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Topic: [A Thing I Like] Sherlock Holmes - The BBC Radio Dramas  (Read 1154 times)
Permalink  •  May 30, 2015, 02:41:37 PM
[A Thing I Like] Sherlock Holmes - The BBC Radio Dramas
« on: May 30, 2015, 02:41:37 PM »


"It had never been done before and hasn't since: every canonical tale of The Great Detective (plus several new ones) fully dramatised with the same actor as Sherlock Holmes. Only the BBC radio series starring Clive Merrison accomplished this unique feat." ~Gasogene Books

"Alright, bitches! We're going to adapt EVERY MOTHERFUCKING HOLMES STORY." ~Bert Coules (slightly paraphrased)

Sherlock Holmes - we all know this character in some form or another. The original Sherlock Holmes "canon" consists of 56 short stories and 4 novels, written by Arthur Conan Doyle between 1887 and 1927. Beyond that, though, there have been a myriad of adaptations and pastiches in other media - plays, movies, TV shows.

There are also innumerable radio dramas based on Holmes. For a long time, the go-to Holmes radio plays (especially for Americans) were the 1940s series performed by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, already famous for previously starring in several successful Holmes films.

In 1989, the BBC began an ambitious project to create radio adaptations of every original Sherlock Holmes story, in order. Adapting the full canon to another media had (to my knowledge) only been attempted once before, with the exceptional 1980s Granada televison series, though their effort was cut short due to the untimely death of lead actor Jeremy Brett.

The lead writer for this BBC series was a man named Bert Coules. He was very aware that, at the beginning of the 90s, the wide public perception of Holmes and Watson was based on their portrayals by Rathbone and Bruce - an omniscient, infallible Holmes, and a bumbling, dim-witted Watson. From the start, Coules took a subtler, more "human" approach to these characters, and used the deeply faceted relationship between them as a foundation for the stories. It's one of the first mainstream adaptations to portray Sherlock Holmes as a clearly troubled person - not just for his now-well-known drug problems, but also since he's essentially a recluse who has a lot of trouble interacting normally with people. Watson is portrayed as being strong-willed, deeply compassionate to both troubled clients and his closest friend, and more than capable of keeping pace with Holmes during their investigations.
"...what brings them together and what keeps them together is that Watson would love to be Holmes, and Holmes needs to be Watson. Together they make a whole functioning individual." ~Bert Coules

Watson puts Holmes' errors into perspective - from "The Yellow Face"

Of course, these portrayals of Holmes and Watson would need great actors to play them. The leading men of these radio dramas are Clive Merrison (Holmes) and Michael Williams (Watson), pictured above. Just look at 'em! What a great Holmes and Watson.

Merrison knew that Sherlock Holmes is by no means just a calculating, unfeeling automaton (even if Watson half-jokingly accuses him of such). Even if Holmes lacks some empathy for other people, he is obsessive about solving the puzzles set before him. In the original stories, Holmes is enthusiastic or downright manic when a fresh problem grabs his attention, and varyingly temperamental or sulky when he hits a dead-end. Merrison doesn't hesitate to express all these emotions clearly. It's a great thing to have a Sherlock Holmes who is brilliant, but still very much human.

Holmes argues with Inspector Gregson - from "The Greek Interpreter"

Watson is, as mentioned before, a strong and capable person. Depicting him as such is actually more common nowadays, but in the 80s and 90s, anyone writing a Holmes pastiche or adaptation had an uphill struggle to differentiate Watson from the then-popular image of Nigel Bruce's bumbling idiot character from the 1940s films (ironically, Bruce made significant changes to his portrayal once he and Rathbone moved to radio, but by then the damage had been done). Michael Williams elevated the character exceptionally well. The surface of his voice had the gentle warmth of the mustachioed physician, with hard iron from his army years lying just underneath.

Watson takes action when Holmes falls ill - from "The Dying Detective"

Ok, you ask - the characters of Holmes and Watson are portrayed well, but how's the writing besides that? Are these faithful, accurate adaptations of the original stories? They are, but there's a few things to note.
"Because people love the best known stories - The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Speckled Band - they have very fixed ideas about what can and cannot be done with them. With the lesser known stories, a dramatiser can have a bit more fun and freedom." ~Bert Coules
Basically, though the core events and characters of every story are unchanged, some are adapted more "verbatim" than others. The radio dramas depicting the most poular Holmes tales (mostly the early ones) follow the original stories very closely, with only a couple types of edits done due to the radio format. Since the episodes are fixed at 45 minutes, some dialog is abridged. Also, some scenes "cut away" from Holmes and Watson to just focus on other characters. This is significant, since (nearly) all the original stories were written in the first-person from Watson's point of view, so any events Watson wasn't present for (mostly the backstories of the clients) had to be recounted to him via dialog. The radio dramas simply show those scenes in real-time, and if they're not backstory, they're intercut with what Holmes and Watson are doing.

