An Actor and a Rare One: Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes
By Tony Earnshaw
Reviewed by Charles Prepolec
An Actor and a Rare One: Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes
by Tony Earnshaw
The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series #79

Scarecrow Press, Inc. $26.50  Cloth  0-8108-3874-5  January 2001 160pp
Copyright Scarecrow Press 2001
It is surprising to note that many books have been written examining the wealth of Sherlock Holmes films, but only one actor, Jeremy Brett, has had a full book given over to his performance as Holmes. Surprisingly there has never been one specifically written about Rathbone’s series of films, although the Northern Musgraves did publish an excellent monograph by Roger Johnson, on just that subject in 1992. With the arrival of Tony Earnshaw’s An Actor, and a Rare One: Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes we can now up the tally to two actors. The fact that the subject is one of the most loved Sherlockian actors, is a welcome bonus!
An Actor, and a Rare One: Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes is an expansion of a 17 page article that Tony Earnshaw wrote for The Ritual: The Newsletter of the Northern Musgraves Sherlock Holmes Society back in 1994.  The new book clocks in at 146 pages, but oddly adds very little new material for the well-read Sherlockian, but actually gathers together much that may be of greater interest to the general Cushing fan. In either case, the usefulness of the book lies in this “gathering” of previously published material into one volume.

The book falls into natural chapters, beginning, after some minor preamble, with a look at Hammer’s version of the
The Hound of the Baskervilles, then the BBC series, 3 ½  pages on audio recordings and Cushing’s appearance as ACD in The Great Houdini, an inordinate amount of space on The Masks of Death and a final chapter of a few pages filling in the remainder of Cushing’s life.  This is then followed with 3 appendices that details cast and credit lists in the first, reprints Cushing’s published Sherlockian introductions and forewords in the second and has a rather bizarre grouping of mini-bio’s of various actors, writers and directors making up the third. When you get right down to it, what you have is a 79-page article, heavily padded with quotations and contemporary reviews that create as full a picture as possible of Peter Cushing’s 17 remarkable performances as Sherlock Holmes.

The Hammer
Hound has been heavily analyzed and Earnshaw adds nearly nothing that hasn’t been covered better before (most notably in Sherlock Holmes on the Screen by Robert W. Pohle Jr. and Douglas C. Hart.) Encountering the early statement that producer Anthony Hinds was “…an entrepreneur and sometime variety artist who performed as Will Hammer…” was something of a surprise and hopefully an editor’s error, as Anthony Hinds was in fact the son of Will Hammer. Fortunately he is correctly identified in the rather pointless mini-bio later in the third appendix. The chapter is essentially made up of a lengthy synopsis of the film followed by numerous reviews from contemporary sources interspersed with extracts from Cushing’s two autobiographies and a few quotes from other sources. The most interesting aspect of the chapter is the reprinting of notes on playing Holmes, made by Cushing, in his own copy of the script.  We know he played the part magnificently, but one wonders just how he set about to “Have hypnotic quality”.

In approaching the 1968 Sherlock Holmes series produced by the BBC, Earnshaw hit the stumbling block faced by anyone writing today. He hasn’t actually seen the entire series. As most no longer exist, this is no real surprise, but surely handicaps any attempt to fully document Peter Cushing’s total Sherlockian output? Faced with this dilemma, Earnshaw does the right thing and comments directly on only the four episodes he can have seen firsthand:
The Sign of Four, The Blue Carbuncle, The Boscombe Valley Mystery and the two-part Hound of the Baskervilles. All of which is well and good, but still leaves the subject of the book unfortunately incomplete. Beginning with Douglas Wilmer’s familiar comments on rejecting the series, Earnshaw then trots out the individual synopses bolstered by familiar interview extracts and quotations from Cushing recounting the grueling shooting schedule and the slipshod approach to the production. Again, most of the available material has been effectively covered elsewhere. Similar quotations appeared in last year’s Peter Cushing Companion by David Miller, where a better idea of the troubled series and its star’s approach to it was presented in a single chapter. 

From the BBC series we skip to a quick statement that Cushing recorded a 13- hour reading of
The Return of Sherlock Holmes for the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Earnshaw then points out that these are only available to the blind and so consequently he says nothing about the quality of the reading. To fill out the rest of the 3 ½ page chapter, amusingly entitled “The Voice of Holmes and the Face of Conan Doyle” he goes on to briefly discuss Cushing’s, spiritually correct but physically incorrect, appearance as Arthur Conan Doyle in The Great Houdini. Lamentably, no quotations from Cushing appear in regards to his thoughts on playing Conan Doyle.

In what turns out to be the most in-depth chapter of the book, Earnshaw turns his attention to Cushing’s final performance as Holmes in Tyburn’s
The Masks of Death.  For the final time we are treated to the familiar formula of a lengthy synopsis peppered with interview extracts and reviews. This time however, we benefit by having less familiar comments from director Roy Ward Baker (who also wrote the foreword), writer N. J. Crisp (who offers some interesting insights into Cushing’s approach to dialogue) and producer Kevin Francis (who clearly shared something of a friendship with Cushing). A fair bit of informative coverage is also given to the proposed, but unfortunately never filmed, follow-up entitled The Abbots Cry.

The final chapter, less than creatively titled,
His Last Bow briefly sums up the remainder of Cushing’s career. A quick mention is made of his turning down the Holmes role in the stage-play The Crucifer of Blood and also turning down a guest appearance in Granada’s production of The Last Vampyre.

The appendices, with the exception of the pointless mini-bios, are good. Cast and crew lists are relatively complete, although much the same can be found in Gordon Kelley’s
Sherlock Holmes Screen and Sound Guide. The reprinting of Cushing’s various Holmes related introductions and forewords to books, is a very nice touch, pointing out as it does, his ongoing interest in the character beyond just his screen appearances.

While I find the book, on the whole, to be somewhat superfluous, it does have the benefit of conveniently pulling together, into one volume, most of the known material on Peter Cushing’s work as Sherlock Holmes. As such it is a fairly good “one-stop” collection for both the Cushing fan and the Sherlockian, that documents, through Cushing’s own words and those that worked with him, not only his drive to bring Conan Doyle’s character to faithful cinematic life, but also paints an interesting picture of the man himself. Unfortunately the key failings are that it sheds very little new light on its subject, and that the book simply is not a complete record. The latter problem is through no fault of the author as the BBC purportedly wiped tapes of the 1968 series as a cost saving measure. Unless these lost episodes should surface at some point, it is doubtful that we will ever have a truly complete picture of Peter Cushing’s output as Sherlock Holmes. Hopefully, such a time will come, but until then, we shall have to content ourselves with Tony Earnshaw’s effort.
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For more information on Peter Cushing, visit the Peter Cushing Association and Museum