Monday, March 27, 2023

Interesting Interview: Ray Wilcockson

Last month, I hosted a raffle for readers to choose an upcoming Interesting Interview subject.  Not only did that raffle raise money for Special Olympics, but it also introduced me to this week's Interesting Interview, Ray Wilcockson!  Ray is a fellow Sherlockian, so it's no surprise that he's an intelligent and interesting fella.  

Ray's blog, Markings, is a great way to spend some time.  I'm glad that spring break is coming up here, because I plan to spend quite a bit of time there!  Ray knows a ton of stuff about early stage performances of Sherlock Holmes from around the world, and anyone interested in knowing more about media adaptations of our detective could definitely benefit from reading his stuff.  So here's some words on the man behind the Markings in this week's Interesting Interview!

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

Ah, that perennial topic of debate with as many definitions as there are Sherlockians!

In my Baker Street there are many mansions. It seems most rewarding and apt to view the Sherlock Holmes community as a broad church without a priesthood. This encourages cross-fertilization of ideas and is reflective of the multifarious ways we encounter the Great Detective. Hence, for me, a Sherlockian is anyone who evinces active, abiding, appreciative engagement in aspects of Holmes, his world and his legacy expressed in discussion, research, writing, art or performance, according to their individual lights. “Sherlockian” isn’t a title to be coveted or conferred; it’s simply descriptive of how (delightfully) you may spend some time on this earth.

How did you become a Sherlockian?

With an eye to my definition, I’d have to reply: ‘with a false dawn and a much later day that has not yet set.’

In April, 1961, aged 13, I completed a term-long school History project on London. Michael Harrison’s classic “In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes” (1958) happened to be shelved with the capital’s history in my local library. I’m now 75 and still treasure this book that gave me a Sherlockian template for writing about Victorian and Edwardian London and subsequently, that summer, inspired me to read the whole Canon. I’m grateful now to have first encountered Holmes and Watson as literary texts, unfiltered by stage or screen adaptations. Only Hobbs and Shelley’s radio voices predated that formative imaginative experience. My Holmes is, thus, very much my Holmes.

I would not be an active Sherlockian again until 2012. In the interim (‘Great Hiatus’?), Rathbone and Bruce became well-loved, cinematic companions, and Jeremy Brett deeply impressed as the best dramatic embodiment of Holmes I have ever seen. It was a cherished privilege to see Jeremy Paul’s “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes” at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre in 1989, and a sad day indeed when we lost that fine actor.

The ‘Return’ of Sherlockian Ray was occasioned by “The Reichenbach Fall”, the concluding episode of BBC’s “Sherlock” series 2. Broadcast on January 15, 2012, it coincided with my creation of “Markings” blog. I had anticipated writing, in retirement, mostly about education and my specialism, Shakespeare. The Fates had other plans.

The blog began with a quartet of posts on “Sherlock”, inspired entirely by what I described then as “some of the best small-screen acting I have ever seen”: Martin Freeman’s John in bereavement. Here’s the link to my essay on his Watson.

Since then, I’ve written dozens of essays on all manner of Holmes-related topics, aided and given direction primarily by the welcome proliferation of online searchable news archives, my association with Sherlockian, Howard Ostrom (see below), and critical approaches bequeathed by a career passed in daily communion with imaginative literature and drama in performance.

What is your profession (or previous if you are retired) and does that affect how you enjoy being a Sherlockian?

Decades of teaching secondary English through to ‘A’ Level, along with my M.A. in Shakespeare Studies and work in amateur theatre, trained me to be acutely aware of (and fascinated by) authorial choice of genre, form and narrative voice, the artistry exhibited in structure and the indivisibility of character from parent creation. I’ll keep this answer brief as the blog post links provided elsewhere in this interview open to essays that clearly illustrate the impact of my profession on the way I see Holmes in text and adaptation.

Worth stressing here is the crucial insight that characters in imaginative literature are inseparable from their original artistic context and are what they are to fulfil the broader demands and thematic purposes informing a work of art.

Believe in them as we do and must, literary characters are not real people. If they “die” as they often do in Shakespeare’s plays it is because they have fulfilled their dramatic purpose. 

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are riveting creations but they are not Shakespeare’s pair doomed to die in England. We suspend our disbelief and agree to think Stoppard’s duo is Shakespeare’s to savour the dramatist’s wit. But they’re not. They only ‘exist’ for the duration of a performance of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in the imagination of each spectator.

