odd twist, two actors from the previous film, one as the same character, would also appear in the new one. That version, as satisfying as it was, didn’t actually take into account much of the popular Ripper mythology that had sprung up around the unsolved case. The basic premise behind Murder by Decree can actually be traced directly to a 1973 BBC documentary entitled simply Jack the Ripper that first introduced the suspects and their motives as used in the film.
“I first came up with the idea of the film when I heard about that very first theory printed by a British journalist saying the Duke of Clarence was the killer. I thought, what an incredible notion for a movie. That theory was soon discredited and the theories that we’re following are much later ones. I really didn’t want to make a film to prove any history, I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just doing a “what if” history. That’s why I brought Sherlock Holmes into it, who is a semi-fictional character. He’s not real, but so many think he is. By bringing him into the story, we’re saying in effect that we’re not claiming this is fact.”
“The relationship between the two men appealed to me deeply. This is a passionate and caring Holmes; I wanted to get through his traditional reserve. I have aimed for a humanizing of the characters.”
“First of all, we were looking for two men who really do have a relationship between them. Although I loved the Basil Rathbone – Nigel Bruce teaming, what I didn’t like was Holmes continually patronizing Watson without really enjoying him as much as he should. James has created a much more intelligent Watson, still a bit of a fustian old soldier type, because the movie Watson is invariably that image. But James is not stupid, his character has got a good sense of humour. He’s pretty quick on the uptake; yet he remains a step behind Holmes at all times naturally. But he has center stage himself several times, he does some pretty good sleuthing on his own and he’s never befuddled or patronized by Holmes. He’s much more perceptive, which I think is a necessary updating.”
Plummer as John Barrymore
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-  Murder by Decree Presskit. Avco-Embassy Pictures Corp. 1979
- "Murder by Decree" by Robert Weverka. Ballantine Books. 1979
- "Sherlock Holmes Screen and Sound Guide" by Gordon E. Kelley. The Scarecrow Press Inc. 1994
“I don’t think anybody will ever get tired of Sherlock Holmes. I don’t think the public will ever let him die just as they wouldn’t let Conan Doyle kill him.”
                                                                                                   - Christopher Plummer
You Have Been In…Stratford, I Perceive
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time
The script, which was carefully adapted by Julian Bond  presented an extremely faithful if streamlined rendering of the story. Cast as Sherlock Holmes, Christopher Plummer was made up with a rather sallow complexion and slicked-back blackened hair. It was a capable, if somewhat dry interpretation from Plummer. His performance as Holmes is essentially that of a rather remote and vaguely eccentric thinking machine.  Making his 3rd and final appearance as Watson was none other than veteran character actor Thorley Walters.
In 1977, Highgate Associates were producing their series Classics Dark and Dangerous for HTV and struck upon the idea of including a Sherlock Holmes story. Apparently they selected Silver Blaze and set about dramatizing a brisk thirty-minute version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic.
Walters had previously played Watson to Christopher Lee’s Sherlock in the 1962 film Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace and opposite Douglas Wilmer’s Holmes in Gene Wilder’s Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother. Unfortunately Walters had a tendency to render Watson in a distinctly buffoon-like manner every time out, and this was no exception. 
Visually it was a very faithful rendition of the story with an excellent supporting cast and first-rate locations adding to the quality of the production. Of particular note were Basil Henson as a spot-on Colonel Ross and Barry Treham as a blustering Silas Brown. The end result is an enjoyable yet unmoving Sherlock Holmes production that was first broadcast on Sunday, November 27, 1977. Within the year, Plummer was once again under the deerstalker and before the cameras…
From Baker Street To Whitechapel
By 1978, the theory, much expanded on in Stephen Knight’s 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution had made it’s mark and ridiculous conspiracy theories involving the Freemasons and the Royal family were a hotly debated topic, as director Bob Clark asserts:
Apparently, Clark and scriptwriter John Hopkins (Z Cars, The Offence), felt that having Holmes rooted in a true historical case would add a certain depth to the characters. They were determined to create a more fully realized personality for Holmes. Giving him a greater level of emotion. Hopkins explains:
New Orleans native Bob Clark was then based in Canada, no shock then that in casting about for a suitable Holmes he decided on Christopher Plummer. Clark described his choice and reasoning, confirming Hopkins approach to the character:
“With Christopher, we’ve gone for a very warm, vital Holmes, a man who cares very passionately. Any Holmes up to now would never have a tear in his eye. Well, Christopher does in this, and when he sees some wrenching or pathetic things, it moves him. Conan Doyle’s Holmes was a very intellectual, brilliant egotistical man. We’ve kept that ego, that’s still there. Christopher has depth and strength, he has brilliant flashes. He’s currently the most Holmesian of all actors around. And it’s that kind of cold aristocratic Plummer that we’re playing against in this picture. We’re going very much against what has been Chris’s image and I think it will surprise and please a lot of people. Like this picture. ”
Plummer also comments on the script’s approach to Holmes:
“It gives Holmes the opportunity to be human. It’s easy to play him as supercilious, rather snobbish, but that’s not what I intended to do. I hope people like him the way I play him.”
