by D.K. Latta
I have a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Philanthropic Crook,” in the new anthology, Sherlock Holmes and The Great Detectives from Belanger Books (an anthology of Holmes stories teaming him with other Victorian/Edwardian detectives — I paired him with Jimmie Dale a.k.a. The Grey Seal, available at Amazon.ca , Amazon.com and elsewhere). So to commemorate that I decided to throw together this look at what I dub Sherlock Holmes audio/radio movies — ie: feature length Holmes radio dramas based on non-Doyle scripts.
It’s probably fair to say no other fictional character (or non-fictional for that matter!) has enjoyed so many audio/radio incarnations as Sherlock Holmes. There are the various BBC Radio series with Sir John Gielgud, Carleton Hobbs, Clive Merrison, and others putting their stamp on the character, to USA series like (the OTR) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (with Basil Rathbone and others assuming the part), and Imagination Theater’s long running Sherlock Holmes series, and Holmes adaptations cropping up not infrequently as individual episodes of the 1970s-1980s CBS Radio Mystery Theater. And even further abroad, such as The Stories of Sherlock Holmes, a South African series circa the 1980s. Some offer new adventures for the great detective, while others simply re-adapt the same original stories.
There have been limited series such as the Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (with Simon Callow & Nicky Henson as Holmes & Watson), and quirky spins on the Holmesian canon: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Second Holmes, the ribald Newly Discovered Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, and Graphic Audio’s adaptation of the fantasy-comedy books about Warlock Holmes. And even one-off stories, such as Seeing Ear Theatre’s “The Martian Crown Jewels,” a sci-fi tale of a Martian detective who’s modelled himself after Holmes!
And there have been various feature-length adaptations of the four Doyle novels: I can think of more than a half dozen different Hound of the Baskervilles alone! — including from LA Theater Works and one made for Canada’s CBC Radio that’s floating about the internet.
With innumerable takes on the great detective, I wanted to focus on a particular sub-category. Namely: Sherlock Holmes audio/radio movies. Productions using non-canon scripts that are mostly stand alone and at least an hour in length (and usually longer) to tell deeper, more complex tales than can be squeezed into a half-hour adventure-of-the-week. Mostly these are one-off productions, but I’ve highlighted a few from Big Finish which has produced stand alone plays (in addition to their boxed set “series”). I’ve also focused mostly on “professional” productions. You can find amateur productions (amateur in a technical more than a pejorative sense) floating about the internet, and I’ll allude to a few as we go; but I have to set up my own parameters.
One thing I’ll add is that, though of varying quality, I found most of these to be enjoyable, particularly after more than one listen (that is, plays I remembered rather indifferently, I found more agreeable on a second listen!)
There turned out to be quite a few such “audio movies” — though I think I’ve tracked down the lion’s share of them (at least those in English, from the U.K., the U.S., and Canada). But as such I decided to organize them, not by date or production source, but sub-genus, if you will.
So let us proceed. The game being — as they say — afoot.
_______In the Beginning
Most of the plays I’m highlighting are from the last few decades. But we’ll start with a couple of Golden Age mentions.
In 1938 Mercury Theatre on the Air (the Orson Welles fronted series remembered for its infamous War of the Worlds broadcast) performed an hour long adaptation of the seminal William Gillette play, Sherlock Holmes (of which more will be said in the next section). Though it’s unclear if it was re-titled The Immortal Sherlock Holmes…or whether that was just how Welles was introducing the character. Welles played Holmes not much different from how he played other of his leading man roles on radio and it’s an uneven production, shoe-horning the feature-length play into an hour (cutting some bits, including the romantic aspect, and rushing through some scenes). I believe BBC Radio also did a version of the play in the 1950s starring the Holmes/Watson duo of that era: Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley.
And then there’s “The Elusive Agent” (1948) — though it’s not technically a “feature length” production. Rather, it’s a three-episode storyline of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes U.S. radio series. But it was, I believe, the only multi-episode original story presented in that half-hour series and as such may stand as the earliest original script Holmes radio adventure longer than the usual 30 minute format. Given it came towards the end of the series (and has Watson suggesting listeners should write in if they’d like to hear more multi-part stories) one might infer it was an attempt to shake-up the formula in the face of dwindling ratings. John Stanley is a solid Holmes (although the Watson is perhaps less effective than Nigel Bruce). It’s less a mystery and more a Bulldog Drummond adventure-serial, with Holmes and Watson racing across Europe to recapture British military plans stolen by a German secret agent (including a very Gothic sequence at an old castle). Not great, not terrible, but worth noting as atypical for its era.
