Monday, January 27, 2014

A Study in Subtitles - "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr.Watson"

I had come to something of a revelation - I have seen just about every Sherlock Holmes movie or television show catered to an English-speaking audience. What I didn't own on DVD as part of my extensive Sherlockian collection, I had managed to track down on YouTube. But, there was something lacking. An important piece of Sherlock Holmes history was conspicuously missing from my assortment of books, films and TV.

I do not remember exactly when I first learned that Russia had produced some of the most acclaimed Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but since that piece of information entered the word-jumble that is my brain, I knew I had to track it down. The search wasn't exactly meticulous, mainly because I thought that the prospect of finding an obscure Russian television series from the 1970's was absurd. And then out of blue, I found one - the much-loved adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I should have jumped at the chance to view it because when I was finally ready to sit down and watch the episode, it had vanished into the uncharted chasms of the Internet.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
and Dr. Watson
And so the search continued. Again, I supposed that I would never find the episodes, but my luck won out and I discovered the series in its entirety on - a six DVD collection with English subtitles! I'm sure the moment my eyes landed on the words 'English subtitles' I thought they were the most wonderful words in the English language. With the collection at last in my grasp, I wasted no time in procuring the collection.

Much has been written of the series' production and praise has been leveled unto it. The series, entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson premiered in 1979 with Vasily Livanov starring as Sherlock Holmes and Vitaly Solomin as Dr. Watson. The show premiered with an episode entitled "Acquaintance" which features the rarely-filed first meeting between Holmes and Watson. What becomes apparent to any viewer watching this series, and to any Sherlockian in particular, is Livanov's slightly at-odds performance of the detective. Livanov's Holmes is a good-humoured individual, his friendship with Watson defined throughout the show's run as a close one. It is one of the finest portrayals of the two character's relationships, and one of the closest in spirit to Doyle's original conception. In an interesting, and chuckle-inducing departure from the canon, Watson is at first suspicious of his flatmate's odd behaviour and at first suspects that Holmes is a kingpin of the criminal underworld - and not one fighting for the side of the angels. Though "Acquaintance" begins as an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet, proceedings slowly morph into The Speckled Band. However, fans of Doyle's introductory novella need not fear. The show's second installment, "Bloody Inscription" faithfully adapts the book - only the third time in the great detective's screen history.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1981) - the
Russian series' high-point
As writer Alan Barnes wrote in his excellent book, Sherlock Holmes on Screen, the show's second season is perhaps its best - a three-part adaptation which manages to ingeniously connect Charles Augustus Milverton, The Final Problem and The Empty House. Livanov gives an excellent performance holding his own against the scariest Professor Moriarty every committed to film. Following on is the aforementioned adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, produced on an epic scale. The two-and-half-hour adaptation is spread across two episodes and retains all of Doyle's original plot points. Though the Russian countryside doesn't exactly depict Dartmoor, the exteriors are dark and foreboding and convey an excellent sense of isolation.

Following on from there is The Treasure of Agra, which managed to combine The Sign of Four with A Scandal in Bohemia. Though somewhat disjointed, the segment depicting A Scandal in Bohemia is incredibly moving and Livanov's performance is wonderfully moody. As the episode came to an end, Holmes and Watson were parting ways - the detective headed to the Sussex Downs to retire and Watson to go back into private practice with his new wife. Yet, this was not the end. The final two-part adaptation, The Twentieth Century Approaches combined a number of Doyle's short-stories and features yet another milestone in Sherlock Holmes screen history - a depiction of His Last Bow, chronologically the last Sherlock Holmes adventure.

The Russian series came to an end with a triumphant rendition of the series' theme and a beautiful profile shot of Vasily Livanov, dressed in deerstalker and Inverness, his head wreathed in pipe smoke. As I extracted the DVD from the player, I sensed an unusually feeling in the back of mind. The much-loved series had finally passed before my eyes and another chapter of Sherlockian media had come to close. I replaced the collection on my shelf - nimbly fitting it in between Murder by Decree and The Sign of Four (1983). It took me some time to reflect on the series, and I'll sum up my thoughts below.

As with any other television series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson has it ups and downs, but overall its en excellent representation of the Arthur Conan Doyle canon. Despite the fact that Vasily Livanov's Holmes is played somewhat against type, he lends an excellent performance as a humane Holmes. The friendship between Holmes and Watson is excellently characterised, defined with good humour and rapport. Though the adaptations at times deviated from Doyle's originals, and blended together multiple short stories, it is easy to see why Sherlockians have embraced this series. In 2006, Vasily Livanov was became an honourary member of the Order of the British Empire for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

Though this piece isn't an official review, I still feel as though it warrants an official 'rating.' The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson receives a 4.5 out of 5 from me.

As I type these words I'm thinking once again that my collection is nearly complete. It is odd to think that I actually branched out into a Russian series. I was un-phased by English subtitles (which at times didn't match up with the spoken words), which without doubt proved just how devoted I am to the legacy of the world's greatest detective. Though I cannot say whether I will indulge in any future foreign Sherlockian offerings, I can surely say that I will enjoy this collection in the future.


  1. Hello from Russia!

    Glad to read so positive review on Lenfilm Sherlock Holmes series. Thank you!

    In turn, I'd like for you the article wiritten by film director Igor Maslennikov about his Sh. H. series 30 years ago:

    a small piece from it:

    "Watched a few Sherlock Holmes movies produced of various years and in different countries, we decided to forget them at all, throw them out of our heads and form the basis of only two sources – the Arthur Conan Doyle stories and Sidney Paget drawings."

    Alexander S.

  2. Hi!
    You should have asked any random Russian on the Web to give you a torrent link of something) Not sure about the subtitled version, but the original is something you can easily find online in RuNet.


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