‘How are things on the sub-continent?’ is a phrase that looms large in my notes for Without A Clue, a Sherlock Holmes spoof from 1988. It’s uttered by Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), an actor hired by Dr Watson (Ben Kingsley) to play the role of the Baker Street detective, a fictional character of his own invention. It’s a line that evokes the casual, avuncular attitudes of a bygone era, and one of a number of neat touches that make Without A Clue something of a sleeper success.
Without A Clue found few takers on initial release, and yet it’s a clever take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. Caine and Kingsley relish the challenge of flipping their characters; Holmes is dominant in public, but is cowed and bullied in private. Watson, by contrast, has to maintain a meek façade when solving crimes, but is quick to asset his intellect when the two are left alone together.
And yes, there’s a crime to be solved; stolen, or rather switched bank-plates means that the Bank of England have been accidentally issuing forgeries, while the criminals concerned have the ability to make real banknotes. Moriarty (Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman) is, of course, at the heart of the scandal, with Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) less than hot on his trail. Thom Eberhardt’s film didn’t pleae critics with it’s route-one plotting, but it makes for an accessible, lighthearted film.
A short, amausing scene with Norman Greenhough (Peter Cook), based on the real-life publisher of The Strand Magazine, establishes that Without A Clue knows how to play fast and loose with history when it comes to London legends of the period, and it’s also nice to see such Conan Doyle ephemera like the Baker Street Irregulars make an appearance. Without a Clue didn’t offer the sex or anti-authority comedy that was fashionable at the box-office in the 1980’s, but it’s well performed by the stars and offers a fresh, charming if rather silly take on beloved characters.