ACDaptations: The Leather Funnel (1973)

In this new irregular feature, we'll take a look at adaptations of Conan Doyle stories on stage and screen. This time it's an adaptation of Conan Doyle's 1902 short story The Leather Funnel for an episode of Orson Welles Great Mysteries from 1973 starring Christopher Lee, Simon Ward and Jane Seymour.

In 1973, Anglia Television, the commercial station serving the east of England, produced a now little remembered anthology TV series called Orson Welles Great Mysteries (sans apostrophe, to my horror). Themed around the chilling and macabre, the series adapted works by W. W. Jacobs, O. Henry, Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens and others, producing 26 well-crafted 25-minute episodes that first aired during 1973-74. The second episode of the series was The Leather Funnel, adapted from the 1902 short story by David Ambrose under the story supervision of Donald Wilson. Starring Christopher Lee, Simon Ward and Jane Seymour, it first aired on 8 September 1973.

Each episode follows a simple formula familiar to anyone who has seen The Twilight Zone. The haunting title sequence features Orson Welles, silhouetted in black cape and fedora, walking through a disused industrial building while a banging theme by James Bond’s John Barry oozes Seventies' chic. Welles then appears in super close-up and, in between chomping on a cigar and puffing smoke at the camera, muses on the episode's theme with a voice like granite. In tonight’s case, the theme is dreams, why they happen and the receptiveness of the subconscious mind. We will come back to this theme later…

The action shifts to Paris in 1974 where Stephen Barrow (Simon Ward) waits in the gothic apartment of Monsieur Arnaud (Christopher Lee). One suspects the ‘Paris, 1974’ caption was required because, bar the outfits, the setting could easily be seventy years earlier. The transposition of the story to present day has little real impact on the story but does mean there is only one time-hop in the adventure - back to the seventeenth century as opposed to 1902 and the seventeenth century.

Barrow has come to Paris to surprise Arnaud’s niece, Veronique, whom he met in London. Arnaud, after chiding Barrow for the dry ginger in his drink (“If you will insist on treating your whiskey as a cordial…”), explains the macabre collection of objects in the room. Most belonged to Veronique’s father, Arnaud’s brother-in-law: “Like myself, he believed that an interest in the occult was wholly compatible with the pursuit of modern scientific knowledge… The superstition of one age; the scientific knowledge and truth of another…” It’s a nice nod to Conan Doyle’s own belief that phenomena that was inexplicable in his day would be readily accepted in the future.

Among the objects is a leather funnel, and Arnaud asks what Barrow of it. The scene is nicely adapted and has less of the Sherlockian deduction feeling of the original story. Barrow observes the coat of arms and wonders if it is that of Veronique. Alas, no, explains Arnaud, the coat of arms passes down the direct male line of succession. “And now, sadly…” Arnaud tails off, his eyes glaze over and he has to snap himself back to reality. Lee’s performance is laden with meaning.

In delightfully British fashion, Arnaud skirts around the reason for Barrow’s visit. Barrow explains he has come to Paris to propose to Veronique. Arnaud, his back to Barrow, momentarily freezes and Barrow fears he has offended him. But Arnaud quickly recovers and, after a quick telling glance to the funnel, offers to refill his guest’s drink.

And here’s where it all starts to go peculiar: Arnaud spikes Barrow’s whiskey. He then launches into a discourse on the funnel, dreams, and the capacity of objects to hold psychic recording of past events. In one of the few nods to the contemporary setting, Arnaud compares objects to video tapes. Here, the screenplay lifts Nigel Kneale’s classic Christmas ghost story The Stone Tape, broadcast just six months earlier, in which a haunted house acts as the recording medium and ghosts are past events replayed for those who are receptive. Veronique’s father once tested Arnaud for his receptiveness, and what more receptive state is there than sleep...

The fascinating point, from an adaptation point of view, is that Arnaud’s description of the test he was subjected to could easily be the events of the original story. Arnaud could plausibly be the anonymous narrator who travels to that peculiar small house on Ave. Wagram to meet with Veronique’s father, the occultist Lionel Dacre. In which case, we are witnessing the consequences on Arnaud of his chilling dream.

Barrow falls asleep and dreams the seventeenth century trial of a young woman. The setting is almost exactly as in the Conan Doyle story, with Veronique standing before the court, a priest waving a crucifix before her eyes. But where the words cannot be heard in the story, creating mystery about her circumstances, here every word is spoken aloud. As a result, we know immediately that this woman, Madame Madeleine d’Aubray, has been found guilty of the murder of her father and two brothers. If we were in doubt of the veracity of the court’s decision, Seymour’s hard, cruel eyes and her refusal to repent casts our doubts aside. D’Aubray, fighting her terror, is led by a torturer down to the dungeon, where we see the funnel, the table with straps, and a bucket of water...

