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THE CASEBOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES – THE LION’S MANE by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
BBC Radio Dramatisation by Bert Coules
Starring Clive Merrison and Michael Williams.
Okay, let’s get one thing out the way now; For me Clive Merrison is the definitive Holmes. And these radio episodes are, for me, the definitive take on the character, employing all the rich detail and lightness of touch of Conan-Doyle’s original short stories, whilst still being able to shock and surprise me.
“The Lions Mane” is one of the later stories in the series and is one of the few to have been “written” by Holmes himself. By now the former resident of Baker Street is in his 50’s and lives in a remote spot by the sea, alone and contemplative say for his housekeeper and the bees he keeps. Since their Baker Street days, Watson has re-married and the two see each other infrequently. Holmes having escaped London to shelter from his growing renown, thanks to the doctor’s published accounts of their adventures.
I have poor recollection of the original short story. I seem to recall it as a fairly brief affair but with a good central mystery. On the days shortly before Watson’s arrival, Holmes is forced to solve a mystery on his own doorstep when one of his acquaintances painfully expires in front of him.. Having taken a swim, and then apparently attacked, the man struggles up the cliff path from the beach in search of help. A likeable and respected fellow, there seems to be nobody who would wish him harm, and on a beach overlooked by cliffs, where could the killer possibly hide? A second death helps Holmes solve the mystery before his friend arrives for his weekend visit, but that doesn’t stop him passing the case to Watson to solve. For fun.
This episode is basically Holmes and Watson role playing at being Holmes and Watson. If that sounds slightly meta textual, then hold on to your deerstalker because we’re about to dive into deeper waters.
This a gently paced. There is no urgency, no lives are hanging in the balance and yet the listener can’t help wanting to get to the bottom of the mystery. Perhaps Watson’s despondency at the beginning of the story plays on our sympathies. He’s smarting from having seen a play based on his accounts of Holmes’ cases in which the consulting detective is played by an actor named William Gillet and portrayed as a wily eccentric with Watson as his doting sidekick, a deferential oaf, forever saying “good lord Holmes” and remarking often on his friend’s vastly superior intellect. Terrified history will remember him merely as a bumbling cipher, he is in a bad mood throughout this play. But just how meta is this?
A play was indeed put on and Gillet the first actor to play the fictional detective in any medium. This occurred in the real world, during the years in which “The Lions Mane” takes place. In real life the play was of course based on Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s stories originally published in The Strand magazine, itself lent verisimilitude when the author described how Watson’s “tales” are “published “ in the same magazine. So you have Merrison playing Holmes (created by Conan Doyle but made famous in the fiction by Watson) discussing a play based on him. He discusses the performance of a real actor who played the same part as almost one hundred years earlier. All this in a story where Watson, like the listener, is presented with a mystery to unravel , even though it’s already been solved and written up by Holmes. To the casual listener all this is through away stuff but if you’re a Holmes fan you’re sure to appreciate these little touches. And if you want to study meta textulism, this must be a suitably head scratching place to start!
I like these plays because even though these, like their printed counterparts, are presented out of order, Williams and Merrison have clearly taken the time to consider how to pitch their performances. Only a handful of years separated this production, which is set late into Holmes and Watson’s acquaintance, and the recording of the pair’s first meeting in A -Study in Scarlet, yet they’re clearly playing subtly different versions of their of characters. Here Holmes is less contentious, more at peace while Watson is getting used to married life again and, like many men at a certain time of life, slightly anxious and pre occupied with how he’ll be remembered. It’s rather powerful, in an understated and typically British upper lip kind of way, as time tests their once unbreakable bond.
The sound is rich and evocative, transporting the listener effortlessly to the reclusion of Holmes’s seaside estate and happily there are hardly any guest characters in The Lion’s Mane, giving us plenty of interactions from the leads. After a while, when Lestrade’s gone back to his desk, Mrs Hudson returned to her pantry and the villains are behind bars, all we want is interplay between Holmes and Watson, be privy to their discussions beside the fire and perhaps eavesdrop on their reminiscences.
This is a strong character piece, adapted by someone happy to play with characteristics we think we know and an almost fannish understanding of the Holmes cannon. All this adds to the excellent central mystery and helps the actors perform beautifully and honestly the melancholy of aged, fractious friendships and the futile railing against the drumming of time.
One of the strongest episodes in the series – in the cannon – and well worth a listen.
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