Sherlock: updating Charles Augustus Milverton

An in-depth look at how His Last Vow, Sherlock’s series 3 finale, adapts the Doyle story of Charles Augustus Milverton…

Warning: contains major spoilers for Sherlock series three.

Having ticked off Moriarty, the Woman and the hell-hound in series two, Sherlock’s third run was in need of a villain. Enter Charles Augustus Magnussen, a Scandi take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s detestable master blackmailer played to grotesque perfection by The Killing’s Lars Mikkelsen.

Though perhaps the most despicable, Mikkelsen wasn’t the first on-screen version of the Doyle character. Barry Jones gave an arch, cruelly playful turn as the blackmailer in the 1965 BBC adaptation with Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock as Holmes and Watson.  Robert Hardy, recognisable to many as Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter series, was an odious, amused Milverton in the 1992 television film with Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke as the detective and his companion. David Mogentale was a barely glimpsed seedy, down-at-heel version in Elementary’s season one episode, Dead Man’s Switch. None though, had quite the lank menace of Mikkelsen.

The original story has Lady Eva Brackwell seeking Holmes’ help to return love letters written to a young man before her engagement to the Earl of Dovercourt. Blackmailing her is the titular Milverton, a scoundrel who arouses hatred in Sherlock Holmes for his methodical and cruel line of work. Having impersonated a plumber to learn about Milverton’s home, Appledore Towers, Holmes breaks in to the blackmailer’s study to retrieve the letters, accompanied by Watson. Interrupted by the man himself, the pair hide behind a curtain to see him receive a visitor. Instead of the lady’s maid he was expecting, Milverton is confronted by a woman whose husband died as a result of his blackmail. She shoots him dead and leaves. Before Holmes and Watson flee the house, Holmes burns the remainder of Milverton’s blackmail materials. The next day, when Lestrade asks for his assistance in investigating the murder – despite later identifying the murderess – Holmes refuses to help saying “My sympathies are with the criminals, rather than with the victim”.

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Though each includes the central pillars of the letters, the disguise, the burglary and the shooting, each adaptation of the Milverton case has, of necessity, expanded Doyle’s twenty-two page story beyond its original scope and to its own end. (The 1945 Rathbone/Bruce version The Woman In Green is barely an adaptation at all, swapping Moriarty in for the blackmailer and instead telling a lurid tale of hypnosis and serial murder.) The 1965 version finishes with Holmes chortling to himself about having deceived Lestrade, and the 1992 version ends on a more contemplative, serious Holmes who asks Watson not to record the case. His Last Vow, Sherlock’s series three finale, shakes things up dramatically by making John and Mary Watson the blackmail victims and Holmes not merely witness to, but the perpetrator of Magnussen’s murder.

His Last Vow’s plot changes gave the story something missing from every other adaptation: emotional urgency. Join us as we take an in-depth look at the most recent, most affecting, and most surprising version of Doyle’s Charles Augustus Milverton.

“Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the zoo, and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me.”

Casting angular, six foot three Lars Mikkelsen, Sherlock went against type with their take on Milverton. Doyle describes the character as “a small, stout man” with a “broad, grizzled head” and a “round, plump, hairless face” in which sit “restless and penetrating eyes”. Making Magnussen a different physical specimen in comparison to the cherub-cheeked Milvertons of old prepares the way for more surprises, which are just what His Last Vow delivers.

The episode’s introduction to the character though, has much in common with that of 1992 version. Peter Hammond and Jeremy Paul, director and writer of the Grenada Television film, tease the viewer and establish a sense of the character’s evasive, underhand nature by not showing Robert Hardy’s face in full until thirty minutes in to the story. By filming from behind, cutting away, using reflections and once, having the actor hold a sheaf of papers in front of his face, our first real meeting with Milverton is postponed until he suddenly turns, villainous eyes behind glasses gleaming, to face Dr Watson.

Nick Hurran, His Last Vow’s director, does much the same in the opening moments of his episode, which uses close-ups and partial shots of Magnussen’s face to delay our confrontation with the villain. For narrative reasons, the camera gives prominence to the character’s spectacles (which, we are wrongly led to believe for most of the episode, are a version of Google Glass). The first time we see Magnussen’s face in full, he delivers the line “I have an excellent memory”, a clue, it unfurls, to the truth behind Appledore’s vaults.

