Earlier this year, while attending Sherlock Seattle 2015, I had a rare and wonderful opportunity to meet two living legends of Sherlockian radio: John Patrick Lowrie and Larry Albert (JHWS “Bertie”), the voices of Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson for Imagination Theater.
Jim French Productions Presents Imagination Theater produces hundreds of contemporary radio dramas and mysteries, such as the “Harry Nile” noir detective series, “Kerides, the Thinker”, and of course “The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.”
When I met with John Patrick Lowrie (a well-known voice actor who plays Sherlock Holmes in the radio series and is the author of “Dancing with Eternity“) and Larry Albert (who plays Dr John Watson, produces for Jim French Productions, and also stars as Harry Nile in the eponymous radio series), we spoke for an hour about the nature of Holmes and Watson on the radio, the history of radio drama, and a great deal more.
I’ve transcribed our discussion for your to enjoy. But since it is a lengthy one, I will present it in four parts: one part every Thursday for the next four weeks. I hope it entertains you as much as speaking with these two fellows entertained me.
ARIANA (JHWS “Carla Buttons”)
Larry and John are joining us today so that we can talk about Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and their time throughout radio. It’s been on for a long time. Actually, I think it was radio that made Sherlock Holmes part of popular culture.
There were movies and there were plays, but I found out something interesting while reading last night: Edith Meiser is The Woman when it comes to radio. Back in 1927, she was an actress and a playwright. She has written for a bunch of things and she’s like, “I really want Sherlock Holmes as a radio show.” It was basically their version of podcasts, internet, streaming, and TV–
JOHN Patrick Lowrie
I love that definition! (Imitating an old man’s voice) When people were chipping stories into rocks…
They didn’t have much else. They had radio and that’s where they could really listen to things from their home. So she tried three years to get Sherlock Holmes on the radio until she finally got a sponsor – G. Washington Coffee. The way she got them was that, in the stories, Sherlock Holmes does drink coffee, so —
(Imitating Holmes) This is a three cup problem!
LARRY Albert (JHWS “Bertie”)
(Imitating Watson) Oh, for God’s sake, Holmes, button up!
And so she managed to get the most famous actor at the time for Sherlock Holmes, William Gillette, to be the first Sherlock Holmes on the radio in 1930. She found out while preparing the scripts she had to order books from Europe because it went out of print in America. Imagine Sherlock Holmes out of print in the U.S.!
What are your thoughts on the influence from the early times?
There’s some speculation that the English actor Clive Brooks played him for at least one or two performances, but there’s no existing recording. Holmes was made popular in this country on a wider national level via radio because it came into your home every week for many years.
Early sound films at that time were crude – all of them still exist. If you want to see Sherlock Holmes played by Raymond Massey with an office full of secretaries, that film exists. But widespread appreciation came with radio. Richard Gordon is the best known of the Sherlocks of the ’30s, he played it the longest. When Sherlock Holmes went out of print, you figure, when was the first Holmes story?
So it hadn’t been around that long. He hadn’t achieved that worldwide popularity as we understand it now.
It’s like one of those popular authors that one reads at some point and then forgets about for a time, like P.D. James or someone like that. You’re like “Oh, that’s a thing right now.” And then, who knows? A hundred years from now, there’s a huge popular culture around it. There was no idea of how much things can explode from the stories.
You make a good point. The most popular detective in the United States in the 1920s wasn’t Sherlock Holmes, it was Philo Vance. And now he’s almost completely forgotten.
Yeah, I forgot about you.
Who are your Sherlock Holmes and Watson? How did you come about finding them? Is it the original stories or later on?
Well, I came into Sherlock Holmes as a kid. Back in the fifties and sixties there would be Friday night movies on your independent station. You had NBC, ABC, CBS, and whatever else was left over. On that independent station they would show movies.
So the old Peter Cushing, Basil Rathbone, and Christopher Lee movies were the ones I watched as a kid. Basil Rathbone — I watched a lot of his other movies too.
So Rathbone was…?
Yeah, he made more of them. The interesting thing to me was to watch these folks – Basil and Christopher and Peter – play a character from the inside of the culture in which it was created — 1880s England. Piltdown man was still in the future. I don’t know how many people know who Piltdown man was. One of the most famous hoaxes in science that proved that humanity evolved in England. It resided in the British Museum for a while.
