I’ve been thinking recently about crime in the theatre—no, not the price of tickets for West End shows, but the reasons why crime stories and ‘whodunits’ in general seem to be so well suited for adaptation to stage and screen. That made me cast my mind back to 1976, when I was a student in Birmingham, and went to see a revival of William Gillette’s version of Sherlock Holmes at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. William Gillette was an American who was one of the first actors to portray Sherlock Holmes either on stage or screen (in an early silent movie, now sadly lost). This is a publicity photograph of Gillette as Holmes from the first production (courtesy of Wikipedia):
Gillette was not quite the first to portray Holmes on stage—there were one or two ‘unofficial’ (i.e. pirated) versions of the stories dramatised before that—but he was the first to receive Arthur Conan Doyle’s blessing and support; although at that stage of his career, Conan Doyle was losing interest in Holmes and effectively allowed Gillette carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with the character. It was Gillette who was most instrumental in developing the dramatic persona of Sherlock Holmes that is most familiar to us today, including the deerstalker hat and the curved pipe. Gillette wrote a new story for his stage play, based largely on A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem, and it is Gillette who gave Holmes the line ‘Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow,’ which (in a later film version of the play) was transmogrified into the most famous Sherlock Holmes quotation that Conan Doyle never wrote.
Anyway, back to the version that I saw, way back in the seventies. It had a cast of young (and ‘youngish’) actors, many of them fresh from drama school. One or two had started to make a name for themselves in the theatre, and some had already had small parts in television, perhaps in soap operas or supporting characters in dramas, but there were certainly no ‘stars’ in the cast. It was very much your typical, provincial repertory company.
Now, the thing about watching a play with young, unknown actors in it is that (if they are any good) you can pretty much guarantee that they won’t remain unknown for long. Although I’ve been unable to trace many of the names in the cast, and have to assume that they left the profession for one reason or another, several of the actors are now very famous indeed. Not just the actor who plays Mike Tucker in long running radio serial The Archers, nor the actress who played Fitz’s long suffering wife in the excellent Cracker and a leading role in The Beiderbecke Affair and its sequels.
Here’s the full cast list from my programme:
Curious how the actor who played Holmes later became famous for playing villains in Hollywood movies, and the actor playing Moriarty went on to play another famous detective on television. But at least I can say ‘I remember seeing them before they were famous…’