Audio Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Reification of Hans Gerber

Although my usual focus with this blog is Canadian film and TV, part of the point of a blog is to allow me to comment on a broader range of topics — including non-Canadian entertainment subjects and another interest of mine, audio and radio dramas (hence why there’s a “categories” column to the right). And such is today’s topic…as well as a considering one of pop culture’s most enduring characters…

Sherlock Holmes is a remarkably enduring creation. Is there any other character who a century and some later remains a genuine pop culture icon? Sure, ancient myths and legends continue to resonate today — King Arthur, Robin Hood, Odysseus — and individual works of literature — from Hamlet to Jane Eyre — are still read today. But in the case of the latter examples, those are specific works, specific stories — not a series character. And often their true, grass roots appeal is uncertain — their endurance relying a lot on being mandatary reading in schools, or with their occasional resurrections on the silver screen often creating barely a ripple at the box office. I’m not sure there’s another pop creation that continues with such vigour so many decades after his creation. Ask anyone under 50 who Allan Quatermain is, and odds are most’ll look at you blankly. Most people probably still know who Tarzan is…but in the abstract, many not having seen a movie or read a book about him. John Carter of Mars is slatted for a Hollywood movie to be released in the coming months…but the general public is largely unaware its based on a Century old novel. And so on.

Obviously, I’m thinking in terms of mass popularity, open to interpretation as that may be — I’ve read Quatermain, Tarzan, John Carter and more, and perhaps you have, too. And they still crop up occasionally in new movie versions. But as far as true, broad-based awareness?

But Holmes…Holmes is still a force to be reckoned with. I was thinking about this when reading an article about the new Sherlock Holmes movie, Game of Shadows, which referred to the Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law films as having re-started the franchise. And I thought, you know, not really. Oh, they definitely gave it a shot of adrenaline, but even before these Hollywood blockbusters, Holmes had never really faded into obscurity. Wander into any bookstore, and you were still liable to find the original Holmes stories readily available and in print…as well as assorted pastiches written by later authors after Arthur Conan Doyle’s death. Glancing at the IMDB, in the decade prior to the first of the Downey/Law films there were at least six movies/series featuring Holmes — hardly a character on the cusp of cultural anonymity!

Perhaps equally interesting, is how resilient the core concept remains. Unlike other characters who get “re-imagined” over the years, sometimes becoming almost unrecognizable in the hands of later creators who believe their vision is intrinsically greater than the original creator’s, it could be argued later interpretations usually stay within the parameters of the original concepts. The Downey/Law films may have jazzed it up, turned Holmes into a Victorian James Bond, and Downey’s Holmes may be a little more comical and irresponsible than Doyle’s original…but it still hovers close to the creative tin can, as it were. Put another way, if some young person, whose only experience of Holmes & Watson was the recent blockbusters, were to flip on the TV and catch a scene featuring some older pairing — Rathbone & Bruce, Brett & Hardwick, Plummer & Mason, Frewer & Welsh — chances are, even if the characters did not identify each other by name, he would sit back and say, “Oh — I bet this must be a Sherlock Holmes movie”.

More actors have portrayed Holmes & Watson (in an electronic medium) than probably any other characters. And not just in film & TV — but in radio and audio productions. A multitude of actors have lent their voices to the characters in a non-visual medium over the decades. And I have a particular love and passion for audio dramas — fostered in my youth by coming upon radio stations airing already nostalgic re-runs of The Shadow and Jack Benny, and continuing today with modern, arguably more sophisticated productions — radio and audio a marginalized, but far from dead, storytelling medium.

Which then brings us to the point of this essay — Big Finish’s Sherlock Holmes series.

Big Finish is a British production company best known for its Dr. Who full cast audio plays — begun before the revived TV series and continuing, unabated, to this day. The Big Finish Dr. Who plays are as good — frankly, often better — than the current TV series! Big Finish has branched out into other productions and series (some, like Dr. Who, revivals of old TV franchises with brand new audio-only dramas) but Dr. Who clearly remains the centre piece of the company (much, I suspect, to their frustration at times! — not because they don’t passionately love Dr. Who, but clearly no other line has proven as successful).

Added to their range (and no doubt inspired by the Downey/Law success) they’ve added some Sherlock Holmes plays.

