Monday, February 25, 2013

The Audio Holmes Who Shall Reign Supreme

So about a week ago, I posted a poll on this blog to find out your opinion of who performed the role of Sherlock Holmes best on some sort of audio recording - be it radio or audio book or what not. Well, today I will take a look at who has won the poll and throw my own two cents into cyberspace.

Sherlock Holmes has always been around on a radio. In the excellent book, "Starring Sherlock Holmes" by David Stuart Davies (fans if you do not own this book yet, you must), Davies devotes an entire section to the detective on radio and the fascinating stories which were involved with bringing the detective on air. I won't go into those details too much, but I have found it so interesting to learn of this portion of the detective's history. Of course, no discussion of Sherlock Holmes on radio would be complete without including Basil Rathbone. Of course Holmes aficionados will know that Rathbone made his debut as the character in 1939's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and turned to the role of the detective on radio after two movies made at 20th Century Fox.

Rathbone played the character almost non-stop throughout 1939 to 1946. By '46, he had appeared in 14 films and starred in countless radio productions. It is no wonder that Rathbone felt as though the role has taken over his life, for it actually had. With his contract up, Rathbone decided to leave the part of the detective behind him and went off to pursue his love of theater. However, Nigel Bruce stayed on as Watson in the radio program this time playing Holmes opposite Tom Conway.

I will have to be perfectly honest and up front here - I cannot say that I really like the 1940's radio dramas. Of course Rathbone and Bruce are fantastic, but the shows suffer from being just too old. The technology which so benefits some of the latter day audio recordings wasn't around, and therefore the broadcasts are instantly dated. Also, the listener must deal with the endless prattling on from the sponsor of the show (in this case Petri Wine). To anyone who is familiar with these broadcasts, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Again, this radio shows are without doubt classics and provide fans obsessed with everything Sherlock Holmes (like me) to have one more outlet to hear Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

Let's jump forward say...40 years or so. Listeners to radio and devout fans of Sherlock Holmes have something in store for them. BBC radio has taken it upon themselves to dramatize each and every one of Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. Clive Merrison is Holmes and Michael Williams is Dr. Watson. I just have to say, I love these adaptations. Merrison and Williams are brilliant as Holmes and Watson. If I were to cast my vote, I'd vote for Clive Merrison. He is excellent as Holmes, brilliantly capturing all of the detective's varied and often changing emotions. It's obvious that the actor has thrown himself into the part with gusto for he seems to be having such a good time playing the role. The same applies to Michael Williams. As I have remarked before, he wonderfully captures essence of Conan Doyle's original doctor. He is at once able to portray humility and intelligence. Bravo!

To fans of Doyle's original detective, they may not find a great deal to like in "The Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes." To read my full review, click here. However, for purposes here, let me defend Simon Callow who plays Sherlock Holmes. While he is by no means the epitome of a Sherlockian interpretation, it is not his fault and he is by far the best thing about the series of six short adventures. It is very possible to imagine Callow having gone on to play the character again and I'm sure if he did, he would be very good. It just feels as though his talents are wasted in this poor series of recordings.

However, let us jump to the other end of the spectrum. Although perhaps not radio, Big Finish's audio recordings featuring the great detective have been brilliant. They are in recent memory one of the best forms of media to feature the detective, and are all wonderfully executed. Nicholas Briggs, who plays Holmes in the five recordings, is excellent. However, the only problem with his portrayal of the character which changes depending on the script. For instance in "Holmes and the Ripper," the detective is portrayed as warm, compassionate human being, who even falls in love with a spiritualist. But in the next recording, he is the cold, calculating Holmes of the past, showing few signs of these strange rather out-of-character actions. Nonetheless, each of Big Finish's productions are handsomely done, and well worth listening to. At the time of this writing, Big Finish is preparing yet another Sherlock Holmes series - this time to be collected in a boxed set entitled "The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes." The stories are set to be recorded in March of 2013.

So, who is the winner of your poll? Well it is...(drum roll please)...Basil Rathbone. I suppose that you fans really appreciate the classics (as do I). I love Rathbone's performance and I suppose in the long run he deserves the award as being the audio Holmes who shall reign supreme!


  1. I actually really like the Petri Wine ads. Harry Bartell had such a charming voice that I always feel the urge to buy some of this wine before I realize that it's not the 1940s anymore. I also like how the ads were turned into a running joke.

    1. Upon closer examination, Petri Wine is probably not the worst type of advertisement in these old radio dramas. If you have ever listened to the Lux Theater Radio adaptations of movies, their constant interruptions are horrible. Plus, it takes ages for the actual radio play to begin. So, I can live with a few words from Petri Wine instead.

  2. Fascinating post - I too am a great fan of the Merrison series, though am actually quite partial to the Gielgud series too. Of the Briggs entries from the ever excellent Big Finish productions, the one I thoguht worked the best so far was the most recent, 'The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner', which has Holmes and Watson in their later years at the time of the Titanic sinking. The good news is that the author of that one, Jonathan Barnes, is also going to be responsible for the upcoming 'odeal' series, so personally am really looking forward to it.


    1. Sergio, first of all I think this is the first time you have commented on my blog, so I'd like to thank you first for that. I have enjoyed reading your blog a great deal. Anyway, I have some experience with the John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson series, and I rather unfairly neglected them in this current post - I left out some others too, so coming soon will be my addition to this post.

      I did enjoy "The Perfidious Mariner" and I reviewed it a while back. It was not my favourite Big Finish release - that reward has to go to "The Tangled Skein." I'm perhaps somewhat biased having loved the novel, and I just thought it was so well executed.


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