Canon Doyle? : Getting Holmes right (and getting the rights) for television

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Hewett, RJ

The importance of copyright with regard to television versions of literary works has only recently begun to be considered in adaptations studies, but offers an intriguing perspective not only on what can be transferred, but how. Few characters have been adapted more frequently than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, yet the majority of his screen adventures have taken the form of pastiches or parodies; in Holmes’ country of origin, only a handful of series featuring the detective have derived directly from Doyle’s work. This was due in no small part to the limitations imposed in the United Kingdom by the Conan Doyle estate, which maintained strict control of the character’s television representations until the early 1980s; at this time the stories entered the public domain, Granada Television’s acclaimed series with Jeremy Brett swiftly following. This article, however, focuses on earlier attempts by the BBC to transfer Holmes to the small screen: a short-lived 1951 series, featuring Alan Wheatley; and the 1965 and 1968 productions, starring first Douglas Wilmer and later Peter Cushing. Each strove to be as faithful as possible to Doyle’s original material, due largely to the watchful eye—and insistent specifications—of the copyright holders, sons Denis and Adrian. Drawing upon material from the BBC’s Written Archives, ‘Canon Doyle?’ investigates the extent to which the continuing influence of Doyle’s offspring interacted with the exigencies of screen adaptation—and the ambitions of the creative teams—to shape these television interpretations.
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