Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sherlock Holmes and the Mysterious Case of the Centenarian Detectives

Anyone who likes Sherlock Holmes will be aware of the series of movies made by Universal in the late 30s and early 40s, starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his chronicler and side-kick Dr Watson.

I can only say with certainty that they'll be aware of them, since for many Holmesians these films are the thin end of the wedge, the point at which presentation of the Holmes stories went horribly awry and many undesirable elements were introduced (Holmes taking part in non-canonical mysteries and Watson being a bumbling half-wit, specifically).

For those of us with a love of the slightly askew though, these films are a Godsend. Starting off in 1939 with the traditional Hound of the Baskervilles and running via another 13 films to 1946 and The Secret Code the series soon left behind Victorian England and became a propoganda tool for the allies as Holmes foiled one sinister Nazi plan after another in a modern day setting.

Even better though, the two actors starred at the same time in the radio series, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - and that's mad as two hungry weasels in a sack.

The series ran in full from 1939 until 1947, though Rathbone jumped ship in '46, and the ones I've heard (courtesy of Paul) are from Rathbone's final season.

So what's so peculiar about them, I ask both of my readers ask at once?

Might as well start with the big one. The series as a whole at this point was sponsored by a company called Petri Wine and, as was the custom of the day, this involves a spokesman for the company doing a little speech at the beginning and end extolling the virtues of the sponsor's product*.

So far so good.

What marks these stories out though is that once the spokesman finishes his spiel he then starts chatting to Nigel Bruce in character as Watson, asking after his health, his latest case and his fondness for Petri Dry Sherry! Even better, Watson gets obviously peeved by this and makes occasional comments sotto voce along the lines of 'Oh good, talking about that damn wine again".

All of which has a knock-on effect on the series' timeline. You might expect that the writers simply wouldn't mention the fact that every story is set some sixty years after the original stories? But no, the series revels in the fact that Watson is well over a hundred - in the 'April Fool's Adventure' Watson even specifically dates a story to 1881.

Then there's the incidental music, which is completely mental. It's like the most outre of outsider music or the results of the Elephant Man randomly smashing the keys of an organ with his face. Just loud, discordant parping noises basically: the output of a man who learned his trade doing sound effects for James Whale horror movies.

All of which somewhat tongue in cheek comment should not be taken as genuine scoffing. The acting is first rate, the scripts inventive and intelligent and the series as a whole both highly professional and extremely entertaining. The little oddities of the day add to the pleasure to be had in listening, rather than taking anything away.

You can download free, legitimate copies of some of these shows here. Go on, give one a try while enjoying a cool, refreshing glass of Petri Sherry, perfect as a before dinner drink or as a light, summer wine with dinner.

* I did think it was a nice touch having the widow of the writer Robert Green topping and tailing some of the episodes with reminisces about Nigel Bruce.

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Blogger Scott Liddell said...

There's nothing worse than a typo in the title of a blog post...

4:36 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

What typo, he said innocently ('look into my eyes, the eyes, don't look at the URL, do not look at the URL, look into my eyes, don't look at the URL')

4:39 pm  
Blogger Ross Douglas said...

The only thing worse than a typo in the title is making a joke that references Matt Lucas.

12:27 am  
Blogger IZP said...

These aren't the Lucas references you're looking for.

10:43 am  

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