THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK
Clive Merrison, Andrew Sachs, Timothy West, Tom Baker
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
Hundreds of radio adaptations of the Holmes
stories have been transmitted since the American National Broadcasting
Company aired a version of The Speckled Band in 1930. That
production starred William Gillette, an actor who had, by then, toured
with his Sherlock Holmes stage plays for three decades. Since then dozens
of actors have tackled the role of Holmes, and there have been nearly as
many different actors playing Watson.
Despite this, it took nearly seventy years before a
broadcaster managed the remarkable feat of dramatising for radio the
entire Sherlock Holmes canon - all fifty-six short stories and the four
novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - using the same actors playing
Holmes and his friend and biographer Doctor John Watson.
A couple of long-running Sherlock Holmes
radio series came close, though. The
famous feature film Holmes-and-Watson partnership of Basil Rathbone and Nigel
Bruce starred in a series of American radio adaptations that started in 1939. They
started with the Doyle stories, virtually exhausting them within a
couple of years, but then began adding original tales to the line-up. Although the series ran
until 1947, and they adapted some of the Doyle stories more than once, a
few of the canonical tales eluded them.
On this side of the Atlantic, the BBC
broadcast about fifty of the stories between 1952 and 1969, in adaptations
starring Carleton Hobbes as Holmes and Norman Shelley as Watson. Holmes
returned to the BBC airwaves several times in the seventies and eighties,
but none of these productions ran for very long, despite the best efforts
of stars like Barry Foster, Robert Powell and Tim Piggot-Smith.
Enter freelance writer Bert Coules. He had
written a number of short radio plays for the Corporation, and was eager
to tackle something more substantial. He asked if he could write
a new radio adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles and, to his
surprise, the BBC agreed.
Coules' two-part Hound... was
broadcast in 1988. It featured Royal Shakespeare Company star Roger Rees
as Holmes (a last-minute replacement, after the contracted actor bailed on
the production), and Scottish actor Crawford Logan, as Watson.
The new Hound of the Baskervilles
was well-received, but not a resounding success. Coules pursued the idea of
further Holmes radio adaptations. The BBC was agreeable, but
requested that the leading roles be re-cast. This process created the
pairing that would eventually star in new adaptations of the entire canon:
veteran actors Clive Merrison as Sherlock Holmes, and Michael Williams as Doctor John
That was in 1989. It took nearly nine years
to complete the canon, ending with a new version of The Hound of the
Baskervilles, one of the most problematic stories for dramatists,
because Holmes is ostensibly absent for much of the narrative.
The Merrison / Williams series of adaptations should need no
recommendation from me. If Rathbone and Bruce are the definitive movie
Holmes and Watson, and Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke / David Burke are
the definitive TV Holmes and Watson, then Merrison and Williams are
the definitive radio Holmes and Watson.
ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
Three years after
the BBC completed the Doyle canon, to understandable critical and public acclaim, Merrison was once again summoned to play The Great Detective for the BBC
Radio Drama Department.
Bert Coules had
been asked to write a series of five new
adventures for Holmes, each based on a passing reference in one of the
Doyle stories. These would feature the same key actors, and be
produced by (more or less) the same production team, ensuring strong
"sound-and-feel" continuity with the earlier Merrison adaptations.
Coules, who wrote twenty-four of the Merrison short story adaptations and
all four of the novel adaptations, captures the rhythm and style of
Doyle's dialogue perfectly, making the transition from
listening to the canonical stories to these new stories virtually
seamless. Admittedly, Coules isn't able to match the very best of Conan Doyle's stories, but
the crème of The Further Adventures... is certainly better than the
weaker canonical tales.
Williams' untimely death, in January 2001, meant that the BBC were forced
to cast another actor to play Watson. They chose Andrew Sachs, a veteran
performer, who will forever be remembered as Manuel, in Fawlty Towers.
Sachs had already been featured in the Merrison series: he played the King
of Bohemia in the first of the short stories to be adapted, A Scandal
Hearing a new voice playing Watson
alongside Merrison's Holmes, after listening to Michael Williams for
dozens of adventures, is quite a shock, and takes some getting used to. Sachs' Watson isn't quite as
amiable as Williams's was. Set apart, it would be a fine portrayal, but in
close proximity to his predecessor, he seems somewhat clipped and brusque.