Elementary aside, each TV version of Milverton on television has worn a take on the “golden-rimmed glasses” as described by Doyle. The glasses are to Milverton what the white cat is to Blofeld, an easily recognisable shorthand and symbol for his villainy. The original story includes the rather lurid detail of Milverton’s murderess grinding “her heel into his upturned face” and thus destroying them after emptying her revolver into him, an action that few on-screen versions have been able to resist. (Sherlock doesn’t perform the act in His Last Vow, but earlier in the episode, Mary pistol-whips the gold-rimmed specs from Magnussen’s face).

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“The fellow is a genius in his way, and would have made his mark in some more savoury trade”

A self-described “Agent” in the original story, the 1992 Granada Television film’s Milverton is ostensibly an art dealer. As a profession that would bring the blackmailer into the homes of the wealthy and influential, it’s a sensible cover story, but nothing like so apt as Steven Moffat’s villain-of-our-times choice: Magnussen the newspaper magnate.

Financiers aside (already linked to skulduggery and painted as “heartless bastards” in Sherlock’s The Blind Banker), the proprietor of the sort of papers John Watson refers to as “ones I don’t read” is perfect for Milverton. Not only does it provide the character with the means through which to ruin lives, it’s also a fitting job for a villain whose weapon is information. Better still, who else with a respectable public image would modern audiences so willingly detest?

Just as the original story did, His Last Vow requires us to thoroughly hate Magnussen. If the audience feels a mote of pity or sees a redeemable chink in the character, then Holmes’ actions – whether pulling the trigger himself or letting Milverton’s real killer walk free – fail to be heroic. Whatever its window-dressing, the crux of this particular story is that Sherlock Holmes acts outside of the law but remains a hero. We have to share Holmes’ view that what he does is “morally justifiable, though technically criminal”. If we don’t despise Milverton, then we can’t admire Sherlock Holmes.

“Morally justifiable, though technically criminal”

Justice has ever been crucial to Sherlock Holmes’ heroism, even if respect for the legal system (and those who enforce it) hasn’t. “Smoking indoors. Isn’t there one of those… law things?” the BBC Sherlock asked Mycroft in A Scandal In Belgravia. Between his sporadic drug habit, and taste for corpse-whipping and break-ins, Cumberbatch’s version of the character routinely flouts the law (once memorably, by defenestrating a CIA agent: “And exactly how many times did he fall out the window?”). In that instance, Sherlock’s violence was chivalrous in origin – he was avenging the agent’s attack on pensioner widow, Mrs Hudson. Technically criminal yes, but morally justifiable? Without a doubt.

We see that same sense of justice in His Last Vow when Sherlock and John find Janine and a security guard unconscious in Magnussen’s office. Watson, ever the Doctor, asks whether the guard needs help, to which Sherlock replies, “Ex-con. White supremacist by the tattoo so who cares? Stick with Janine”. Though the BBC version of Holmes sometimes appears to hold the rest of the world in contempt, the character actually has a rigorous inner moral hierarchy: Help the innocent. Screw the lowlifes.

They don’t come lower than Charles Augustus Milverton. Doyle convinces readers of this by putting an emotive speech in the mouth of a character we know to prize cold reason and rationality above all else. When the original Sherlock Holmes describes his repulsion towards Milverton using a poetic description of his kinship with “slithering, gliding, venomous creatures”, ‘Watson’ writes “I had seldom heard my friend speak with such intensity of feeling”.

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Of course we hate Charles Augustus Milverton. If rationality poster-boy Sherlock Holmes is repulsed by him, then who are we hot-blooded mortals to disagree?

“The worst man in London”

Happily, His Last Vow does a terrific job at making Magnussen irredeemable in the audience’s eyes. Banking on on our immediate mistrust of a post-Leveson Inquiry “newspaper proprietor, private individual, and foreign national” with undue access to Downing street, the episode establishes his villainy from the off. Magnussen is no gentleman thief, sexy blaggard or, to borrow Doyle’s words, “ruffian who in hot blood bludgeons his mate”. He’s a snake, a shark, a predator of the vulnerable, and entirely without humanity. That much is clear from the first ‘pressure point’ identified in the episode: MP John Garvie’s disabled daughter.