Now my personal preference for a Holmes drama is something original — or at least not based on Conan Doyle’s originals. Simply because the core canon stories have been dramatized so often, by so many (in TV, radio, and movies) there’s just so many times you can listen to the same story again — particularly when I have the original stories on my bookshelf that I can, and do, read. I want something new!

Big Finish has approached its Holmes line with variety in mind, adapting some of the original stories, but also adapting some later non-Doyle pastiches (novels and plays) as well as some brand new, never before presented tales — some are little more than dramatized readings, others are true, full cast dramas, so-called “movies for your mind”. Some of the audio plays featured different actors (reprising a stage performance) but the main series of plays feature the set cast of Nicholas Briggs as Holmes and Richard Earl as Watson.

Big Finish knows how to put together audio dramas. Their lines (such as Dr. Who) will inevitably have better and lesser efforts, but as actual productions (acting, sound mix) their professionalism is not in question. It’s not unusual to hear familiar movie and TV actors in their casts, from old veterans like David Warner to genuine rising stars like Hayley Atwell! As well, unlike some radio dramas which do indeed come across as “radio plays”, with talky scenes and limited use of music, Big Finish’s productions come across as dynamic motion pictures, with a cinematic-like musical score. A not too long ago BBC radio series of Holmes stories starring Clive Merrison, though well regarded by some, generally struck me as plodding and static…in part because of a kind of “stagy” production.

Anyway, because I’m not too interested in “classic” adaptations, talking book readings, or other “quirky” productions, the first Big Finish Holmes play I tried was the full cast Holmes and The Ripper, in which Holmes (Briggs) is set to the task of investigating the real life crimes of Jack the Ripper. Based on a stage play by Brian Clemens, it’s a well done production, boasting an unusually large cast (Big Finish productions usually crafting their in-house stories around a limited cast) and, despite its origins as a stage play, it has a rich, cinematic feel, with a musical score, and atmospheric scenes set amid winding alleys, with hansom cabs clattering forlornly in the distance. My main quibble with the play…was that it frankly just came across as a re-hash/re-make of the 1979 Holmes movie Murder by Decree. Not simply because both involved Holmes investigating Jack the Ripper, but because Clemens based his plot on the same urban legend/conspiracy theory that had inspired Murder by Decree, resulting in a similar plot and even scenes. So, as someone looking for a “new” Holmes story…I couldn’t help feeling it seemed like just a remake of an old one. Still, particularly after a second listen (once I was prepared for that) Holmes and The Ripper is a well presented mystery/thriller.

Still, for my next Big Finish Holmes I decided to go with The Reification of Hans Gerber which was marketed as being wholly original to Big Finish — not based on a Doyle original, nor adapted from a previously produced play or novel pastiche.

Briggs and Earl are back as Holmes and Watson and are an exceptionally good team, boisterous and robust without sliding into camp — they’re a fun pairing (with Briggs even seeming to be channelling a bit of Jeremy Brett this time around, with his Holmes even more flamboyantly eccentric than in Holmes and The Ripper, without sacrificing the genuine warmth and camaraderie between him and Earl that seems to be the special hallmark of this duo). By this point I’ve heard quite a few Holmes (and their Watsons) in audio — Basil Rathbone, John Stanley, John Gielgud, Clive Merrison, Simon Callow, more than one in the Jim French Productions series, and others…and Briggs and Earl may well be my favourite team (partly, no doubt, a result of the “feature length” nature of their adventures allowing more room to let the characters breathe).

And as a play, The Reification of Hans Gerber is an exceptionally good example of a Holmes pastiche. Writer George Mann captures the sense and spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle in a way that, frankly, few others have…or have even tried. Over the years, many a writer (in books, plays, movies, and radio) have attempted to follow in Doyle’s footsteps. As mentioned earlier, usually they do a decent enough job at capturing some semblance or echo of the characters…but the plots themselves can be less evocative. Some just come across as generic murder mysteries…that frankly could’ve been re-written for almost any detective. Many are just adventure stories as Holmes pursues Professor Moriarty, with little in the way of “mysteries” to be fathomed. In the, frankly odd TV movie, The Case of the Silver Stocking, it was as if Holmes had been dropped unceremoniously into a Thomas Harris novel, as Holmes hunts, of all things, a serial killer and rapist!