_______The Elementary Efforts
Some Holmesian pastiches deliberately play with the formula/conventions, but these are ones that endeavour to be solid, traditional, Old School Holmes adventures…
(2005, 120 min, Blackstone Audio — included in the collection The Sherlock Holmes Theatre)
The rather definitively named play, Sherlock Holmes, is pretty much the grand daddy of Holmesian pastiches written by William Gillette, the actor who first performed the play. Its influence on later pastiches probably can’t be under-estimated: like so many later efforts, it freely cannibalizes from the Holmes’ stories (borrowing bits of dialogue and plot elements from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Final Problem,” and others), involves Professor Moriarty, and is more an adventure-thriller than a mystery (Atypically, it throws in a romance for Holmes!) It has been brought to audio/radio a few times — in an edited form (as I mention above). But there are also full length versions. Among the most readily available is one made for Blackstone Audio starring Martin Jarvis as Holmes and Tony Jay as Moriarty. There was also a version starring David Warner, but which seems to be out-of-circulation, and a freely available version by the Old Court Radio Company can be found on-line under the title of The Strange Case of Miss Alice Faulkner. The Blackstone Audio version is a strong, engaging production, robust and atmospheric — a kind of “big budget” treatment. Although it’s worth noting how the play can be interpreted: the Blackstone Audio version is played straight (though with witty lines) however scenes from a 1980s TV production starring Frank Langella are on-line (I don’t think the full production has ever been released to video/DVD) where it’s played more tongue-in-cheek. Martin Jarvis is a fine Holmes, although it’s Tony Jay who’s the scene stealer as the deep-voiced Moriarty, and with good supporting performances (including the likes of W. Morgan Sheppard as a thug). It’s basically Holmes inserted into a pulp fiction/dime novel plot — but fun and engaging. And the provenance of the play — first performed in 1899! — can’t help but lend it a certain panache among Holmes’ pastiches.
The Marlbourne Point Mystery
(2010, 2×45 min ep, BBC Radio — part of the Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes BBC Radio series)
Writer Bert Coules, along with actors Clive Merrison (Holmes) and Michael Williams (Watson), performed the entire Doyle canon for BBC Radio. Then Coules and Merrison reunited (now with Andrew Sachs playing Watson, as Williams had passed away) for a series of original stories under the title The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (2002-2004, 2008-2010) which included the two-part Marlbourne Point Mystery. Holmes & Watson (at the behest of Holmes’ brother, Mycroft) travel to a small town to investigate an inexplicable suicide-cum-murder — the victim was seen to jump to his death, but when his body is subsequently recovered, it turned out he died days later and not from the fall! It’s a whodunit?/mystery (as opposed to an adventure of Holmes battling Moriarty or something) — although I don’t think the listener has access to all the relevant clues. As well, it ties into an earlier Further Adventures… episode in that a culprit is a character from a previous story (I suppose it’s no more distracting than if Moriarty was revealed to be at the back of it!) Merrison enjoyed great accolades for his interpretation of Holmes, a more human, more approachable characterization than some versions, with a warm camaraderie between him and Watson (both Sachs and Williams), and the plays employed a low-key atmosphere. So as a movie-length version of that era of Holmes tales, an enjoyable enough instalment. My focus is on movie-length and/or one-off productions, but I will add that though I could be mixed on these Coules/Merrison stories (many can feel a bit slow, and the mysteries not altogether Doyle-esque in their enigmaticness) a stand-out episode (of any era) was the episode “The Abergavanny Murder.” It took the conceit of Holmes making deductions based on observation to its nth degree in a story where Holmes and Watson solve an entire case from their living room just based on a body that dropped at their threshold!
