The Flashman Papers 1878 & 1883-1884, 1890 – 1891 and 1879 & 1894 – Flashman and The Tiger


The Eleventh Packet differs from all the other Flashman Papers in not being an actual Packet (though I’ll continue to refer to it as such for consistency’s sake). Flashman and the Tiger was published almost twenty years after the short story of that name had appeared in the Sunday Times, and after many years of clamour from Flashman fans who wanted the chance to read it.
Fraser’s conceit was to now reveal, in the traditional Explanatory Note, that from time to time Flashman had set down his thoughts on various simpler incidents of his past, and tucked these shorter narratives into various Packets. Since the first of these had come to light, he said, two further narratives had also been discovered, hence this volume was a convenient way of publishing the same.
All three narratives post-date any other part of Flashman’s career, in which the furthest we’ve got thus far is 1876. The narratives cover a variety of dates, from 1878 to 1894, hop-scotching about, as is appropriate for the elder Flashman, who is not as mobile as he once was and who, by the latest of these dates, appears to have given up chasing young women, if you can believe that.
Before we turn to the narratives, Fraser also chooses this volume to provide us with a vastly expanded Who’s Who entry for General Sir Harry Flashman. Like genuine entries, it is broken down into different categories, dealing with official campaigns and honours, private travels and Flashman’s more commercial ventures. I’ll be looking more closely at this under History and Memories

The first narrative, ‘The Road to Charing Cross’, is by far the longest in the book, almost two hundred pages, which would represent a bit over half a standard Packet.
Like both the other narratives, the story takes place in two different time periods. The set-up for the story, which is all but a separate account. It is 1878, and Flashman is inveigled into attending the Congress of Berlin by the famous journalist, Stefan Blowitz. Flashy knows the energetic little man from the Franco-Prussian business in 1870, and the busy journalist has already more or less procured for him the Order d’Honneur, conferred by the French President, MacMahon, in a ceremony attended by former President Grant, who has begged Flashy to attend as his personal translator.
As well as this indication towards Flashy’s presence during the Siege of Paris, the Order is given for his otherwise unidentified service with the French Foreign Legion, possibly in Algeria.
The Congress in Berlin is to rewrite the terms of a treaty between Russia and Turkey, following the conclusion of a recent war that threatens to roll back the Turkish presence in the Balkans far further than the rest of Europe feels comfortable with, and give the Russian Empire a much stronger hold. Blowitz intends to be first with the Treaty.
Flashman’s part is simple and engaging. Blowitz’s contact is Caprice, a delightfully gamine seductress, who will seduce details out of a loose-lipped Russian diplomat in bed, and then pass these on to Flashman – also in bed – for exchange with Blowitz.
A splendid time is had by all, and Blowitz gets the Treaty, as well as the mutual enjoyment for himself and Flashman of knowing that it’s bugging the hell out of Bismarck as to how it was done. Which leads us to the second and larger part of the story.
It is now 1883. Flashman has been out in Egypt, at war under Sir Garnett Wolseley, in what seems to have been the most insignificant and completely incident-free campaign of his life. Now he’s back in England, but trouble is brewing in the Sudan, under the Mad Mahdi, and General Gordon is being sent out there. Flashy knows that if he can be found, he’s going to be impressed, so he’s looking for something to get himself clear, when a letter arrives, summoning him to Paris, where a titled woman of whom he has never heard desires his company.
Hang on a minute. Haven’t we seen this before? Isn’t this a re-run of Royal Flash? To which the answer is, it bloody well is, and in too many details for this to be at all comfortable.
Now Blowitz is involved, and delighted to be repaying Flashman for his assistance at the Congress of Berlin, because Blowitz is also setting up Flashy with a berth on the Orient Express, on the occasion of its inaugural run (not that Harry’s impressed in the least). But the Austrian Princess Kralta is waiting for him on board, and splendid carnal company she proves but there’s a hitch, and when that hitch becomes a snag, you can almost check off the correspondences. Threat of blackmail over the supposed rape of that Bavarian Countess, yes, plot by Bismarck, yes, Rudi von Starnberg, well almost yes, this time it’s his son Willem Rupert (‘Call me Bill’) who combines all the characteristics of old Rudi with a high leavening of Public School banter, having been educated in England.
Unfortunately, Fraser is once again repeating himself, albeit to a different end, but just as the first time round, with treachery in the mix and Flashman as the intended scapegoat once more.
What Harry is doing is, ostensibly, preventing the First World War happening thirty years ahead of history. A group of Hungarian patriots plan to assassinate Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in order to win Hungary’s freedom, despite the inconvenient fact that this will precipitate nationalist fervour throughout the Balkans, leading to the overthrow of the Turkish Empire (the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ as it was referred to in my A-level history books): the very thing that Berlin Congress at the start of the story was designed to avert.
Relying on how Flashy is known to Emperor Franz-Joseph over his unavailing service to his brother Maximilian in Mexico, Bill and Flashy will inveigle themselves into the Emperor’s Summer Lodge to act as silent bodyguards. It’s all in a good cause, even if it is being orchestrated at the behest of Chancellor Bismarck (which worries Flashman enormously: he has read this story before, as well).
And just like before, it’s a fraud intended to do the exact opposite of rescue, and leave Flashy to hold the bag, exactly as before. The variation on the first story is that Bismarck and his agents are completely genuine and it is only Bill von Starnberg who’s false: a Hungarian patriot using the opportunity to get to Franz-Joseph and assassinate him.
As usual, a combination of funk, paranoia and the familiar unlikely coincidence combines to alert Flashy to how he’s being had, well past the eleventh hour but not quite at midnight, and this is where we see the effects of years that have softened Flashman from his original creation as the complete poltroon. Whereas the Flashy of Royal Flash would have run screaming from the scene, by ‘The Road to Charing Cross’, the older Harry runs screaming towards it. True, Fraser convincingly wraps it up in time and experience and understanding that sometimes you have to take the slightly longer term view, but we’re still a long way from the unvarnished Flashman. Like all series, it’s inevitable: anti-heroes can only go so far before they need to ‘grow’.
So Flashy foils the plot but at the cost of his own safety. He’s dragged into some nearby caves, with an icy lake, a bottomless crevasse and a Bill intent on honouring his promise to the old man that he’ll run Flashman through. It’s not really a contest, given the difference in age and stamina, not to mention swordsmanship, between the duellist, and Flashy can’t even coward his way out of it because his fame as a hero has impressed itself upon Bill, via Rudi, who just writes it off as all gammon, meant to confuse.
And he runs Flashman through.
It’s not a fatal wound, though it’s good enough given enough time, and there’s that crevasse at hand. But before Flashman can get pitched down this natural oubliette (once again echoing Royal Flash and the Strakenzian dungeons), enter a Guardian Angel, another sword-wielding duellist who proves to be von Starnberg’s equal, who first disarms him, then runs him through with rather more finality than the hapless Bill did with Harry.
And who is this Angel? Why, none other than French Intelligence Service Agent (retired but on temporary re-enlistment), Caprice, the gamine girl. Did I overlook mentioning that, whilst he’s been kidnapped and blackmailed into the original scapegrace plot, Flashy discovered that it was known to and had the blessings of both the British and French Intelligence Services. So there was no backing out? Ok, I mention it now.
All is well, Flashman is saved, Bill’s dead and everybody’s looking the other way over the obvious evidence that sweet, innocent Caprice executed a helpless man, and there’s an unusually long coda to the tale, because Fraser needs to spin Flashman’s wheels for a considerable period so as to fit in his punchline. Some of this is taken up by the genuine fact that Flashman, now in his Sixties, needs an extended period to regain his strength after his quite serious wound.
And Fraser uses this section to try to re-blacken Flashy the cad: though she’s saved him, the now-married Caprice won’t shag him, so Harry plots to disturb her marital bliss. It’s disgusting and vile, but it backfires by making Flashy look petty in his old age.
But more time is needed yet, so once he’s functioning again, Flashman accepts Princess Kralta’s invitation to Vienna, to bull her all over the shop all over Xmas, with the complaisance of, and in the home of her husband, who’s bouncing his own mistresses around under the same roof. |the decadence of it all, besides the fact that it’s much less fun screwing another bloke’s missus if he’s waving you on, gallantly, eventually palls and Harry decides it’s time to offer his attentions to Elspeth again, and heads home.
Just in time, as Fraser needed, to disembark at Charing Cross Station (you wondered about the title?), have his trunk lost by a drunken porter, wander curiously in search of it and walk smack into a leaving party. General Gordon’s leaving party, for the Sudan. The very thing Flashman left the country to avoid, and here he is, being swept straight back on the train, to head Chinese Gordon’s Intelligence staff. At Khartoum.
That, sadly, was another story we never got to read.

