Weekend Film Recommendation: The White Knight Stratagem

The White Knight Stratagem was the final episode of a handsomely produced 2000-2001 British television series that re-imagined the Sherlock Holmes stories. The protagonist of the Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes series was Arthur Conan Doyle (center of photo at right) who learns the methods of Professor Joseph Bell (far right of photo) as they solve monstrous crimes. Baker Street Irregulars will enjoy how many of the cases contain elements that ultimately appear in the Holmes canon. The White Knight Stratagem is to my mind the best of the series, which is truly saying something.

The plot centers on an unsolved murder in Edinburgh, upon which Bell and Doyle are called upon to consult. It is soon revealed that the case was preceded by another unsolved murder in which Bell clashed with Lt. Daniel Blaney, a once great police detective now on the skids. Blaney, still on the force, resents Bell’s involvement, and Doyle must try to negotiate the rivalry between these two powerful personalities while simultaneously solving a progressively more complex case.

Ian Richardson sparkled as a “cold bastard” (in the particular way the Brits use that term) in a number of outstanding productions, including Charlie Muffin, and could play genial bastards with equal skill (e.g., Francis Urquhart). A lesser actor might have been happily employed indefinitely in such hard-edged roles, but Richardson was a multi-dimensional performer. One of the places he got to show his ability to convey gentle wit and human warmth were in a number of films related to Sherlock Holmes. He played the great detective twice, in two little known but solid films that were part of a Mapleton Studios series that was ended after a lawsuit with Granada Television (long, sad story, but at least we got Jeremy Brett’s indelible Holmes out of it when the dust settled). He is equally endearing in the Murder Rooms series as the at times difficult but essential kindly Professor Joseph Bell of Edinburgh University, who inspires a young medical student named Arthur Conan Doyle to create a great fictional detective.

Doyle is played by Charles Edwards, an under-appreciated actor who I am happy to say is currently garnering rave reviews in this country for his portrayal of George VI in the stage production of The King’s Speech. He deserves to be a major star and I very much hope he will be. His Arthur Conan Doyle is intelligent and also vulnerable, particularly due to a scarring relationship with his father that plays a central part of The White Knight Stratagem.

But to me, the normally unrestrained, wacky comedian Rik Mayall (At left, yes, that’s the guy from The Young Ones) towers over even this excellent cast with an unforgettable performance. I am one of many people who thinks that comedic actors and stand up comics are grossly unappreciated (How many best actor/actress oscars have gone to people playing comedic parts?). If you can walk out onto a stage in front of an audience and hold their attention with no set, no cast and no safety net, then you can probably be a damn fine dramatic actor too. As a boozy, emotionally traumatized, brilliant and mysterious Scottish police detective, Mayall is nothing less than a revelation here. I have seen this movie on multiple occasions and each time through the range and emotional heft of his performance impresses me even more.

Daniel Boyle’s crafty script gives the viewer guessing until the very end, and contains moments of emotional power and superb dialogue. The small parts in the film are all well turned by the experienced cast, especially by Ronald Pickup as a grieving Sir John Starr, father of the victim whose murder opens the story. And the production values, from art direction to costumes to camerawork, are at the high level that gives BBC films its fine reputation.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The White Knight Stratagem”

  1. SPOILER (if you can spoil a 30-year-old TV show):

    Ian Richardson was the original Bill Haydon in the tinker, Tailor, Soldier, spy miniseries. After that I could never believe him when he played sympathetic parts.

  2. The first episode they made of “Murder Rooms” aired almost two years before the others started appearing, and had a different actor as Doyle, Robin Laing. I liked Laing better than Charles Edwards, but that might be because he was much better looking. So I’m shallow. Netflix offers that earliest episode under the title “Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle” but it was broadcast as “Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes”. It was also longer than the later episodes, and aired in two parts. I can’t remember whether I even saw “The White Knight Stratagem” (I’ve just put it in my Netflix queue), but I certainly liked the early episode much more than the later ones I did see. So there’s another recommendation for you.

    1. That film had a complete story, end to end (e.g., not just a “series episode”), and it was well-told, which took some scripting skill as everyone had to be introduced to the audience while keeping things moving. I thought Laing gave a colourless performance…but his love interest and the villain (who I will not spoil by naming) were very good, as was the plot and the payoff. And Richardson too of course.

      I still think it’s very much worth watching, and funnily enough I probably would like it even better today if the series hadn’t come along later, which to me makes it pale a bit by comparison.

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