Sherlock Holmes: Rathbone and Bruce on the Radio

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It seems like only yesterday that Neale Monks turned to me and said...


For an entire generation of movie-goers and radio-listeners, the definitive Holmes and Watson were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, two English actors based in Hollywood throughout the silver screen era. Starring in no fewer than fourteen films and almost two hundred radio plays between 1939 and 1946, the two actors are easy to mock in our postmodern age. Rathbone’s clipped and laconic style of speaking and Bruce’s portrayal of Watson as a bumbling fool are very out of fashion, and there’s no question that the films and the radio plays haven’t always aged particularly well. But while I’ll leave it to others to critique the films, I do think the radio plays deserve to be listened to, and the better ones unquestionably add something to the Holmes canon that anyone with even a slight interest in the genre can enjoy.

Let’s start off by looking at the format though. Half-hour murder-mysteries were extremely popular during the 1930s and 40s, from debonaire detectives like Simon Templar in ‘The Saint’ through to the more hard-boiled gumshoes such as Sam Spade and Rocky Jordan (this latter a particular favourite of mine, and a show that’s aged extremely well compared to some of the others). There were superhero takes on the genre too, perhaps most famously Lamont Cranston as the titular hero of ‘The Shadow’, for a time played by no less an actor than Orson Welles. But the benchmark show is probably ‘The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ starring Rathbone and Bruce as well as several other actors who were also part of the film productions as well.


All told, 54 episodes have survived from the 200-odd produced. All are freely available online, for example at the Internet Archive, so getting hold of these shows shouldn’t be difficult, though the quality of the recordings varies. Cranked out weekly with little time for rehearsals, fluffed lines can be heard now and again, but in other regards these were originally quite high quality productions. Given the nature of the format, sound effects played a particularly important role, and one of the engaging things about radio shows from this era was how cleverly they recreated settings as diverse as English villages, Tibetan monasteries and Viennese palaces!

One of the quirks of this particular radio show was the framing story. Harry Bartell, besides playing some of the characters in the dramas, also had the role of the Petri Wine spokesman, introducing the show on behalf of its sponsors. In doing so he meets with Dr Watson, now retired and living in California. That certainly stretches the Baring-Gould chronology a little, Baring-Gould has Watson born in 1852, making him around 90 years old at the time the radio plays were being recorded. But it works, in fact rather well, allowing Bruce’s natural bonhomie to draw the listener into the story as if it was being told by an amiable old uncle in his favourite armchair. We even get a few little details about Watson’s life in America, including the fact he seems to be breeding dogs.

“It seems like only yesterday that Holmes turned to me and said…” is the sort of thing that Watson says, leading to the dramas themselves. Some of them are based on Conan Doyle’s own stories, but most are original, though some of these take their cues from the undocumented mysteries alluded to in the Conan Doyle stories but never properly told. So within the series the listener can find out about the activities of the Amateur Mendicant Society, or how winding a pocket-watch helped Holmes reveal the identity of the Camberwell poisoner. Sometimes gems in the rough, these pseudo-canon episodes are particularly good listening if your enjoyment of Holmes comes from the books rather than films or TV.

What follows is a seven of my favourite episodes from the surviving episodes of ’The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, but it has to be said that the Rathbone and Bruce episodes rarely disappoint. The actors that took over the roles later on just didn’t have this chemistry. Tom Conway’s Holmes, for example, transforms the jaded diffidence that Rathbone saw in Holmes into a sort of petulant hectoring, snapping at Watson and treating him like a fool. So while these later stories can be interesting, even entertaining, they do tend to play towards that caricature of Holmes and Watson that Jeremy Brett and David Burke, for example, reacted against in the ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ during the 1980s.


Living Doll
If you’ve ever wondered what Holmes got up to after he left Baker Street and retired to the Sussex Downs to keep bees, then this is the episode for you. It’s also notable for the way the framing story works: helping Watson introduce the story is a woman visiting him in America who took part in the story as a little girl. On the other hand, the story does reveal a cliche of the murder-mystery shows of the time, a tendency for a key witness or suspect to be murdered halfway through, dying just before they’re able to tell the hero ‘whodunnit’. The clue that Holmes uses to solve the mystery is also a bit contrived, but otherwise this is an enjoyable show that works well because of the strength of the lead actors and, it has to be said, the supporting cast including the actress playing the child at the centre of the plot.