‘The Subtleties of Baccarat’ is, by comparison, a very short and very slight thing. It treats with the infamous Tranby Croft affair, an allegation of gambling at a Yorkshire country house, which led to scandal at it involving the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.
The scandal is now an historical footnote: Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Gordon-Cummings was accused of cheating, over two nights, at baccarat. Despite defending himself vigorously,  Gordon-Cummings eventually signed a declaration that he would never play cards again. This seems to have been done to keep things secret and keep the Prince of Wales being affected by the scandal (Edward was the dealer/banker).
In this it failed: the story came out, Gordon-Cummings sued for libel, the Prince was questioned in Court to much public opprobrium, Gordon-Cummings lost and was ruined.
The short story involves both Flashmans. Harry knows Gordon-Cummings from the Army, and the pair cordially detest each other: Flashy suggests the ‘no cards’ letter out of devilment. After the trial, Elspeth confesses to him that Gordon-Cummings was innocent: it was she who created the appearance of cheating, out of spite at Gordon-Cummings having, years earlier, traduced her husband’s courage!
Which leaves Flashman once again doubting his spouse’s fidelity, given that such accusations are not made in ordinary conversation over afternoon tea. But he still can’t come to a decision.

‘Flashman and the Tiger’, though short, was the highlight of the book, the long overdue chance to read the 1972 story, and it is a bit of a gem, the best thing here. Once again, the tale is solid between two periods, this time widely-separated, but linked by the Tiger of the title. Tiger Jack, Colonel Jack Sebastian Moran.
Not being a Sherlock Holmes fan, the name, and its occasional passing references elsewhere in the packets, had no connotations for me, so I began the story as a complete novice. For once, Fraser began in situ and in media res: Flashman is in South Africa (inspecting a mine that Elspeth has inherited from a cousin, according to a line in ‘The Road to Charing Cross’) and has somehow become involved in the Zulu War.
In fact, we start with Flashy hightailing it out of Isan’lwana the moment the Zulus break through. His flight only takes him to Rorke’s Drift, where a badly outnumbered and under-provisioned British Force defeats the Zulus, And that’s all we get of the Zulu War, not even the oft-mentioned Welshman in a top hat leading a Zulu impi, because that’s not what ‘Flashman and the Tiger’ is about. That’s just the set-up, the MacGuffin, for Flashman’s meeting, en route from one famous battle to another, with a laconic but sharp-shooting English Major, who helps Flashy escape, hair-raisingly, and whose name Flashman doesn’t learn, nor Moran his, until its all over. And Flashman’s name means something to Moran, not that Harry can guess at it.
That’s all we get of the Zulu War, and it’s unusually thin gruel for Fraser and Flashman, but that’s because the point of the story lies not in South Africa but London, in 1894, the absolute furthest point we get of Flashman’s career (discounting his involvement as a supporting character in Fraser’s novel, Mr American). Flashy’s now in his seventies, settling into old age, his reputation secure and doting upon his grandchildren, in particular sweet Selina, who’s engaged to be married. All is serene, he’s off the active list, enjoying his old age, teasing Oscar Wilde at the theatre over the younger men clustered round him – except that one of them isn’t so young. In fact, he’s nearer Flashy’s age, and it’s Colonel Moran.
Sherlockians will have already picked up on where we are, as Flashman has mentioned a Society rumble over the death of someone called Ronny Adair, which places us in Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Adventure of the Empty Room. But Flashy is more concerned with the fact that, a few days later, his beloved Selina turns up in tears.
It appears that her empty-headed fiancé has been led into deep gambling debts by Colonel Moran, to the extent that he’s gambled away Regimental Funds in trying to recover them. It’s a stupid move and if it comes out, it’s an invitation to take a pistol into a quiet room time, that is, unless Selina surrenders herself to Colonel Moran.
Sir Harry’s first thought is to buy Moran off: it’ll be damned expensive but for his little Selly, nothing’s too much. Except that Moran isn’t after money but revenge, against Flashman, in the most painful manner possible.
Why? Because Colonel Jack Sebastian Moran was once a cabin boy on a slave ship, back in the 1840s. A slave ship commanded by John Charity Spring. Which left a cabin boy behind with King Dahomey of Gozo. And Tiger Jack is looking for revenge against the men who abandoned him.
Which leaves Flashman with only one option, dangerous though it will be: he will have to kill Tiger Jack Moran. At his age.
So Flashy sets out a murderer to be, but Fraser, having tickled the Sherlockians’ expectations, plays Flashman into the Holmes and Watson story: Flashman trails Moran to a seemingly empty house in which, concentrating upon his own murderous plans, he is right in Flashy’s sights. But at the last second, Flashy senses other people around and withholds his shot, just in time for Holmes, Watson, Lestrade et al to leap out and arrest Professor Moriarty’s chief assassin.
There’s still one big snag to overcome, namely getting out of a police-filled empty house without being identified and this is the bit for which it’s obvious Fraser has written the story. Flashy, who has dressed down for the occasion, slumps in a corner, pours brandy down his jacket and plays drunk. Watson, the doctor, shows concern and almost recognises the General, but it is Holmes who applies his methods of observance to make detailed deductions about Flashy’s class, character, nationality, employment and criminality that is in every respect completely wrong.
You could say it’s funny, which it is, and you could say it’s entirely disrespectful, and you wouldn’t be wrong there either.
Anyway, the sting in the tale is that, on his way home, Flashy passes the little set of rooms he keeps for assignations and which he lends out to the Prince of Wales. Who is in residence, awaiting his latest popsy. Who is just arriving. And who is Selina.
Once a Flashman, always a Flashman, eh?