It isn’t that these plots can’t be used with Sherlock Holmes…but they hardly evoke the true flavour of the classic Holmes stories, where the puzzle was everything, where the mystery often wasn’t simply whodunit…but what is even going on? What I tend to classify as the “curious incident” mystery.

So in The Reification of Hans Gerber, Mann gives us a story that can actually intrigue, as you aren’t just waiting to discover who the villain is…but how and why everything connects. There is a murder (more than one by story’s end) but Holmes’ initial involvement in the case is almost banal, to investigate a missing will — what I meant about the “curious incident” sort of puzzle. The story involves Victorian cliches of old manor houses, and the idle rich relying on the largesse of relatives. The case becomes complicated by the title character, Hans Gerber, a mysterious presence who seems like he must surely be responsible for some of the initial skulduggery…yet you’re not quite sure how. Another aspect to the “classic” Holmes’ stories is an occasional aspect of eeriness, plots that flirt with the creepy and the Gothic, and Mann supplies that as well…Gerber, a mysterious figure in black glimpsed only occasionally, adds a suitable sense of eeriness to the proceedings.

The story is well paced, more or less justifying its two-hour length (unlike some Holmes dramatizations — particularly those adapted from the short stories — which can feel rather stretched and padded). Though the opening prologue is a bit protracted…but no moreso than a lot of the straight adaptations of Holmes stories done for radio and TV. It boasts a good cast (in addition to Briggs and Earl) and, again, a “cinematic” feel, with varied locations, scene changes, and use of ambient sound and an effective musical score. And even if some of the revelations you can see coming, Mann has enough threads being teased along that even if you can guess some of it…there are one or two extra shoes he has to drop before the end.

My main quibble might be that Mann sometimes leans too much on Earl’s narration, to the point where sometimes whole scenes are being described as if it’s a talking book more than a full cast play. That may have been necessary, to squeeze everything in, but if so, Mann might have been better to edit his story a bit, dropping scenes to tighten it, rather than simply have Watson tell us about them. And references to Holmes’ drug use seems a bit cliched (like pastiches that employ Moriarty). Another, perhaps minor, quibble, is that at the end of the day…it is basically just plot driven, with little deeper emotional resonance (though, as mentioned, well acted by a cast playing well enough written roles). One doesn’t expect a lot of deeper emotion from a Holmes story…but when stretched out to two hours, it might benefit from some — a more endearing client or something (much as Holmes and The Ripper had some emotional scenes and even, of all things, added a romantic interest for Holmes!).

But I can’t stress enough how good a job Mann (and the Big Finish team) did in not just crafting an entertaining audio play — but in genuinely creating something that you’d half swear Doyle himself must have written! As if based on a fifth full length Holmes’ novel that had slipped your mind.

In addition to some adaptations (including of the Hound of the Baskervilles) and some, I gather, more talking book-like productions, Big Finish has up-coming The Tangled Skein — a full cast adaptation of a Holmes’ pastiche novel pitting the sleuth against the vampire, Count Dracula. Because of my enjoyment of the two Big Finish plays I’ve heard, and my interest in non-Doyle based dramas, I suspect I’ll be getting that one when it comes out in January. Though I do have a slight hesitation. Like Holmes and The Ripper, Holmes battling Count Dracula has been a concept visited by many writers over the years — including in an earlier BBC Radio play, Holmes vs. Dracula, starring John Moffatt as Holmes, and Timothy West as Watson. I quite enjoyed that earlier play, liking Moffatt’s no-nonsense Holmes (a far different interpretation from Briggs’ take, but equally legitimate), and finding it a surprisingly atmospheric production (I’d half swear they recorded on locations around London, not just in a sound booth) — but, as such, like with Holmes and The Ripper and its similarity to Murder by Decree, I worry the Tangled Skein might just seem like a re-make of Holmes vs. Dracula. But hopefully, though using a similar hook, each will tell its own individual plot.

Anyway, if you like Sherlock Holmes, if you like mystery-thrillers, and if you like audio plays (or are curious to try one, but worried they can’t hold up against movies or TV) you might consider giving Sherlock Holmes: The Reification of Hans Gerber a try.

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