“Anniversary, my dear Watson…anniversary.”
Eighty-two years ago on this date, the world’s greatest detective made his debut over the airwaves…and let’s make one thing clear—it’s the world’s greatest consulting detective, in case you were expecting to hear about Sam Spade.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary literary sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, saw the last of his adventures published in 1927…and three years later, Holmes and his biographer, Dr. John Watson, started broadcasting on October 20, 1930 over NBC’s Red network for George Washington Coffee. “Baker Street Irregulars” have Edith Meiser to thank for putting the Holmes radio series in motion; a longtime fan of Conan Doyle’s deductive dick, she was motivated (as an actress and playwright) to write a couple of scripts based on stories from the Holmes “canon” and pitch them to the National Broadcasting Company as a potential series. NBC was interested, but would only greenlight the project if a sponsor could be persuaded…and once she secured her “angel,” she stayed on to write most of the scripts for the series until the 1940s, using both the Arthur Conan Doyle originals and stories she crafted herself. Later, the writing would be handled by the likes of Saint author Leslie Charteris and the team of Denis Green & Anthony Boucher (the legendary science fiction author who also created The Casebook of Gregory Hood).
In the early years of Sherlock Holmes, there would be almost as many time slots as there were actors to play the tenant at 221-B Baker Street. William Gillette, who played Holmes in a justly famous 1899 stage production (and also in a 1916 silent film that, sadly, is lost), reprised his role in the first broadcast, “The Adventures of the Speckled Band.” The part was then turned over to Clive Brook (1930-31), Richard Gordon (1931-33) and Louis Hector (1934-35), who also played Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, at various times. The role of Watson was played by Leigh Lovel, but after Lovel’s death it was assigned to Harry West, who joined Richard Gordon in another Holmes series in 1936 heard over Mutual and NBC for Household Finance.
With the popularity of The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, two theatrical blockbusters released by 20th Century Fox in 1939, the Sherlock Holmes radio franchise would see its greatest popularity in what OTR historian John Dunning calls “the most celebrated of all Sherlock Holmes offerings” beginning on October 2, 1939. Basil Rathbone (who played Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Watson) not only starred in the two Fox films, but in a dozen more B-pictures for Universal between 1942 and 1946. On radio, the escapades of Rathbone and Bruce were known as The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and the program sold a great deal of Bromo Quinine (on Blue/NBC) from 1939-43 and Petri Wine (on Mutual) from 1943-46. Rathbone bid the show farewell in 1946 (he felt he had done all he could with the part) and Bruce soldiered on for an additional season opposite movie Falcon Tom Conway. But the chemistry between the two men couldn’t quite match that of the previous pairing. Subsequent attempts, with John Stanley (Holmes) & Alfred Shirley/Ian Martin (Watson) from 1947-49 (Mutual; Clipper Craft) and Ben Wright (Holmes) & Eric Snowden (Watson) from 1949-50 (ABC; Petri Wines again), also failed to catch fire.
There was a Holmes renaissance in 1955 (transcriptions from a BBC series that was previously broadcast in 1954) that appeared on NBC and ABC (in 1956), with Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson in the Holmes and Watson roles, respectively (and Orson Welles as Moriarty!). A few of these broadcasts have been collected on the Radio Spirits CD set The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Many distinguished radio thespians have had the opportunity to tackle the role of Holmes & Watson in subsequent years, with one of the best teamings being that of Clive Merrison (Holmes) and Michael Williams, who dramatized every tale from the Conan Doyle canon in a series of productions heard on BBC Radio 4 from 1989 to 1998.
But for many fans, it’s the team of Rathbone and Bruce that’s best remembered as the wise detective and his sidekick, due in part to both their long radio association and their fourteen theatrical films, which continue to be enormously entertaining despite taking more than a few liberties with the source material.