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Elementary film adventure which outraged city fathers


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Bill McAllister.
Bill McAllister.

Written by Inverness Courier columnist Bill McAllister

Inverness Town Council considered it sacrilege to be involved; it purported to show Queen Victoria at Loch Ness; and it left an interesting man called Wally Veevers totally dejected.

The film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes premiered 50 years ago this week in London and, though attracting indifferent reviews at the time, its reputation has been greatly enhanced in recent years.

Indeed, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, creators of the award-winning TV series Sherlock, cite the film as their main inspiration.

US director Billy Wilder came to Inverness and Loch Ness from May to December 1969 to make the film he had dreamed of making for 10 years, spending a whopping $10 million on the production.

Wilder had won Oscars for Lost Weekend with Ray Milland, Sunset Boulevard featuring Gloria Swanson, and The Apartment starring Jack Lemmon, while Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Lemmon again remains an enduringly popular comedy.

Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely were hired to play Holmes and Watson, with Christopher Lee as Holmes’ brother. The female lead, Genevieve Page, is still alive in her native Paris.

The plot involved eight “midget monks” recruited as crew for a pre-First World War British Navy submarine being tested on Loch Ness disguised as a sea monster.

The little men were actually German spies – and for a scene featuring them in a graveyard, Wilder asked Inverness Town Council to allow the use of Tomnahurich Cemetery. Nowadays, Highland Council bends over backwards to help film companies because of the value they bring, but then councillors refused, calling the plan “an act of profanity” and the Church of St Mary, Winkfield, Berkshire was used instead.

Allowing filming in Tomnahurich Cemetery was unthinkable for city councillors in the 1960s.
Allowing filming in Tomnahurich Cemetery was unthinkable for city councillors in the 1960s.

Was the refusal the reason the premiere was not held in Inverness – as it would be, with a procession led by Provost Bill Fraser, for the 1996 premiere of Loch Ness starring Ted Danson?

The diminutive monks are seen on screen at a railway station with a sign declaring it Inverness though it was actually Nairn station which was used as the location.

Urquhart Castle and the loch feature prominently in the film as “Queen Victoria” turns up to inspect the submarine, only to object to its use as “unsporting”.

The Drumnadrochit Hotel and Kilmartin Hall on Loch Meiklie are also locations, while key actors manage to go on a leisurely bicycle ride which takes them past both Castle Stuart and Eilean Donan Castle – an exceedingly energetic exercise!

The film company made Wilder slash the film by an hour before releasing it to a tepid public reception, but award-winning author Jonathan Coe said recently: “It was the first Billy Wilder film I’d seen and it remains my favourite. I fell in love with its strange combination of comedy and aching melancholy.”

An extended version was released in 1994 while a Blu-ray version in 2014 proved extremely popular with a younger generation.

And Wally Veevers? He was a pioneering special effects man whose projects included Dr Strangelove and 2001 – A Space Odyssey along with Battle of Britain, which he finished just before heading to Inverness.

Tasked with building a 30-foot-long Loch Ness Monster, Veevers produced one with two humps which Wilder insisted he remove, despite being warned the humps’removal could affect buoyancy. The creation does appear in the film, but while being towed by a boat to a lochside pier, the model sank.

Four years ago his missing monster was spotted by an underwater camera scanning the loch bottom, the last curious relic of Sherlock Holmes’ Highland journey.



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