The Master of Blackstone Grange
(2017, 180 min, Big Finish)
Clocking in at around three hours, this stands as the longest of these “audio movies” — and maybe one of writer Jonathan Barnes’ best efforts (Barnes a frequent penner of Big Finish Holmes scripts). It nicely combines the tendency for Holmes pastiches to lean toward adventures rooted in the Holmesian mythos with a mystery/puzzle. The story kicks off with Holmes (Nicholas Briggs) outraged on learning Colonel Moran — Professor Moriarty’s erstwhile right hand man — has been granted early release from prison, while Watson (Richard Earl) brings him a seeming minor case involving a barber whose wife has run off. But the cases intertwine when both lead to a mysterious wealthy entrepeneur, “Honest” Jim, and his rural estate of Blackstone Grange. At three hours it perhaps could’ve been tightened here and there, but generally keeps the interest up with twists and turns and disparate threads so that you’re curious to see where it’s headed. It’s as much a Gothic melodrama as a conventional whodunit, where a sinister undercurrent lies beneath even as it’s not always clear what “crime” is being committed. And there’s perhaps more of an “adult” vibe to it than some Holmes’ pastiches, in the sense of feeling like a real drama about real people rather than the fruitier, almost kitschy tone often adopted by Holmesian dramas. As with a lot of the BF stories, Holmes and Watson are given more emotional depth than just being familiar archetypes. There’s some good character bits, and a chance for Earl to take a more prominent role (the story evoking The Hound of the Baskervilles at one point, with Watson on his own for a section). And it boasts some particularly strong vocal performances — not just in terms of good acting, but in terms of interesting voices that lend the guest star characters real presence. The resolution can feel a bit anti-climactic, though. That’s partly deliberate, the story wanting to be a commentary on political expediency and Victorian morals. But also because despite the genuinely engaging Byzantine storytelling, most has been figured out/explained before the climax. Still, a top tier Holmesian “audio epic,” rooted in Holmesian lore and the characters yet with enough of its own character and flavour that it doesn’t just feel like an homage. (Unlike most of the other plays on this list, I’ve only listened to this once so far, and sometimes subsequent listens alter my opinions, for better or worse).
The Reification of Hans Gruber
(2011, 120 min, Big Finish)
Written by George Mann, this was Big Finish’s first all-original Holmes production — after having previously produced a few adaptations of plays and novels, but before launching into their boxed sets of collected episodes. And it’s appealing because it endeavours to be a genuine mystery (no serial killers or Prof. Moriarty!). It borrows the Doyle conceit of beginning somewhat low-key: after a wealthy old man dies, Holmes is called in simply because his will has gone missing; things are further complicated when a mysterious long lost heir, Hans Gruber, lays claim to the family fortune. Of course death and deceit soon follow. The result does genuinely feel more like a Holmesian “mystery” than a lot of pastiches, and even with a slight Gothic creepiness (Gruber being an enigmatic figure). It maybe relies a bit too much on Watson’s narration — whether a budget-saving effort or to evoke the novels, it can render it a bit aloof at times. But in general it’s a notable effort, well performed, and one where unravelling the puzzle offered by disparate threads is central — what a Holmes story should be.
The Incredible Murder of Cardinal Tosca
(1979, 110 min, CBC Radio — originally aired on Festival Theatre)
The original (Canadian) stage play by Alden Nowlan & Walter Learning premiered in 1978 (and still gets performed from time-to-time, at least in Canada) and was re-staged for Canada’s CBC Radio the very next year. To my knowledge, it wasn’t released commercially on cassette or CD. However you can find recordings floating about the internet — there’s a slightly rough version on Youtube (but still decent) as well as a crisper print you can sometimes find on OTR sites. An interesting novelty is it stars British-Canadian actor, John Neville, as Holmes (he originated the role in the stage production) — who played Holmes in the 1965 British film, A Study in Terror (as well as in a 1970s Broadway revival of William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes play). Admittedly, part of Neville’s compatibility with the role is his aquiline Holmesian features — which is lost on radio.
One suspects the playwrights were inspired a lot by the seminal Gillette play as it’s more a pulp fiction adventure than a cerebral mystery puzzle. And they throw in practically everything but the kitchen sink, sprinkle in deliberate references/lines from the Holmes canon, and with Professor Moriarty at the back of it all. The title is drawn from a cryptic reference in one of the Doyle stories.