Copyright © Avco Embassy Pictures Corp. 1979
Oddly, in the context of the film, this approach to Holmes seems to work. From the opening moments at the Opera House (actually the interior of Wyndham’s Theatre while the exterior was the Royal Academy in Piccadilly) we know this is not your usual Holmes film. Gone are the bumbling Watson and the icy cool Holmes of yesteryear. Instead we are presented with two Victorian gentlemen who share a respectful, warm and occasionally humorous relationship. Early on Watson refers to Holmes as the Prince of Detectives, to which Holmes replies “Only the prince of detectives you say. Then pray tell me, who is the king?” Watson counters with “Lestrade, of course!” and the two share a laugh. Later in the film we have the infamous squashed pea sequence that further cements the warmth of their relationship. Part of the reason the relationship plays so well is due to the casting of the late James Mason as Watson. Although slightly old for the part, Mason acquits himself rather well. Once again, Bob Clark explains:
Copyright © Avco Embassy Pictures Corp. 1979
James Mason adds his comments on the subject of the good Doctor and his relationship with Holmes:
“I am supremely suited to the role of Dr. Watson because it is a part that is completely within my range. I don’t see Watson as a buffoon. I think he was dependable, full of common sense, discipline and dignity. Holmes on the other hand was rather weird. Watson needed sterling qualities to be with him. Holmes daily behavioral pattern was that of a rather strange individual. “
While Murder By Decree is not a Canadian production, (it is actually an Ambassador Films Production produced in cooperation with the Canadian Film Development Corporation and Famous Players Ltd. and released by Avco Embassy Pictures Corp) it did however utilize a number of Canadian stars alongside the lead in key roles. Amongst them are Donald Sutherland as the psychic Robert Lees, Genevieve Bujold as Annie Crook, Susan Clark as Mary Kelly and Chris Wiggins as Dr. Hardy. All of which handle their performances admirably. Rounding out the cast are UK actors Anthony Quayle as Sir Charles Warren (who  played a radical doctor in A Study in Terror), David Hemmings as Inspector Foxborough, Sir John Gielgud as the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade (reprising his role from the  A Study in Terror). It is a stunning cast in every way, and likely the most star-studded of any Holmes production to date.
Copyright ©Ballantine Books 1979
Copyright © Avco Embassy Pictures Corp. 1979
Not only is the cast of a high caliber, the production itself is remarkable.  Elstree Studios was home to the construction of a vast complex of streets, cobbled alleyways, a square and a courtyard as well as the busy thoroughfare of Whitechapel’s main street. At the time, this was the largest set ever built, taking 100 men over 8 weeks to construct, in England on a studio sound stage. 4,000 square feet of cobblestones were laid in sheets each three feet by one and a half feet, made of reinforced concrete. 30 molds were made from which two batches were produced daily, taking 6 men 30 days to manufacture, using 20 tons of cement and 150 tons of sand. And finally, stale fruit and vegetables were blended with Fuller’s earth, combined with manure and then strewn along the cobbled streets. Three different types of brick were cast for the buildings and 5,000 sheets were made, each being 6 by 5 feet. 10 men spent eight weeks casting the 150, 000 square feet of bricks and tacking them to the walls. Responsible for the concept and execution of the set was Production Designer Harry Pottle, who ensured that every detail was authentic to the period, from unique tin match boxes to a lily decorated urn visible in an Undertakers window.
Copyright © Avco Embassy Pictures Corp. 1979
Meanwhile, at Shepperton Studios, on their largest sound stage, an authentic recreation of the London docks was erected, complete with a river Thames flowing by. This set took 50 men two months to construct. A 100-foot wharf was made from Victorian railway ties. To recreate the murky look of the Thames, a tank, 120’ wide by 90’ long was built requiring 36 hours to fill with half a million gallons of water. All because Bob Clark was insistent on total authenticity.
