Michael Cox

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Michael Cox

Michael Cox (28 november 1934 - 29 january 2021) was a British director and producer.

Between 1986 and 1991 he produced the Granada TV series Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes.





A man of experience

Born in 1934, Michael Cox acquired a considerable amount of experience during his professional life devoted to television. Beginning as an actor, then stage manager, advertising agent and working in an artistic agency, he entered Granada Television in 1960 and rose through all the ranks, starting from bus driver or handymen. Responsible for local programs or broadcasts of archival material, such as "All Our Yesterdays", he made his first step in the drama field by collaborating as assistant director in the famous series "Coronation Street". Then, having been entrusted by the producer Denis Mitchell the realization of a documentary, he admitted, not without humour, that he had failed miserably and considered himself very happy that his under-performance had been buried without trace. He then happily seized the opportunity to direct the series "Pardon the Expression" (1965), although directing a comedy was a difficult job for him, forgiving no mistakes in how to place and film the actors. Cox's career had begun and he was to become a producer and then executive producer, in keeping with his vocation: "I am unable to conduct a symphony, a piece or a sonata," he wrote, "but I was perfectly sure that I could organize the forces necessary to bring a drama to life. These forces are considerable and very costly. It must have been Orson Welles who said: 'a painter needs a brush, a writer needs a pen, but a producer needs an army.'" Michael Cox has produced series evoking the problems of contemporary society, such as "Sam" (1973-1975), and "Period Dramas" belonging to the past, such as the Victorian Scandals series (1976). Nevertheless, in 1989 Granada thanked him after thirty years of good and loyal service when the company, adopting a liberal policy resolutely oriented towards profit, was getting rid of its historical collaborators and hundreds of employees. In 1990, Cox returned to conduct The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, but as an independent producer. Thus, his experience is not limited to the field of his professional speciality. It also extends to the harsh and bitter experience resulting from the political and economic evolution of his country and its merciless consequences on the management of companies and the lives of their employees.

Before the Sherlock Holmes series

In 1965-1966, Michael Cox was commissioned to produce "Pardon the Expression", a sitcom based on the popular series "Coronation Street". In this entertaining series, for a family audience, Leonard Swindley (played by Arthur Lowe), deputy manager of the Dobson and Hawks department stores, struggles between management's demands and the reluctance of its employees. His female staff, who have affection for him, often help him get out of the mess he has made. In 1967, Cox attacked the police genre with "Mr Rose", which became a cult series. Charles Rose, a police inspector, has retired to write his memoirs, but the approach to their publication brings out of the shadows a whole criminal fauna fearing that his misdeeds will be revealed, and Rose, assisted by her beautiful secretary Drusilla and her enigmatic servant John, must return to work. What Michael Cox wanted to produce were films or series specially written for television and which were not based, as was too often the case for him, on violent or sensational scenarios involving only cops, doctors or politicians. His wishes were fulfilled in 1970 with "A Family at War" (producer Richard Doubleday, associate producer Michael Cox), a series written by the famous screenwriter John Finch that shows the impact of the Second World War on a lower middle-class family, the Ashtons, from 1938 to 1945. Played by Colin Douglas, Barbara Flynn and Leslie Nunnerley, this captivating series with well-drawn characters, which faithfully depicted the daily life during the conflict, was a huge success and broke audience records. According to Cox: the scriptwriter, with his own unique voice, had conveyed the human condition, but in a popular form, as Dickens had done in his time. In the same realistic and contemporary line, Cox produced in 1973-1975 the series "Sam", his favourite work in his thirty-year career, also written by John Finch, in which we see a young boy born between the two world wars in the mines of Yorkshire growing up there, then leaving it to fight the social and political battles that continue to this day. After Sam, Cox tackled works as diverse as "Victorian Scandals" (1976), a series inspired by famous real-life scandals, "The Danedyke Mystery" (1979), a thriller based on a novel by Stephen Chance and whose detective is a country pastor, or "Fallen Hero" (1979), a remarkably performed family drama. The fallen hero is Gareth Hopkins (played by Del Henney), a professional rugby player and Don Juan, whose knee injury permanently interrupted his career. He will try to rebuild his life and marriage, which has been seriously compromised. The role of his wife, Dorothy, is played by Wanda Ventham, mother of Benedict Cumberbatch. In the 1980s, Michael Cox's activity was no less varied. He produced "Bedroom Farce" (1980), Alan Ayckbourn's hilarious comedy acted by the National Theatre and filmed for television, "The double Dealer" (1980), adapted from William Congreve's play, and "Christmas Spirits" (1982), a television film directed by June Wyndham-Davies, in which Julia, a real estate agent, is seen looking for a sinister house to make a horror film. She will find more than she expected. In 1981, the mini series "My Father's House" followed, the story of a young girl who gave up her protected life to join and try to understand her father who had left her and her mother when she was a child (directed by Alan Grint) and in 1982, "A Kind of Loving", adapted from Stan Barstow's novels, where Vic Brown, a minor's son, trapped in a marriage badly matched by his friend's pregnancy, tries to escape the life intended for him by his family and society. This series, performed with talent by Clive Wood, Joane Whalley, Susan Penhaligan, and which perfectly recreates the living conditions and atmosphere of the years 1957 to 1973, was as successful as Coronation Street. It was also in 1982 that Michael Cox produced his first Sherlock Holmes movie, Young Sherlock Holmes (The Mystery of the Manor House). Sherlock, seventeen years old and played by Guy Henry, is returning home early due to the typhoid epidemic hitting his school. But there is a poisoned atmosphere at the mansion. A priceless diamond disappears and Sherlock unmasks a conspiracy against Queen Victoria. In 1985, Cox became executive producer of "Time for Murder", a series of six thrilling detective stories, brilliant dialogues and dark humour. The remarkable cast includes John Castle, Joan Hickson, Patrick Allen, Patricia Hodge, and was directed by David Carson. Between 1983 and 1986, he produced "Shades of Darkness", broadcasted in the USA as "Mystery!" (PBS) : seven short mysterious dramas, written by Edith Wharton and Elisabeth Bowen, which all end up taking a supernatural and horrible turn, but without excessive violence. So when Michael Cox began the Sherlock Holmes series, he was a recognized and particularly experienced producer.