We’re primed to dislike Magnussen even before we’re shown around his obscenely expensive Bond-villain mansion (if the one percent are TV and film’s preferred villains du jour, then he must be their one percent). Between licking Lady Smallwood’s face and flicking John Watson’s, insulting the United Kingdom as “a nation of herbivores” and pissing in the Baker Street fireplace, by the time Sherlock pulls the trigger, the audience is a gallows crowd baying for the character’s execution.

“Of course it isn’t blackmail. It’s ownership”

Magnussen’s truly unforgivable act in His Last Vow, is messing with Sherlock Holmes’ (and so the audience’s) best friend. Duty bound to do everything in his power to protect John and Mary by dint of the episode’s titular promise, the BBC’s Sherlock has a vested interest in stopping Magnussen. If he doesn’t, then Mary’s enemies will find out where she is, and John Watson’s life would be destroyed anew. This is where Moffat’s His Last Vow finds an emotional pay-off that no other version of the Milverton story has, and in so doing, justifies its dramatic retelling of the villain’s murder.

Though pitiable, the blackmail victims of previous adaptations are strangers to Sherlock and Watson. Lady Eva Brackwell in the original and 1965 Douglas Wilmer/Nigel Stock version, the secretly gay Colonel Dorking in the 1992 Brett/Hardwicke TV film, the distraught parents of rape victims in Elementary‘s Dead Man’s Switch… All deserve our sympathy, but they’re simply clients. We don’t know them like we know John and Mary.

In real terms of course, it turns out that we don’t know ‘Mary’ at all, but that doesn’t stop us from caring about her. Following the logic that has Doyle readers hating Milverton because Holmes does, Sherlock audiences love Mary because John does. That, good writing, and Amanda Abbington’s appealing warmth in the role.

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“There are hundreds in this great city who turn white at his name”

Turning the blackmail inside Holmes’ personal circle solves a potential problem for any modern-day retelling of Charles Augustus Milverton: inspiring sympathy for the victims.

In the original, Milverton’s extortion was aimed at aristocratic women and their statesmen husbands. Holmes’ client, Lady Brackwell, is a beautiful debutante poised to make a prosperous marriage and whose youthful “sprightly” letters to “an impecunious young squire” threaten the match. It’s made clear that her earl fiancé would call off the wedding were he to find out about the letters.

A modern audience to whom social status and feminine virtue are immaterial (especially one with little sympathy for the ruling classes and raised on the notion of love conquering all) might well find it difficult to care. Who gives a fig if Lady Farquinton-Doobrey had it off with a stable lad in her youth? Are we really supposed to root for her marriage to a man who wouldn’t stand by her in a scandal?

Perhaps in response to this problem, modern adaptations of the story have varied the subject of the blackmail. A high-profile figure accidentally grooming an under-aged girl is His Last Vow’s initial scandal. A closeted army colonel having an affair with a female impersonator was the ‘crime’ of one of Milverton’s victims in the 1992 Granada Television film. Horribly, it isn’t scandal so much as psychological torment with which Elementary’s Milverton threatens his victims. In Dead Man’s Switch, parents are forced to pay Milverton extortionate amounts in exchange for him not posting online films of their drugged daughter being raped by an associate of his.

The 1965 period version upped the stakes of one of Milverton’s high-born victims by inventing a bloody massacre in the Near East that occurred as a result of her having accidentally slipped a national secret into a letter to her lover. Two years after the Profumo scandal broke, perhaps sixties TV audiences needed a little more convincing that high-profile adultery warranted shooting yourself in the head.

