The Sign Of Four (1987) is the first of the Sherlock Holmes television movies helmed by John Hawkesworth for Granada Television. The Sign Of Four corresponds to the end of season one of The Return Of Sherlock Holmes, Hawkesworth’s follow-up series to his much acclaimed The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes. Unlike a regular fifty minute episode, The Sign Of Four runs for a hundred minutes and was made at a considerably higher budget. The Granada Holmes series are akin to ITC Entertainment’s Hammer House Of Horror (1980) in so far as both shows deal in Gothic themes and boast a high production value.
There really isn’t a more faithful an adaptation of any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries than those John Hawkesworth produced at Granada and The Sign Of Four is no exception. The film does omit Watson’s (Edward Hardwicke) romantic relationship with Miss Morstan (Jenny Seagrove) as well as some other details, but this is done for narrative economy and consistency of character. Though Hawkesworth was obsessively faithful to the books and stories in many respects, it was deemed essential to the episodic format of the show that Watson never leave Holmes (Jeremy Brett).
What is present in The Sign Of Four is the spooky Victorian atmosphere, Conan Doyle’s brand of orientalism, and the reckoning with Great Britain’s imperialism. There are excellent turns in supporting roles from Ronald Lacey and John Thaw; two of the best British character actors of their time. Yet, what really makes The Sign Of Four feel like authentic Sherlock Holmes, and this is true of all the Granada series, is the performance of Jeremy Brett. No actor before or since has epitomized Holmes the same way as Brett. Physically, Brett (at least during the first two shows) is the spitting image of how Conan Doyle described the character. In terms of performance, Brett inhabits the role totally with a gusto unparalleled, imbuing the famous detective with all manner of original quirks and idiosyncrasies. For his part Edward Hardwicke is an improvement over his predecessor (David Burke) as Watson. Their combined chemistry and originality make them the Holmes and Watson all others must imitate.
The Return Of Sherlock Holmes is the highpoint of the Granda series and The Sign Of Four is, likewise, the best of their television films. Anyone keen on mysteries, the Gothic, or the Sherlock Holmes character couldn’t find a better entertainment than this. I’ve been watching Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes since I was in the third grade and I still revisit the show and all of the movies every year. The Sign Of Four gets my highest recommendation. This is British television at its finest.