History and Memories
This little section follows each blog. It focuses on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
P6. Flashman’s vastly expanded Who’s Who entry intrigues. Most of his military career is familiar to us, if some of the more unofficial posts are somewhat gilded, and no campaigns of which we do not know are disclosed. It’s made clear that Flashman joined the Union Army in the American Civil War as a Major in 1862, but that he was a Colonel in the Confederate Army the following year: his return to the Union ranks in 1864 is not specifically referenced. Equally, his role in Mexico with Maximilian is dated to 1867, indicating a short involvement. The Zulu War, Egypt and the Sudan, all of which appear in this packet to one extent or another are also included.
Of more interest are the gaps. The final Packet places Flashman on military duties in Abyssinia in 1868, omitted from this account so we can’t safely take unreferenced periods as evidence of Flashman enjoying some long overdue rest and recuperation.
There is also reference to Flashman’s variegated roles at one time and another, suitably varnished. Again, we recognise most of them, whether they are detailed or not, but one or two are suitably mysterious, such as lottery supervisor in Manila, and ‘trader and missionary’ attributed to Solomon Islands, Fly River etc. This puts Flashman in the South Pacific, in and about Papua New Guinea, and not a million miles away from either the Philippines or Australia. I will be giving a theory about these entries in a near future post.
P14. Flashman first met Blowitz at the time of ‘the Franco-Prussian farce in ’70’. It’s long been rumoured that Flashman was trapped in Paris during at least part of the siege, but this is too unspecific to justify that.
P19. Flashman confirms that at some time he had served in/with the French Foreign Legion, as had Macmahon. The latter describes himself as an ‘old Algeria hand himself’, which could be taken to mean that Flashy’s service had also been in North Africa, though Fraser speculates in a foot-note – and he should know – that this may have been part of his Mexico service with Maximilian in 1867.
P28. Flashman has not been in Germany since 1848: wherever his missing periods were spent, it was not there.
P47. Flashman confirms that he was once more in the public eye over supposed heroics in South Africa – the Zulu War – in 1879, though he was only in the country due to Elspeth’s cousin’s supposed mine. He also confirms that he soldiered with Sir Garnet Wolseley in Egypt in 1882 against the Khedive, though this appears to have been his only painless campaign.
P84. Flashman met Emperor Franz-Joseph on his yacht off Corfu in 1868, after returning from Mexico having failed to rescue Maximilian from the firing squad, for which he received the Order of Maria Theresa. Apparently Maximilian refused to be rescued, and Flashman escaped thanks to the combined (?) efforts of Princess Aggie Salm-Salm and Jesus Montero’s bandits, who thought Flashy knew the whereabouts of Montezuma’s Treasure. Clearly, Fraser had seriously considered the Mexico adventure as a subject, though only its ever tail-end would be utilised to set up the final Packet.
P89. Amongst those who have press-ganged Flashman into desperate schemes he would have preferred to avoid are several familiar names, including Lincoln, but now extended to Ulysses Grant and Wild Bill Hickok.
P195. Flashman bumps into General Gordon at Charing Cross station and is whisked off to the Sudan, and Khartoum.
P223. Flashman reminds us of his affair with Lily Langtry which, having begun before she became the Prince of Wales’ mistress, continued after that time, unbeknownst to the future King.
P224. Flashman addresses his suspicions that Gordon-Cumming had had an affair with Elspeth in the 1860s. He also soldiered with Gordon-Cumming in Zululand.
P262. Elspeth cut Gordon-Cumming because he had accused Flashman of cowardice, of running away at Isan’lwana (which he did).

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock series 4, episode 3


Sometimes, no amount of words can be put together to explain a piece of work that you have seen. ‘The Final Problem’ went everywhere and nowhere. It played on fear, love, heartbreak, confusion and the ability of the mind to maintain an ordered account. I found it brilliant beyond my capacity to describe, and will not attempt to explain anything for or to you, when I can’t put it together in a way that does not overwhelm me.

I don’t know how long it will be before, or maybe if, these people can be got together for series 5, but I will do everything I can to live that long.

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock series 4 episode 2


I said last week that I couldn’t be objective about Sherlock and I still can’t. Last week’s episode got a lot of abuse for its ‘sexing-up’ and the Bond-ification of Sherlock, instead of the clever, witty, cerebral case solving that, apparently, was the only thing remotely interesting about the first series or two. Some of that criticism was the old, old thing about not letting things change or grow. Some of it, to be fair, was justifiable: I said I never liked the idea of Mary Watson, assassin and mercenary.

Well, given the nature of ‘The Lying Detective’, all about cerebral deduction and the careful trapping of a monster into confessing crimes that, though undetailed, were beautifully conveyed as monstrous by the simple device of having Greg Lestrade push back his chair and suspend the interrogation until the following morning, you’d almost think that Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat (writer of this week’s episode) had been playing for just such a response. Nah, they ain’t that clever, are they?

