The Adventure of the Everlasting Detective, by Matthew Woodcock
You have to be pretty special to last as long as Holmes. I can’t think of many pop culture icons from the nineteenth century that can still command healthy television ratings and huge cinema audiences. I can’t remember the last time I saw a big budget version of Max Carados, The Blind Detective, can you?
So what is the appeal? Why are Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson still loved by millions? Without a doubt, it is because they are the most interesting characters to come out of Victorian pulp fiction. The ones we forget about are the ones that were influenced by Holmes, and we forget about them for good reason. Carnaki, The Ghost Finder is an interesting idea: a supernatural Holmes who regales his narrator with his adventures, but you don’t learn anything about the character at the end of the story, you don’t care about him any more than you do at the start.
Holmes and Watson are different. When Peter Davis and I first sat down to add to the myriad of adventures featuring this pair, we first re-read the stories to see what we could learn about them. Holmes is obsessive and antisocial, but he has a streak of the performer about him. The times when he shows off his gifts to his clients, or to Watson, and the times when his client is less than impressed show his love of the dramatic. Take this example from ‘The Red Headed League’.
‘The fish which you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been done in China. I have made a small study of tattoo marks, and have even contributed to the literature of the subject. That trick of staining the fishes’ scales of a delicate pink is quite peculiar to China. When, in addition, I see a Chinese coin hanging from your watch-chain, the matter becomes even more simple.”
Mr. Jabez Wilson laughed heavily. “Well, I never!” said he. “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all.”
“I begin to think, Watson,” said Holmes, “that I make a mistake in explaining. ‘Omne ignotum pro magnifico,’ you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid.
He cultivates his air of mystery, and revels in the times when he can outsmart those around him, even though he is happy to give the credit for his successes to others.
Watson is just as fascinating – he’s not the bumbling fool he is so often painted as. He’s got an eye for the ladies, he likes to gamble, but does he gamble too much? (Holmes keeps Watson’s chequebook locked in his drawer. Is there more to this than meets the eye?). He is the audience, and he re-acts just as we would with a difficult friend – with frustration, bemusement and affection. The two of them put together are a bit like an all male student flat share; they get up when they want to, they don’t tidy up, and they’re not too worried about not talking to each other for hours on end.
When you have two characters as good as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, it’s no wonder people are still writing about them. And Conan Doyle was a clever writer – read his Holmes stories and you’ll find them peppered with references to tales the world is not yet ready for – the Giant Rat of Sumatra, anyone? That’s just ammunition for writers who want to play with Conan Doyle’s world. When the Wireless Theatre Company approached us about doing a live Holmes radio show it seemed a perfect opportunity to explore the weird world of Holmes away from the traditional fog bound Victorian streets. The success of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modern retelling shows that Holmes can work in just about any situation. It’s not just the streets of 21st Century London, either. Sherlock Holmes can find himself in pretty much any situation and still be recognisably himself, be it in the 22nd Century for an ITV cartoon series, fighting Dracula on BBC Radio in the 1970s or Jack the Ripper in adventures too numerous to mention, or as they do in Sherlock Holmes Strikes Back!- fighting Nazis in the second world war.
In writing our show we were greatly influenced by Universal Films’ Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce series. Made between 1942 and 1946, Rathbone and Bruce faced Nazi spies at home and abroad. When the war ended, they stayed put in 1940s London, plonked there unchanged. And no one seemed bothered. The films were successful enough that to many, Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce’s bumbling, comedy Doctor Watson influenced many a performance until Edward Hardwicke rehabilitated the character for Granada in the ‘80s. It is Bruce’s Watson specifically that our Watson spoofs in Sherlock Holmes Strikes Back!, because every straight man needs a clown.
Rathbone and Bruce went on to play the characters in 220 new adventures for NBC and later the Mutual Broadcasting Corporation in the US. These were set back in the Nineteenth Century but bookended by some of the most hilariously contrived on-air sponsorship I’ve heard. Each week, Dr. Watson, assumably still alive and well and living in Southern California, would invite announcer Harry Bartell around to hear another of his adventures. But not before he had told the folks at home about the benefits of a good wine. And say, if you like good wine, why not make it a deep red, hearty Petri Bergundy?
Yes, why not think about that? For a good minute and a half. Then just as the adventure reaches a cliff-hanger, Mr. Bartell is back to tell us all about wine. It’s enough to put you off your drink.
So we’ve had a rich seam to mine. The world of Sherlock Holmes is so fascinating because these characters have lived on, and every generation has interpreted them in their own way. We hope our tribute to the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce era of Sherlock Holmes gives you a flavour of just one of them. So, if you’re looking for a Sherlock Holmes, why not enjoy an adventure against the Nazis, with thrills, romance, sponsorship and more than enough gags.
Sherlock Holmes Strikes Back the radio play will be recorded live as part of the Camden Festival @ The Etcetera Theatre, Camden at 7.30pm on Tuesday 16th August only. Book tickets HERE.