“We were trying to get a flavor of the London of Gustave Dore. But he was about 30 years to early for us, we studied his drawings and engravings then updated our interpretation.”
Copyright © Avco Embassy Pictures Corp. 1979
The effort appears worthwhile on screen when combined with actual location shooting.  Along with the aforementioned Royal Academy and Wyndham’s Theater were locations which included Clink Street in the East End of London, the Royal Naval College at Greenwich for a recreation of Park Lane and finally the exterior of 221B Baker Street was actually a quiet backwater stretch of Barton Street. It is an impressive picture particularly as it was made on a total budget of $5, 000, 000.
The attention to detail extended right through costuming and makeup as well. For a change, the prostitute victims of the Ripper were actually of the right age and dressed as the ragged drabs that they were. Unfortunately, the usual gaff of having Holmes wearing a deerstalker hat while in the city is committed throughout the film. He is also saddled with a rather improbable pipe. Sadly, these appear to be necessities of Holmesian filmmaking life, as producers and directors seem to think that the general viewing audience expects the stereotype to identify the character. Christopher Plummer comments on the look of Holmes in the film:
Copyright © Avco Embassy Pictures Corp. 1979
“I had my hair streaked to make him warmer looking. In the Sidney Paget drawings he had slicked down hair, very sinister looking. If the audience don’t like you, you’re dead. Unfortunately, he has that costume he is identified with. Hamlet can come on in brown velvet – Holmes has to wear that damn hat and pipe.”
When production wrapped, the makeup department presented Plummer with a Snoopy doll dressed as Holmes complete with a weighted knitted scarf.
The film is certainly flawed, but it is a soundly made film that should appeal to Ripper and Holmes enthusiasts alike. While the solution to the Ripper murders as depicted in the film has absolutely no basis in fact, from a purely fictional and speculative point of view, it is certainly the most interesting and sensational theory. It is easy to see why this particular theory was adapted for the film as it makes for thrilling entertainment. To further explore the many theories that have sprung up about Jack the Ripper click here.
Two main criticisms are generally aimed at this film by Holmes aficionados. The first is the emotional nature of Holmes and the second is the overly talky ending. Neither is particularly distressing, although having the entire film explained at the end is somewhat redundant. As to the emotional Holmes, well, the reference is to one shot where Holmes is staring at the camera with a tear streaming down his face. He had just discovered that Annie Crook had been locked up in an asylum simply because of her relationship with a royal personage. The tear comes as Holmes realizes that he can do absolutely nothing for the girl. It is a strong scene that likely wouldn’t have been so objectionable had the camera not lingered on a close-up of Holmes. Still, it is a minor flaw in a superb film.
Copyright © Avco Embassy Pictures Corp. 1979
Christopher Plummer’s two Holmes outings are both quite exceptional. On one hand we have a very traditional Holmes and the on the other we have a well-grounded pastiche. In both we have a talented Canadian actor bringing his considerable skills to bear on the Master detective. For my money, he is “the” Canadian Holmes! On being a Canadian actor in an international arena, Plummer said:
“Am I bound to Canada? Well, I'm bound to my business, which is everywhere, and I don't think an artist should be in any way nationalistic. It's a universal medium. But, though my wife, Elaine, and I now live in Connecticut, I'm a Canadian citizen, keen in my small way, to help Canada. It's so nice to come back to one's own country and get decently paid. In the past, one had to reach elsewhere, you know.”
There is one last further link between Christopher Plummer and Sherlock Holmes, albeit a thin one. Since 1996, he has been touring with his very successful one-man show Barrymore. Plummer has shown a distinct affinity for portraying the Great Profile, who himself played Holmes in the classic 1922 silent film Sherlock Holmes. Christopher Plummer is as busy as ever and most recently appeared in Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 as Van Helsing. Plummer and his wife Elaine Taylor currently reside in a house they remodeled and redecorated in Weston, Connecticut.
As of this writing, neither film is currently available for purchase on DVD or video, but Anchor Bay Entertainment has indicated that a DVD release is scheduled for 2003. Previously viewed copies of Murder by Decree are commonly available through various online auction houses, while Silver Blaze occasionally turns up on television. Murder by Decree was adapted by Robert Weverka in a  novelization by Ballantine Books in 1979.
Forward to Murder By Decree Cast List
During the course of his career, he has led three of the world’s top repertory companies, Great Britain’s NationalTheatre under Lord Olivier, the Stratford Festival of Canada under Sir Tyrone Guthrie and Michael Langham and the Royal Shakespeare Company (Great Britain) both at Stratford and London under Peter Hall.