The curious incident of the Russian Sherlock Holmes

❉ Between 1979 and 1986 Sherlock Holmes dominated Soviet state television in what is regarded in Russia as the best TV series ever made, and globally as one of the finest adaptations of Conan Doyle’s work.

Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories had always been popular in Russia (as had Victorian literature in general) and a television version of The Hound of the Baskervilles had aired in the early 1970s, and was frequently repeated.  Lasting two and a half hours the production had been very popular, so a new version was commissioned in 1978.  Holmes and Watson were to be played by Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin.

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Vasily Livanov was a highly-regarded actor, born into an already established acting family.  Acting since the late 1950s on stage, television and film his famously hoarse voice had graced more than a hundred cartoons and would be well known to viewers.

Vitaly Solomin had been acting on stage and in films since 1964, gaining fame in Russia for his role as Kirill in ‘Starshaya sestra’.  Equally famous for his colourful private life (two wives and a mistress), Solomin died of a stroke on May 27, 2002, in Moscow.

The first block of two episodes was adapted by Yuliy Dunskiy and Valeriy Frid.  They chose to start the series with the introduction to Holmes of Watson in A Study in Scarlet, a story very seldom depicted on screen.  In the full knowledge that there wasn’t enough plot to fill two 70 minute episodes they also incorporated The Speckled Band.

The merging of the two stories works extremely well, and audiences quickly took to this version.  This approach to filming the stories would serve the series well as it progressed: quite often stories would merge into other stories.  Rather than detracting from the pace this serves the narrative extremely well.  Conan Doyle’s stories are perfectly paced for the page but often defy easy adaptation: there simply isn’t enough material for a 50 or 70 minute episode in one short story.  Merging two stories together results in a running time that does justice to each story without giving them time to flag.

Surprisingly, the adaptations are also extremely faithful to the original text, more so than any version before or since.  As a result the Russian series is usually regarded by students of Holmes as the most accurate committed to film.

Victorian London was recreated surprisingly well by utilising a variety of locations which had not been modernised. The cinematography is moody, while the episodes are well directed by Igor Maslennikov and the musical score by Vladimir Dashkevich captures the feel of the era well.

The greatest strength, and one the audience quickly took to, is the pairing of Livanov and Solomin.

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Livanov’s Holmes is almost exactly as Conan Doyle described him (although his clothes owe more to Sidney Padget than Doyle).  A ruthless thinking machine, there is no doubt from Livanov’s performance that this is perhaps the most intelligent man who ever lived.  Impatient with everyone around him and interested only in mental stimulation (his drug-taking was a victim of Soviet censorship) it is Watson who makes him human.  Livanov gives a quite remarkable performance as a character portrayed so often it is understandable that audiences would expect no one could find something fresh to do with the man, yet Livanov does, and it’s mostly through his relationship with Watson that he shines.

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If Livanov is great, Solomin’s Watson is stunning.  There is no sign of the buffoon here that actors are usually forced to portray: Watson is an intelligent man in his own right, a competent medical officer, heroically brave and often distracted by beautiful ladies.  Solomin gives Watson an especially appealing smile that makes him seem particularly boyish, and any images of Watson as an aged fool are swiftly forgotten.

Livanov’s Holmes clearly adores Watson (Watson is the one person with whom he is never short-tempered) and the mutual respect of the two is what makes us like this Holmes.

Rounding off what would become the regular cast is Rina Zelenaya as Mrs Hudson.  Given some great comic business of her own she’s very much an equal to the two characters and adds a welcome presence.

The first two episodes were so well received that more were commissioned, and in 1980 three more episodes aired, this time adapting Charles Augustus Milverton, The Final Problem and The Empty House.

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The linking theme of three was Moriarty, with the intriguing suggestion added that Milverton, the infamous blackmailer, answered to him.  When Moriarty is finally revealed (played particularly well by Viktor Yevgrafov) he is a terrifying character, eerily thin and spiderish.  His infamous battle with Holmes atop the Reichenbach Falls is particularly well realised and fought intensely.

Holmes’s apparent death is resolved in the final episode of the trilogy, and results in a surprisingly moving scene.  Watson is so astonished by Holmes’s return that his first action is to faint.  Upon recovering, he bursts into tears.  The sequence could have been unintentionally funny, but is played so well by the two actors that one is as pleased as Watson and sees just how much Holmes means to him.

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Another two episodes made up the third series in 1981, a straightforward version of The Hound of the Baskervilles which stuck firmly to the novel.  A particularly strong Hound, this benefits from some very nice location filming and a terrifying canine (an effect achieved quite simply by painting the glowing skull of a dog onto the dog’s own head).

1983 saw two further episodes, this time a mixture of The Sign of Four and A Scandal in Bohemia, the sinister pygmy of Sign being another well-realised character (and the boat chase is particularly exciting), with the final two episodes being transmitted in 1986 (this time incorporating The Engineer’s Thumb, The Bruce-Partington Plans, The Second Stain and His Final Bow).

The series ended with as much acclaim as it began: audiences in Russia had quickly accepted Livanov and Solomin as the best representations of the detecting duo seen on screen, although viewers in the West were frequently denied the chance to agree with them.  Although plans were made for a cinema release of episodes edited together, if made this was never seen outside Russia.

Thankfully, the series is now available on DVD as a region-free Russian export.  Only featuring English subtitles (which, on occasion, are amusingly odd: the scarlet band of the famous deadly snake is described by Helen Stoner’s dying sister as “a motley ribbon!”) the series remains highly watchable and entertaining almost 35 years after it was first made.