The official forces of law & order hard at work - from "The Noble Bachelor"

As Coules suggests, though, the adaptations of the later (significantly less popular) stories are a little more creative - but always in ways that positively enhance the original writings. A few examples, if you're interested:
Spoiler for Hidden:


In "Charles Augustus Milverton", Holmes goes undercover as a "foul-mouthed plumber" to infiltrate the villain's estate. The details of his ruse are only briefly mentioned to Watson in the original story, but are depicted more fully here - and it's one of Merrison's most delightful performances.


"The Lion's Mane" was a unique story to begin with: written by Holmes rather than Watson, and taking place years after Holmes' retirement to Sussex. It was also miserably dull (Doyle openly admitted to being tired of writing Holmes by this point). In the original, Holmes investigates a death near his home, mostly by himself. Recognizing that Holmes isn't as interesting without his foil, Coules constructs an ingenious frame story for this episode. Watson visits Holmes a few days after the investigation ends, and as a friendly game, Holmes gives Watson only the preliminary details of the case and challenges him to work out the solution in his own way. The intro to the episode, linked above, is technically complete fluff - but it does a great job of establishing what the characters' relationship is like after Holmes' retirement, and is definitely amusing in its own right.


"The Valley of Fear" was the last full-length Holmes novel. It had a problem similar to "A Study In Scarlet" - the first half of it was Holmes working out a mystery, while nearly the entire second half was a huge chunk of rather disconnected backstory for the killer and victim involved in the case, all of it taking place years previously in America. For "A Study In Scarlet" - the first adaptation the BBC crew did! - Coules wisely decided to run the story as written. For "The Valley of Fear", however, he took a clever approach: Rather than present them in two large chunks, Holmes' investigation and the decades-previous American backstory were intercut with each other. Intercut really rapidly, in fact. From the very start, the drama jumps back and forth between Sherlock Holmes and a gang of Pennsylvania coal miners, with the cuts usually occurring just a minute or so apart.  This actually works brilliantly, since when the backstory in a Holmes tale drags too long, there's almost always a "can we get back to the detective now?" feeling. In this case, though, the precise pacing spends just enough time with the backstory for it to be tantalizing. To be fair, it did also help that they had a very talented actor for McMurdo, the main character of the coal miner story.

To sum things up: this series of radio dramas is exceptionally well made, and is hands-down my favorite version of the Sherlock Holmes stories ever. Bert Coules' adaptations offer a subtle blend of honoring the content of the original stories while improving on their presentation with skilled edits for pacing. The production quality is consistently high, as you'd expect of a BBC program. The sheer fact that they adapted every canon story with the same lead actors speaks to the whole crew's commitment and passion.
And of course, there's this: often Sherlock Holmes fans will say that, in their mind, Holmes "is" a certain actor - it could be Basil Rathbone if you sat down to the black-and-white films on cable as a kid, it could be Jeremy Brett if you were fortunate enough to catch the Granada series during its occasional re-runs. For me, though, Sherlock Holmes will always be Clive Merrison.

If you would like to listen to this series, it can easily be found on "the big torrent site". I would (and just did?) recommend it to anyone, especially if you drive to work like I do and need something interesting to occupy such chunks of time.

Oh, and did I mention? There's more...
« Last Edit: May 30, 2015, 02:52:07 PM by Mia Kris »
Permalink  •  May 30, 2015, 02:42:08 PM
Re: [A Thing I Like] Sherlock Holmes - The BBC Radio Dramas
« Reply #1 on: May 30, 2015, 02:42:08 PM »

After the adaptations of the Dolye stories were completed in 1998, it was clear to the BBC that they were a commercial success, sporting high ratings during their broadcast and large numbers of cassette and CD sales afterward. Right away, they approached Bert Coules about keeping things going by writing a series of brand-new stories. Coules agreed, and this new series began broadcasting four years later. There was one very unfortunate obstacle - Michael Williams, the actor who had played Watson during the canon run, died of cancer just before the Further Adventures project began. The BBC made the decision to re-cast, and brought in Andrew Sachs - best known from Fawlty Towers, though with plenty of experience in dramatic roles as well.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was broadcast between 2002 and 2010, with 16 episodes total. There are two obvious questions to ask about this series: Does having a new actor for Watson actually work? As pastiches, are the stories any good? Both of those questions I would absolutely say "yes" to.

