The Sound of Sherlock

By bert coules, former BBC radio producer-director on 22 Oct 2014

Clive Merrison and Michael Williams in ‘His Last Bow’

I first met the doctor and the detective on the BBC airwaves in the late 1950s. I was around ten years old and I still recall the thrill of the wonderfully contrasted voices of Norman Shelley as the affable port-and-cigars storyteller and Carleton Hobbs as the ever-civilised, unflappable sleuth. Rather too civilised and unflappable for my tastes now, but every Sherlock is a reflection of the times he appears in and those were very different days.

Radio drama, supremely evocative and intensely personal, is an ideal medium for Holmes and Watson and their world. One of the pleasures of listening to the duo’s audio adventures across the years is the sheer variety: of performances, of interpretations, of evolving production values and styles.

The earliest BBC outing to survive is a Speckled Band from 1945. If you can get past the occasional clunkiness of the script then there are rewards to be had, especially in the performance of stage and screen star Sir Cedric Hardwicke. He gives the part an intensity and a darkness which wouldn’t become the norm until several decades later.

Hobbs and Shelley first appeared in 1952 in the cosy old Children’s Hour slot, which says something of how the stories were regarded at the time. They remained in their roles until 1969, definitive performances for a good many older listeners even today, but they didn’t always have the field entirely to themselves: the various rival productions included an independently-produced series with Sirs John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson no less. The two theatrical knights made an engaging, often rather jolly, Baker Street duo, even if they never quite succeeded in submerging their own formidable personalities in the characters.

But change was in and on the air, with Robert Powell as a younger, more intense, dynamic detective in 1974’s A Study in Scarlet.

I was keen to build on that in my own first attempt at bringing the stories to radio, a 1988 Hound of the Baskervilles with Roger Rees and Crawford Logan (in Radio 4’s Classic Serial slot, home of the likes of Austen and Dickens: H&W had come a long way since their Children’s Hour days). Producer-director David Johnston made extensive use of music, effects, ambient sound and silence to evoke the horrors of the tale, and it’s hard to recall a visual-medium Hound from Hell as believable and chilling as the one conjured up by the brilliant and unsung radio drama technicians.

That show led directly to the Beeb’s ambitious never-before-done determination to dramatise all fifty-six of the short stories and the four novels. The length of the project, the use of a forty-five minute slot for the shorter tales, the changing expectations of an increasingly sophisticated audience and the marvellously nuanced performances of Clive Merrison and Michael Williams enabled us – I hope – to give a new emotional depth to the characters as well as use a more complex, less linear approach to the storytelling.

Those shows reached a climax with a new Hound in 1998. Given the current worldwide boom in the popularity of the Baker Street duo, presumably it won’t be long before two more BBC audio incarnations come along (as they already have in the commercial straight-to-CD-and-download sector). Who will they be, what will they be like, how will they compare with the best of the past? I can’t wait to find out.

Bert Coules

To complement the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London, BBC Radio 4 Extra are broadcasting a season of dramatisations and documentaries reflecting the enduring appeal of the great detective to writers, actors and listeners alike. For details of the programmes in the season, visit the Radio 4 Extra website.

Bert has worked as a radio Producer-Director and has written for radio, TV and theatre. He is most renowned to Holmes enthusiasts as the head writer behind BBC Radio’s ambitious project to dramatise every single Holmes novel and short story between 1988 and 1995.

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