The world’s most famous detective was extremely popular not only on printed pages, onscreen and onstage. His and Watson’s adventures were adapted to radio many times. In this article we would like to give an overview, mentioning the most significant ones from the more than 700 Sherlock Holmes radio programmes.
„In many ways radio is the ideal medium for Sherlock Holmes. The sets and costumes are cheap, and the actors do not have to look like the characters they are playing. All one has to consider are the voices and the sound effects: the listeners’ imagination does the rest.” (David Stuart Davies: Starring Sherlock Holmes)
Radio plays in Great Britain
The first radio play starring Holmes was broadcasted in 1938 and it told the story of Silver Blaze. Frank Wyndham Goldie played the detective and Hugh Harben was Watson.
In 1943 the fans of Sherlock could follow the adventure of The Boscombe Valley Mystery, but with new cast: Arthur Wontner lent his voice to Sherlock and Carleton Hobbs was Watson. The latter played the genius sleuth in later radio adaptations.
In a BBC radio play in 1945 the role of the most well-known detective was given to Cedric Hardwicke – whose son, Edward, nearly 40 years later became the second Watson besides the fantastic Holmes of the legendary Jeremy Brett in the Granada Sherlock Holmes series.
From 1952 till 1969 was on the air another play. This adaptation, again from the BBC, listed canonical stories, with a single exception. In this version Holmes was played by Carleton Hobbs, while Watson was Norman Shelley. The duo played the famous pair for the longest period in the history of Sherlock Holmes radio plays. The exception mentioned was the radio version of William Gillette’s stage play in 1953.
For another BBC production in 1954 two legendary actors portrayed the famous tenants of Baker Street: Sir John Gielgud was Holmes and Sir Ralph Richardson was the good doctor. The adaptation was faithful to the original stories of Conan Doyle. In the episode called The Adventure of the Final Problem Orson Welles guest starred as Professor Moriarty.
There were some other Holmes plays on BBC as well. Some of them are: A Study in Scarlet (1974) with Robert Powell and Dinsdale Landen, Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula (1980) with John Moffat and Timothy West, and The Valley of Fear (1986) with Tim Pigott-Smith and Andrew Hilton. In 1978 run a series of thirteen episodes starring Barry Foster and David Buck.
From 1988 till 1998 all Holmes stories were adapted to radio with Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson. Then, between 2002 and 2004 two new seasons were produced, with new stories and a new Watson, Andrew Sachs, because Michael Williams unfortunately died in 2001. The show was entitled The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and its stories were based on mysteries mentioned shortly in the Canon.
BBC Radio 2 made a six-episode series in 1999, it was The Newly Discovered Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. The main characters were played by Roy Hudd (Holmes), Chris Emmett (Watson) and June Whitfield (Mrs. Hudson).
Radio shows in the United States of America
The USA’s first radio programme about Sherlock Holmes was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Its first episode, The Speckled Band was broadcasted on the 20th of October 1930. For the premiere William Gillette lent his voice to the great detective. The creator of the series was Edith Meiser, and the programme was sponsored by G. Washington Coffee. As time passed, all original stories were adapted, so from 1934 Meiser wrote new adventures. Holmes was played from the second episode by Richard Gordon, till 1933, while Watson was Leigh Lovell. From 1934 the role of Sherlock was played by Louis Hector, who also played the sleuth on television, in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs in 1937.
William Gillette’s stage play about Holmes was so extremely popular that the decision was made to adapt it to radio. The task was given to Edith Meiser and in 1935 the radio show made its debut. Gillette played the detective, while Reginald Mason was chosen to be his Watson.
From 1936 the audience could hear Richard Gordon in the role of Holmes again, but the programme was made by Mutual Broadcasting System.
In 1938 Orson Welles made his own version of Gillette’s play for CBS. The show was aired
in the series Mercury Theater in the Air.
From 1939 till 1946 run a very popular radio programme on NBC, where Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the duo that became legendary as Holmes and Watson on television, voiced the famous characters in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. They entertained the listeners in 220 episodes. In 1943 the series moved to MBS. From 1946 Tom Conway played the role of the sleuth for a year, in 39 episodes. These episodes had a new title, it was The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In 1947 a new cast took up the roles: Sherlock was played by John Stanley and Watson by Alfred Shirley. The pair worked together for a year. Between 1948 and 1949 Stanley had a new Watson, Ian Martin. From 1949 both characters were played by new actors: Ben Wright (Holmes) and Eric Snowden (Watson). The programme also moved to the ABC in 1949.
A new radio show started in 1998 in the series Imagination Theatre, adapting the original Holmes stories. The detective was played by John Gilbert, and Lawrence Albert lent his voice to Watson. From the year 2000 John Patrick Lowrie became the voice of Holmes. The show was entitled The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, just like the British series with Clive Merrison and Andrew Sachs. In 2005 the producers started a new show, it was The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It was also based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories.
David Stuart Davies: Starring Sherlock Holmes. Titan Books, London, 2007.