Sherlock: an on-screen history of series 4’s Culverton Smith

From silent film to the BBC's Sherlock, we're perusing the many on-screen incarnations of the villainous Culverton Smith...

Contains potential spoilers for Sherlock series 4 (well, in the sense that it talks about the hundred-year-old story that inspired one of its characters).

In series 4 of the BBC drama, we’re told Culverton Smith is to be Sherlock’s “darkest villain yet”. Introduced in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Dying Detective” and continuing in various film and TV adaptations over the years, the character has already had a long screen career.

In preparation for the forthcoming season of Sherlock (because what else are we supposed to do with this interminable hiatus?), we’re taking a look at Culverton Smith’s on-screen history through the ages. We’ve got your silent films. We’ve got your fan films. We’ve got your Jeremy Brett. Pick your poison — or should I say infectious disease…

First, an introduction…

Culverton Smith was introducted in 1913’s “The Dying Detective,” part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “His Last Bow” collection. The short story chronicles the time Sherlock Holmes was seemingly struck deathly ill by a rare, highly-infectious disease. In reality, Holmes is simply pretending in order to trick Culverton Smith into admitting that he killed his own nephew by infecting him with the same deadly disease. Because Holmes does love his theatrics. (Please let this be a part of the Sherlock version of the Culverton Smith story…)

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In “The Dying Detective,” Smith is an expert in tropical diseases who mails Holmes a box spring-loaded with the disease. So, not a nice guy overall. Here is how Conan Coyle describes him, through Watson’s eyes:

With a shrill cry of anger a man rose from a reclining chair beside the fire. I saw a great yellow face, coarse-grained and greasy, with heavy, double-chin, and two sullen, menacing gray eyes which glared at me from under tufted and sandy brows.

A high bald head had a small velvet smoking-cap poised coquettishly upon one side of its pink curve. The skull was of enormous capacity, and yet as I looked down I saw to my amazement that the figure of the man was small and frail, twisted in the shoulders and back like one who has suffered from rickets in his childhood.

Not a nice description. You’ve got to love the Victorian habit of equating beauty with heroism and less-than-beauty with villainy. (Oh wait… we still do that.) Holmes eventually gets Smith to confess (though not before making poor Watson and Mrs Hudson worry), as the villain brags to the seemingly-dying detective. Rookie move, Smith.

The Dying Detective Silent Film (1921)

This Sherlock Holmes silent film adaptation is not for the faint of heart. It doesn’t have an accompanying soundtrack (though I recommend using the Sherlock soundtrack). The image is blurry and indistinct. And, like most silent films, the story moves much slower than the pace we are used to today.

However, from a media history and Sherlock Holmes fandom perspective, The Dying Detective is fascinating. Eille Norwood plays the famed detective in the adaptation. Norwood spent most of his career playing Sherlock Holmes in the Stoll film series and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself said: “His wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me.” As far as endorsements go, that’s a pretty good one.

Cecil Humphreys plays our man Culverton Smith in the silent film in what is a pretty straight-forward adaptation of “The Dying Detective.” It’s interesting to see how the director struggles to tell this plot-heavy story in such a nascent medium. The result is lots of long shots and wordy intertitle. If for nothing else, check out this version for some insight into how far our visual media literacy has come in the past 100 years.

We Present Alan Wheatley as Sherlock Holmes in… (1951)

Unfortunately, there is no existing recording of the 1951 TV episode “The Dying Detective” — starring Alan Wheatley as Holmes, Raymond Francis as Watson, and Henry Oscar as Smith — as The BBC broadcast the series live. This makes Wheatley one of the least-known incarnations of the iconic detective.