But this episode was undoubtedly clever, winding an astonishingly convoluted, yet very simple plot into so many curlicues, with hidden motivations and hidden crimes folded into it like the micro-dimensions of string theory, that it became impossible to believe that what we were watching took only ninety minutes of our lives.

To put it at its most basic: John Watson is having therapy for his appalling loss and the unbridgeable gulf it has created between him and Sherlock, only one of which conditions he wishes to resolve. Sherlock, in turn, is back on the smack, collapsing in on himself, driving himself towards death, unable to control his own intelligence.

Both appear to be hallucinating. John is carrying on conversations with Mary, despite her constant reminders that she isn’t real, nor is she independent of his mind. And Sherlock spends an entire night being put onto a complex case by the walking-cane carrying daughter of Culverton Smith, millionaire businessman/philanthropist/serial killer, only to discover that she, too, doesn’t exist (actually, the woman, Faith, does exist, it’s just that Sherlock’s hallucination isn’t her, she just looks alike. She’s not even an hallucination, but lets not get ahead of ourselves).

Sherlock sets out to prove that this highly respected public figure is indeed that most despicable of creatures, a serial killer. Toby Jones plays the part masterfully, a creature of vast intelligence, intellectually the equal of Sherlock, publicly streets ahead of him. Jones treads the delicate line of hiding in plain sight, his every utterance an invitation to see through him, if you actually dare think that. The message that, if you reach a certain level of power and public recognition, you can do anything, was written before Donald Trump was elected, but it’s ghastly apt.

John is drawn into this, against his will, constantly treading his own line between believing Sherlock’s deductive capacities and fearing that it’s all because he’s off his tits. John even puts Sherlock in the hospital where he is directly in Smith’s power, his frustrations leading him to smash Sherlock’s face in.

But it’s a game. An elaborate put-on, a fake. Yes, Culverton Smith is a serial killer, and yes, Sherlock has picked a fight with him because he is a big, powerful, evil figure who needs to be stopped, but that’s not why. It’s not why until we – and John – see the rest of Mary’s DVD, the one where she charges Sherlock with saving John. Where she identifies John Watson as a man who cannot be helped, who will not let himself be helped, but who cannot refuse to help. Who will move mountains to save Sherlock, if only Sherlock can create a scenario where he is in danger. Real, true, palpable danger.

And thus it all comes together, and in a manner that is wholly satisfying and completely believable (to the value of belief that this extraordinarily clever and mannered programme operates), the friendship is restored: Holmes and Watson live on.

Or do they?

There’s a third episode to come and there’s a handful of scattered clues lying around. There’s the hints of a third Holmes brother, Sherringford, that even John Watson susses out. There’s his therapist, with her French accent, the ‘hallucinatory Faith’ and her northern accent, not to mention last week’s girl on the bus with whom John text-cheated. She had a pronounced accent too. All the same woman, Sian Brooke, beautifully disguised.

And a killer. The real therapist is in the airing cupboard. She’s holding John Watson at gunpoint. Her real name is Euros (the East Wind). Her parents had a thing for convoluted names for their children. Euros. Mycroft. Sherlock. The third Holmes brother is a sister. John’s making a silly face. She thinks she’ll put a hole in it. She pulls the trigger.

Oh, mother.

I think we now know how Jim Moriarty has seemingly risen from the dead.


 

A Very Sherlock Xmas


That’s about it, actually. The BBC aren’t releasing their Xmas schedule until next week, and it’s not going to be full of innovative material, but it does include a ‘festive’ edition of Sherlock, so unless we’re talking about a repeat of the last one-off, get ready to clear the decks.

Ninety minutes of great TV is better than none.

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock – The Abominable Bride


If we’re only going to get one of these this tear instead of the customary three, then it’s a bloody good job this one was as good as it was. I’m not sure if any spoilers got out, apart from the long-trailed one about the episode being set in Victorian London, but if they did I managed to miss all of them. The Abominable Bride was happily virgin territory for me and I loved (nearly) every minute of it.

Yes, nearly. There’s always something, but we’ll get to that later on.

For the first near hour of the programme, going by the rough estimate of time I was making in my head, it was an immaculate spoof. It was a Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes in every respect, enlivened by a simple metafiction. Gatiss and Moffat took the step of translating their Sherlock and John and their modern relationship very precisely into Victorian terms and introducing this as the ‘real’ Holmes and Watson, both well aware of the public version portrayed in the latter’s immensely popular stories in ‘The Strand’.

Not once did this version of our leading lights lapse into anything verging on 21st century language or behaviour. The closest the programme came to overtipping its hand, and it was dealt with deliberately briefly in order to contain any audience twitching, was the revelation that 19C Mary Watson was herself a highly competent agent, working for the fat Mycroft Holmes.

Actually, the writers could have blown it seriously badly with Mrs Hudson, offended at the limited role given to her literary persona and indulging in bringing her restrictions over to real-life, but the conviction – and straight-facedness – that all the regulars brought to playing their alternate versions carried us over any hurdles this comic approach placed in the audiences’ way.

In fact, for as long as this phase continued, The Abominable Bride was shaping up to be the funniest thing on TV all year (I know this is only Day 1 of 366, but considering how little TV I actually watch now, it’s six, four and evens that it’ll still be so on 31 December).

But of course it wasn’t just a spoof. Why did we ever expect something so simple? The tag attached to the dead Sir Eustace Carmichael read ‘Miss Me?’ Given that the episode had started with a brief rundown of Sherlock-to-date, ending with those very words, was there a viewer who didn’t suddenly tense up and start wondering what was coming?

And a few achronological phrases between Sherlock and fat Mycroft, each commented upon by the other, rammed home that this was suddenly not an amusing little diversion at all. Enter Moriarty for a confrontation with Sherlock (I cannot say how much I love Andrew Scott in this role) and suddenly the plane bringing Sherlock home from his four-minute exile after the killing of Troels Hartman is landing and the whole thing has been a drug-created inner fantasy by 21C Sherlock, trying to work out how Moriarty can be back after blowing his own brains out at the end of series 2.

To do so, he’s built a memory palace to enable him to investigate an unsolved Victorian case where a suicide victim who used the same method as Moriarty came back to life to commit murder and where, by using Victorian methods to solve that riddle, he hopes to work out just how Moriarty survived his own suicide.