Holmes & Watson are consulted over an incident involving a priest going mad, seeming a result of Satanism/the occult, but which leads them to uncover a massive plot to plunge Europe into war. The play deliberately exploits our historical hindsight: Moriarty’s scheme is basically a blueprint for what will trigger WW I (and there’s a joke about a promising treatment for cocaine addiction — heroin!). Cardinal Tosca is an old friend of Holmes’ who’s a Vatican secret agent. It’s an ambitious plot, but tricky to depict in a play where there are only three sets used, meaning it can be kind of expositional. In the final Act there’s a long spell just with the villains (Holmes & Watson mostly not involved) and it gets a bit off-putting with some gratuitous torture! There’s also a bit involving a Chinese villain that is problematic — although that may have been deliberate, in keeping with the “pulp fiction homage” vibe. But — and maybe this is because I’ve listened to it more than once — it does grow on me, improving with subsequent listens. It’s briskly-paced and certainly grandiose! The acting is generally fine with Neville, Dan McDonald as Watson, and some other notable Canadian performers like Patricia Collins and Colin Fox (as the titular Tosca). Vernon Chapman is a memorable Moriarty. It’s also a nice addition to the Holmes radio/audio catalogue for aficionados — an adaptation of a stage play (that may not be often performed outside of Canada) starring an actor who had already brought Holmes to life on screen!
_______Fact Meet Fiction
Since the Victorian era was rife with memorable events and personalities, a not uncommon conceit of Holmes pastiches is to embroil him with real people and/or real crimes in a way Doyle didn’t.
Holmes and The Ripper
(2010, 120 min, Big Finish)
It’s hard to ignore that the era in which Holmes’ existed coincided with arguably the most notorious serial killer/unsolved crimes in living memory. So much so that there have been a few Holmes/Jack the Ripper stories: movies like A Study in Terror (1965) and Murder by Decree (1979) and radio (Imagination Theater did an epic, 5-episode storyline using the theme). Among these was this Brian Clemens play which was given a robust audio treatment by Big Finish in 2010. At first blush you might think Clemens (and Big Finish) was just adapting Murder by Decree, since both stories employ the same conspiracy theory. Nonetheless, there are differences in Clemens treatment. And though the story is, obviously, lurid and not for the squeamish at times, by focusing on the idea of a mystery/conspiracy (as opposed to just a random crazed killer explanation) it avoids being too exploitive and makes for a crackling, edge-of-the-seat thriller full of running about and revelations (even if you know the theory being developed, it’s still exciting following Holmes & Watson as they make their discoveries). It’s arguably one of the best of these Holmes-audio/radio “movies!” The acting is top drawer all around (with meaty, emotional scenes to play), the presentation more like a movie than a stage play — with lots of scene changes and rushing about fog-draped streets. I’m hard pressed to imagine how this would be performed on a stage! It’s also told mostly with the scenes and dialogue, making it very immediate and intense (Many of the Big Finish productions lean heavily on Watson’s voiceover narration, which is meant to evoke the Doyle stories but can bleed some of the immediacy and energy out of the scenes).
A Capital Case: Sherlock Holmes meets Karl Marx
(2001, 57 min, BBC Radio — aired as part of The Friday Play)
Holmes is approached by Karl Marx to find the stolen unpublished copy of his manuscript — Das Kapital. At first it seems a minor case but kidnappings, murder, and even government malfeasance ensue. Written by David Mairowitz this maybe improves with multiple listens, because I recall being a bit mixed on it the first time I heard it — but have come to regard it quite fondly. It starts out seeming a bit light and humourous, but becomes a more serious mystery-thriller as it goes. The mix of real life figures with the fictional plot is handled fairly deftly (and gives some insight into the different political factions within revolutionary movements at the time) and it’s fast-paced with good performances, with David De Keyser as Marx, Jasmine Hyde as his daughter, and Thomas Arnold as Dr. Watson. Robert Bathhurst plays Holmes, here an odd-but-interesting mix of dynamic man-of-action and fey philosopher. (Interestingly this isn’t the first Holmes/Marx story — there was an earlier novel chronicling their meeting, but with a different plot).
