The Game's Afoot: A Sherlock Holmes Special

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BBC Radio 7, 16 May 2009
This three-hour tribute to Sherlock Holmes adaptations on radio offered a fascinating insight into how the role has been interpreted from 1945 till the present. The first three versions were: The Speckled Band (1945) with Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Finlay Currie as Holmes and Watson; The Red-Headed Leage (1954), with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson; and The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1966), with Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley.
While Martin C.Welsher's version of The Speckled Band sounded somewhat stilted, it nonetheless offered a Holmes of calm, rock-like stability clearly in control of what he was doing. This was due in no small way to Hardwicke's reading of the part; in films like The Winslow Boy (1947), the actor cultivated a screen image of dependability without seeming especially intellectual. The same applied to his Holmes: on this view solving the case simply became a matter of logical deducation. Once the facts had been assembled, then a solution would automatically present itself. Holmes offered a calming presence in an amoral Victorian world where crime ran rife and menace seemed ever-present (as symbolized by the doleful music running throughout the production).
Currie's Watson resembled everyone's favourite uncle - a reassuring presence dealing with Holmes' clients in a calm, unruffled manner. This proved especially beneficial for Helen (Griselda Harvey) who found herself threatened by mysterious victims. As befits a production from 1945, director/producer John Dixon Carter emphasized class differences: Mrs. Hudson (Dora Gregory) paid due deference to her employer, while the two men for their part unquestioningly accepted that she would carry out their requests for tea, coffee or other refreshments. In this world everyone knew their place and could place their trust in a paterfamilias like Holmes, who would solve their problems without demur.
The Gielgud/ Richardson version transformed Conan Doyle's story into a crime caper reminiscent of E.W.Hornung's Raffles. Gielgud's Holmes was a cracksman/ detective while Watson was content to bumble along as his admiring acolyte/ companion. Nothing ever became too serious: Holmes self-adoringly reminded everyone about his superior intellect, while Watson marvelled at his friend's amazing feats of deduction. The production ended with Watson exclaiming "You resolved it [the case] beautifully," while Holmes' adversary Jack Spalding observed that he had been outwitted in "a decent fight." They lived in a world of Edwardian gentility, in which the detective and his adversaries challenged one another to a battle of wits, in the secure knowledge that the world would carry on much as it had done in the previous hundred years.
Carleton Hobbs' Holmes seemed something of an anachronism in the so-called 'Swinging Sixties' - a patriarchal figure who (like Hardwicke) never let circumstances go to his head. He worked out the solution to the Boscombe Valley mystery in meticulous detail, so carefully that Watson invited us to sit back and marvel at his friend's ingenuity. Although not blessed with such quick wits, Shelley's Watson offered the kind of down-to-earth pragmatism that prevented Holmes from running away with his imaginative flights of fancy. Watson kept Holmes' mind focused on the task in hand, permitting the case to be solved quickly and efficiently.
Three versions of Holmes - all very different, and produced in different socio-historical contexts. It is a fitting testament to the enduring appeal of Conan Doyle's creation that he can be so readily reinvented in such diverse ways.

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