"I am not even going to consider comparing Sachs' Watson to that of Williams. It would be patently unfair to both actors." ~Roger Johnson, Sherlock Magazine

Watson gives Holmes a key clue - from "The Peculiar Persecution of Mr. John Vincent Harden"
Andrew Sachs' performance as Watson is admittedly very different from Michael Williams. Not better or worse, but different - different enough that it may be jarring if you listen from the old series straight into the new one, but it's something I got used to quickly. Sachs generally has a softer tone, but still subtly confident. He portrays a version of Watson who is clearly an intellectual man in his own right, if not exactly the type of analytic genius Holmes is. Most importantly, he sounds very natural in his interactions with Clive Merrison, who fortunately was able to reprise his role as Holmes in the new series. After a couple episodes of Further Adventures, I was completely okay with having a Watson who, while very different, I could enjoy and appreciate in his own right.

As for the stories themselves: tremendously enjoyable. Just as he had decided back in '88, Coules wrote these stories with the partnership between Holmes and Watson as the foundation. The two characters are consistently shown working as a team, playing to each of their strengths (Holmes' analytic ability, Watson's subtle social grace) to be greater than the sum of their parts. The mysteries are very cleverly constructed, and I would argue are a fair measure of complexity and subtlety over most of Doyle's originals (keeping in mind that mystery writing as a whole has evolved quite a bit in the last century). Coules presents unique scenarios (a murdered man with a baffling metal object found in his stomach, an unkown client dying moments after arriving at Baker Street), believable and sympathetic characters and villains (an army colonel who attends seances for his dead wife, a sly actor who exploits rumors that he once committed a murder), and a number of twist endings which are just different enough from Doyle's style to be exciting surprises without being cheesy or contrived. The final story - "The Marlbourne Point Mystery" - is novel-length and presented in two parts, has a very unique but awesome ending, and makes great use of the Mycroft Holmes character.

"What is it that Mycroft didn't tell us?" - from "The Marlbourne Point Mystery"

Overall I love this series, it's a very worthy sequel to the adaptations of the canon Holmes stories. If you're going the torrent route, then Further Adventures is kinda split in half between a couple different downloads (??), but just chat at me if you're interested and I can sort it all out.
In west Goomba Village born and raised
Rick
  • In west Goomba Village born and raised
Permalink  •  May 30, 2015, 02:59:17 PM
Re: [A Thing I Like] Sherlock Holmes - The BBC Radio Dramas
« Reply #2 on: May 30, 2015, 02:59:17 PM »

I can attest that these rule!  Its worth a listen to any lover of radioplays and mysteries
Permalink  •  June 04, 2015, 05:47:03 PM
Re: [A Thing I Like] Sherlock Holmes - The BBC Radio Dramas
« Reply #3 on: June 04, 2015, 05:47:03 PM »

These are amazing. I got through all of the canon stories and a few of the newer ones. Though I prefer the older Watson, the newer one was just as good and I found it easy to get used to. My only problem with the new non-Doyle ones is that every so often, it seems like the writers write themselves into a corner and bullshit themselves out. It's rare, but it sticks out. For example, in the mystery where Sherlock's solving a murder done at a theater, there's a moment where he has a "feeling" that something isn't right despite the evidence he has. Though both main characters do point it out as strange for Sherlock, it doesn't excuse the fact that it's out of character anyways. I wished they would've rewritten chunks to flow better and give a better reason for Sherlock to pursue his "feeling" with some evidence. Other than that, I do like the new, creative ideas for new mysteries.

Clive Merrison is also my Sherlock. I watched The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes before listening to these (with Jeremy Brett) and though I love Brett, Merrison brings home the level of manic that I imaged Sherlock having when reading the books. Though Brett certainly does display this well and appropriately, I prefer the level of exaggeration with Merrison.
Permalink  •  June 04, 2015, 09:21:05 PM
Re: [A Thing I Like] Sherlock Holmes - The BBC Radio Dramas
« Reply #4 on: June 04, 2015, 09:21:05 PM »

I did feel that Adelphi was one of the weaker mysteries in the new batch (possibly because it was being written to somewhat match a real-life murder at the same theater) (I don't know much more about that than what my rudimentary Wikipediaing has told me). Though it was a contrivance in that story, there was another instance of Holmes mistrusting evidence based on a "feeling" in The Abergavenny Murder, but it was more... reasonable in that story? Like, it was a case where it actually did make logical sense to explore alternatives to the obvious conclusions one would draw from the evidence in front of them.

Also agree re: Brett vs. Merrison. They both nailed the "manic" side of Holmes (putting them both in a different league from the multitude of dull, emotionless portrayals), but they did it in two very different ways. Brett emphasized Holmes being a downright weird dude, with lots of disconcerting laughs, too-wide smiles, and other "alien" mannerisms. Merrison went the opposite direction - rather than deliberately making Holmes weird, he portrayed him as very believably human. An exceptionally talented human, but human nonetheless, and one who has realistic emotional responses to his own successes and failures.
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