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
(1993, 88 min., BBC Radio — first aired on Saturday Night Theatre)
Starring Simon Callow & Ian Hogg as Holmes & Watson, Holmes’ cocaine addiction has become so severe, Watson conspires to get him professional help from Dr. Sigmund Freud (Karl Johnson). The first half is more a revisionist comedy-drama, but then segues into a more typical mystery-thriller as Holmes, Watson, and Freud, become embroiled in an adventure. Based on the 1974 novel by Nicholas Meyer (better known now as a filmmaker — and indeed, it became a movie in 1976) ironically it’s perhaps strongest in the first half — despite (or maybe because) it’s not really a “typical” Holmes plot. While the mystery-thriller aspect can feel a bit simple and rushed (and the climactic train-chase sequence is a bit hard to visualize on radio). With that said: it’s an enjoyable, off-beat romp, briskly-paced and with a nice sense of time and place (with the use of Freud, etc.). Well acted and with Callow a fine Holmes. He also played the role opposite Nicky Henson as Watson in the six episode radio series, The Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes — though he’s arguably better here, if only because the 90 min. play (and material) provides him with more depth and nuance to the role.
The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner
(2012, 70 min., Big Finish)
Set in the period of Holmes’ retirement and the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic. Holmes and Watson are initially estranged, and their tense reunion is disrupted by J. Bruce Ismay (Michael Maloney) — the much pilloried general manager of the White Star Line (owners of the Titanic) — who claims he is being haunted by a water-logged ghost. Some bizarre murders lends some credence to his outlandish fears. It starts out a much grimmer, angstier story than a lot of Holmes’ tales (allowing Briggs and Earl to plumb some emotional depths, as does Maloney) but means it takes a while for the crime-mystery stuff to begin. More awkwardly — the mystery is fairly simple, not wholly plausible (like how the apparition can appear and disappear unseen by others). And though the plot itself resolves, threads (such as the mystery of Holmes’ retirement from detecting) are clearly meant to tease us into the set of stories in the boxed set The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes.
The Adventure of the Pimlico Poisoner
(1990, 90 min., BBC Radio)
Written by Peter Mackie, it stars William Chubb & Crawford Logan as Holmes & Watson tangled up with the real life serial poisoner Neill Cream. Cream himself comes to Holmes in the guise of a detective investigating the recent notorious poisonings (playing upon the fact that the real life Cream tried to exploit his crimes for financial gain) — although Holmes immediately sees through his guise. Admittedly it could probably have been told just as well as an episode of one of the various Holmes radio series. Other than the lurid novelty of Cream being real, there’s no particular gravitas or Byzantine mystery/puzzle to be deciphered (in the way that Holmes and The Ripper was a conspiracy-thriller and a cynical look at Victorian mores). But it moves along briskly enough, the cat-and-mouse aspect (with Holmes and Cream having scenes together) is perhaps a bit unique, and the treatment of the relationship between Holmes & Watson is effective (though Crawford Logan’s Watson proves the more dynamic presence — Logan had previously performed as Watson opposite Roger Rees’ Holmes in a well-regarded but seeming hard to trackdown BBC Radio version of The Hound of the Baskervilles).
The Adventure of the Left-Handed Corpse
(1984, 57 min, CBC Radio — originally aired on Sunday Matinee)
Holmes & Watson (Christopher Newton & Leon Pownall) investigate a grisly murder in which Oscar Wilde is a person of interest — although Wilde himself only appears in one scene (but there’s a socio-political subtext, alluding to Wilde’s notoriety — read: homosexuality). It’s written by Laurence Gough, a Canadian mystery novelist. Like with the CBC’s earlier The Incredible Murder of Cardinal Tosca I don’t think it was ever officially released on tape/CD. But it can be found floating about the internet. Unfortunately the available recording feels as though it may be at — slightly — the wrong speed. I could be wrong, but the voices seem a bit low, and the pacing a bit sluggish. Like a few Holmes’ pastiches, it’s grislier than I associate with Doyle’s tales, involving a dismembered body that is composed of multiple victims (the corpse having two left hands). The mystery is rather haphazardly developed (not a lot of clues or suspects), the story seeming to ramble (I’m not entirely sure some of it even makes sense!), and Holmes is maybe a tad, well, bitchy (or like Gough is almost spoofing the character). In an odd coincidence, The Incredible Murder of Cardinal Tosca also made references to Wilde.
