Featuring:  Clive Merrison, Andrew Sachs, Timothy West, Tom Baker


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 Watson.

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 indisputably the definitive radio Holmes and Watson.


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. 

Sadly, Michael 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 in Bohemia.

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 its 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.

The 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 of Colonel 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 investigate.

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

Warning: Spoiler! "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

Warning: Spoiler!  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 indispensable 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 Bert's website.

A Roobarb's DVD Forum thread devoted to the BBC radio series CD releases is here.










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