Bert Coules, writer and director of the Sherlock Holmes series for BBC radio, recalls his first encounter with the books and the process of adapting them for radio, writes Adam Shewbrook
Clive Merrison and Michael Williams play the consulting detective and his companion Dr Watson in tow. Taking the better part of a decade, the trio with a handful of directors worked their way through each separate story.
Despite finishing the cannon in 1998, the series is still highly regarded by fans, and is respected by many as a creative highlight of radio drama. Just like Rathbone and Brett portrayed Holmes for the current generation in their respected productions, the BBC created the definitive Holmes on the radio.
Sherlock Holmes captured Bert Coules’ imagination as a child, he recalls:
When did you first come across Sherlock Holmes? What were your first impressions?
I was pretty young: around twelve years old, I think. I can’t now remember if it was in the books or the early-sixties BBC radio shows, but I suspect that the audio adventures came first and sent me off to the library in search of the written word. In either case, the memories are still vivid of both the John Murray hardback editions with their white oil-painting covers and the voices of Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley and the evocative sound-world they inhabited. Remembering them now takes me instantly back to a lost world.
How did you manage to get the job of adapting the canon?
I was working as a freelance scriptwriter and had sold a couple of radio plays to the BBC. I pitched the idea of a new dramatization of The Hound of the Baskervilles never for a moment expecting to get such a famous and well-loved book, but to my amazement, I did: it was made as a two-part serial starring Roger Rees and Crawford Logan. The show got good audience figures and decent reviews, so I suggested doing some more and the BBC agreed, though they wanted new actors in the leads. That led to A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four with Clive Merrison and Michael Williams, and the complete canon project grew out of those.
Plenty of adaptations have been and gone of Sherlock Holmes in many different mediums, some painstakingly accurate, like the Granada series or wildly taking liberties such as the sci-fi, b-movie horror, and adventure thrillers of the Basil Rathbone radio series in the 1940s.
I asked how the accuracy in the adaptations came to him. How sacred were the stories?
What pressures did you experience from producers and directors? Especially regarding the accuracy of the stories?
“Accuracy” means more than simply reproducing the written word exactly. It does no favours to a gripping and exciting tale to turn it into a plodding and uninvolving piece of drama by lifting it wholesale and unchanged from one medium and plonking it down in another.
The brief from the beginning was that we should be “imaginatively faithful”. I thought that was a marvellous instruction. We were given the liberty to reshape, to reinvent, as long as – as I mentioned – we never violated the spirit of the originals.
“. . . we should be “imaginatively faithful”. I thought that was a marvellous instruction. . .”
What were the main challenges in adapting the canon?
The same as in dramatizing almost any prose work: the need to keep the spirit, the essence of the original while at the same time recognising that a play is not a book and that drama has its own rules, its own needs. And some specific radio challenges: making the action and the settings clear and vivid but avoiding spoon-feeding the listeners with clunky descriptions of what’s happening.
Added to that was the fact that these characters are part of the global consciousness, known to people who have never read one word of the original stories. What Holmes and Watson are, how they act, how they speak, what they would do and, just as importantly, what they would not do – these are matters that have been fixed in the minds of the public by decades of films, TV, advertising, jokes and other things besides. And everyone has a slightly different picture. We wanted to strip all that away and go right back to Conan Doyle.
However, the original stories had archaic elements, which are most dispiriting for the modern reader, the several later stories have unfortunate tones of racism, I asked Coules was there any pressure to change the stories, modernize them? Leave out the dirty bits?
Where there any scenes or characteristics that you hesitated to put in?
No. Before work started, there was a tone meeting with the BBC’s head of radio drama to talk about this. Should we keep Holmes’s drug use? Should they smoke and drink to the same extend that they do in the stories? Should their period attitudes to class and gender be smoothed out at all? It was universally decided that we should change nothing, explain nothing and apologise for nothing.
So the writing team had their aspirations and aims, but in order to execute them they needed a cast; Holmes and Watson were found in Clive Merrison and Michael Williams.
Merrison has an incredible voice, (his telling off of Richard Griffith’s character in ‘The History Boys’ film is an incredibly tense moment) and his mercurial ability to find his niche, to capture a character acted and watched more than Dracula was a thing of brilliance. Coules saves a lot of his praise for the stars of the show:
What do you think of Clive Merrison’s Holmes? How does Mr Williams’ and Mr Sach’s Watsons compare?
To present Sherlock Holmes in all his complexity and his range, to show his intelligence, his darkness, his manic enthusiasm and all the rest of it, is a huge challenge for any actor. To do it with no support from costumes, makeup, scenery, lighting and all the evocative surroundings of the visual media, to do it just with your voice, is enormously difficult. Clive Merrison does it magnificently.
Sadly, after the canon finished, Michael Williams passed away, and for the Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Andrew Sachs took up the role of Dr Watson:
Both Michael Williams and Andrew Sachs made Watson a fully-rounded, equal partner, and both gave the character exactly the warmth, intelligence, romance and spirit the role demands. It’s a very hard part to play.
Combining the love of literature into a radio adaptation is no easy feat, how did you find it?
Daunting, frustrating, difficult, rewarding. But a privilege.