It’s been exceedingly clever, and perfectly written and performed up to date, and it retains that level throughout John Watson’s unspoken review of the list of what Sherlock has taken, but once Sherlock gets back into his ‘mind palace’ to conclude his investigation, the programme loses a level of conviction.

We’re invited back into what, so far, has been a perfectly-executed and inexplicable alternate world. Once we go back, we return with the knowledge that this isn’t ‘real’, that it’s all in Sherlock’s mind. The intrigue has gone, and taken with it the intensity, and the uppermost level of conviction. It’s not only not ‘real’, it’s an hallucination, and the rules for how this might happen are rewritten. Anything can happen. The episode has even taken the trouble, earlier on, to remind us of Holmes’ famous dictum about when you have eliminated the impossible…

Now, the show has eliminated the impossible as being impossible.

The Ricotti case is solved with absurd ease, giving 21C Moriarty his way out, but the Carmichael case is given a portentous and ultimately metaphysical solution that digs too deep into metafiction and political correctness. That’s not a term I like, nor one I usually use, but the deliberation in which the secret society is set up, and how it’s been foreshadowed by fat Mycroft as a dangerous, unstoppable opponent who will and must win because they’re right, means that PC is for once an apt term.

Many, myself included, have accused Moffat of being a misogynist writer and the awkwardness with which this solution is applied smells of being an intentional riposte to us critics. Sorry buddy, you need to be a bit more natural than that, especially within an episode that has demonstrated itself as being naturalistic.

Perhaps recognising that they had weakened their episode, Messrs Gatiss and Moffat decided to throw in a few extra levels of the fantasy, including a completely metafictional recreation of the Reichenbach Falls in which Moriarty outs himself as being dead but instead being the symbol of Sherlock’s failures. They’re about to go over the Falls together again when the symbol gets deliberately muddied by introducing 19C John Watson, with service revolver, to tip the balance. nd to tip Moriarty over the edge: it’s his turn this time, after all.

Let me emphasise that I emjoyed every minute of this, but I’m critically aware that the last thirty minutes didn’t hold up the first sixty, and given the closing scenes, I’m pretty sure Gatiss and Moffat were also aware of that.

First, we had Sherlock, refreshed after his O.D., walking away with John and Mary, telling them that he now knows what Moriarty has planned next: oh, by the way, he is dead, no-one survives blowing their own brains out. This neatly gets the writers off the task of coming up with an explanation of Moriarty’s survival, and making it different from Sherlock’s (which was never really explained in the end), though it makes it even harder to get Andrew Scott back for series 5 (I’m electing to treat this as series 4, sorry).

Then we cut back to Victorian London and Mr Holmes trying to convince Dr Watson that his mind-experiment of projecting the future 120 years hence is truly plausible. It’s a very lightweight attempt at a St Elsewhere ending which fooled no-one in the slightest, and thw writers’ lack of conviction showed by having 19C Sherlock looking out of 221b’s window onto a 21C Baker Street street scene.

But if this is the only one we’re getting until atheism-knows-when, then it were well that it be as good as it was, and it certainly was. And bearing in mind how badly Moffat has fucked up Dr Who for me, this was either a case of him remembering his mojo, or one of Gatiss carrying him like Sam carried Frodo up the slopes of Orodruin. I’d like to think it was the former.

Sherlock: series 3, episode 3 – Uncollected Thoughts


A monster

I want to say that this is the episode that answers all the critics of series 3, that was all that we hope for and expect from Sherlock, and there is so much of this story that would make it absolutely right to begin by crowing that, and shaking a fist at those who have expressed their disgust at the series so far. Yet I’d be dishonest, guilty of simplification, if I were to do so. For, what, forty five minutes approximately, His Last Vow was on course for just such an outcome but then there was…

Was something I can’t define, even to myself, not yet. It seemed as if the programme lost focus, became detached from its narrative thrust, and for a long period it seemed to float, removed entirely from any motivating force. It ceased to move, as if caught in an eddy, away from the downstream flow, and we became trapped in that eddy, for much too long.

Yes, I think that’s the appropriate metaphor for what I felt. What we were treated to during this eddy was, frequently, brilliant of itself. But it was a stall, and not until the decision was taken, by John Watson, to forgive and accept his mystery of a wife,could the episode begin to move forward again. And as soon as it did, the episode once again took on the mark of genius that had sustained it for its first half.

First thing to say is that all my dire expectations about Mary Watson and her death were confounded entirely. Two people died in this episode, and two people came back to life – and one character cropped up in both lists and he’s the one with his name above the door, which wasn’t what we expected – but Mary Watson was not one of the dead. Nor was she the character I suddenly flashed on her being, during the bit where Sherlock was tricking her into spilling the beans to John, a flash of intuition that had me saying “oh, fuck” whilst I was revealing that I was being a bit too obvious about such things.

So, how do we describe this story? The first thing to say was that it depicted a monster, a true, unalloyedly evil monster, a creature of power and venality, of control, brilliantly incarnated by guest star Lars Mikkelsen. I know Lars from his role as the charismatic Troels Hartman in the first series of The Killing, a seeming good man, a hero, and yet self-centred, self-obsessed, unable to see beyond his own advantage and ultimately a monster.

But not such a monster as here, as Charles Arthur Magnussen, newspaper proprietor, Napoleon of Blackmail and a character who does whatever he wishes in the knowledge that he owns everyone. Mikkelsen was not just cold and precise, using only the faintest hint of a Danish accent, but he was creepy as hell. The early scene when he licks Lindsay Duncan’s face, just because no-one can stop him, established him as something not human. After that, his pissing in Sherlock’s fireplace as he and John stand by was comic with a very sharp edge, and his game with John’s face at the end, in which he let slip the callousness enough to show that he was enjoying himself, was icing on the cake.

This came on top of his revelation that his ‘Vaults’, into which he would disappear to search for material, making curiously precise yet stylised hand-movements, was a Mind Palace equivalent to Sherlock’s. The revelation that there never were, and never had been, physical documents to retrieve did set up the obvious conclusion, yet even there I got it wrong as I expected John to put a bullet through Magnussen’s head, instead of Sherlock: mentally outwitted but taking the curiously obvious step.

Magnusson was the river. We rode its currents from the improbable start of finding Sherlock in a drug’s den, the hugely comic spectacle of everyone homing in on him to protect him from exposure, in the face of his weary claims that he was undercover, working a case: creating a Pressure Point for Magnussen to ‘use’ against him. The big laugh was that Magnussen, the kind of guy who, Sherlock-fashion, analyses everyone he meets for what he’s got on them before identifying said Pressure Point, had a torrent of red lines for Sherlock, zipping by too fast to be seen or even counted!

