Recorded on: 16 May 2011
Recorded at: The Moat Studios
Nicholas Briggs on his history with Holmes. This is an extract from a speech he delivered to the Sherlock Holmes Society of London's Film Evening, hosted by the esteemed Matthew J. Elliott.
On the basis that honesty is the best policy, I have to confess to you that I feel like a bit of an imposter, standing here before you tonight. Hopefully not ‘The Imposter of Baker Street’, which was one of the working titles of Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley’s ‘Without a Clue’, but I have an intense feeling of paranoia that you might ask me something I don’t know the answer to.
As you may know, I’ve had a long association with Doctor Who.
Even before I was the voice of the Daleks,
even before I was the executive producer of the Big Finish audio adventures of Doctor Who,
even before I worked for Big Finish Productions at all...
I was a huge fan of Doctor Who... and I still am.
And during all that time I spent at conventions or on video shoots, interviewing Doctor Who celebrities,
big paranoia that they always expressed - and indeed, it’s the same paranoia that all the actors who appear in Big Finish productions still express - is this...
‘I don’t know anything about Doctor Who’.
For some reason, they think that talking about their work on Doctor Who is going to amount to some sort of quiz on the history of Doctor Who, upon which they’ll be marked, graded as ‘failures’ and dismissed.
I’ve always found it odd that they should think this way...
Until I was kindly invited to appear here today.
I love Sherlock Holmes. I’ve loved the whole idea of the character and his many cases and adventures for as long as I can remember...
I’m not an expert.
And that makes me feel a bit inadequate.
So, can we clear this up? You’re not going to give me a quizz are you?
[Blank audience response]
I’m an actor, a writer and a producer who’s had a passion for Holmes since I was a child... but I suppose it’s a passion that came about because of Basil Rathbone... Peter Cushing... Christopher Plummer... Robert Stephens and yes, even Stewart Granger (William Shatner was in that one, too, wasn’t he?)!
But I came back to the originals via David Stuart Davies’s fantastic one-man theatre shows, starring the superb Roger Llewellyn - The Last Act and The Death and Life. These featured so many tantalizing snippets of the Conan Doyle text that I went back to them. And that made me want to produce audio dramatizations that were as close to the originals as possible.
Previous to this... I’d had two other professional encounters with Holmes...
Back in 1999, when I was working like crazy to finish the post-production sound design and music for the first Big Finish Doctor Who release, The Sirens of Time - I was also rehearsing and subsequently performing as Holmes in a production of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own play, The Stoner Case - which we retitled The Speckled Band, for the purposes of easier recognition.
As I’m sure you will know, the original productions of it suffered from a lack of authenticity when it came to the representation of the snake. The irony being that when they used a real snake, everyone thought it was a fake one, because it hardly moved.
We NEVER considered using a real snake. We handled the snake problem in two ways. Firstly, the Douglas Wilmer route... when the snake came through the grill, I whacked it with a cane before anyone could see it (YES, IT WASN’T ACTUALLY THERE), then, secondly, we went for high melodrama!
Rylott/Roylott (the name was changed in Doyle’s play for some reason - anyone know why?) was heard screaming from outside the auditorium. Suddenly, the doors burst open, and he charged in, wrestling with a fake snake, screaming and howling, his chest bared, his hair in a crazy mess (don’t ask me why). And as he ‘died’, he flung the snake towards us. And I caught it with my cane and flicked it skillfully onto Helen Stoner’s bed...
and then Watson and I immediately flipped a blanket over it, before proceeding to whack it to death with our canes. Like two madmen possessed!
Then we stopped... and, panting from our exertions...
We gingerly checked to see if the snake was dead. Discovering that it wasn’t, we embarked on another frenzy of whacking, until we were satisfied that our fake snake had indeed shuffled off its mortal coil.
It was quite difficult to get through the lines of the final scene without panting with exhaustion!
The play was performed for two weeks at the Drayton Court theatre (in a big room under a pub - don’t know whether it’s still going!) and after disappointingly small audiences, word of mouth started to bring the crowds in just as the run was coming to an end. With the rate of increase of audience size, if we’d had permission to stay on, we might still be performing it now.
But the bottom line for me was that I’d loved playing Holmes! Really loved it. I don’t think I’m anything like him.
