(c) Compton Films / United Artists
The Loch Ness Monster has returned. I’d been getting worried about this particular monster – Nessie as she’s popularly known. She’d been out of circulation for some time and I was starting to think something had happened to her.
In fact, the last time she got any coverage in the media, it wasn’t even because she’d been sighted in her native habitat of Loch Ness in Scotland. Rather, in 2012, she surfaced in the pages of a new textbook distributed among Christian schools in the southern US state of Louisiana by an outfit called the Accelerated Christian Education programme. Though the schools involved were private ones, they’d been given public-school funding by the state’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal.
Nessie is commonly believed to be a plesiosaur, making her a leftover giant reptile from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. And the textbook claimed Nessie’s existence was proof that dinosaurs have lived on earth at the same time as humans, that Charles Darwin had got his timelines mixed up and that his theory of evolution was wrong – with the (not necessarily logical) consequence that the Bible’s account of creation of life on earth was right. In other words, Nessie proves that God did it.
Now I don’t want to argue with the finest scientific minds that the American Republican / religious right has to offer – you know, like Sarah Palin. But there is a flaw in using Nessie to support an argument of this sort. It’s unlikely that a small, cold-watered loch, one only about 10,000 years old, could be big enough or warm enough to support a breeding population of huge cold-blooded reptiles whose last appearance in the fossil records dates back more than 66 million years ago. Or to put it more bluntly: Nessie doesn’t actually exist.
I can imagine Sarah Palin reading this – that’s assuming she is able to read – and squawking in goggle-eyed astonishment: “Whaa-aat? You mean the Loch Ness Monster isn’t real?!”
Anyhow, last week, I was startled to see headlines declaring that Nessie finally had been discovered in Loch Ness. For a giddy moment I wondered if plesiosaurs did still exist and if Charles Darwin and his evolution theory had been wrong all along, while the Bible and the American religious right’s pseudoscientists had been right all along.
(c) Compton Films / United Artists
But no, it turned out that the ‘Nessie’ referred to in those headlines was actually a 30-foot-long monster-shaped prop built by special effects man Wally Veevers for the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes back in 1970. The prop sank into the loch’s waters while the movie was being shot there. It’s said that director Billy Wilder took a dislike to two humps on the prop’s back and insisted on having them removed, which had the effect of fatally jeopardising its buoyancy. So down it went. The fake monster, minus its humps but with a long, plesiosaur-like neck, has now been found on the loch’s bed by an underwater robot operated by the Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime.
If you’ve never seen The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, you might be wondering what the Loch Ness Monster was doing in a movie about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective. Well, her presence in it may sound incongruous, but as the film is such a glorious hodgepodge of elements – by turns sublime, ridiculous, humorous, bizarre, romantic and melancholic – Nessie fits into it quite nicely. The film has Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, played by Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, investigate a case that takes them to Loch Ness. There, in a steampunk twist, it transpires that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes, played by Christopher Lee, is busy testing a prototype military submarine on behalf of Britain’s secret service. In a Scooby Doo-style attempt to keep the project secret, the submarine is disguised as Nessie. It sports a monstrous neck and head to make sure the fearful locals keep their distance.
The writer, actor and comic performer Mark Gatiss has written fondly about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, saying of Wilder and his scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond that they “gently take the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way that you can only do with something that you really adore.” He’s also cited it as an influence on Sherlock, the popular modern-day reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes stories that he and Stephen Moffat have helmed for the BBC since 2010.
Indeed, in the TV series, Gatiss plays Mycroft Holmes to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock; and his portrayal of Holmes’s older and possibly smarter brother clearly owes something to Christopher Lee’s performance in the 1970 film. Though both Gatiss and Lee, tall, sleek and lean, are far removed from the Mycroft Holmes of Conan Doyle’s fiction. In the story The Greek Interpreter, for example, he’s described as “absolutely corpulent” with “a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal.” And while both Lee’s Mycroft and Gatiss’s Mycroft are depicted as sinister, high-up operatives in British intelligence, the literary Mycroft was apparently something of a layabout. Holmes dismissed him as having “no ambition and no energy”, content to hang out in a dubious institution called the Diogenes Club, which accommodated “the most unsociable and unclubable men in town.”
(c) Compton Films / United Artists
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is also, possibly, the first movie to suggest that something homoerotic is going on between Holmes and Watson – an idea that Sherlock-the-TV-show has had fun playing with. But it gives Holmes some heterosexual romance too. It shows him falling for a woman called Gabrielle Valladon, played by Geneviève Page, who gets him involved in the case and who later turns out to be a German spy. The film ends on a mournful note when Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft informing him that Gabrielle has been executed by a firing squad.
Another thing that makes me feel a bit sad watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the knowledge that both Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, splendid in the lead roles, suffered misfortunes that stopped them reaching the heights of stardom they deserved. Stephens already had an impressive cinematic and theatrical CV when he made the film and was even touted as the successor to Sir Laurence Olivier. Later, however, the break-up of his marriage (to Maggie Smith) and alcoholism took their toll on his career. He got his mojo back in the early 1990s with roles in heavyweight theatrical productions of Henry IV, Julius Caesar and King Lear; but he died in 1995, less than a year after being knighted. Meanwhile, Northern Irish character actor Colin Blakely seemed ubiquitous on TV when I was a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s, but he died in 1987, in his mid-fifties, from leukaemia.
Anyway, here’s a photo of that rediscovered Nessie from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Take a good look at it, all you American right-wing religious nut-jobs out there. It’s the only monster you’re ever likely to see in Loch Ness.