So the clues were there for us, if not Sherlock, to see all along, that there were no Vaults, not real ones. Sherlock pursues the retrieval of certain documents, going so far as to acquire a girl-friend (Magnussen’s PA) in order to get inside his flat (another lovely comic improbability, though by the end we do learn he hadn’t actually gone so far as to shag her). Inside, he finds Magnusson with a gun to his head, pointed by a black-clad figure wearing Claire-de-Lune perfume. The sleazy Magnussen had already impressed upon us that Lady Smallwood (Duncan’s character) wears Claire-de-Lune, but it’s also dropped in, in passing, that so does Mary Watson. And though Sherlock calls on Lady Smallwood to stop, when she turns it is Mary.

And she shoots him.

Now, of necessity, the storyline stops here, for a bravura sequence in which Sherlock, in the three seconds he has before collapsing, manages with the aid of Mycroft and Molly Hooper – not to mention the late Jim Moriarty, played to manic perfection by Andrew Scott – oh how I miss him – to self-diagnose how best to keep himself from dying. Yet die he does, his heart stopping on the operating table, until he’s spurred on by the desire not to be Moriarty into returning to life.

Now all this creates a situation that then takes precedence, forcing the story for a long period, into an essentially static eddy. John’s wife – who Sherlock has already categorised as a liar, who can recognise skip codes and has a bloody good memory of her own, is being black-mailed by Magnussen and has come close to killing our hero. Who is she? What is she? Why?

We never do get those answers, and we’re better for it, as these are all questions that are better put in the past tense: was, not is. What little we are allowed to share sounds grim, yet to Sherlock his Vow takes precedence. She loves John, and John needs her: she saved his life (by a shot so precise that it did not kill, and by calling the ambulance before John found him).

This is the sequence that basically pulls me up short from praising the episode unceasingly: that and the moment where I threatened to disconnect entirely, when John demands to know why it always seems to be his fault, and Sherlock explains that it is, because John is addicted to danger, which his why his best friend is a highly-functioning sociopath and he’s fallen in love with a psychopath. Oh well, if you put it that way…

Nevertheless, the episode gets itself back on track with its ending, with Sherlock’s desperately risky plan to bring Magnussen down, that leads to the revelation of the Mind Palace and the tormenting of John Watson (who has his gun on him and who knows that a bullet to the brain will destroy Magnussen’s hold over his wife). But again we are confounded, for it is Sherlock who takes the necessary, and not necessarily regrettable step.

His lot is exile, to an undercover role that Mycroft predicts will kill him in six months time. There’s a few parting words with John, in which the two have almost nothing to say, having done all this before, a private flight into exile and the closing credits begin without the slightest suggestion of an end-of-series cliffhanger…

Except that the credits turn into a pub TV showing football but experiencing interference. The same interference everyone is seeing, all over Britain, at the same time, which causes an awful lot of reactions and which is directly responsible for Sherlock’s exile being cut short after a record-breaking four minutes. It’s a face and a voice: it’s Andrew Scott, it’s Jim Moriarty.”Miss Me?” he asks. And oh but I did.

All I ask now is that somehow Messrs Moffat, Gatiss, Cumberbatch and Watson, not to mention Ms Abbington, get their act together to let us see this in 2015 because I seriously do not want to wait two years to see how they got out of that (although I suppose there’s a certain irony to it: this year’s cliffhanger is almost identical to 2012’s, and look what consternation that caused!).

Sherlock: series 3, episode 2 – Uncollected Thoughts


Traditionally, the middle episode of a series of Sherlock is the one where it sags, the worthy-but-slightly-dull one, the one not written by Mark Gatiss or Steven Moffat. There’s no such failure here, in an episode in which the funny lines sometimes ran the risk of colliding with each other, but the episode has already provoked a lot of online unrest and accusations of shark-jumping that are hard to refute for the obvious reason: they’re entirely valid.

Now, I liked this story, even though, properly speaking, there was only about ten minutes of story in it, and that right at the end. The advance publicity – which the opening and potentially completely irelevant sequence only emphasised – laid heavily on the idea that Sherlock’s biggest ever task was being Best Man at John Watson’s wedding, and giving a speech.

The episode set out to be a comedy, whose paucity of plot was disguised by an intricate chronological to-and-fro about the build-up to the wedding, interspersed with a Best Man’s speech that seemed to fill about two-thirds of the running time and which did, with the best will in the world, test the credibility of the wedding audience’s patience. A lot of the speech, and its accompanying byways, was designed to build up Watson to the point where his character could be put on a par with Holmes, which was laudable, and entirely in keeping with Martin Freeman’s continuing note-perfect performances, but which is potentially lethal to the classic concept of the partnership’s skills: I know this is a modern interpretation, a re-creation rather than an adaptation, but how far can you get from the original Holmes-Watson template before the point is lost?

What you had no sense of, throughout all this time, was that the thin and unconvincing cases the time-filling duo were engaged in were not only serious but related. The show gave the very smart ample opportunity to see this before it was spelt out, given that it began with the intended murder victim – Watson’s old Commander – strapping on the very belt that would prove key to deciphering the plot. The seeming scattergun approach scattered all the clues necessary, in a very fair manner, in plain sight between the dazzling distractions of the one-liners.

So many people seem to have hated it, yet in many ways this episode does fill the classic mould of detection. What makes it differ from previous episodes is the fact that, exactly like the first episode, the plot isn’t the focus of the story. It’s there throughout, unseen until Sherlock finally adds enough of the pieces together, but by then a lot of people were way out of sympathy with the show.

And I take their point. Part of the beauty of Sherlock, inherent to its appeal but simultaneously a pain in the arse, is that the series are so short: three 90 minute stories every couple of years. The series started less than a week ago, and its final episode – for another two years – is on Sunday: everything in twelve days only. So whilst this story is a brilliant change of pace if taken in isolation, it’s an enormous and potentially destabilising step in a series of three: change of pace from what? And given that so much of the first episode was devoted to atmosphere and relationships, pushing the plot to one side, the series doesn’t only risk being imbalanced, it actually is imbalanced.