The decision to reveal d’Aubray’s crimes here, before the single advert break mid-way through the episode, marks one of two significant changes in the story. D’Aubray gains some agency as a result, but at the cost of the attendant mystery of her actions and potential innocence. The reason for this is that Orson Welles Great Mysteries wants to tell a slightly enlarged version of The Leather Funnel, one that now quickly descends into a rash confusion of ideas.

Barrow awakens - “What in God’s name…!” – and Arnaud insists the young man was witnessing the past. Taking up an old volume, Arnaud proceeds to recount the trial and punishment of Madame Madeleine d’Aubray. The report is a paraphrased version of Dacre’s account from the original story with one significant difference: Mme d’Aubray failed in her attempt to murder a third brother. Arnaud reveals that d’Aubray “swore that one day she would return to complete the tasks where she had failed - the death of her father and all three brothers, ending forever the line of d’Aubray.”

With this bombshell still ringing, Veronique arrives – and we see that she is the image of Madeleine d’Aubray. Barrow is stunned (though both parts are played by Seymour so you would have thought he would have raised this before now). Arnaud tells Veronique he has told Barrow everything. Veronique pleads to Barrow that it is all a trick: Arnaud controls her money and will do so until she has married (shades of A Case of Identity). In response, Arnaud reveals that Veronique’s father and three brothers died in a fire that started in her nursery when she was six.

At this point, we have a right to be confused as layers of detail are thrown at the screen in less than sixty seconds. Veronique insists she is not “that woman” but Barrow is spooked and makes his escape. Arnaud apologises to Veronique, but she angrily dismisses him. Alone, she looks in the window and sees the figure of Madame d’Aubray laughing back at her.

And there the story ends – with an abrupt left turn into a tale about reincarnation and revenge. Orson Welles reappears, smoking a stogie the size of a banana, and tries to bring us back on course: Stephen and Veronique might have lived happily, but Stephen chose to flee to save his life or reason. And with a final musing on what weird power influenced Barrow’s dream, Orson is back to his derelict workshop and that stonking Barry theme.

The inclusion of the reincarnation plot feels like Ambrose et al thought Conan Doyle's story was insufficient to fill 25 minutes but the problem is that their inclusions compromise the integrity of the story they want to tell. If Veronique had killed her father and brothers, what threat was there to Stephen as the d’Aubray name wouldn’t transfer to him on their marriage? If Veronique was genuinely a man-hating psychotic, why had Arnaud survived all these years? What did Madeleine d’Aubray have against her family anyway? Was Arnaud’s motivation quite as innocent as we are led to believe? Where does Orson get all those cigars?

These shortcomings aside, The Leather Funnel is a very entertaining adaptation of the Conan Doyle original. The transposition to the present day, for all it is unnecessary, means we only have to time-hop once and Barrow’s marriage proposal creates an uneasy tension between himself and Arnaud which adds suspense. Christopher Lee is absolutely superb as Arnaud, playing each line with careful consideration, while Simon Ward is perfect for the innocent Barrow. Jane Seymour, for all she is on screen only briefly, plays both parts well, though it is not clear what Veronique is actually thinking at the end, a problem the actor inherited from the confused script.

If there’s one takeaway from the episode, it’s this: the first TV magnate who realises that Conan Doyle’s gothic tales can be sensitively updated for a contemporary audience will have tapped into a very rich seam indeed. Now that’s an anthology series I would love to see.

The Leather Funnel is included in Orson Welles Great Mysteries - Volume One DVD available from Network.

As an aside…

  • Orson Welles purportedly recorded all his sequences for the series on one day in July 1973. He certainly glances quite a bit to his right during his sequences suggesting use of cue cards. We briefly touched on Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The Lost Special in Episode 5.
  • The adaptation was by David Ambrose who would go on to write the frankly hilarious Pierce Brosnan movie Taffin (1988).
  • Seymour had just shot to fame as Solitaire in Roger Moore’s first Bond film, Live and Let Die (1973). Christopher Lee would star in Moore’s next Bond outing, The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), as the villainous triple-nippled Scaramanga.
  • In explaining the connection between superstition and science, Arnaud comments on “astronomy alongside astrology, psychic research alongside nuclear physics.” I’d love someone to explain what psychic research has to do with nuclear physics...
  • In one of the more peculiar beats in the story, Arnaud spits out his hostility to the Church: “In God’s name… The things men have done in God’s name.” One would have thought he might have more reason to align with the Church given the apparent persistent haunting of his in-laws!
  • Anglia TV would resurrect the series' format for Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988), perhaps the greatest British anthology TV series of all time. Introduced by Roald Dahl, it started with Dahl’s short stories before branching out to other authors. It also has a banging TV theme, this time by Doctor Who’s Ron Grainer.
  • Story supervision was by Donald Wilson, the former BBC Head of Serials who, in 1963, with Sydney Newman and C. E. “Bunny” Webber oversaw the development of Doctor Who.