The first series of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes made
debut in January 2002. There were five episodes, four of which have
finally been released on CD by BBC Audiobooks. A second series of five
episodes aired in 2004, and four of them were released on CD shortly
afterwards. This leaves two episodes still unreleased (The Peculiar
Persecution of Mr John Vincent Hardin, from season one, and The
Striking Success of Miss Franny Blossum, from season two).
The four episodes
on this disc (which should, by all that's sensible, be labelled "Volume
1", but isn't) are: The Madness of Colonel Warburton, The Star
of the Adelphi, The Saviour of Cripplegate Square and The
Singular Inheritance of Miss Gloria Wilson.
Madness of Colonel Warburton
"Of all the problems which have been
submitted to my friend Mr Sherlock Holmes for solution during the years of
our intimacy, there were only two which I was the means of introducing to
his notice, that of Mr Hatherley's thumb and that of Colonel Warburton's
madness." - Doctor John Watson, The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb
The son of Colonel Warburton, Watson's
former commanding officer, engages Holmes' services, fearing that his
father's post-bereavement interest in spiritualism will ruin the family's
reputation, and cause financial ruin. Holmes, in turn,
asks Watson to attend a séance...
The first story in this collection plays
with Conan Doyle's well-documented fascination with spiritualism and the
paranormal. Doyle's interest - in later life, his obsession - manifested
itself around the same time as the first Holmes story, A Study in
Scarlet, was published, in 1887, but there's barely a hint of the
supernatural in the canonical stories. Here, and elsewhere in his
Further Adventures... Coules has cleverly explored niches of
nineteenth-century London that were neglected by Doyle.
The Madness of Colonel Warburton has
a couple of good plot turns (including a nice touch where the late wife's
wedding ring is produced at a séance), and does a good job of exploring,
as many of Doyle's stories do, the twisted morality of the upper classes.
Without giving anything away, it ends with an act of justice that
echoes several of the canonical stories.
Timothy West features as the tragic figure
Warburton, and Eleanor Bron plays the medium, Mrs Bessmer. Neither make much of what are
relatively small roles. As is so often the case with the Holmes stories,
the incidental characters certainly - ahem - play second fiddle to Holmes.
The Star of the Adelphi
"And you must have observed, Watson, how
she manoeuvred to have the light at her back. She did not wish us to read
her expression... You remember the woman at Margate whom I suspected for
the same reason. No powder on her nose - that proved to be the
correct solution. How can you build on such a quicksand?" - Sherlock
Holmes, The Adventure of the The Second Stain
The Star of the Adelphi may have
been sparked by the vaguest of references in
The Adventure of the The Second Stain, but it is based on a real
crime: the 1897 murder of William Terriss, popular stage actor, friend of
Henry Irving, and owner of the Adelphi theatre. Many characters in the
story are based on the people who were involved in the real case. In the
real-life case, the villain was apprehended immediately. Of course, this
wouldn't have made for much of a story, so naturally the murderer eludes
capture in this version, and Holmes and Watson are brought in to
Coules begins the story with a gloriously over-the-top
theatrical performance of a jingoistic play, written by William Gillette
(who, in a nice - and typical - moment of Coules humour, Holmes claims
never to have heard of). (The dialogue from the play, incidentally, is
authentic Gillette, albeit with a few edits, to help with the pacing).
The Star of the Adelphi features some fine characters, including
Charles Colston, a man who represents a committee that administers aid to
unemployed thespians, and the slimy Richard Arthur Prince, the author of a
number of begging letters. The story offers a number of likely suspects
and red herrings. So many, in fact, that the eventual denouement seems a
little mundane and premature. The episode is so rich that the listener
would surely be forgiven for wanting it to continue a little longer.
The Star of the Adelphi is another tale
located in a setting that Doyle generally overlooked, the theatre.
There are many references in the canon to Holmes's acting skills ("The
stage lost a fine actor... when he became a specialist in crime" - A
Scandal in Bohemia), and several of Holmes' investigations bring him
into contact with actors, but this is the first time that he actually
treads the boards (albeit, not as a performer!)