_______However Improbable (Team-ups and the Fantastical)…
Even with seeming supernatural mysteries, Doyle’s solutions were usually down-to-earth (ironic, of course, given Doyle’s own interest in the paranormal). But that hasn’t stopped books, plays, and comics from dropping the great detective into realms fantastical — and audio adventures are no different. He’s tackled Dracula twice (in audio), termed up with that celebrated traveller through time and space, Dr. Who, as well as encountered Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and a variation of H.G. Wells Invisible Man — many thanks to Big Finish.
Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula
(1981, 90 min, BBC Radio)
Holmes is arguably the most famous protagonist of the Victorian era, and likewise the vampire, Count Dracula, the most infamous villain — so it’s unsurprising there have been various pastiches imagining a meeting between the two in books and comics. Adapted from the 1978 novel by Loren D. Estleman, to some extent this is the novel Dracula only with Holmes & Watson thrown into the mix. But the result is more imaginative than that might seem, because we follow the story from Holmes & Watson’s POV. So it’s not simply a retelling of scenes from the novel, but a different angle on the story (nor do you need to know the novel to follow it). Indeed, the premise is that Holmes and the Dracula characters (Van Helsing, et al) kind of clash so aren’t actually working together. Most effectively — it’s a surprisingly atmospheric, even spooky tale, capturing the spirit of a Gothic horror tale and fog-draped streets quite well. And John Moffatt & Timothy West make a superb Holmes & Watson — Moffatt in particular brings a seriousness and forcefulness to the roll that is quite compelling (and different from many Holmes’ interpretations which often play him up as a kind aloof dilettante). Moffatt’s performance is particularly notable when you realize he has played Watson (in Sherlock’s Last Case, mentioned later in this essay) and is especially identified (on radio) with one of the other great characters of detective fiction, Hercule Poirot — yet at no point do those other characters creep into his performance. This play is especially fun to drag out for a re-listen around Halloween! (There is also another version floating about the internet under the book’s sub-title The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count, and running about an hour).
The Tangled Skein
(2012, 130 min, Big Finish)
The Tangled Skein is the second Holmes/Dracula mash-up to be adapted to audio (after Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula — leaving, I think, Fred Saberhagen’s 1978 novel, The Holmes-Dracula File, the last of the main Holmes/Dracula pastiches to still be un-adapted). Based on David Stuart Davies 1992 novel, it’s equally a sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles, with the villain from that story seeking revenge on Holmes (and since Big Finish adapted Hound, you can listen to them back to back with same Holmes/Watson team of Briggs/Earl). After avoiding a death trap, Holmes then becomes sidetracked by the hunt for Dracula; the two cases later dovetailing when Holmes & Watson pursue clues to a vampiric occurrence near old Baskerville Hall. Definitely a pastiche’s pastiche with its homaging both Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles, but arguably it unfolds in a fairly straightforward way, crossing its Ts and dotting its Is. With that said, it’s also a perfectly okay romp, keeps a brisk pace with lots of running about and action (Holmes escaping a death trap within the first few minutes!). And the winter-time setting adds some interesting atmosphere (particularly in the climax — vampire stories often set during more temperate seasons). I’d argue Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula is moodier and spookier — but this is certainly an agreeable romp.
The Adventure of the Fleet Street Transparency
(2012, 60 min, Big Finish)
Big Finish’s Holmes & Watson encounter an Invisible Man (voiced by Blake Ritson). Big Finish had done a series of HG Wells adaptations, including The Invisible Man starring John Hurt as the titular character, Griffin, but with Ritson’s Kemp finishing the play determined to recreate the invisibility experiment. In this Holmes story he has clearly succeeded — and one wonders if BF was toying with the idea of creating a series around him as a kind of invisible crime fighter. But if so — they have yet to follow up on it. It’s not a disagreeable way to kill an hour (and like a lot of Holmes pastiches is set around Christmas!), but does feel a bit light and slight. A harmless confection.