A romantic version of the original story might have seen Lady Brackwell telling Milverton to publish and be damned, ditching the judgemental earl and running off happily ever after with her humble squire. Doyle, of course, doesn’t write the Sherlock Holmes stories as romances. Steven Moffat, on the other hand…

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“Give my love to Mary. Tell her she’s safe now”

The original Milverton operated in private, endangering society marriages by threatening to reveal the secrets of one partner to another. Fittingly for a socially networked, voicemail-hacking, PRISM world in which the private is routinely (if often involuntarily) made public, it wasn’t Lord Smallwood’s marriage, but his reputation that Magnussen threatened to destroy by revealing the love letters he sent to a young girl in 1982 – a year when paper letters were still ‘a thing’, and using Doyle’s description of Milverton’s cunning in holding “a card back for years in order to play it at the moment when the stake is best worth winning”.

In His Last Vow, Lady Smallwood wins audience approval by knowing about the letters and standing by her man. Just as it’s touching to find out in the episode that Mycroft’s pressure point is his “junkie detective brother” and that Sherlock’s pressure point is John (“look how you care about John Watson, your damsel in distress”), knowing that Lady Smallwood’s pressure point is her husband endears her to us. It also means that when Lord Smallwood’s suicide is announced later in the episode, the audience despises Magnussen even more. We may not care as much about aristos making profitable marriages these days, but tabloid newspapers destroying lives is an easy and depressingly familiar cause to get behind.

“No-one stands up to him. No-one dares. No-one even tries”

Even easier is the cause of a man sacrificing his freedom to protect the lives and happiness of his best friends. “Give my love to Mary”, Sherlock tells John after putting a bullet in Magnussen’s head in His Last Vow, “Tell her she’s safe now”. It’s an heroic sentiment, akin to Milverton’s killer in the original story declaring that she “will free the world of a poisonous thing” before pulling the trigger.

By making John and Mary blackmail victims in His Last Vow, Moffat gives the case a heart that didn’t exist in the original story or previous adaptations. By making Sherlock the blackmailer’s murderer though, has Moffat made him any more or any less of a hero?

In the episode, Sherlock tells Mycroft that he hates Magnussen “because he attacks people who are different and preys on their secrets”. The choice of words positions Sherlock as a defender of the vulnerable, a protector of those who, like him, are “different”.

It’s an odd statement. Mary’s assassin past makes her atypical of course, but not necessarily in need of a white knight. The letter-writing Lord Smallwood wasn’t “different” either (and if his attraction to a fifteen year old girl does categorise him as such, it’s a genus of difference Sherlock Holmes can in no way defend). By the logic of Sherlock’s answer to Mycroft, the BBC’s Irene Adler should be just as hated a villain for him, using as she does sexual secrets (“I know what he likes”) to control people who are indeed different, whether by status or kink.

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If Sherlock’s explanation for his hatred and pursuit of Magnussen doesn’t quite ring true for the character, why does Moffat have him say it? An answer suggests itself from Doyle’s original story: it’s cover for the real reason he chooses to go up against the blackmailer.

“Oh do your research. I’m not a hero, I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Merry Christmas”.

In His Last Vow, Mycroft accuses Sherlock of seeing himself as a “dragon slayer”. As well as a nod to Cumberbatch’s role as dragon Smaug in The Hobbit sequels, it’s an image borrowed from the original. Watson’s narration describes Milverton’s safe, into which Holmes breaks, as “this green and gold monster, the dragon which held in hits maw the reputations of so many fair ladies”.

(Incidentally, one fair lady whose reputation or feelings Holmes fails to protect is Milverton’s maid Agatha. Sherlock’s seduction of Milverton’s maid whilst disguised as “a rakish young workman with a goatee beard and a swagger” is an element of the original story no TV adaptation has been able to resist dramatizing. His Last Vow shows Sherlock use the same gambit on Magnussen’s PR Janine, though thankfully no false moustaches or compass-point spinning accents were required. The original story let Sherlock off the hook for what Watson tells him is going “too far” in his cruel treatment of the maid by the inclusion of “a hated rival” ready to sweep in and pick up the pieces, while His Last Vow gave Janine her own revenge and teasingly left a door open for a later reunion in her South Downs beekeeper’s cottage, the very place Doyle writes that Holmes retires.)