What remains to be seen is how the series will end, on Sunday. Reading between the lines of what I’ve seen so far, and factoring in my decidedly imperfect knowledge of the original (confession: I have read very little Conan Doyle, and have not been impressed by what I have – I much prefer Raffles if I’m being honest), I am expecting a massive changing up through the gears in the final episode, and a very much blacker affair.

There’s the unexplained but vivid assault on Watson in episode one, the mysterious observer that everyone thinks is Alex Ferguson but who’s really Troels Hartman from The Killing series one, the elusive Waters gang from the start of this episode, the fact that the Conan Doyle Mary Watson died, and the title of episode three – His Last Vow. A vow made explicitly near the end of this episode, to love and protect the Watsons, and their barely-conceived child.

This series has, I think, been planned over four and a half hours, planned so that these two, somewhat uncharacteristic episodes create a mood, an atmosphere that will be blown apart. I recognise Dave Sim’s technique, honed over a quarter century of reading Cerebus, of breaking free of the confines of the individual chapter to greatly enhance the force of the overall story.

Moffat’s come in for a lot of flak for using this approach in Doctor Who, and is now being slagged off for bringing the two series’ closer togethet, in tone and attack. But where the criticism has a degree of validity when applied to the long-running Who, I think that in such a short series, appearing so rapidly, that the combination of episodes in this manner is entirely justified. And, frankly, there are enough programmes out there that pander to the audience’s dull wish to be led by the hand through the tulip fields, and I really don’t want to be held up waiting for them.

So: loved it, recognise it’s flaws, but if I’m right about the final episode, I think that those ‘flaws’ will then be seen as a perfectly judged element of a whole. Not so much a three act play, as a three movement Symphony.

But that’s down to Moffat…

Sherlock: series 3, episode 1: Uncollected Thoughts


Whatever they came up with, it was going to be a disappointment on some level. You can’t leave a climax like that hanging for two years and come up with the perfect explanation. Either it’s going to be so plausible that it could never have been a mystery in the first place, or so convoluted that the only mystery lies in how you let yourself be taken in by it.

So how did Sherlock Holmes survive The Reichenbach Fall? Mark Gattis, writing the opening episode of the third (and no longer intended to be final) series offered not one explanation but three. Two came from poor, obsessive, semi-demented Anderson or his group of like-minded conspiracy theorists and one from Sherlock himself, explaining it to Anderson, who professes himself, well… disappointed.

From that I think we are supposed to take the latter as gospel, but as it was no more plausible than the first explanation (the one about it being a plot between gay lovers Sherlock and Moriarty was a nod to fan slash-fiction and not meant to be taken seriously), and as Sherlock was immediately afterwards shown telling the most enormous lie of the story, I remain unconvinced. Clearly, like the best of all death-traps, we were never meant to know how it was really done. Having escaped from having to come up with anything serious, the writers heaved a sigh of relief.

So, and we do not do SPOILER SPACE here, so read on at your own risk, just what had Sherlock been doing these past two-planned-to-be-one-but-it-got-away-from-us years? The answer was, dismantling Moriarty’s network into unreconstructable pieces, which is a damned shame given how much I loved Andrew Collins’ Jim Moriarty (who deserved the soubriquet, Count). Now, with an underground terrorist threat aimed at London, Sherlock has to come home and come out into the open.

And he has to explain to his old colleague, Dr John Watson, both a) that he is, in fact, alive and b) that there was a good reason why he didn’t let John in on the closely-guarded but still mildly open secret that he’s still alive. The fact that Sherlock does not anticipate the remotest antipathy from John, who he interrupts just before the crucial ‘Will you marry me?’ bit of Watson’s marriage proposal, led to the absolute best and funniest part of the episode, which was John’s increasingly violent reaction to the whole thing.

(Mary does accept the never-delivered proposal, incidentally, as you might expect given that Amanda Abbington in Martin Freeman’s real life partner).

The terrorist threat is clearly intended to be the plot of this story, though it only plays a part for the final half-hour, and even then the main piece of drama – the drugging, kidnapping and near-death of John Watson in a bonfire seeingly being lit on November 4th – in fact relates to something else entirely, which will not become an issue until the third and final episode, much as Moriarty never emerged thus in series 1. I was a little bit disappointed with the notion of a tube-car-turned-bomb being left on a disused branch line directly beneath Parliament as that’s a direct steal from the finale of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta.

But I was even more disappointed with Sherlock’s cruel and mocking deception of John Watson over the fact that he’d switched the bomb off without letting John know that he wasn’t going to die in ninety seconds time. Where the original Watson’s reaction to the reappearance of his dead friend had to be made more believably robust, this went too far in the opposite direction as most people in Watson’s shoes at that point would have killed Holmes, and in the case of one viewer at least have made this the last episode ever, in that this time I really would have never gone near Sherlock again.

But then I’m not being written into a stylised, highly enjoyable and not necessarily ultra-plausible TV drama.

The pattern of the two preceding series has been a superb first and third episode with a bit of a slump in the middle. Whilst I enjoyed The Empty Hearse overall, it wasn’t a match for either its predecessors as opening episode, so I’m hoping for something more completely satisfying next week. And the news of a confirmed series 4, in 2016, is welcome, though it puts a further delay on my plan not to get a DVD set of Sherlock until it’s of the Complete variety.

