In the mood
The Hound of the Baskervilles first appeared on stage 100 years ago in Berlin, presented by Ferdinand Bonn. Herr Bonn was dead keen on realism and decided that his wife’s huge, beloved black dog would be the star of the show. Every night she would wait in the wings ready to produce a lump of German sausage, the idea being that, as Stapleton lured Sir Henry Baskerville on to the moor, the dog would belt across the stage and leap at the dangled bratwurst. For a spectral effect, the brute had lamps attached to its head; its savage howling was produced by a man backstage yodelling into a gramophone horn.
What became of the dog’s showbiz career remains a mystery. But even as Arthur Conan Doyle was writing the stories, Holmes was appearing on stage and silent film. In 1899 the American actor William Gillette perfected the role in a play called Sherlock Holmes (a couple of stories bolted together with other bits invented) and he even managed to get permission from the author for the detective to fall in love — a shocking notion for a man who, to quote Dr Watson, ‘never spoke of the softer emotions save with a gibe and a sneer’. Audiences adored him and Gillette built himself a large castle and retained an Oriental butler on the proceeds. However, the stage tradition never quite kept up with the cinema as films starring Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, etc. grew in popularity.
The trouble with doing a full-scale Sherlock Holmes on stage today is that you’d need a large cast (including very expensive urchins) and three sets. No producer wants to know. There’s probably a feeling, too, that Holmes is hopelessly dated and that the telly has already done all the stories extensively and very well. Certainly Gillette’s potboiler hasn’t been around since the RSC staged it in 1973. It was a wild success then with John Wood as Holmes, later replaced by John Neville, Robert Stephens and (on tour in America) by Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy, whose deerstalker presumably hid his pointy ears.
By and large Holmes and Watson have been in suspended animation. But not entirely. A few years ago, that excellent actor Clive Francis wrote a version of The Hound of the Baskervilles which was done in Nottingham. For some reason it had several Watsons on stage simultaneously, and the only howling to be heard was from the audience laughing at it. It was so awful that people paid good money to see it. Undeterred, Francis (whose actor father, Raymond Francis, played Watson in a 1951 BBC series) went away and reworked the script. He turned the text into a coherent narrative, adding detail from other stories and the result is now on a short tour with, as they say in theatre parlance, ‘a view to coming in’ (to the West End), as yet unconfirmed.
I saw the show at the Theatre Royal, Windsor and enjoyed it hugely. It’s a strong, zesty melodrama definitely best viewed with a bag of Werther’s Originals to hand. Peter Egan isn’t the thinnest Holmes on record but he’s distinguished, crystalclear, and a refreshing change from Jeremy Brett, whose mannerisms and nostril-flaring became (in my view) intolerable in the later Granada TV series. Egan is joined by the perfect Watson in Philip Franks — tweedy, loyal and far from thick. The two convey an easy friendship, Watson showing almost wifely concern over his old friend’s cocaine habit. (It’s Holmes’s syringe and the 7 per cent solution that gives him his lasting injection of cool.) The rest of the roles are doubled up by just three energetic actors, the result looking effective rather than cheap. The director is Robin Herford, who turns the lack of a set into an advantage, just as he did with his wonderfully spooky production of The Woman in Black. The designs are by the techno-wizard Timothy Bird, who uses fiendishly clever projections (as he did to great acclaim in the recent Sunday in the Park with George). With its tense, deafening violin music and a reliance on Conan Doyle’s sense of drama (‘Mr Holmes, they were the prints of a gigantic hound!’), you have a compact entertainment with the sage of Baker Street on razor form in what is the finest of the novels. One thing, though, don’t expect too many dog sightings. I won’t give anything away but those hoping to see a bad-tempered Great Dane covered in luminous paint will probably want their money back.
Of course, you realise watching this that it’s the world of Holmes that appeals almost as much as (in this case) the plots. That’s where this show will fall down for some. By depriving us of an initial 221B Baker Street set complete with its chemical corner, the slipper full of shag, the gasogene on the sideboard and so on, we lose the familiar domestic clutter in which the stories are rooted. On the other hand this impressionistic production dumps you on Great Grimpen moor without faffing about with endless props. Detail is all very well. But having been to the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland where Holmes met his supposed end (today they switch the water off in winter) and to the 221B Baker Street museum in the nearby town of Meiringen (the historic home of the meringue), I can assure you that the Holmes addicts who flock there to worship are all ghastly anoraks with an obsessive eye for the stories’ details and absolutely no feeling for their mood. And the mood is everything. I deduce that Conan Doyle tried to kill off Holmes because his fans nauseated him.
There is one intriguing nugget I picked up from the concierge at the Swiss hotel that Conan Doyle stayed in. Peter Egan, and the legion of thespians that have played the detective down the years owe a vote of thanks to William Gillette. For it was he who ignored the illustrations and first introduced Holmes to the curved, more easily balanced pipe, thus reducing the jaw-ache for generations of actors to come.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is currently in Cambridge, then in Guildford, Darlington, Mold, Greenwich and Nottingham, ending 28 April. Tour details on 020 7439 9777 or www.baskervillehound.co.uk