Doyle may have given Watson the language of chivalry above, but Holmes’ heroism in the original – not naming Milverton’s murderess and risking discovery by burning the remaining blackmail letters before leaving the scene of the crime are both heroic acts in the eyes of the reader – is tempered by what Doyle tells us about the character’s real motivations for taking on Milverton.

Explaining his break-in plan to his more-than-willing accomplice in the original, Sherlock Holmes admits “Between ourselves, Watson, it’s a sporting duel between this fellow Milverton and me. He had, as you saw, the best of the first exchanges; but my self-respect and reputation are concerned to fight it to a finish”. The admission is clear: Holmes wants to beat Milverton not to protect the vulnerable, nor to slay dragons, but simply to win. The great detective doesn’t want to be beaten.

What follow in the story are the plans Holmes and Watson make to break in to Milverton’s study with what can only be described as schoolboy glee. Holmes shows off his toys “a first-class, up-to-date burgling kit” to Watson, who in turn, plans to make a pair of black silk masks to be worn during the act.

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In a Twitter Q&A after His Last Vow’s broadcast, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss brought up an interpretation of Doyle’s original story which sees Watson as an unreliable narrator who invents the veiled woman who killed Milverton as cover for his friend having committed the act. Their evidence was Doyle having Watson apologise to the reader in the opening paragraphs for telling the sensitive tale “with due suppression”. Even if you pshaw the idea, it’s a fun take on things. Who knows? Perhaps the whole story was an invention by Watson to explain why he and Holmes were running around Hampstead Heath together at night wearing opera dress and silk masks…

“An addict in need of a fix”

“Surely a gentleman should not lay much stress upon [personal risk] when a lady is in most desperate need of his help?” Holmes asks Watson in Charles Augustus Milverton, when persuading his colleague of the necessity of the burglary. Chivalry is the reason given for Holmes’ actions, and it’s an excuse Watson takes to immediately, later adding that “The high object of our mission, the consciousness that it was unselfish and chivalrous, the villainous character of our opponent, all added to the sporting interest of the adventure.”

“Sporting”, “adventure”, “duel”, “opponent”… Doyle writes Holmes and Watson’s discussion of taking on Milverton using the language of fun and games. Both characters cite chivalry as their inspiration, but underneath, it is typical enjoyment at the game being afoot. Moffat’s script for His Last Vow captures just this excitement in Sherlock’s delight at interrupting a staid family Christmas with a life-threatening adventure.

It’s not only Sherlock characterised as a thrill-seeker by Doyle. His Last Vow’s thread on John Watson’s addiction to danger (an unconscious part of his attraction to assassin wife Mary, we’re told) fits both with the character we met in 2010’s A Study In Pink and canon Watson too. In Charles Augustus Milverton, Doyle paints the character as similarly turned on by danger, especially when he and Holmes are operating on the wrong side of the law. During the break-in to Milverton’s office, Watson admits “I thrilled now with a keener zest than I had ever enjoyed when we were the defenders of the law instead of its defiers! […] Far from feeling guilty, I rejoiced and exalted in our dangers.” As Amanda Abbington’s Mary might put it, Watson finds the whole illegal enterprise “a tiny bit sexy”.

“Certain crimes… justify private revenge”.

Ultimately though, His Last Vow depicts Sherlock not playing a game, but sacrificing his freedom to honour his titular promise to “always be there” for John and Mary. Finding out that the vaults existed only in Magnussen’s memory, murder was Sherlock’s only course of action to keep the Watsons safe.

As Holmes says of the burglary in the original story, “I am never precipitate in my actions, nor would I adopt so energetic and indeed so dangerous a course if any other were possible”. Shooting Magnussen was Holmes’ last resort (one he presumably accepted for the possibility of by requesting that Watson bring a gun along to Christmas dinner). By shooting the taxi driver in A Study In Scarlet, John saved Sherlock’s life. Years later, Sherlock repaid the favour by shooting Magnussen to save John’s wife.

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Justice, not the law, having “overtaken a villain” is the spine of any version of the Milverton story. His Last Vow is a triumph of an adaptation by maintaining that central premise but twisting its tale to add something contained by few Sherlock Holmes stories: a heart.

Read our spoiler-filled review of His Last Vow, here.

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