Michael Cox, initiator and prime contractor of the Sherlock Holmes series


Sherlock Holmes, a twists and turns story

Cox is really the father of the Sherlock Holmes series. Without him, it would not have existed. Indeed, it was he who, a fine connoisseur and fervent admirer of Arthur Conan Doyle, realized that Sherlock Holmes' stories had finally fallen into the public domain and that the great detective had hardly been seen on television screens for ten years. He was the one who convinced Granada's management that it was possible to achieve a great success by producing a colour version of Sherlock Holmes' adventures for a new generation of spectators.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes broadcasted, Cox thought he could safely resume his duties as head of the drama series department (suspended at this time) and entrust June Wyndham-Davies with the task of producing The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which he merely supervised as executive producer. Perhaps if Cox, an outstanding manager, had been able to stay in charge, the series would not have been ruined by the shooting of The Devil's Foot and Silver Blaze. Perhaps the last two episodes could have been carried out, which would have spared her and her producer the unfortunate task of shooting The Hound of the Baskervilles without the necessary means, in order to provide despite all the two hours of scheduled entertainment. Licensed in 1989 by Granada, who eliminated one after the other the dinosaurs to which it owed its reputation, Cox returned to produce The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes as an independent producer at the request of David Plowright, who was soon to be forced to leave in his turn. After the Casebook had been successfully completed, Jeremy Brett stated that he would no longer shoot new Sherlock Holmes. Michael Cox took the actor's comments too seriously, whose bipolar illness made his mood unstable, and who was probably upset not to be offered any Sherlock Holmes films for the cinema, while Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley paraded around on the big screen in Without A Clue. The producer, believing that the series Sherlock Holmes would not have any follow-up, agreed to do a television adaptation of Inspector Maigret. Fatal error: finally, Brett agreed to return for The memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, when Cox was no longer available. However, Granada claiming to force him to make Maigret in Hungary rather than France, to save on wages, the producer rebelled and broke his contract. Cox therefore saw The Memoirs as an informed but impotent spectator, and perhaps it was sometimes painful for him to witness drifts whose extent he would surely have tried to limit, if he had been in charge. But he had let his "child" escape him and from now on, he could do nothing to protect him.

Invisible but omnipresent

The producer's name does appear on the credits, but his face does not appear on the screen and his work remains almost invisible to the public, unlike that of the director and especially that of the actors, who capture the attention, admiration and fervour of the audience. And yet, his influence is omnipresent.

