Writer and Sherlock Holmes expert Nicholas Utechin interviewed Merrison and Williams in the studio at Broadcasting House in July 1991. It was the final day of the recording sessions for The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
NU: Clive, as a radio Sherlock Holmes you follow in the footsteps of people like John Gielgud, let alone Carleton Hobbs, who for many people over here at any rate is the quintessential Holmes - did you listen to either of them to reach your interpretation, or did you choose to come completely clean and new to it?
CM: I certainly heard Carleton Hobbs - I worked with Hobbo, not in radio but in rep, all those years ago - he and Norman Shelley wouldn't let you get out of the studio without hearing them sooner or later! But I think the way both Michael and I approached these characters was as if they'd just dropped through the letterbox, fresh characters invented by Bert Coules, out of Conan Doyle.
When I talked to Jeremy Brett a few years ago he told me that when he first came to the character he wouldn't have crossed the street if he'd seen Sherlock Holmes passing - he didn't like him. Holmes isn't a very likeable character in some ways, is he?
CM: No. We meet Sherlock Holmes as a man with a problem, a man with a vindictive personality, into self-abuse, with all the problems that for an actor make him very, very attractive. No, if I saw him on the other side of the street, I'd probably leap over and try and get to understand the old bugger - he's deeply interesting.
He's a complete mixture, isn't he? - when he's on a case and when things are going well, it's wonderful, hyper-active, brilliant, the brain working at double pace, but...
CM: Yes - and the sloth and the torpor are also interesting, the mania comes of that, and also the reveries: in this new series we've had the reverie about the moss rose in - what story would that be Nick?
The Naval Treaty.
CM: Well done! I love all that as well; that kind of stuff, for an actor, it's density, it's great to play.
Did you approach Dr Watson the same way, Michael? There's this horrible view of Watson, that he's always sixty-five going on ninety, Boobus Britannicus they said about Nigel Bruce - were you doing something consciously different?
MW: Well, yes, I was - in so much as Bert Coules very finely drew the character for me on the first dramatisation, A Study in Scarlet - and I found that a challenge because I'd always related the character to that terrible old buffer that Nigel Bruce came up with. Of course, in fact, as you well know, he was a highly educated man, a practical man, a lover of women on three continents, and a very, very different character, which initially I found something of a challenge.
Like Clive takes perhaps the addictive nature of the personality of Holmes, perhaps also the drug addiction side of things, and tries to bring that in - what is the starting point with Watson?
MW: I think as a highly complex man, who has such a fine, rare intelligence - and I think he's also perceptive enough to know, about Holmes, that there is a deep-lying emotion underneath the man; obviously as a doctor he must have some notion of psychiatry - and I think that what attracts me, and I am sure Watson, to Holmes is the essential Englishness of the creature, and also the fact that he is barely able to express a personal emotion and I find that, and I am sure Watson did, fascinating.
It must be tremendously difficult for anyone trying to portray Watson, because of that view that everyone has - you are second fiddle, theoretically you are the one who says 'Ooh, ah, gosh, good lord, how amazing... ', and yet you have to establish the character of the man himself - and of course, we're talking about a radio characterisation.
MW: Yes, indeed - I must confess that we had a few problems as regards that over the last eleven stories we've recorded, because some of the adaptors have not been as aware as Bert Coules, for example, of the balance between the two characters, and they have relegated Watson to a narrative role really, rather than a role in which he takes a complete part in the investigations together with Holmes.
CM: It's no good to me having a Watson who only says 'Good Lord, Holmes, how do you do it?' - absolutely no good at all. We had a lovely scene in 'The Final Problem', you know, their last real conversation... No, there's no dynamic if Watson isn't really there as a very real person - which is what Michael has done.
Have either of you made suggestions to the scriptwriters or directors over these couple of series as you get into the part?
CM: Oh yes, day by day - we have even had doubts about the rather archaic way it's written, and although I understand why some of the writers wrote what they wrote, if you're talking about a Holmes 'for the nineties' - that's no good; there's got to be a median way in the language; try and retain the style of the Edwardian language, but it's got to be made accessible; that can often be a bit of a problem, and that's where Michael and I would say 'No, this is a bit too formal, the grammar is too filigree-ish...'
Some people have been rather critical of the maniacal laugh you have given Holmes...
CM: That was an idea I had, because it amused me - I mean, it's my laugh; I didn't mean to do a maniacal laugh, it just happens to be the way I laugh - but it often went with the period in our work on this project when Holmes was in a bit of a state, and the laugh grew out of that. I've calmed him down a bit in this series.