The Confessions of Dorian Gray: Ghosts of Christmas Past
(2012, 60 min, Big Finish)
Big Finish did a fantasy/horror series imagining Oscar Wilde’s notorious Libertine, Dorian Gray, was essentially immortal and lived on for decades (in Big Finish’s hands Gray was less immoral than in Wilde’s novel). And so, unsuprisingly, they teamed their version of Gray (excellently voiced by Alexander Vlahos) with their version of Holmes (assuredly voiced by Nicholas Briggs) for the hour long Ghosts of Christmas Past. Gray turns to Holmes after his painting (the one that is the key to his immortality) is stolen and both men find themselves haunted by spectres from their pasts — and learn of a shared history. It’s perhaps more a Dorian Gray story guest starring Holmes than vice versa, and is quite good (maybe to keep it in tune with a Holmes’ story, the villains turn out to be more down-to-earth than spectral). Although it does feel a bit like they were maybe setting things up for a follow up tale, but haven’t done so as far as I know.
Doctor Who: All-Consuming Fire
(2015, 120 min, Big Finish)
Undoubtedly the centre piece of the Big Finish company is their successful Dr. Who audios, based on the seeming eternal TV science fiction series. So it was inevitable they would get around to adapting the 1994 novel by Andy Lane, Dr. Who: All-Consuming Fire, which teamed Holmes & Watson with that enigmatic traveller in time and space, The Doctor (specifically his seventh incarnation, played by Sylvester McCoy). If you’ve little interest in sci-fi, be forewarned: it starts out a Sherlock Holmes story with the Doctor getting involved, but is mostly a Doctor Who story that embroils Holmes & Watson (although mostly told from their — well, Watson’s — perspective). But it’s quite an enjoyable mash-up of the two, ranging from Victorian London, to India, to an alien world, with a nice evocation of the Victorian era — even in the weird stuff (including spontaneous human combustion!). There’s clever plot twists, witty dialogue, and an effective creepiness at times (as Watson & Holmes are confronted by things quite outside their ken). Holmes and Doctor Who make for an obvious pairing (The Doctor kind of Holmes in outer space) and this doesn’t disappoint in its depiction of their interaction (like an early scene where Holmes gets frustrated trying to deduce things about The Doctor from a visual scrutiny…and for the first time failing!) The actors are in good form, both the regulars (especially McCoy and Earl) and guest stars. Great fun.
_______Oddities and Curiosities
Holmes is the great detective — his exploits mostly mystery and adventure stories. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for quirky or off-beat takes on the character and his mythos.
Sherlock’s Last Case
(1989, 90 min. BBC Radio — first aired as part of Saturday Night Theatre)
Adapted from a stage play by Charles Marowitz, this is an apocryphal satire/parody where Holmes is a snide, obnoxious figure — so much so that when he is lured to a death trap mid-play, the villain is none other than Watson himself, who secretly hates him! But Watson’s plan to live a post-Holmes’ life is then threatened when he is asked to verify the identity of a man who claims to be Holmes back from the dead. And I suppose comedy is entirely a personal thing. But it just didn’t really work for me — not only did I not find it particularly funny (the humour more in the quirky premise than in witty lines and quips) it’s also a mean, ugly play, mostly rooted in characters humiliating and belittling each other. It’s not entirely clear what the intent of it is (in terms of how the audience is supposed to process it, or care about what happens). It’s also very stagy, built up of very long scenes. The irony is that Dinsdale Landen and John Moffatt are both good in their parts — Landen sounding remarkably like Jeremy Brett (widely regarded as one of the great screen Holmes) and Moffatt himself had played Holmes (to great effect in Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula) but that doesn’t colour his Watson. But…the problem I think is that neither man exactly pull off the comedy aspect. They give great performances as the characters…just not particularly funny performances. The result — at least for me — misses more than it hits.