The Saviour of Cripplegate Square
"I assure you that the most winning
woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their
insurance-money, and the most repellent man of my acquaintance is a
philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London
poor." - Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of the Four
Musing on love, Holmes recounts to Watson
one of his early cases; a chilling tale involving the death of three
babies at an orphanage.
Conan Doyle often dips into the grinding
poverty and squalor of Victorian life, but generally not without some
evident disgust. Coules is more sympathetic to the plight of the poor,
offering a villain whose misguided actions are motivated by love. It's a
rather labyrinthine story, perhaps more awkwardly unveiled than necessary, but
memorable, and the strongest of the four episodes on offer here.
The main part of the story is almost
overwhelmed by the appearance of Tom Baker, as Collington Smith, a librarian at the British
Library. Collington Smith, who acts as Holmes' confident and mentor, is a
fine character, but could easily be criticised for being a Mycroft
substitute (and, of course, perhaps he also owes a little to one
of the people Doyle allegedly based Holmes upon, Doctor Joseph Bell). This is an easy role for Baker, who is used to playing the
dispenser of words of wisdom (in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)
and Doctor Who, for example). Baker dominates the story, even
stealing Merrison's glory, but you can't help wishing that Baker had been cast as
the villain in another story. Between The Lines' Siobhan Redmond
gives a delightfully quixotic performance as Mrs Emily Guttridge.
The Singular Inheritance of Miss Gloria Wilson
Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox
and Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin
dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted
upon the lid. It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records
of cases to illustrate the curious problems which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had
at various times to examine. Some, and not the least interesting, were
complete failures, and as such will hardly bear narrating, since no final
explanation is forthcoming. A problem without a solution may interest the
student, but can hardly fail to annoy the casual reader. Among these
unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into
his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world. -
The Problem of Thor Bridge
The police are baffled by a series of
robberies that have occurred over three decades, attributed to a cat
burglar nick-named "The Ghost". Holmes' investigation leads him into the
lair of a remarkable circus performer, Miss Gloria Wilson.
You could count the strong female
characters in the canonical stories on your fingers, so in that regard
The Singular Inheritance of Miss Gloria Watson is an atypical Holmes
story. It focuses on a circus performer, the eponymous Miss Watson, ably
played by Toyah Wilcox, an inspired, but not entirely successful, piece of
casting. Coules' story pushes all the right buttons, but somehow the
atmosphere of the circus is evasive. Many of the BBC radio adaptations are
aurally rather Spartan, but this rarely counts against them (better that
than sonic clutter!) Here, though, you can't help wishing that the
ambience was a little more forceful. There are many canonical stories
where the crime that Holmes is investigating is almost incidental to the
plot, and this story follows that template. Roy Hudd, one of the all-time
great radio performers, is somewhat wasted, in
what's little more than a cameo appearance.
Someone should set the Baskerville hound on
BBC Audio for the packaging of this new set, which doesn't match the style
of Volume 2 (which considerately matched the other discs in the
The Complete Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes box set). Other BBC Audio
books have offered reversible packaging, so that changes in the house
style do not spoil the uniform look of a collection of titles (the
even-more-recently released Doctor Who disc, The Ice Warriors,
for example), so it's a shame that this set is destined to stick out like
Victor Hatherley's thumb.
BBC Audio should also be taken to task for
their somewhat baffling decision not to release each complete season of
The Further Adventures of Sherlock Homes as five-CD sets. Hopefully
they'll soon complete the series with the ungainly release of the two
orphan episodes. Knowing how greedy and devious the Moriarty-like
Marketing Department brain is, though, it wouldn't surprise me if they
released a ten-disc Complete Further Adventures... box set,
requiring fans who wanted to complete the Merrison canon to buy the two
sets they already own again.
This CD release is very welcome, and,
considering it was released after Volume 2, long overdue. Fans of
the canonical Merrison / Williams adaptations, who aren't adverse to Conan
Doyle pastiches, should not hesitate to purchase it (and, indeed, the
other Further Adventures set!)
With thanks and acknowledgements to Bert
Coules, whose fascinating book about the making of the radio series,
221 BBC, is available in The Complete Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes
CD box set, or directly, from
A Roobarb's DVD Forum thread devoted
to the BBC radio series CD releases is