Nowhere near as clever.
Thankfully nowhere near as unhealthy in my habits (any more - I’m talking about the smoking!)
But I do at least recognize something of that single-mindedness of Holmes. The fact that I’m all afire with enthusiasm when I’m working on something that I utterly love (which is thankfully most of the time these days), but utterly destroyed when I’m inactive. In fact, I fear inactivity. I fill my life with too much work - as my wife and child will tell you - not just because I fear I won’t have enough money to support them, but because I feel that dark cloud that descends over me when I don’t have anything creative to do. That’s how I spent a lot of the 1980s! Very depressing.
So I can, to some small degree anyway, identify with Holmes. And, of course, it helps that I’m not entirely unlike him, physically. Well. Not entirely...
My next encounter with Holmes was when I was asked to play him as part of a season of thrillers that I’d been involved in for nearly a decade at the Theatre Royal Nottingham.
As a change to the usual diet of Francis Durbridge, the producer had decided to do a Sherlock Holmes play... mainly because he knew Avengers creator Brian Clemens and mainly because he knew Brian had written a Sherlock Holmes play... Oh and REALLY MAINLY, because he hoped Brian would do him a good deal on the royalties.
Yeah, that was the MAIN reason.
My dear friend and colleague Maggie Stables (if you’re a Big Finish fan...) recommended me as Holmes. She had the ear of the producer - and was terrified he was about to cast someone entirely inappropriate... I’ve no idea who.
So, I got the job.
The Deputy Stage Manager gave me the back-handed compliment of, ‘Well, out of all the people they could get for this season, I guess you’re the least inappropriate to play the part.’ Praise indeed.
Brian Clemens’s play was, of course, Holmes and the Ripper. Not the first piece of work to ponder on how Holmes might have solved that infamous, real-life case - and probably not the last.
The style was... interesting, with more than a dash of the Rathbone/Bruce feel to it... And even a hint at a past, lost love of Holmes. A woman who had ended her days in an insane asylum. The clairvoyant character who imparts this information to Holmes, through feeling vibrations from a broach, later fell for Holmes herself. And the play ends rather sentimentally, with the clairvoyant ‘Kate’ (for whom Holmes has abandoned his customary scepticism) heading off on a chaperoned trip round Europe with ‘Sherlock’, as she rather outrageously calls him...
A trip which will take in the Reichenbach Falls.
It was a monster of a role in terms of the number of lines to be learnt, and Holmes was in almost every scene. And I had only seven days in which to rehearse it. But it was fantastic fun to do... and was staged with very simple settings, with lighting and sound being employed to great use.
As is always the way when you do weekly rep, there is always some terrible naughtiness going on. Silly really, when the pressure is so high and the potential for cock-ups so great... but actors seem to mess about EVEN MORE when there’s more pressure.
And I’m as guilty as the next man.
As Holmes, Watson and Kate finally know who committed the crime and set off to get their man, in rehearsals, I always used to say, ‘Come on! Let’s really ***expletive deleted*** him up!’ as my exit line. On the first performance, I very nearly said it.
And when Watson made his final farewell to me, as I went off to Reichenbach with Kate, he was required to whisper a final piece of manly advice in my ear before I left. Needless to say, I got various versions of... ‘She’s a lesbian’ or ‘I’m gay and love you’ on every performance. So I had my work cut out for me not ending the play by guffawing.
The great success of this production led the Theatre Royal to plan a return for Holmes and me the following year.
In the meantime, I was lucky enough to see David Stuart Davies’s aforementioned, superb plays. I immediately sorted out the rights for audio adaptations. And at some point around this time, the return match for Holmes at the Theatre Royal became The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Following Holmes and the Ripper, by the way, I’d asked Brian Clemens, who came to see the performance and loved it, if I could adapt his play for audio. He agreed, enthusiastically. So I had my first, somewhat eccentric, series of Holmes planned!
Anyway, the producer of Hound of the Baskervilles revealed that he was going to write the script. He was a writer of no note whatsoever. I asked him how he was going to ‘do the hound’. He said, ‘Oh, that’ll all happen off-stage... or maybe we’ll see a couple of red eyes through the French Windows.’