In 2000, when interviewed for Russian magazine Lifestyle, Livanov said “The Conan Doyle stories had been made into many films before us, but, as I see it, our characters are remarkable in being very human and convincing. This is probably why the British recognized our film to be the best European version of its kind.”

Livanov may have been optimistic in his view of how widely-seen the episodes had been outside of Russia, but in the opinion of this writer at least, he wasn’t wrong: the Russian Sherlock Holmes counts as one of the finest of any adaptation made.


❉ ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson’ was produced by Lenfilm for the Soviet Central Television between 1979 and 1986.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for your very insightful review Alun.

    I think one reason the Russian series has stands up so well is that it focusses on the friendship between Holmes and Watson. Too many adaptations have portrayed Watson as a doddering fool (why would Holmes put up with someone like that?) or else they show Holmes and Watson as being downright antagonistic and that just doesn’t work. At heart, this is the story of an epic friendship. Granada got it right and so did the RDJ movies, but many others have gone astray exactly there.

    It doesn’t hurt that both Livanov and Solomin inhabit their roles as if they were born to them, the locations are appropriately atmospheric, and if the subtitles are occasionally strange, well, you know what they are saying anyhow. I do wonder why Moriarty employs the Wolfman, but that’s a minor point.

    I grew up on the Conan Doyle stories and have seen many, if not most, of the adaptations out there (plus I’m a hard-core Jeremy Brett fan) and I have to agree with you – this is one of the very best.

  2. I think what’s particularly surprising about the series is that despite the fact it’s filmed in Russia, despite being played in a different language to the original and despite the stories being sometimes amended, it feels far more “authentic” than some perfectly straight adaptations.

    I suppose it doesn’t matter what happens with the plot – if you cast your Holmes and Watson properly then you can get away with anything you want. Any authenticity depends entirely on how well the two play off each other, and the Livanov/Solomin pairing is hands down my favourite. They convince as great friends in a way few other productions manage (Holmes may be frequently aloof, even obnoxious, but he loves Watson and this is frequently lost. More often than not he is only seen to tolerate Watson, and that should never be the case).

    What surprised me the most on first watching was just how faithful in spirit these adaptations are. Changes may be made but they’re very faithful changes (some of which you suspect Conan Doyle would have made had he been able to ret-con things).

    • // I think what’s particularly surprising about the series is that despite the fact it’s filmed in Russia, despite being played in a different language to the original and despite the stories being sometimes amended, it feels far more “authentic” than some perfectly straight adaptations. //

      I have to say that this approach “authentic” was typical of many Soviet filmmakers, including the film adaptations of English literature. By the way, I have been studying Soviet films based on the works of English writers.

      Here is my introduce post – alek-morse. livejournal. com/ 77420.html (text wholly with the links on videos)

      From King Lear to Ten Little Indians
      A few words about “Englishness” in Soviet cinema
      Author: Alexander SEDOV (c) 2013
      .
      Laurence Olivier once said: “The British viewers always happy to see the Soviet adaptations of Shakespeare plays.”
      .
      He wrote those words in the magazine called “Soviet Screen” in 1970. British actor and director presented to the Soviet audience his film version of “The Three Sisters” by Anton Chekhov. “In my opinion, such exchange of screen adaptations should be more frequent,” – he added.
      .
      By the time Hamlet is already six years old and he marched triumphantly around the world, and before the King Lear’s birth had a year – I mean the two films directed by Grigori Kozintsev. British audience also had time to get acquainted with “Othello” (directed by Sergei Yutkevich) and appreciated the “Twelfth Night” (directed by Yan Frid), both films produced in 1955. Shakespeare is a priceless national treasure of the British, hence the great interest with which they watch the foreign film adaptation of the plays by their national idol.

      Saying about an exchange of the adaptations, Laurence Olivier, as I guess, had no idea what a fervour Soviet filmmakers will take English literature with. The cinema, television, animation… In each of these screen arts the Soviet directors will present a lot of surprises in the seventies: John Priestley’s dramas, Dickens’ and Chesterton’s television series, “pure English” detectives, the naughty and lyrical comedies by Goldsmith, Brandon Thomas, and Jerome K. Jerome, the adventurous adaptation based on Robert Louis Stevenson stories, the teleplays based on Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde plays. As for animation, the 1970s will begin with “Winnie the Pooh” by Alexander Milne and “Mowgli” by Rudyard Kipling. An absurdist animated film “The House That Jack Built” based on traditional English poetry will end the decade, approaching closely to the strange Lewis Carroll world. And Shakespeare, indeed! If you look at the Soviet “Englishness” film adaptations list of this time period, by their number and genre variety rivalled only the Russian classics in the all home adaptations, you may be tempted to sum ​​up the balance of the “exchange” mentioned by Laurence Olivier. Interestingly, will it be in whose favour?
      .
      The 1980s broke a record for the number of Russian “Englishness” movies. The statistics of Soviet film distribution eloquently demonstrates the mass interest of the audience to them. If in the sixties and seventies, among the top grossing films there were only two Soviet film adaptations of British literature, in the eighties they were as much as six…

      But the main surprise was given by the television. At the meeting point of two decades the TV started the Lenfilm series “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson” (1979-1986) directed by Igor Maslennikov. Since then, the “good old England” world in the Russian minds became associated primarily with this production. The history of the “Englishness” adaptations became henceforth divided into before and after.

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