Jim French Productions Presents Imagination Theater produces hundreds of contemporary radio dramas and mysteries, such as “The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.” John Patrick Lowrie plays Sherlock Holmes and Larry Albert (JHWS “Bertie”) plays Dr John Watson in the popular radio series.
This interview is a continuation of our discussion in Part 1.
Who are your Holmes and Watson?
To preface this, our personal relationship is much like Holmes and Watson. He’s the intellectual genius. I go around, “Throw me a crumb, please!”
Fifties and sixties, it was the Basil Rathbone films for me. And the Ronald Howard television series, which today is, for me, almost unwatchable. I fell in love with the Basil Rathbone films and did not know any better about Dr. Watson. I still love the Basil Rathbone – I have them all, I have a large collection of Sherlock Holmes films. That was the thing that influenced me.
Then in the fifth grade I got a copy of the complete works of Sherlock Holmes and I read every story without knowing much about Holmes at all. Once I started I couldn’t stop until I read everything. And I’ve got to tell you that The Valley of Fear was the dullest thing – we are saving that for last.
But Sherlock Holmes, to me, was something out of super-heroism. His powers of observation and deduction were beyond me and the things I was focused on as a child and later in life.
The interesting thing is that when Jim (French) and I thought about doing this series, he said, “Who do you think should play Sherlock Holmes?” This was before I knew John Lowrie and I needed another actor altogether. He said, “What about you?” and I said, “No, no. I’d make a terrible Sherlock Holmes.” And I would have. I don’t have that little extra that’s needed for the part. Both actors we’ve used have been right on the money.
Sherlock Holmes, to me… when I started collecting the radio shows, that’s when I really, really got into Sherlock Holmes.
That was the same for me.
I started back in the seventies. I’m an old time radio show collector. In ’84, it was the old Rathbone-Bruce, they discovered sixty shows from the radio shows on transcription discs in a closet. Some of them were on glass discs and they were coated, they couldn’t afford to use it and they needed them for the war. Sixty shows that had not been heard since their broadcast.
Well, I’m a sucker – you give me a good advertising campaign and I’m right there. I bought all of them. I still listen to them – it’s Rathbone and Bruce. For me, the best part about it is that the announcer for the last series of Rathbone and Bruce, Harry Bartell, became a good friend of mine. He did his last professional job with John and I in a Sherlock Holmes series.
Holmes to me was always more of a comic book figure, rather than the culture, because our interests are different and we study different things. Mine is more political and social rather than culture. I won’t argue with him about any of that.
When offered the chance to play John Watson, we were only going to do six. I thought I have to base him on somebody and it cannot be Nigel Bruce. I love Nigel Bruce, worst Watson in the world.
Next to a guy who did it in an Arthur Wotner film back in the 1930s called Ian Flemming – not THAT Ian Flemming – he played him like a prissy fop. (Imitating) “I say, Holmes, she’s quite lovely!”
I based him on Michael Williams. He is my temple. Watson is not an imitation of his. It’s the relationship between his Watson and Clive Merrison’s Holmes. And it really kicked off when John took over as Holmes, because we got to know each other. We had not known each other prior to him coming on as the announcer for Sherlock Holmes, originally. We had never met, and now I can’t get rid of him.
He keeps hiring me!
We used to show up at the same commercial auditions. I’d walk in and — aww, damn.
That’s an important thing. For some context for those who aren’t familiar with a lot of the radio shows. Clive Merrison and Michael Williams pretty much defined Sherlock Holmes on the radio in the 1980s and 1990s. They went for ten years. They are the only two actors to do the Sherlock Holmes Canon from start to finish every single episode.
So far! At this point in time. It’s a record worth breaking.
They are my favorites personally and they really got me into radio in the first place because it’s all about the friendship between Holmes and Watson in those shows and that’s always an important factor. Not just the mysteries, but also the relationship they had as friends.
A normal person would not be friends with Sherlock Holmes – no offense.
This to me is very important. I think that Doyle’s genius is coming up with the best sidekick since Sancho Panza.
If Sherlock didn’t know Watson and like Watson, we would all be scared to death of Sherlock Holmes. The fact that Sherlock Holmes is friends with Watson, who likes girls and food and stuff like that – it says, okay, okay, this guy, if he didn’t like Watson, he’d be Moriarty. Sherlock Holmes thinks that he’s Moriarty, basically.
And that parallel is drawn pretty closely in a lot of movies and TV shows. In the recent BBC series, Moriarty is obsessed with Sherlock because he’s like “You would be me!” — except that Sherlock has Watson.
Yeah, but it’s not so much that he has Watson is that he chooses Watson, that he likes Watson to stay around, he involves Watson, he appreciates Watson’s input, and that is something that we’ve worked on the relationship for a long time.
You can go off the rails and think that Sherlock is always insulting Watson, but he’s not. In the Doyle canon, Sherlock is not an egotist, he is not promoting himself, he is promoting his new method and he’s very impatient with people that don’t use it.
Because he thinks that anyone can do this if they just paid attention.
That’s right. So he’s constantly instructing Watson but he’s never harping on him or insulting him. He’s kind of… he’s not very socially adept.
So it’ll come off wrong. Like in the Solitary Cyclist where he’s like, “Oh you did it all wrong! Not to be super rude, but you could do better!”
“That is what a really stupid person would think!” Right, but it’s always in service of his method. It’s never in service of himself.
And that’s how you approach Sherlock Holmes? It’s that you think that this is a man who has a method. He wants people to understand how it all works and he proves it.
It’s just that there’s just a lot of people around him aren’t really listening to him, but Watson is. Even if he can’t completely emulate, Watson is there, listening.
Well, he learns. Again, in the Solitary Cyclist, he identifies that Violet Smith plays the piano and gives the reasons why. So he is learning.
Then there is the great thing with the radio is that… In the books, there are lines of dialogue which isn’t attributed to either Holmes or Watson, when they are investigating a case and it’s just “dun, dun, dun” – there’s no telling if it’s actually Watson asking some of these questions and Sherlock asking some of these questions.
So in some radio adaptions I’ve listened to, including Merrison-Williams and yours as well, is that they can kind of change that up. Sherlock isn’t always the one asking the questions. He has his friend Watson there too.
Well, from a purely pragmatic point of view, when you’re doing a radio drama you don’t want the same voice all of the time and you want to remember that other people are in the room. You can’t see them.
So our main adapter now, Matthew Elliot, is very good at figuring out a way to take not only the dialogue out of the stories but also the narration of the stories and giving it to characters. This is one of the challenges of adapting something like this.
Of adapting the stories into radio, yeah.
Then there’s the movie medium where, okay, you’re building this whole set for this world that they’re in and you have to create the 221B and everything.
When it’s radio, it’s not active imagination like reading a book. You’re passively taking it in, like TV or movies, but at the same time you have no set dressing, you have no characters (in view). You have to use your imagination for it.
I think that’s what makes the audience part of the show.
Yeah, that’s the interactive part. Whatever you imagine is what’s happening.
Sometimes when I would listen to Merrison and Williams on my way to work, I would imagine the Great Mouse Detective.
(The interview continues with Part 3 next week!)