I grimaced, saying, ‘There aren’t any french windows in Hound of the Baskervilles!’ (There are in almost every other thriller we ever do at the Theatre Royal - it’s the law) ‘Oh, do you have any ideas?’ asked the producer.
I immediately re-read the great story of the Hound. Made some notes and had a meeting with the producer. ‘You’re going to end up having to write this,’ my wife warned me. I met with the producer... ‘I think you’d better write it,’ he said. The money was terrible.
I knew the Theatre Royal Nottingham audience well. They come for a laugh, so, without heading for outright comedy, I did bear this in mind. I’d been a part of a couple of really spooky productions at this theatre, and seen how well the mixture of laughs and shocks worked well.
I made the Barrymores a little broad and overly emotional about the death of their master... hoping to get a few moments of Watson being overly stern with them and regretting upsetting them. The trouble is, the actor playing Barrymore took the comedy cues in the script far too far to hard, and ended up rather milking it.
I also had fun with comedy elements with a soldier leaping out at Watson’s party as they approached Baskerville Hall.
But my solution to the whole problem of portraying the hound on stage was to hit the problem head-on. My premise was that Watson was putting on a stage production of The Hound of the Baskervilles and had asked Holmes along to a final rehearsal to judge how accurate the play was.
This meant that Holmes could be in the story more... because even when he wasn’t meant to be in it, he could pop onto the stage to quiz Watson about how things were unfolding. I remember I was particularly concerned that Watson, suspecting that Barrymore might be connected with the murder, went out and left Henry Baskerville alone in the house with the Barrymores for quite some time (allowing him to meet the Stapletons). Why would Watson leave Henry at risk like that? The way we played it, Watson hadn’t thought of that... leaving Holmes looking rather smug and superior.
The other advantage of it being portrayed as a stage play was that I could have Holmes as concerned as the audience might be about the potentially rubbish portrayal of the hound. During the play, he keeps asking Watson how exactly the hound will be portrayed. Irritated, Watson keeps avoiding the question.
And as the play progresses, Holmes gets more and more involved in the re-enactment... at one point quoting Watson’s famous narrative passage about the appearance of the hound. The idea is that Holmes is quite disturbed the memory of the monstrous beast.
And finally, Holmes finds himself left on stage, with the lights fading and only the sound of the hound in the distance as company. Clearly caught up in it all, he draws his revolver and challenges the hound to appear. And for a split-second it does - as an actor wearing a giant hound mask leaps out for a moment before the lights black-out. In the blackout, Holmes fires five shots (of course... and if the blank firing gun was working - I think one night, the back-up gun firer was a little too anxious and fired off a couple of shots as well, which made it sound a bit like Holmes had a machine gun).
When the lights come up, Watson and the rest of the cast come on to apologize for there not being a hound. ‘It was too difficult to do. We thought that should just all happen off stage!’
Utterly bamboozled and really quite disturbed, Holmes turns to the audience and says, ‘But I saw it. I saw... the hound of the Baskervilles.’ Curtain in. Thunderous applause.
My next Holmes experience was directing Roger Llewellyn in audio adaptations of David Stuart Davies’s brilliant one-man shows. And this is the start of the audio journey...
In the case of the first releases of our second series - my dramatizations of The Final Problem and The Empty House hardly qualify as adaptations at all. They are very nearly just the original text with the ‘said he’s removed. The main adapting involved breaking the text up into new paragraphs, to emphasize changes of thought for the actors, and audio stage directions which gave hints at the emotional content - especially of Watson’s decision finally to break the silence and speak out about Moriarty.
Hound of the Baskervilles needed more work, but only because it was over 60,000 words long and we knew our script had to be 20-odd thousand words to happily fit onto two CDs of drama. As much as we possibly could, we left Conan Doyle untouched.
I found that when you go back to the original texts, you think, why have people ever felt the need to mess about with this? Probably because Watson’s narration is removed for the sake of dramatic variety... but on audio, your audience welcomes narration and you can keep Watson’s narration in tact!
But the bottom line is...
Change the context.
It’s all fine... It’s often brilliant.
But go back to the original and you’ll have the best time
CHRONOLOGICAL PLACEMENT of The Hound of the Baskervilles:
That's for you to investigate!