Andrew East sees the sign.
The Sign of the Four is an adaptation of one of the few Sherlock Holmes novels by Conan Doyle. Unlike the one part BBC Radio short story adaptations, it is presented in two parts and has time to explore its world a little more, including not only the central mystery but a sizeable flashback sequence and a romance for Doctor Watson.
Before listening this story I had no idea it was the ‘case’ that introduced Mary Morstan into the world. Mary is, of course, the future Mrs Watson and featured quite prominently in the third series of Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock (being given a much more dynamic character than that seen in this story). In The Sign of the Four, she brings the case of her missing father to Holmes. However, her father has been missing for 10 years and what ensues is a tale which stretches back to India, treasure and wooden-legged men.
It is an intriguing mystery, although Holmes concludes the perpetrator extremely quickly and the rest of the story is more concerned with tracking down the suspect rather than showing Holmes’ deduction skills. This focus leads to a very exciting chase on barges down the Thames which, considering this is audio, works extremely well. The flashback sequence is a little more drawn out as we find out the sequence of events which led to Mary’s father’s disappearance and the more recent murder related to the treasure.
The cast play their parts well: Merrison and Williams continue to impress as Holmes and Watson; and the main guest star, Brian Blessed brings Jonathan Small (the wooden-legged suspect) to restrained life (although glimmers of the bombastic beardy we know and love leak through every now and again).
There are some interesting Holmesian threads running through this story which would give rise to aspects of other Holmes related storytelling. Holmes employs the services of both The Baker Street Irregulars and Toby the dog to track the barge. The Irregulars are semi-recurring characters in the Holmes canon but would go on to inspire their own TV series, the Baker Street Boys and even crop up, sort of, in the modern series. Toby the dog is name-checked in Basil, the Great Mouse Detective where Basil uses the services of a dog called Toby. We also get more emphasis on Holmes’ drug habit which, although Watson clearly disapproves, isn’t presented as scandalously as something like that might be nowadays (if not excised completely).
Historically there are some concepts included that explore some interesting aspects of Victorian society. Principal among these is Britain’s links with India, and the Indian rebellion of 1857. Small’s backstory also involves Agra Fortress and the penal colony on the Andaman Islands. All these are historically factual and the greater length of the story allows these to be explored a little. Although the penal colony is only referenced rather than dramatised, it does bring to mind the similar prison on the Galapagos Islands from 6th Doctor audio, Bloodtide. Character-wise, though, there are no real life people. It is interesting to note that some of the characters are Indian although there is some argument about how fairly they are represented and whether there is any inherent racism in their presentation (moreso in the original story). This is even more true of Tonga, the pygmy ‘savage’ that Small ‘adopts’ whilst in the Andaman Islands. He never talks in the production, merely grunting every now and again, and there are strong parallels drawn between him and a monkey.
This was an enjoyable production, although I did find the rather gratuitous info-dump of Small’s story a bit too lengthy, good though a narrator Blessed is to listen to.
A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the
worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed
with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon
is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of
the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the