Cox defined the spirit of the series. First of all, he decided, it would be faithful to Conan Doyle. The producer knew Sherlock Holmes' stories perfectly well. He felt all the less need to consult a specialist in the work of the Victorian novelist because he feared "the sometimes abstruse speeches of modern literary critics". Cox was also aware of the controversies that Conan Doyle's stories had triggered, such as the debate about the possibility that tire tracks would indicate in which direction the Priory School bicycle was riding, and he had read the works of many specialists, such as Richard Lancelyn Green. He did not hesitate to ask the scriptwriter of The Crooked man, Alfred Shaughnessy, to correct his text several times, which seemed too far removed from the original and, his fidelity bordering on purism, he showed little enthusiasm for sequences due to the imagination of the adapters and highly appreciated by the audience, such as the fire alarm triggered at the end of The Solitary Cyclist by Holmes' chemical experiment. The omission of any typical detail, such as the sports newspaper that protrudes from Breckinridge's pocket, telling Holmes that the poultry trader is a gambler, left him with persistent regrets. But being faithful to Conan Doyle's spirit was above all, according to Elizabeth Trembley, to highlight what is the essential interest of her stories, that is, not her intrigues, sometimes incomplete, implausible or inconsistent, but the deep relationship between Holmes and Watson. According to her, Cox has succeeded perfectly, by keeping in the objective medium of film the perspective of a first-person narrative. At the beginning of A Scandal in Bohemia, for example, Watson's voiceover shares his apprehensions with us. We see him climbing the famous steps in silence and stopping in front of the door. When he opens it, the camera's eye merges with his gaze, because what he shows us are the details that the Doctor, worried, immediately notices. But we also discover the feelings that are painted on her face: worry, annoyance, anger. Watson's central role as the source of the narrative, continues Elizabeth Tremblay, highlights her relationship with Holmes and highlights the detective's human traits. We see it through Watson's alternatively admiring, perplexed, amused, worried, frightened or compassionate gaze, which touches us and influences our own vision. Being faithful to Conan Doyle also meant, for Michael Cox, restoring the real Watson. Not the friendly and entertaining clown played by Nigel Bruce, whose presence Sherlock Holmes could not have endured for twenty-four hours, but the brave soldier, the competent doctor, the writer, and above all the determined and loyal friend infinitely dear to the great detective. However, since the Doctor's marriages were an impenetrable mystery, Cox and Hawkesworth decided that, in the series, he would remain single. The producer, Brett and Hardwicke thought that Conan Doyle must have regretted getting Watson out of Baker Street by marrying him. But Cox also wanted to be faithful to the material world in which Conan Doyle's stories took place. That's why, with the help of associate producer Stuart Doughty and research fellow Nick Cooney, he reviewed all the stories to establish The Baker Street File, a record of the objects used by the two partners and their daily habits. He also supervised the reconstruction of Baker Street in Manchester, a masterpiece by the brilliant designer Michael Grimes.

He made several decisive choices

Cox had to, in collaboration with John Hawkesworth, select the Sherlock Holmes stories most likely to make it to the screen. It was a delicate task, because no short stories, even among the weakest, is without interest, qualities or salient features. But some of them are difficult to adapt on film. This is the case with The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb, where everything is already finished by the time the detective arrives at the scene. The producer also had to choose the directors and writers. It might have been desirable for all scripts to be written by the same author, but Cox's deadlines were too short: to be sure that all texts were ready on time, he had to have nine scriptwriters working simultaneously. Finally, Cox made a decisive choice, that of the occupants of 221B, Baker Street. To his great relief, Jeremy Brett accepted the role of the great detective and David Burke the role of the good doctor. It was obviously essential that Michael Cox's Holmes and Watson were able to convince and seduce the audience. But even if their hostess, Mrs. Hudson, appears only briefly and occasionally in the episodes, who will deny that the dignity, warmth and humour that Rosalie Williams gave to this character contributes greatly to the appeal of the series?

He stuck to the concrete realities

The producer does not glide in the azure of the artistic ideal. He faces the constraints of rough reality, according to the Rimbaldian expression. The difference between a director and a producer, writes Cox, is that the director chooses the shooting sites, the pretty actresses and tells the story through images and sounds. The producer is responsible for the budget. This is why directors generally appear young and happy, while producers turn grey early. Legitimately concerned about financing problems, Cox, at David Plowright's suggestion, sold the series in advance to the American company PBS. This would give him a larger budget. However, he discovered a little late that, because American legislation differed from British law, some of Conan Doyle's late stories were still under copyright. The rights had been bought by Lorindy Pictures, which Granada had to compensate. Realistic and practical, Cox never lost sight of the numbers. If during the adaptation of Silver Blaze Hawkesworth was bothered by Conan Doyle's error, which makes his masked thoroughbred run while the laws of turf strictly prohibit this practice, the executive producer, on the other hand, pulled his hair out by thinking about the cost of the crowd of extras in costume and praise horses required by the reconstruction of the Wessex Cup. Fifty pounds per extra, fifty for the rental of the suit, plus compulsory insurance. It is because of the considerable cost of figuration that the concert given by the famous Sarasate seems to have so little success in The Red-Headed League. Cox backed away from the amount of money needed to show a full room. The fire scenes may be moderately exciting, but they are economical! Faced with financial problems, Cox deployed a remarkable trick without respite. Part of The Riddle of Thor Bridge was to be shot in the majestic residence of Capesthorne, which houses an invaluable collection of Greek ceramics. Cox's team was allowed to have the precious objects moved by an expert, on condition that they paid insurance, the staggering amount of which made the producer shudder. Confident in the skill of his technicians and decorators, he asked them to build false partitions, which would protect the collection while making it invisible. This avoided huge insurance costs.