I taught Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” many times to ‘A’ level students and begged them to avoid, set aside and not rely on cinema and stage adaptations while studying the novel. This, because there is a crucial difference between seeing and reading about the Creature. Idon’t personally think the novel is adaptable because its power relies on the reader being as “blind” to the Creature’s deformity as the old man, de Lacey, who (like Shakespeare’s Gloucester) sees more truth than if he had eyes. It is of paramount importance that we listen to the Creature and hear his essential humanity. More than once, my students have commented in astonishment that the Creature (and Mary Shelley, scarcely older than themselves when she wrote the classic) possessed a broader vocabulary and powers of eloquence well beyond their own. Teacher Ray was quietly pleased by such observations. 

So, you can see why my focus is primarily on Conan Doyle’s texts. In truth, I love adaptations as much as the next Sherlockian, but the English teacher in me carefully distinguishes between creation and metamorphosis into a different form.

What is your favorite canonical story?

In common with many Sherlockians I find something special to savour in pretty well every story of the Canon. I love the familiar pattern where adventures begin and end with the iconic duo in Baker Street and those brief but fully realised evocations of the metropolis just beyond their window. Conan Doyle wrote in a variety of fictional and nonfiction genres and forms. I think the best of him is found in the Canon short stories. Of these, I am especially impressed by the structural dexterity and narrative art of “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “His Last Bow”, both examined for these qualities in “Markings” essays.

I choose, however, “The Blue Carbuncle” as my all-time favorite for its consummate artistry, humour and vivid London setting. The Ray of 2012 explained why much better than I might now in two aptly timed Christmas essays.

Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?

Media expert, Howard Ostrom, of Florida will be well known to many reading this blog. He’s the Encyclopedia Brown of our international community and a veritable force of nature. As with Sherlock Holmes,one can never quite see when he sleeps. His work-rate is invariably break-neck and recall of facts frankly phenomenal. Facebook’s “Sherlock Holmes on Screens” group is one of the most active and assiduously curated. Set up as a shop window for Howard’s series of that name, the site now operates additionally as a collection point for his ever-expanding “A-Z of Sherlock Holmes Performers”. It’s been a personal joy for years to contribute new finds to this Magnum Opus that is periodically updated by Ross K. Foad on his website “No Place Like Holmes”.

Less familiar perhaps are Howard Ostrom’s essays, on some of which I have collaborated. It is these to which I’d like to draw attention in answering this question. A selection may be read on Ross Foad’s site (click on the “Essays” tab). These are a fraction of Howard’s total oeuvre and a request to him via Facebook for the full list would enrich any Sherlockian’s reading. He’s very good on Russia’s adaptations.

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

Briefly, anything that stirs in me the thrill of the chase. I revel in research, often to the neglect of my blog. Early stage representations of Sherlock Holmes continue to be fertile ground for my attention. I’m perhaps most pleased with tracking down the mysterious John Webb, tying him to the Surrey Theatre and unearthing a photograph (see Markings here:

Currently, I have on the stocks, waiting to blog, new information on the genesis of the play known as John Lawson’s “An Adventure in the Life of Sherlock Holmes: a Sketch in Two Episodes” (1902) that predates it to 1901 and reveals a new early performer of the detective.

Female performers in the role continue to draw my interest, a surprisingly large contingent collected by (who else?) Howard Ostrom in his “Original Baker Street Babes” and headed by one of the greatest recent versions of Holmes, that of the tragic Yuko Takeuchi in “Miss Sherlock”.

As someone who knows a lot about the early stage performances of Sherlock Holmes, how have you seen adaptations of that character evolve from its initial portrayals?

Well before William Gillette was given carte blanche to marry or murder him, Sherlock Holmes was effectively common property, beyond Doyle’s control, and treated satirically, musically and every which way, much as he is appropriated and reimagined today in all manner of media.

Perhaps the most significant evolutions have been in the enhanced status of John Watson and the promotion of Professor Moriarty and Irene Adler from minor to major characters.

Ever before us as we read his Sherlockian annals, ironically, in early adaptations, the good doctor slipped into drama’s shadows for half a century. Even Sherlockians struggle to name a Watson performer before Nigel Bruce, whose contribution must not be undervalued. He paved the way for an illustrious line of actors in the part from here to Russia.

Early stage and film representations of Moriarty were conventionally melodramatic and, for a while, with the success of Doyle’s play “The Speckled Band”, he was out-villained by Lyn Harding’s formidable Grimesby Rylott. In Henry Daniell et al, Rathbone’s Napoleons of Crime, we perhaps see the seeds of more complex and fully realised Professors like those of Eric Porter, Andrew Scott and Jared Harris in our time.

William Gillette’s Alice Faulkner ( Fermin Gémier’s ‘Alice Brent’) may be viewed as an early (abandoned) candidate for Sherlock’s love life in adaptations. She was never more than a stock figure, suffering from having little to do on stage or film. In 1922, John Barrymore’s Alice, Carole Dempster, marked the character’s swan song.

