Perhaps the most dramatized of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories is the one we read at this time of the year, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” My wife and I recently listened to four radio versions spanning almost 50 years.
All four used some or all of the great lines we remember from this story – “My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” “No, no; the real name. It is always awkward doing business with an alias.” “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies.” “It is just possible that I am saving a soul” (or a variation).
Apart from that, the four offered markedly different interpretations of the same tale. Here is a quick survey in chronological order:
1948, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The story opens with a description of a snowy, late Victorian Christmas morning, then takes us to the contretemps involving Henry Baker on Goodge Street. Baker Street comes later. John Stanley sounds amazingly like the man he replaced in this series, Basil Rathbone, but is a much more Grinch-like Holmes than the Canon would support. Alfred Shirley is a less buffoonish Watson than Nigel Bruce. All in all, a good effort.
1954, BBC and ABC. This British-American production featured the great Sir John Gielgud as Holmes and Sir Ralph Richardson as Watson. It starts on Christmas Eve with scene-setting description and moves quickly to Holmes making brilliant deductions from Henry Baker’s hat. Somewhat surprisingly, the scene on Goodge Street is related, not dramatized. Watson makes punch with lemon and nutmeg, a nice domestic touch. The story ends with Holmes and Watson toasting the Queen at the stroke midnight – Christmas day.
1977, CBS Radio Mystery Theater. After a promising start – it actually begins on the second morning after Christmas, as does the story – this turns out to be the least satisfactory of the four productions. Watson, who shall remain nameless, goes the Nigel Bruce route. Henry Baker is renamed Henry Smith. Inspector Lestrade (not in the Canonical story) shows up at Baker Street to arrest Holmes for receiving stolen property – the carbuncle. This seems to be just a way to build suspense before the commercial. A new character called “The Smasher” is introduced, apparently to help stretch the program to 45 minutes. (The first two were 30 minutes.)
1991, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This episode from the classic Clive Merrison-Michael Williams series on the BBC was the best of the four, in our opinion. Scriptwriter Bert Coules shows the right way to expand this tale to 45 audio minutes. He opens up the narrative without significantly changing the plot. We hear John Horner talking with his wife just before Inspector Bradstreet arrests him, for example. The program, which is set on Christmas Eve, ends with Watson inviting himself to a midnight supper at Baker Street. He apologizes for intruding, but he’s really doing it for Holmes. The awkwardness between the two men is perfect. The scene is tender, as my wife said, “without being cloying.”