He put into practice a consummate art of compromise

If principles are one thing, inescapable facts are another, and Cox, a realistic spirit par excellence, often and skilfully practiced the very precious art of compromise.

No one was more concerned than him about remaining faithful to Conan Doyle's work. But meeting the legitimate expectations of the audience is just as important in the entertainment world. A low audience rate, the producer writes, means relegating it to the least favourable time slots, reducing the budget and ultimately, no more budget at all. Would viewers be satisfied with an adaptation of The Greek Interpreter where, according to Conan Doyle's short story, the action would stop at the escape of Kemp, Latimer and Sophie, whose future fate would remain unclear? It was highly unlikely. To prevent the audience from being frustrated, Cox agreed that talented screenwriter Derek Marlowe would settle the fate of the two criminals and Sophie Kratides in a spectacular, suspenseful and action-packed outcome. It was even less possible to adapt The Final Problem than The Greek Interpreter as it stood, Conan Doyle, only aspiring to get rid of his cumbersome hero, having included no enigma. How can we show The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes without mentioning the alleged death of the great detective? But how do you fill the fifty minutes of an episode with a plot as thin as the one of the Final Problem? John Hawkesworth, a respectful admirer of the original story if ever there was one, had to add to the original story the case of the theft of the Mona Lisa by Moriarty, eager to sell fraudulent copies at a golden price. Holmes having defeated his scheme, the hatred he inspired in the Napoleon of crime was at the same time perfectly explained. While the tyranny of the fifty minutes forced Cox to accept that Hawkesworth would flesh out The Final Problem, the producer realized too late that it had led, in Wisteria Lodge, to cut passages that were in fact essential to understanding the story.

While the public's requirements had to be taken into account, it was no less necessary to deal with those of the actors. Brett, conquered by Conan Doyle's work, did not want to hear about cutting or adding a line. During the filming of The Naval Treaty, he wanted to keep the "speech of the rose", which Jeremy Paul had abbreviated, in its entirety. Cox felt he could take the risk of giving in to him. He did well, because this charming scene adds an interesting dimension to the character of Holmes and reinforces the appeal of the episode. But the producer was inflexible about Nancy Barclay and Henry Wood's reunion in The Crooked Man. Conan Doyle's story makes them meet by chance, without witnesses, in the glow of a lamppost, while in the adaptation, Henry Wood, who came to get old clothes at the mission, suddenly recognizes Nancy among the charitable ladies in charge of distribution. Not only Jeremy Brett, but also David Burke, rose up in protest: the lack of intimacy killed, according to them, the emotion that should have emanated from the poignant reunion of the former handsome soldier, now miserable and deformed, and the woman he loved and who still loved him thirty years after their last interview. But Cox thought of the cars, the illuminated signs and television antennas that should have been removed, the modern streetlights and facades that should have been covered up, the considerable cost of shooting at night, and the horrific image of the total amount required by the operation gave him the strength to hold on.

The producer also had to try to reconcile the public's desire to feel strong emotions, which are present in the original stories, with respect for his taboos. The highlight of The Speckled Band is the moment when Holmes, seeing the "swamp adder", hits her with his stick. But the English are reputed to hate animal abuse and Cox feared that hitting an unintelligent beast without it having attacked you would be considered cruel. The scene therefore takes place in a semi-darkness where one guesses more than sees the action taking place. To avoid disappointment for some spectators, the sequence of Holmes' attack on the snake is shown in slow motion, in reddish light, only after the credits. Cox later feared that censorship would blame him for Blessington's hanging in The Resident Patient. Fortunately, this was not the case, but the series was less fortunate with Wisteria Lodge, which led to a charge of gratuitous violence by the Broadcasting Standards Council. Times have changed a lot!

Cox managed the problems of all kinds that rained down on the series, and which ranged from the last-minute defection of the initially hired director, John Davies, replaced at short notice with admirable efficiency by Paul Annett, to the health problems of his star and the constraining desires of the Granada company, which wanted to use the series to test the new equipment and techniques that the major American television channels were now demanding. Subject to multiple and often contradictory demands, Michael Cox nevertheless managed to preserve the delicate balance between fidelity to the original work, concern to meet public expectations and financial imperatives. A feat that Jeremy Brett was able to appreciate and for which he had a well-deserved respect!

  • Credits : Monique Claisse (text), Sarah Fava (photos).
  • Sources : Bending the Willow (David Stuart Davies), A Study in Celluloïd (Michael Cox), Granada Television, The First Generation (John Finch, Michael Cox & Julia Hallam), It's a Print ! Detective Fiction from Page to Screen (Williams Reynolds & Elizabeth Tremblay).