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We do know that “The Dying Detective” was one of the six episodes aired by the BBC during We Present Alan Wheatley as Sherlock Holmes in… and that the series stuck closely to the canon tale of Holmes’ run-in with Mr. Culverton Smith. Sadly, though, we will never be able to see Henry Oscar’s turn as Culverton Smith…

Sherlock Holmes liegt im Sterben (1954)

West Germany got in on the on-screen Sherlock Holmes adaptations in 1954 with Sherlock Holmes liegt im Sterben. Like the 1951 BBC serial, it is hard to find much information about this German serial. There don’t appear to be any easily-accessible versions of the series, but we do know that another on-screen version of Culverton Smith appeared in the episode “Die Galerie der grossen Detektive.” Wolfgang Jarnach played Smith, with Ernst Fritz Fürbringer as Holmes and Harald Mannl as Watson.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes TV Show (1994)

This 1994 TV version of “The Dying Detective” is chock-full of awesomeness. Clocking in at 50 minutes, it adds a considerable amount of padding to the original Conan Doyle story and that padding is filled with delightful moments. My personal favorite? The slow-motion shot of Victor Savage (played by a young Hugh Bonneville, of Downton Abbey fame) making an ill-fated carpet-slide across the floor of his mansion.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes stars Jeremy Brett as Holmes, Edward Hardwicke as Watson, and Jonathan Hyde as Smith. Hyde doesn’t get to do as much as Brett does in his very dramatic scene of fake-almost-dying, but no one can stare deviously at the camera like Hyde can. This episode is well worth a watch, though you may find yourself missing the manic awkwardness of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.

The Dying Detective (2014)

Despite its amateur categorisation, this “The Dying Detective” fan film is pretty impressive with some ambitious cinematography and a commitment to staying faithful to the original story, despite budgetary restrictions. In the context of our purposes, extra points for starting off with Culverton Smith watching his nephew dying. Cold stuff.

Directed by brothers Samuel and Andrew Tardy, who also play Sherlock and John, respectively, “The Dying Detective” casts Luke McG. as a fresh-faced, but no less sinister Culverton Smith. Everyone in this cast is improbably young to be playing these characters, but there is something charming about the ways in which “The Dying Detective” stays true to the original story — and, in some cases, even the original text — despite the youth of its cast. 

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The Mary Morstan Mysteries (2014)

The Mary Morstan Mysteries is a spin-off of the dramedy web series No Place Like Holmes. While the latter take Sherlock Holmes and Watson and, with the in-universe assistance of a demonic ritual, place them in modern times, The Mary Morstan Mysteries tell the story of Watson’s wife and her Victorian solo adventures.

The Mary Morstran Mysteries play faster and looser with canon than any of the aforementioned Sherlock incarnations, but the result is a funny, unpredictable, and endlessly creative story with his roots in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but its execution thoroughly in the Internet Age.

Ray Frensham plays Culverton Smith in “Rings of Change” and “The Ecuador Equation.” As with his original character, Smith is an expert in tropical diseases and is arrogant when it comes to his intelligence. Unlike his original character, he is not working alone in The Mary Morstan Mysteries, but rather is part of the Moriarty Club, creating a super simian serum for Moriarty.

Though this incarnation of the character was created long before Culverton Smith made his way onto Sherlock, it’s interesting that The Mary Morstan Mysteries would present Smith as connected to Moriarty. Given the season 3 cliffhanger and the presence of Moriarty in the season 4 trailer, it’s not so crazy to imagine that Sherlock might also suppose a link between Culverton Smith and Jim Mortiarty… Or to suggest, for that matter, that Mary Morstan might be off having her own dangerous adventures, separate from her husband and his best friend.

Sherlock (2017)

So what does this on-screen history of Culverton Smith tell us about the Toby Jones incarnation we will be seeing in Sherlock season 4? Definitively, not much — but didn’t you have fun learning about all of these on-screen versions of the character? This knowledge can also help us shape our expectations and wishlists for what the character might be… 

Personally, I am hoping for a Culverton Smith closest to the version seen in The Mary Morstan Mysteries, which is to say: single-minded, haughty, and clinically academic, but I will take a dash of Jonathan Hyde’s cold-hearted stare. (Though, based on the series 4 teaser, Toby Jones seems to be going the cackling route…)

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There is something in common with every one of these adaptations of Culverton Smith: a complete disregard for human life, even for the life of family members. From the silent film era to the Internet era, Culverton Smith has never once place human life over his scientific pursuits. If this continues with Sherlock, as it presumably will, then it’s easy to see why the cast and creators are describing Smith as Sherlock’s darkest villain yet.

Brace yourselves for series 4, Sherlock fans. And, in the mean time, don’t open any unidentified boxes you recieve in the mail. You never know when they may be spring-loaded with rare, infectious, and deadly tropical diseases…