Since Inga Swenson’s musical Irene alongside Fritz Weaver in “Baker Street” (1965), this lightly sketched character from a single short story has never looked back. Gayle Hunnicutt, Lara Pulver, Rachel McAdams, Larisa Solovyova and Lyanka Gryu in particular have mined a rich vein of resourcefulness and Siren magnetism but fleetingly suggested in “A Scandal in Bohemia”.

Such evolutions do not surprise me. Adaptation always prompts new perspectives on an original. The short story, especially, positively begs for expansion of elements that can only be nodded at within such narrow confines.

Which country do you think has done the best job of putting out Holmes adaptations?

I shall answer this with the caveat that Holmes adaptations have long displayed international cooperation in production. Well before air travel, producers and actors thought little of criss-crossing the Atlantic, voyaging to the Antipodes, South Africa, India and the Far East in search of audiences. When Charles Frohman met his death on RMS Lusitania, he was returning to the US from what was a regular visit to check on theatres and productions he controlled in England and France. Gillette’s London appearances as Holmes spawned touring productions with English leads, like H. A. Saintsbury, Australian successes, and many European versions in translation, notably that by Pierre Decourcelle at Theatre Antoine, which was in turn retranslated within a year for performance as far away as Portuguese-speaking Rio de Janeiro.

Russia has made significant contributions to the Pantheon of great Holmes adaptations. The Soviet-era TV series with Livanov and Solomin is a world classic and 2013’s series gave us a fascinating Holmes in Igor Petrenko and one of the greatest ever Watsons in Andrei Panin.

On both stage and screen, the US has written an illustrious history of adaptations. Gillette’s influence may be detected to this day and Robert Downey Jr. has arguably surpassed even Benedict Cumberbatch in terms of international clout.

However, while the US possibly takes the laurels on the big screen, on the back of stars like John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone and Robert Downey Jr. it is significantly behind the UK in the production of series addressing the whole Canon. Neither the 39 episodes starring Ronald Howard nor Rathbone’s radio plays nor “Elementary” seek to dramatise Conan Doyle’s original stories as faithfully as possible as a sequence of stand-alone adventures.

The UK excels here. Think of Clive Merrison (and the earlier Carleton Hobbs) on radio. Of Eille Norwood’s silent series and that steady procession of television classics starring Alan Wheatley, Peter Cushing, Douglas Wilmer, and Jeremy Brett.

I award this accolade to the homeland of Sherlock Holmes.

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

Many of the books I might have recommended here will already grace the bookshelves of Sherlock Holmes devotees. So, I have chosen one reminiscent of my childhood favourite, the Michael Harrison, which, like “In the Footsteps...” celebrates the third main character of the Canon: London.

Charles Viney’s “Sherlock Holmes in London” (1989) is subtitled “A Photographic record of Conan Doyle’s stories”.It’s a beautifully produced coffee-table-size publication by Smithmark of New York. Viney progresses story by story from “A Study in Scarlet” through to “The Casebook”, omitting only those such as “The Valley of Fear” that feature little of London, illustrating with fabulously evocative vintage photographs of the metropolis Holmes prided himself on knowing as intimately as Charles Dickens. For good measure, Viney appends an “Atlas of Victorian London”: full-page reproductions of G. W. Bacon’s 1888 “New Large-Scale Ordnance Map of London & Suburbs”.  It’s a beauty of a book and looks available, used, on the net.

Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?

Sporting a long, venerable beard no doubt, Howard Ostrom will still be striving to complete that impossible task of charting every performance of Sherlock Holmes!

Seriously, I don’t foresee any let-up in the proliferation of Sherlock Holmes adaptations in either traditional or 21st Century media.Recent plays like Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” are enormously popular and likely to enjoy regular revivals. The Far East is having a love affair with the Great Detective (often through blockbuster musicals) that shows no sign of abating.

Three personal hopes for the coming decade to close this interview that I’ve very much enjoyed:

1) That the current project preserving Eille Norwood’s silent series will attract further funding that allows for the public release of the whole restored archive.

2) That finding William Gillette’s 1916 film of “Sherlock Holmes” and determined international hunting for copies of films herald the discovery of at least one more “lost” screen Holmes.

3) That, amidst all the adapting, cos-playing and experimenting with Conan Doyle’s detective, more and more Sherlockians take time out to respond privately, individually to the original texts and are thereby enriched with authentic imaginative experiences generated by literary text, without recourse to pre-packed interpretations by actors, excellent and beguiling though they may be.

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