The Best Old Time Radio Detectives - #1, Sherlock Holmes

  1. Length of run.  For almost 2 decades (1933~1955) Sherlock Holmes adventures ran almost continuously on the air, beginning with radio adaptations of the original stories, then branching out into new stories (many penned by a woman, Edith Meiser), most of which were satisfyingly entertaining and some almost as clever as the originals.   You can also find later episodes from a series that was produced in England starting in about 1954.
  2. Number of episodes.  I've managed to download over 200 episodes from various OTR websites.  However, some of these are duplicates - primarily original stories that underwent adaptation by different screenwriters and were performed by different casts.
  3. Main character.  From season to season the essential character of Holmes as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remains relatively consistent, with a few minor modifications: for instance, one episode finds Holmes  performing Shakespeare on the stage, which I don't think Doyle would have envisioned.  Happily, none of the writers ever engage in anything truly apocryphal, like involving him in a romance or having him commit the perfect crime.  However, poor Watson is often represented as being much more of a boob than in the stories, sometimes acting as Holmes' cheerleader ("Upon my soul, Holmes, that was a brilliant deduction!"), other times making Holmes seem more brilliant by contrast ("Don't be stupid, Watson - of course it couldn't have been the butler"), sometimes serving as  a comic foil ("Holmes, get these dogs off me!"), yet other times because I suspect the writers really didn't know what else to do with him.  This is probably my greatest criticism of the radio adaptations in general.
  4. Voice actors.  The parts of Holmes and Watson were variously played by Richard Gordon/Leigh Lovel (earliest 95+ episodes), Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce (the actors who played the roles in the movies), Tom Conway/Nigel Bruce (just 1 season), John Stanley/Alfred Shirley or Ian Martin (75+ episodes), George Shelton/Ian Martin, and Ben Wright/Eric Snowden.  Even such notables as Orson Welles and John Gielgud took a stab at the role of the great detective in episodes of Mercury Theater on the Air and other dramatic radio series. 
  5. Sponsors.  Sponsors included G. Washington Coffee (you could send in labels to receive free Sherlock Holmes paperbacks), Clipper Craft Clothes (the first company to really push off-the-shelf suits for men, vs. custom tailored suits), Kreml Hair Tonic (never greasy!), and Petri Wine (for those who enjoy a little muscatel with their murder).  
  6. Intro.  Regardless of the sponsor, the stories usually kicked off with the sponsor's spokesperson calling upon Watson at his retirement home in California and chitchatting about the product before Watson announces which adventure he'll be retelling that night.   (Why California?  As far as I know this is never explained, though perhaps those London pea-soupers were having a deleterious effect on Watson's constitution.)
  7. Episodes.  Many of the newly invented stories were delightfully melodramatic, sporting names like The Knife of Vengeance, The Uddington Witch, The Mad Miners of Cardiff, and The Island of Death, while others whisked Holmes off to foreign countries - The White Elephant (India),  Murder Beyond the Mountains (Tibet) - and yet other episodes - such as The Final Problem, In Flanders Field - rather cavalierly transported him through time in order to pit him against German spies in WW1. 
  8. Interesting Info.   Illustrating that the dangers of drugs weren't yet widely recognized at this time, many of the shows make unapologetic mention of Holmes's cocaine use.   In the 1990s, BBC produced a series of rado shows called "Second Holmes," which featured the grandson of Holmes working (reluctantly) in harnass with the grandson of Watson.
In my next blog entry I'll take on Johnny Dollar, "the insurance investigator with the big expense account," as the announcer invariably intoned before each new episode.

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