Submarine Caves
Given that these shows were produced while the Second World War was going on, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that several stories allude to earlier wars between Britain and Germany. ‘In Flanders Field’ is one such story, dealing with a relatively straightforward case of espionage alongside a nice slice of rousing and patriotic theatre. ‘Submarine Caves’ is perhaps a bit more quirky, set some time before the First World War. Holmes and Watson have been despatched to a fictional island of Garth in the English Channel to collect some butter, part of an ancient ritual symbolising the good faith between this island and the United Kingdom. Of course there’s more to it than that, Holmes actually having been sent for by the governor of Garth, but unfortunately she dies before he arrives. Instead Holmes and Watson find themselves dealing with the governor’s successor, a young, rather weak-willed man easily led by his domineering nanny. This only matters to Britain because of the remarkable undersea caves on the island, which enemy powers could use to destroy shipping in the Channel, starving Britain into submission!


Pigeon Feathers
Two secondary characters that fans of the Holmes stories always enjoy are his brother Mycroft Holmes and his landlady Mrs Hudson, and ‘Pigeon Feathers’ gives us plenty of both. Just as it should be, Mycroft has Holmes and Watson do the legwork, and in the process we get to hear the two lead actors putting on some outrageous cockney accents as they pass themselves off as plumbers. For sure this sort of thing doesn’t age terribly well, cockney accents not being particularly typical of London plumbers any more, but it’s a good way for an audio drama to get across the idea of Holmes as a master of disguise.

Uneasy Easy Chair
Another episode that has Holmes and Watson in disguise, this time as furniture delivery men. Whatever our heroes might think about a most peculiar murder, Inspector Lestrade believes he’s caught his man. It isn’t so much the solution to the murder that entertains; the solution being ingenious, if improbable when thought about for any length of time. But rather that interplay between Holmes, Watson and Lestrade, the latter played as a competent, if unimaginative, policeman doing his job the best he can. All too often the Lestrade character gets demoted to comic relief, rather like Watson, the scriptwriter perhaps trying to use their foolishness to heighten the impact of Holmes’ brilliance. But in the opinion of this fan, that does all the characters a disservice; Holmes is interesting not because he’s smarter than bumbling idiots but because even alongside smart and capable people like Watson and Lestrade he’s still able to discern the facts where all they can see is confusion.

Murder Beyond Mountains
‘Murder Beyond Mountains’ takes place in the famous Great Hiatus when Holmes was believed death following his rendezvous with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. In truth Holmes travelled the world, keeping his head down while Moriarty’s gang tried to hunt him down and exact their revenge. Conan Doyle has Holmes mention some of the things he did during this time in ‘The Empty House’ but it was left to later writers to detail these adventures. ‘Murder Beyond Mountains’ is one such piece, with Holmes as Sigerson the Norwegian explorer trekking through the snows of the Himalayas on his way to meet the Dalai Lama. Caught in a blizzard and delirious from the cold, he’s rescued by an American missionary and finds himself caught up in a power play between the local Chinese overlord and diplomats representing the British and Russian empires. When the Chinese governor is killed, it’s up to Holmes to try to solve the mystery while securing safe passage to the Tibetan capital. Pay particular attention to the background sounds used in this episode; authentic or not, the production team do a great job here evoking the Tibetan setting that helps to make this episode one of the most atmospheric in the series.


Murder by Moonlight
Probably my favourite among the surviving ‘The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ episodes, I don’t really know what it works so well, but it does. The setting, a steamship in the middle of the Indian Ocean is a classic one for murder-mysteries of course, but rather than being a timeless sort of thing, the story is absolutely of its time. Without giving too much away, the plot hinges on the nature of the British Empire circa 1890, in this case, the fact that the late king of a island state had married an Englishwoman of low birth. A former dancing girl she may be, but she’s also the Rani of Kavarati! The ship’s doctor, a wealthy plantation owner, and the prime minister of Kavarati also catch the attention of Holmes and Watson, and couple these never fully resolved background mysteries to a genuinely surprising ending and you have an exotic piece of murder-mystery that carries itself well more than 75 years after it was recorded.

Neale Monks mostly writes about fish, fossils and old computers, but in his downtime can often be found feeding Daleks or rehoming unwanted sandworms.

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