Conan Doyle gave us one of the greatest portraits of friendship in English literature, and we were determined to put that on the screen more faithfully than it had ever been seen before.
We will miss Michael Cox. The visionary TV producer behind the definitive Sherlock Holmes series on Granada TV. He has left us at the age of 86. Michael passed away peacefully on January 29 after an extended illness.
Michael Cox was born on November 28, 1934 in Bristol, UK. His journey to TV Producer was a diverse one he was an actor, a stage manager, advertising agent, a bus driver and handyman. He was an assistant director for Coronation Street, Mr. Rose, and Pardon the Expression. His producer credits began in 1968 with Coronation Street, A Family at War, and Holly.
His dream was to produce a Sherlock Holmes series as close to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as possible and surrounded by Granada’s historically classical milieu. His work on bringing this dream to reality began in 1981. The series began shooting in 1984. But long before the camera’s appeared he built a full scale replica of Baker Street and involved Jeremy Brett. Mr. Brett shared Mr. Cox’s dream of bringing Doyle to the screen. They treated Doyle’s works as classical English literature. And to show his dedication to this idea, Jeremy would attend the writer’s pre-production meetings and “Fight for Doyle” he said, “But wouldn’t Doyle say it better?” Looking at the series as a whole, this dedication to Doyle’s words was part in parcel with what made this series great.
Michael Cox was responsible for the whole production, for bringing Jeremy Brett in, for the building of Baker Street on Granada’s back lot. That amazing full-scale set that appeared in every story. Also for all those horses, bicycles, carriages, cabs, double-decker busses, street kids, even the dirt that brought 1895 Baker Street to life. “Even Baker Street the elegant desirable residences of Holmes and Watson smelled more like a farmyard than London’s fashionable West End yesterday. ‘I keep shouting, Give me more horse manure,’ said Mr. Cox who has masterminded the rebuilding of Baker Street on a disused railway just a stride from the Coronation Street set.” (Daily Mail, 27 September, 1983.) His attention to detail could be seen in every shot, as this Baker Street was truly as busy and crowded as the one Holmes and Watson walked down in Victorian and Edwardian times. It’s one thing for an artist to paint this scene, and quite another to build it out of steel, and wood, and brick, and cobblestone, and then populate it with everything that matches Baker Street from 100-years before. It’s a shame this work of art was not saved for posterity. Below I contrast a photograph of Baker Street in 1884 with Michael Cox’s Baker Street in 1984.
Michael wanted to create the greatest Sherlock Holmes series of all time and there is no denying he succeeded. He created the most successful and faithful adaptation of Doyle’s stories ever filmed. This show is now an icon. Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, the definitive one. Dame Jean Doyle told him he was the Sherlock Holmes of her childhood. The series won the prestigious Edgar Award for it’s writing. And even now, thirty-seven years since the the series began, whenever the best Sherlock Holmes is polled, Jeremy Brett always comes out on top. Think of that, thirty-seven years is another generation, many of those being polled have only seen the series on DVD. In the UK, it is still shown regularly on ITV. The series that stopped filming in 1994 still continues.
Michael Cox wrote a wonderful book called, A Study in Celluloid. About his years as Producer and Executive Producer of Sherlock Holmes. It is a behind-the-scenes Producer’s Account of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. And a chronicle of this journey that was shared by the community of actors who created this sterling show and the production crew who we never see but were as important. Mr. Brett said Michael was always there for him, even when he was no longer producing the TV show. With the upheaval in British TV at the time, that very special friendship and support was much needed. This was a spectacular series where everything came together, the best in the field worked to make it happen. That is a singular event in TV or film. Michael Cox had all to do with it, he created the container for spectacular performers to be able to speak the actual words that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson speak in the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. No one before or since has done that.
“I made an unobtrusive farewell to the series in that last film for the Case-Book. [The Creeping Man.] There is a sequence set in a zoo which appealed to me as an opportunity for my first and last personal appearance. The eagle-eyed may spot me as a shabby workman shovelling up the waste matter in which zoos are so rich. The situation reminded me of an old theatrical story about a man who had the dirty, disgusting job of cleaning up after the elephants in a circus. When someone asked him why he didn’t leave to look for something sweeter and better, he replied, ‘You must be joking–I couldn’t give up show business”–Michael Cox.
Gretchen Altabef is an MX and Mondadori author of Sherlock Holmes Novels. She strives to emulate Dr. John Watson’s and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary style. The first, These Scattered Houses, is in Holmes’ own voice and chronicles the last two months of his ‘great hiatus’. The second in the series is, Remarkable Power of Stimulus. After 3 years away, Holmes finds London awash in murders, No. 221B under siege, anarchists threatening Paris, and the return of Irene Adler. At the commencement of his new life, Holmes steps out of the cab into Baker Street knowing he will find Watson’s friendship and unerring aim are as dependable as the British Rail.