You have this racist, sexist idea that English men created the world and this oddly Victorian idea that comes out of the Christian culture, maybe the Puritan culture, I don’t know what it is – that somehow sexuality was going to pollute intellectual life. You have this odd idea of the ‘confirmed bachelor genius.’ A kind of a monk. That somehow if we don’t have sex and we don’t associate with that evil, that sin, whatever that is, then our brains are freed up.
Thank god they got rid of that idea!
So they portrayed Sherlock Holmes as if he were in his own bubble?
Right, right. Interestingly enough, in the movies and in some of the stories too, Sherlock becomes a kind of melodramatic hero where he comes to the rescue. One of the fun things that Doyle had was when he tried to come to the rescue of a woman that didn’t need to be rescued at all.
The psychology of Sherlock and his mistrust of feminine thought really is embedded in this larger religious culture. It’s platonic. It’s this idea world that is unsullied by anything that has to do with fluids. To me, it was interesting to watch them inside that culture: not commenting on it, just being part of it.
When you read the stories, you come out with a different idea of things?
No, when I was brought on board as Sherlock, the rule had already been established at Jim French Productions that if we write new stories they will always fit in with the old stories. We will never have something happen when something else has happened. If it happens this year we will make sure John is married to the right person.
That was our task. We wanted to write more stories but we wanted to fill in the gaps of the history. We didn’t want to comment on what was done, we just wanted to expand on what was done. It was very important to me not to lose Sherlock’s sexism and racism. He was British at the time and as much as we’d like to think of him as a nice guy, and he was a nice guy, it was within that paradigm.
That was the complexity of it. In modern days, they softened him up?
They modernized it. I’d like to think that if Sherlock was alive today, he would once again be at the cutting edge of social thought. That cutting edge has moved a long way.
About his sexism in the books. They’ll say “oh, he’s very sexist.” and there were a couple of comments off. But whenever a woman came or a client came, he always treated them equal to how he treated his male clients.
Yes, this is the interesting thing.
He was always aware that they could be telling a truth or they could be telling a lie, while Watson’s like “Oh, but she was so pretty!”
I’m the normal one!
The true Victorian gentleman!
As much as he mistrusts women, he only mistrusts them because of their reputation for not thinking logically. This is what captured the imagination of audiences at the time and the battle that Sherlock is always fighting is not really with women, it’s with Scotland Yard. It’s with people assuming they know what’s going on when they haven’t actually checked out the details. When we hear of Sherlock talking about “Oh well I can’t trust women because they’re all emotional” and this kind of stuff.
I think that if we met Sherlock today, as just a person without a reputation, in high school he would be the guy with lots of spots, who’d never talk to girls, and then he went off and started Microsoft and made millions of dollars.
That was what fascinated me in the fifties and sixties, this British-ism: you have Sherlock Holmes in The Secret Weapon fighting the Nazis. He became something for the culture to use, to identify Britain as – much like Germany in World War II was saying the same thing – that Britain was the pre-determined, God-chosen protector of civilization.
Like how America had our Superman.
Right, right. Yeah.
How about you, Larry?
You want me to follow that?
It’s the woe of Watson.
(The interview continues with Part 2 next week!)
8 Replies to “Interview Series: Imagination Theater Part 1”
Excellent! A few years ago Matthew J Elliott – who, next to Jim French himself, must be the most prolific writer for Imagination Theatre – a little group of us met John Patrick Lowrie and his delightful wife Ellen McLain at the Sherlock Holmes pub in London. Larry Albert and I have corresponded by e-mail, but we haven’t yet met face to face. I rather envy you, Ariana!
I hope you find yourself speaking with John Patrick Lowrie and Larry Albert in the same room one day. Their personalities and interactions really strike me as Holmes and Watson as if they were living in the modern day. Speaking with them was one of the highlights of my year. (And although I never had the chance to meet Ellen McLain, I’m a huge fan of her work.)
There will be more of the interview for you to enjoy next week as well. It’s amazing how much talking we managed in just one hour!
It’s fantastic that you know Matthew J Elliot. I wish I could meet him one day and ask him about his radio adaptions.
Sorry – that should have read “thanks to Matthew J Elliott”… (Dear me, Mr Johnson! Dear me.)
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