Interview Series: Imagination Theater Part 3

Jim French Productions Presents Imagination Theater produces hundreds of contemporary radio dramas and mysteries, such as “The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.” John Patrick Lowrie plays Sherlock Holmes and Larry Albert (JHWS “Bertie”) plays Dr John Watson in the popular radio series.

This interview is a continuation of our discussion in Part 1 and Part 2.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

JOHN

One of wonderful things about radio is that we can put the sound of the clock ticking and you guys supply the rest of the apartment.

With the occasional cab driving by outside and all of a sudden we’re in 1880s London.

ARIANA

Yeah, that was a great point that John Lagenbaugh, here – he made a great point in his article that the audience is already halfway there when they’re listening to a radio show. They want to be in the world of 221B and all you have to do is provide them with the sound, the feel, the voices for them to build that world inside their mind.

LARRY

They called it “Theatre of the Mind” and we still do —

ARIANA

“Movies for Your Mind.”

LARRY

“Movies for Your Mind,” which we’ve trademarked.

Getting back to the history of Holmes on radio, a problem with a lot of the early radio shows, even into the Rathbone-Bruce, is that there’s no equality of friendship in these shows. Especially in the ones from the 30’s – most of which are lost. 90% of the radio shows done in the ’30s are gone. In the late ’40s, when Rathbone says “I’m done” and Tom Conway did it for a season with Nigel Bruce? If you can hear those, they’re not too bad. He gets a bad rap. But they moved it to New York and John Stanley took over and they’re using the old Edith Meiser scripts and I got to hearing them for the first time and – I hate them! I really, really dislike them intensely because it is Holmes constantly talking down to Watson through the whole thing. They did two series of this, of some seventy some shows out there.

JOHN

There are all kinds of mistakes people made. Sometimes they sound like an old bickering married couple and that’s not them either.

LARRY

This is what I call John Stanley and – he had two Watsons – they sounded like a couple of old queens, just a bit of “I say, Holmes! How–” “Oh, shut up, Watson!” and Watson goes “Oh my god, Holmes, how did you ever figure that out?” “I smelled it, you idiot!”

ARIANA

Early on, when it was first just William Gillette’s voice that people heard… Watson was there, but it wasn’t as prominent. And then Rathbone and Bruce came in and there was a much warmer friendship —

LARRY

Well, they were true friends in real life.

ARIANA

I think that helps.

LARRY

They hadn’t done the Universal series yet. They did the two films for Twentieth Century Fox. The best of which is the Hound of the Baskervilles, but my favorite is the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. But in that, we get our first hint of Bruce’s buffoonery as he steps into the garden. So the Universals hadn’t come up yet. So the early ones, if you listen to the shows from ’39, prior to the Univeral series over the mid-forties, there’s a dryer, darker feel to them. It’s more Holmes than the ‘let’s play the comedy’ moments.

JOHN

I think that the Universal movies… you could make a case for them being the first ‘buddy films.’

LARRY

Yeah, outside of B Western films.

JOHN

This brings up an interesting challenge for people producing Sherlock Holmes shows. How important is this new way of telling a story, which is the mystery? Basically, you tell the denouement first and then you figure out how we got there. Is that it? Or is there an important human element? Mysteries can be… you can read a lot of Agatha Cristie: it’s all just a bunch of weird people and either Hercule or whoever wandering around putting clues together. It just becomes a crossword puzzle. I think that what Doyle gave us, which made it so enduring, that Agatha didn’t always give us was the relationship. In Hercule, his sidekick really is a sidekick. In Holmes, Watson is the biographer, Watson is the student. He identifies Holmes as a prodigy and this relationship between the prodigy, who has problems relating to people sometimes but in Watson’s eyes is a fairly selfless person. Again and again he’s saying, “No, I don’t need payment. The job is enough. I’m serving something that is larger than myself.” And we have this other person who has decided to, basically, become the second fiddle: “I’m going to follow this guy around and watch him be a genius and record it for the benefit of everybody else.”

ARIANA

As a result, he’s was also his back up. It was “Oh! We’re gonna do this thing? Go grab your gun!”

JOHN

Exactly. This is something you see again in J.R.R. Tolkien. Heroes don’t operate alone. The English idea of heroes and the American idea of heroes. This egalitarian idea is: we need the little, short woman who can fit into the one place in the factory that no one else can go to in order to make the bomb to kill the Nazis. Everyone is important. The hero in J.R.R. Tolkien story is only three feet tall… but he needs men and he needs wizards and all. This idea that Holmes and Watson have to do it together, that they couldn’t do it without each other: Holmes’ primary goal of spreading his method is done by Watson. Holmes can interact with this detective or that detective, but Watson is the one who gets it out into the world and say, “Hey, we need to stop being superstitious. We need to look at things. We can’t just say ‘oh, my horse died because she’s a witch.’ We need to look a little bit closer.”

ARIANA

That seems to be a very important quality. I think each era has their own huge, iconic radio productions. There was the Bruce and Rathbone of the 30s and 40s. In the 50s and 60s, there were 15 years of Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley.

LARRY

Actually, 16 years, 9 months, 10 days.

ARIANA

I’m not going to argue with that.

LARRY

There’s a reason I know this.

JOHN

He’s obsessive-compulsive. That’s the reason.

LARRY

This is what I call Dubious Achievement #1 for 2015. I suddenly had to have this verified. I wrote to Matthew Eliot, who writes the stories. I said, “I think that I just broke Norman Shelley’s record.” He said, “I’ll get back to you.” And then he comes back and says, “Yes, you have.” I am currently the longest-running Dr. Watson in the history of the English Language. We are now the second longest-running audio team in the history of English language radio as Holmes and Watson. We will never beat Hobbs and Shelley.

ARIANA

It was interesting that even though Hobbs and Shelley ran for so long, there were certain episodes that they just never did. I think I wrote a note…

LARRY

Ha! I thought they did everything in 16 years…

ARIANA

They didn’t do all of the episodes. The Crooked Man, they never did. The Yellow Face, they never did. And the Gloria Scott, they never did.

LARRY

We’ve done all of them.

ARIANA

Yeah, see? You’re one step ahead.

JOHN

How far are we away from finishing the Canon?

LARRY

We have ten more to do.

ARIANA

Ten more to do to finish the Canon?

LARRY

And if I can make it happen with the adapter, we’ll get them done this year.

JOHN

That’s with the same Holmes, same Watson, same Writer, same Lestrade, same Mrs. Hudson…

ARIANA

Are you going to send a letter to Clive Merrison and go ‘ha, ha’?

LARRY

No, I’m afraid of him. He is my favorite. He and Michael Williams are my favorite and I never get tired of listening to them. I am partial to ours, but I have to not listen to ours for a couple of years or a few months to get perspective on how we did. I listen to them for vanity, but — I never expected to have this life. Not to get to personal, but I was geared to be the guy that went to work and Friday night was the big night of the week. I never expected that I would have had 40 years of the adventures I’ve had, the people I’ve worked with, and the friendships I’ve made. I never get tired of it and I’m always in awe of it.

(The interview concludes with Part 4 next week!)


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Interview Series: Imagination Theater Part 3 — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Interview Series: Imagination Theater Part 4 | The John H Watson Society

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