The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It


John Cleese is famous the world over for his part in Monty Python’s Flying Circus and for co-creating and starring in Fawlty Towers, which is testament to his comedic genius.
But he’s also been involved in less well-known ventures that haven’t gone down anything like as well as those two stupendous achievements, and some of those projects have been written out of most accounts of his career.
One such is The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It. This was a one-off ITV programme, 55 minutes in length, broadcast on New Year’s Day, 1977, a Sunday evening if I recall correctly. It appeared midway between the two Fawlty Towers series and, like the first of these on first transmission, was not well received.
Unlike Fawlty Towers, it was never reconsidered, and disappeared without trace. It was never re-broadcast, and didn’t appear on DVD for thirty years, in a cheap format transferred directly from an imperfect video copy. Currently, it’s only available on an equally cheap three disc set, The John Cleese Comedy Collection, together with the excellent and poignant Romance with a Double Bass, and a pre-Python series of skits under the heading How to Irritate People.
I watched it on broadcast, laughed myself silly, and was surprised at the negative reaction. In lieu of the likelihood of seeing the film again, I bought the cheap paperback script book, which I read a dozen times, trying to fill in the voices as best as I could recollect.
Strange Case was co-written by Cleese in collaboration with Jack Hobbs and Joseph McGrath, from an idea by the latter two. It stars Cleese as Arthur Sherlock Holmes, grandson of the original, Arthur Lowe as Dr Watson, the partly-bionic (nose and legs) grandson of the original and Cleese’s then wife Connie Booth as Mrs Hudson, granddaughter of someone, but not necessarily that original.
The programme also features a handful of well-known actors in Ron Moody, Joss Ackland and Denholm Elliott, plus Stratford Johns as the Commissioner of Police, in supporting roles.
Watching Strange Case again, years on, the critics were absolutely right.
Which is not to say that the programme isn’t without its merits. Cleese’s performance is enjoyable, and Booth’s transformation at the end into the villain, dressed in leather jacket, impossibly tight black hot-pants, black tights and knee-length boots makes you weep for the horrible picture quality: my God, the woman is gorgeous! But the absolute star is Lowe, as the bumbling Watson, all little gruff gasps of ‘Good Lord,’ and ‘Amazing’.
From the outside, Lowe’s casting seems unusual: he is a much older comedy actor, indelibly associated with a far different comedic tradition, but his seriousness incarnates the part of an improbably dumb sidekick, he beautifully judges the downplaying of the innate pompousness of his ‘natural’ character, and the highlight is a scene in which he plays two identical Dr Watson’s: seriously, you would not think it possible to repeat the words ‘Good Lord’ so many times with so many different inflections.
The rest of the programme is very different to speak of. The plot, such as it is, is perfunctory, and in its detail and its performance is firmly rooted in its time. It begins with Dr Gropinger (i.e., Henry Kissinger), in the midst of his famous shuttleboat diplomacy, having his diary stolen from him so that he lands at an Arab airport where, having no idea which country he’s in, he greets the audience with cries of ‘Shalom!’ and ‘Mussel tov!’, provoking them into shooting him dead.
There follows a scene in which a bumbling President gets into endless confusion over what his CIA agents are trying to tell him whilst knocking things over, i.e., it’s the famously uncoordinated and misspeaking Gerald Ford (though I was astonished to discover an on-line review in which the Americans involved are completely unaware – and openly disbelieving – of Ford’s contemporaneous reputation). Apparently, the last descendent of Professor Moriarty (hi, Connie!) intends to destroy civilisation as we know it in five days time.
One Agent goes on to a meeting in London of the Police of Five Continents. At this time, Cleese still hasn’t appeared onscreen, and the script takes a discomfiting turn into national stereotyping and cheap racism. The Chinese delegate is played by Burt Kwouk of course, he being the only Chinese-appearing actor based in England (or so you’d think: incidentally, he was born in Warrington), whilst the African delegate is simply a hideous embarrassment: thankfully, the ‘bonzer cobber’ Australian is shot by a sniper pretty quickly. Horrific.
At last Holmes is brought in, courtesy of a visit by Stratford Johns, better known for his long running role as Chief Inspector Barlow (Z-Cars, Softly Softly). There are some genuinely funny moments in this sequence, most notably when the Commissioner is stabbed in the back: Watson pulls out the knife to make him feel more comfortable, only for Mrs Hudson to admonish him because this now allows the haemorrhaging to start: Watson tries to put the knife back exactly as he found it only to push it in too far and kill the Commissioner.
Holmes, re-entering the room, diagnoses the events brilliantly, to Watson’s perpetual astonishment. ‘How did you know that?’ he asks: ‘I was watching you!’ shrieks the frustrated Holmes.
We shall pass by the delivery of the Commissioner’s body, wrapped in brown paper to avoid payment on the bus, involving as it does another racist performance by Derek Griffiths as a West Indian Bus Conductor (1977: sigh), and switch to another meeting of the Delegates, this time with Holmes.
This is marginally better than the first scene, being less racist, and it does reach the heights of modest farce as the security windows keep going up and down, allowing the sniper to kill everyone but Holmes and the English delegate (seriously: the tea lady gets it). Holmes then produces his big idea: to hold a Detectives Convention. The concentration of so many adversaries will be so tempting that Moriarty won’t be able to resist attacking.
Unfortunately, this only results in a parade of unfunny mild parodies of the TV cops of the mid-Seventies that will be meaningless to anybody born later than 1965. The cops are bumped off by the fake Watson whilst the real Watson is helped to solve the Times crossword by Holmes (a neat little scene where all the answers are puns on ‘Elementary’).
Then Watson meets Watson and the fake is exposed as Mrs Hudson, or rather Francine Moriarty, out to destroy the entire Holmes line (destroying civilisation as we know it is just family tradition). Francine shoots down Watson before pumping something like two dozen bullets into Holmes (the vast majority of which seem to be aimed into Cleese’s groin, leading to unavoidable speculation over the extent to which art imitates life, given that he and Booth were soon to divorce, amicably at any rate).
But Holmes shrugs these off. He’s known Mrs Hudson was Francine since 1964 and so he told Watson to replace the bullets with blanks last night. Holmes continues in his triumphalist vein until an apologetic Watson finally manages to interrupt him long enough to admit that he forgot. Collapse of Holmes.
Francine strides off to end civilisation as we know it. Holmes throws one last dice, setting Watson into action, only for the over-eager partly-Bionic man (this is so 1977) to leap too high, hit his head on the ceiling and collapse unconscious. A final stirring readover from the announcer questioning whether Moriarty can succeed is answered by a brief, squeaking yes, and the screen goes back: it’s all over.
No, Strange Case does rather deserve to be forgotten. It’s awkward and inadequately plotted, too much wedded to its time, an implausible spoof whose highlights come mostly from the performances of its three stars, who are fighting an uphill battle against stiff material. The story credits suggest to me that this was a script derived entirely from Hobbs and McGrath that was in search of a star to lend it credibility: Cleese’s name as third scripter suggests that he probably added better jokes to his sequences, and it’s very noticeable that there are very few laughs when Cleese, Lowe and Booth are offscreen.
It’s slow, cheaply made, with an abrupt ending that tries to borrow off the Python habit of ending sketches that didn’t have a real ending, which might work after six minutes but flops after fifty-five.
And it’s biggest flaw of all is it’s crippling slowness. At least with the script book, I could inject some much needed pace – and energy – into scenes that lack motion and conviction. What I saw in it, I cannot now recall, and unless you’re a Cleese completist, I wouldn’t recommend hunting it out, other than for Arthur Lowe’s brilliant performance, oh, and Connie Booth’s legs.