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 above) who learns the methods of Professor Joseph Bell (far right) 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 in House of Cards). 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 essentially kind 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, who is well-known in Britain for his brilliant stage work in The King’s Speech and This House. He deserves to be a major movie 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.