Sherlock Holmes: The Last Act
(2009, 90 min., Big Finish)
A 1999 one-man show written by David Stuart Davies specifically for its star, Roger Llewellyn (whom Davies had seen play Holmes in a stage production of The Hound of the Baskervilles). And it was brought to audio life in 2009 by Big Finish, with Llewellyn still in the centre seat. It basically adopts the familiar format of one-man show bio-plays except used for a fictional personality: namely, Holmes, in the twilight of his years, returns home from Dr. Watson’s funeral and reflects back on his life and times. So — not a mystery/thriller. And not even much linear plot, per se. Probably not ideal for casual Holmes fans as a lot of it is just Holmes summarizing various key cases (kind of ruining the mysteries if you haven’t already read them!). But if you are familiar with the Holmes canon — it has a nostalgic, bittersweet appeal by having Holmes himself reminisce, given an emotional punch by filtering it through Holmes reflecting on his relationship with his deceased friend. There’s also a second Act sequence of Holmes reflecting upon his childhood and his abusive father — a dark section (and original to Davies, rather than anything Doyle wrote) that’s effective…but then we’re just back to reminiscing on published adventures. But at the play’s heart is Llewellyn’s stellar performance (he toured with the play for years) — rich, emotional, nuanced (and versatile, what with the other voices he must provide). So as I say: not ideal for a casual fan looking for a mystery/adventure; but not without appeal to Holmesian aficionados.
Sherlock Holmes: The Death and Life
(2009, 78 min., Big Finish)
Written by David Stuart Davies, who wrote The Last Act, but this is a decidedly more abstract addition to Holmesian library. It’s an audio production of a one man show that not only breaks the fourth wall, but the fifth and sixth (so to speak). The play mixes scenes of Arthur Conan Doyle reflecting on his ambivalence toward his famous character (and his plans to kill him off), and scenes of Holmes himself (as well as Moriarty and others) as though the characters have come alive (and are aware they are characters) and are manipulating Doyle as much as he’s manipulating them. So it’s effectiveness depends a lot on what you like and your interest in such a concoction: it will either seem wonderfully weird and audacious (and amusing)…or self-indulgent and twee (as the British might say). What probably isn’t in doubt is Roger Llewellyn’s formidable performance, a kind of tour-de-force of characters and voices.
(1986, 58 min, BBC Radio)
Basically a one-man show starring Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson (a role he performed on TV in the 1960s opposite Peter Cushing as Holmes). After Holmes’ “death” at the Reichenbach Falls, Watson reminisces about their years together, summarizing their first meeting and a few adventures — notably “The Speckled Band” and “The Final Problem.” So it’s not unlike The Last Act, except with Watson reminiscing after Holmes’ death, rather than vice versa. And, to be fair, 221B was first. Not as strong as The Last Act, without as much of an emotional punch, but still OK for what it is, with Stock quite good. But mostly of interest to nostalgists as it’s not really a story, per se, the summarizing of some adventures not necessarily the best way to appreciate them (although, to be fair, I’ve sort of been delving into these Holmesian tales so much recently, I may just be burning out on the umpteenth re-staging of famous scenes).
The Secret of Sherlock Holmes
Okay — kind of borderline to include this. It’s a two-hander play (ie: just two actors) about Holmes and Watson, originally performed by Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, stars of the iconic 1980s BBC Sherlock Holmes TV series. But it’s not an audio/radio play. Rather, some enterprising fan (audio) recorded a performance and you can find it posted on-line. Unfortunately…the sound quality is problematic. Not a criticism of the recorder (they did the best they could) but they were in the audience of a live performance and I’m guessing not too near the front. Still, it’s Brett & Hardwicke in a Sherlock Holmes play! So for hardcore fans it might be worth keeping an eye/ear out for while surfing the internet.
So there you go — a (mostly) complete rundown of non-Doyle (English language) Sherlock Holmes audio movies. Have I missed one or two? Possibly. And certainly one could quibble about the parameters I set for myself. I waffled about whether Imagination Theater’s occasional double-length — ie: hour long — episodes, or some of its multi-episode arcs, should be counted. But in the end I didn’t (but Imagination Theater is certainly worth checking out). Hopefully this will give Holmes fans radio/audio plays to hunt for — some are available to buy from various sites (Big Finish, Amazon, etc.), others were never released for home sale but can be found on Youtube or OTR sites.
And in addition to my story in Sherlock Holmes and the Great Detectives (One of two Grey/Gray Seal teamings, the other by Will Murray!) check out some of my other ebooks and stories here