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Sherlock Holmes, and why the pictures are better on the radio

For some time now, humanity has been engaged in a visual experience arms race. We have gone from early soundless black and white cinema to early television. We added colour, and then technicolour, we added better film and higher frame rates. We pushed until even domestic televisions sets exploded into the glorious wonder of High Definition, then 4k and now 8k definition. New, clever colour-correction algorithms, dynamic enhancement boosters, ambient lighting solutions and digital up-scaling techniques were poured into these giant black gods until the pictures were so eye-bleedingly sharp that it had no choice but to burst into three dimensions in order to restore reasonable levels of crapness.

The sad truth is that no matter what they do to those screens, they can’t escape the embarrassing fact that festers deep in the dark heart of their being.

The pictures are better on the radio, and probably always will be.

It’s an old expression, but one that I think has genuine merit. Radio plays and dramas have an immersive quality that transcends the medium and projects ideas, scenes and settings directly into the mind of the listener. They invoke that strange part of the reason that paints your dreams and can conjure more than the simple three dimensions—allowing you to step into the story and feel it around you.

As with any medium, some performances work better than others, and some are just outright dull. But some are sublime, and I can think of no better example of such a performance than the BBC Radio 4 recordings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon.

The game is afoot!

There have been more interpretations of the famous sleuth and his ever-present companion, Watson than any other fictional character in history with the possible exception of God. Each has brought something to what is ultimately a challenging persona to portray. Holmes is entirely and deliberately unusual. His cold and analytical perspective renders him at times inhuman and yet occasionally flamboyant. Most performances favour a dry, dusty seriousness or an over the top, almost pantomime performance. Some performances have given Holmes an almost psychopathic detachment to emotion, leaving the audience searching for an empathetic foothold. However heavy-handed the version of Holmes has been, Watson always had it far worse. From bumbling idiot to comedic relief, Watsons over the years have seen him wandering around cluelessly following Holmes with the blind obedience of a lovesick puppy. A walking exposition device, Watson is the audience proxy and too often upstaged altogether by his charismatic friend. The Holmes and Watson bromance has been thoroughly explored as a subtle subtext and the plot for several gay pornographic movies.

Getting it right on the radio

All of this had been noted by the sound engineer and freelance writer Bert Coules. And when he had the opportunity to write his own Holmes dramatisation for the BBC Radio, he set about to do justice not just to the adventures of this beloved duo, but also to the characters themselves.

When the two parts of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ were broadcast on the 3rd and 10th of November 1989 respectively, Coules had yet to realise what he had started.

The success of the performances were well noted in the press, who commended the new smarter take on these well-known stories. Coules had set about to develop his dramatisations as accurate to the original stories as possible, but importantly he had decided that he wouldn’t do so if it were to be the detriment of the performance, as he mentions in the book that accompanies the complete box set of the series (one of my proudest possessions I might add).

“One very important decisions was not to regard Doyle’s duologue as sacrosanct. However famous and well-loved some of the original lines may be, what works on the printed page is rarely suitable for putting straight into the mouths of actors…”

This brave but vital decision allowed both the stories and the characters to breath fresh air, without becoming a parody. Coules’ masterstroke, however, was bringing special attention to Watson. Watson now shared Dialogue, written initially for Holmes alone. No longer a bumbling sidekick, or pale literary device there for the benefit of narrative alone. Watson now centre stage with Holmes, simultaneously was made more real, whilst at the same time, humanising Holmes.

Clive Merrison and Michael Williams

In my personal opinion, there has never been a more eloquent and wonderful portrayal of Holmes and Watson, by any actors on screen, stage or radio than that of Clive Merrison (Holmes) and Michael Williams (Watson).

This excerpt from the 1989 ‘A Study in Scarlet’ features the first meeting of the Merrison and Williams as Holmes and Watson.


Merrison’s performance as the Great Detective was dynamic, energetic and passionate. Rather than merely coldly analytical, the loud and joyously intense laugh of Merrison’s Holmes became something of a trademark for the series. As a result, warm humour permeated the stories without ever falling into parody.

Merrison delivered Holmes’ characteristic sweeping mood changes with both explosive energy and delicate, subtle nuance. The larger-than-life character had kept his extremes, but there was a softening, and rounding out of the character that allowed him to become much more human and likeable. The joy of the game, the delight of a new problem, and also the deep driving relentless self ambition that sometimes could border on obsession and madness.

Michael Williams’ performance as Watson was as exemplary as Merrison’s Holmes. Williams was able to take Watson’s and ground him in a warming and caring persona; enthusiastic but not blindly obedient. Critical and self-aware Williams brings a greater emotional range to Whatson than I believe come before or since. The military man, the best friend, the husband and the doctor are all part of Williams’ performance.

The tenderness in Williams’ performance created some of the more endearing and touching moments. Williams showed that his command of Watson was incredibly emotive and able to bring affection, anger, pride, wonderment and no small amount of occasional sarcasm to the role all without losing the charm that was Holmes’ traditional companion.

Delivering The cannon

After the success of ‘The Sign of The Four’ the BBC made a bold decision. They would go on with the same lead performers to record the whole of the Conan Doyle canon; all 56 short stories as 45 minute dramatisations and the four novels as 2 hour specials. A feat that had never been achieved before. The resulting recordings are some of the most fantastic and wonderfully entertaining adventures stories ever recorded.

There can be no better way to spend 45 minutes on a Sunday afternoon than to sit in a comfortable chair with a warming drink lost in a world of Victorian London, as Holmes and Watson embark on another remarkable adventure. Close your eyes, and I promise you, it will feel more real than any state of the art 3D high-definition super thing ever will.