Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
Dr. Watson: Nigel Bruce
Years: 1939-1946


The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a series of radio plays, recorded throughout the period surrounding the Second World War. The series blended new cases with canon, often seamlessly. Audiences were already familiar with Rathbone and Bruce and so it was only natural that the pair should carry their roles onto the radio.

It should be noted that after Rathbone's leaving in '46, Bruce continued the role for another season (alongside Tom Conway). With Bruce's leaving, Holmes and Watson were recast two additional times, the series ultimately ending in 1949. For the purposes of this review, only the Rathbone years have been examined.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes:

Rathbone is easily as vibrant on the radio as he is on-screen, making it quite easy to understand why, to many, he was the definitive Sherlock Holmes. Here he is confident, assertive, and quite suited to the role of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, it was almost endearing (not to mention nostalgic) to once again hear Rathbone's voice in association with Sherlock Holmes. Truly, Rathbone managed to once again capture the role brilliantly.

Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson:

Unlike Bruce's performances on-screen, this Dr. Watson is rather likeable. Watson is still quite taken with Holmes, but acutely aware of how often Holmes takes him for granted. He is aware, too, of the divide between them, Bruce's radio Watson nowhere near as oblivious as his on-screen counterpart. In fact, this Watson is downright intelligent, something his on-screen counterpart could not claim. It is almost a shame that Bruce's radio Watson did not grace the screen, for it is entirely possible that, had this performance made it into film, Bruce might have become the definitive Watson of an entire generation.

A note on Rathbone and Bruce:

It should also be pointed out that this series is, at times, quite light-hearted. Indeed, it is quite apparent that both Bruce and Rathbone had a good deal of fun with this series. There are a dozen or more references to their on-screen personas (often poking fun), making the series quite humourous. In fact, on several occasions Rathbone [Holmes] pokes fun at Watson [Bruce] for his unintelligible speech, going so far as to accuse Watson of mumbling. The pair are reminisce of a couple of adolescent school boys at times, the audience easily swept up in their gaiety.

A note on episodes:

Overall, some 250 episodes of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were made. Sadly, many of these were lost (and, indeed, I was only able to find approximately 30 episodes). As such, individual episodes have not been reviewed.

Each episode runs thirty minutes (thereabouts) in length, and is preceded, followed, and interrupted by a message from the sponsor (in most cases Petri wine). This was quite cleverly done, the series formatted in such a way as to have the sponsor's spokesperson show up at Dr. Watson's home (who is now retired and living in California), so that Watson could share stories of Sherlock Holmes over a glass of Petri wine.

Delightful elements:

Oddly enough, perhaps the most delightful element of all is the advertising. This sounds strange, I am sure, but it amused me beyond comprehension to hear these 'old-time' advertisements. I now know that Petri wine was handed down from father to son, from father to son... In addition to Petri commercials, the episodes are also ripe with WWII propaganda. Truly, these are a fascinating look back into history.

As mentioned above, the light-hearted, humourous feel that most of these episodes contained was also quite refreshing. I'd find myself grinning as I listened to these, the occasionally huff of laughter no doubt startling those around me who were not privy to my iPod.

Less delightful elements:

As each episode is only thirty minutes in length, the cases tend to feel quite rushed. Although (for the most part) each episode is still quite engaging, one would imagine that the series would be vastly improved had they been allotted more time.

This was likely an impossiblilty, as our second complaint will attest, for one can easily imagine, especially during the midst of a global war, that funds were not available for anything longer than thirty minutes. This is apparent, too, in the quality of the broadcasts. It is at times quite apparent that the actors were not given enough time to rehearse, that second takes were not permitted, and that the 'props' department had a limited budget. It should be noted, however, that there is a sense of charm in the low-budget feel of these plays.

As mentioned above, the series contains a mixture of Canon based stories (often modified to suit the short runtime) and a series of pastiches. While, for the most part, the pastiches were quite original (and fascinating) they were, at times, lacking in authenticity (i.e., they were quite unrealistic, not to mention out of character for both Holmes and Watson). The writers, too, seem to have a singular obsession with Irene Adler (something which irks me beyond measure). Moriarty, too, turns up far too often for a man presumed dead.

Overall, though, this series is quite charming, and manages to earn a solid three out of five pipes.

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