MW: When indeed it does come out - I think it's at the beginning of Silver Blaze - doesn't Watson say if there's one thing that drives me up the wall it's that bloody laugh of yours...?
You don't feel that you're knocking at icons and shrines, that there's something about these two extraordinary characters, and why they still live a hundred years after their creation is bemusing but very nice for the people who follow our hobby...? It must be a little bit frightening as actors, professional as you both are.
MW: Yes, it is. What we've had to guard against, of course, when you're working so closely together over a long period of time, there might occur situations where you turn things into an in joke - you know, you start playing the buddy boy...
Between Michael Williams and Clive Merrison, you mean, rather than Holmes and Watson?
CM: But at best, you know, if we've got a scene that's well written, Michael and I, we can play a bit of jazz, which isn't bad for the Victorian era.
I think a lot of people don't actually know how a radio drama is made: you're talking of forty-five minutes - two days per recording per story?
CM: and MW: Yes.
Continuous until the producer suddenly says 'No, let's do a re-take...'? You're trying for takes each time?
CM: We rehearse a scene and then take it; and then if it's no good - usually it's not - we do a second take; we very rarely go beyond a third take; and then we'll re-take on fluffs, what we consider to be bad performances: Michael usually stops the performance and says 'I'm not happy with line 6 on p.22, can I re-do it?'.
MW: Now, hang on...
You get in the way?
MW: No, no, I was referring to my own performance when I said that... As Clive was saying earlier on, you have to be so aware of the structure of the language, and find that fine line between the period and the natural sense of dialogue between you; and sometimes I just hear myself getting it wrong, and therefore I like to go back and do just an individual line again.
CM: I tend to plough on...
And there is the flexibility to do all those changes...?
CM: The problem with radio is that normally in an acting day, rehearsing for stage or film or whatever, you're making about four acting decisions, and you have time to work on them; but we're making hundreds all the time - that's why it can be so tiring; you kind of cannibalise yourself as an actor and end up 'actor empty', running on empty, and that can be difficult - you have to dig down deep; the concentration, too, is phenomenal.
MW: At the end of the day, you know, you sometimes wish you'd been in another regiment rather than the Sixty-sixth Berkshires or whatever...
CM. I get my summings-up at the end of the two-day thing, and if the adaptation has been a little bit on the lazy side - it's an awful lot of bunny, and that can drive a boy mad; it makes me very, very tired!
Last question to both of you - and it's not meant just to have a PR answer: had you actually known about Sherlock Holmes and Watson before you did it professionally? Had you read the stories when you were eleven, say?
MW: Unlike others in the cast, no, I hadn't come across them at all.
Have you got a favourite story?
MW: A favourite story? Well, strangely enough, at the BBC just recently - as you probably know - they have engaged a new security staff, and coming in each morning for a month we have been obliged to go across to this little desk where a fellow with a lot of scrambled egg sits; and we did ask if we might have a permanent pass for a month, but that proved to be too difficult. And so we had to present ourselves each morning, and there are many, many stories - but one in particular about the series: one morning, after about two weeks, I went in and I said 'Michael Williams, Sherlock Holmes, Studio B10'; and he was writing this down - 'Michael Williams, Sherlock...' - he said 'Are you working with him?'
MW: I replied 'Well, in a manner of speaking...'
I'm very glad you took my question in the wrong way! What I actually meant was, do you have a favourite Sherlock Holmes story? For special dramatic reasons or character reasons?
MW: Well, I must confess that so far the one that has really grabbed me has been 'The Final Problem', because that encapsulates everything that I think of the Watsonian character as being - his intelligence, his perceptiveness, his emotional commitment to Holmes, and his deep, deep hurt and sorrow at the end.
There is love between them, isn't there?
MW: Oh, you can't escape that, certainly... It's a very English sort of love, mind...
Oh, of course, of course.
CM: It's very moving at the end of 'The Final Problem'; we were able to hear each other's speeches at the end - and I found it very moving. I enjoyed 'Scandal in Bohemia', too, I quite like the exotic ones; and I like the ones where Holmes is in disguise.
In radio - of course - that's a very good point: you're already putting on a voice because you're Clive Merrison but you're playing Sherlock Holmes, and you're playing Sherlock Holmes as somebody else...
CM: It's intricate. I do it the very best I can - I assume that Sherlock Holmes is also the best radio actor in the world and can do any accent and disguise his voice beautifully.
The plans are for all fifty-six short stories to be done - the partnership is now created and forged, and barring logistics, it will really happen...?back to interviews