From meta to Nigel Bruce in a lily pond: Gillette to Brett IV

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Last weekend BSBs Kristina and I (Ashley) attended Gillette to Brett IV, a symposium on Sherlockian adaptation held on the gorgeous campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. From start to finish, the event, hosted by the inestimable duo of Steven Doyle and Mark Gagen of Wessex Press (quick! Buy all the books!), was a joy. It was filled with chances to view and handle rare Sherlockian treasures of the artifact variety, as well as meet and renew friendships with rare Sherlockian treasures of the human variety. As is de rigueur for Sherlockian gatherings, there were erudite and witty presentations to hear, delicious meals to eat, adult beverages to drink, and engrossing conversations to hold. We packed in as much of each as was reasonable, then did more, because Holmes was not one for moderate behavior, and neither are we. That’s how I justify the fact that we ate two brunches on Sunday, one of which was attended by a pint each of mimosas, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Several attendees have already offered their own recaps of the weekend; if you’d like more details about the content of presentations, the series posted by our friends over at I Here of Sherlock Everywhere is highly recommended.  Here are my own reflections.

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The event began for us before the event began, as it were, as Kristina and I were both invited to an unofficial BSI-sponsored luncheon before the opening reception on Friday. It was lovely to kick things off with some of our favorite folks, and we were particularly delighted to find ourselves at a table in the company of the three special guests attending from across the pond: David Stuart Davies, the author of many books, including Starring Sherlock Holmes, which was my constant companion during my master’s thesis days. On hearing this, David, ever the perfect Englishman, merely offered a deadpan “I’m ever so sorry”; Bert Coules, the primary dramatist for the Sherlock Holmes BBC radio series starring Clive Merrison. (You should purchase and listen to it immediately. Seriously. I’ll wait.) Kristina spent much of the weekend adopting Bert as her uncle, because Sherlock Holmes and radio are kind of her things. And by kind of her things, I mean they’re her precious special twin babies, which makes Bert her spirit animal; and Paul Annett, the director of several episodes of the Granada Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett, and the accidental creator of the iconic opening credits sequence. He was a charming fellow with lots of stories, and as I’m ever one for crumbs of behind-the-scenes information, it was a delight to chat with him. Also, we ran into each other at the IU bookstore, both in search of university jumpers for our other halves—he helped pick mine out, which makes me happy for reasons I don’t quite understand, but it’s a testament to the event that the highest profile guests spend the weekend cheerfully mingling with the hoi polloi. Our table also included the equally delightful Ray Betzner, Henry Boote, Bonnie MacBird, and Tim Greer. We spent a great deal of our time discussing Doctor Who, which totally makes sense if you think about it.

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The first actual event of the conference was a visit to the Lilly Library. We were treated to a presentation on some of the library’s incredible rare books holdings, and I’ll go ahead and confess right now that when I was allowed to hold their Shakespeare First Folio, I teared up. Because I’m a nerd, and that’s how I roll. (Don’t worry, I didn’t dribble salty tears onto the hallowed pages.) The assembled Sherlockians were reduced to a quivering mass when the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual containing A Study in Scarlet was unveiled, and plenty of other delicious riches were there for us to examine and handle. Later in the evening, we gathered for a reception, which was a lovely chance to drink and schmooze with friends old and new. The magic of being a Sherlockian is really in being social with other Sherlockians. I had the fortune to meet in person a few folks I’d known for years on the internet, and found them even more delightful in person, including members of the (alas, now defunct) forum Holmesian.net, which was my first foray into the Sherlockian world. I also enjoyed a long chat with Jacquelynn Morris, which is always a pleasure, and learned that preparation is well underway for next year’s Scintillation of Scions. (Are you planning to attend? You should.)

10408594_715003510742_5195169303416298990_nLater we assembled at the charming IU cinema for a screening of 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Unfortunately, Kristina, exhausted from her transatlantic flight, gave it a miss. Having picked this particular film apart, perhaps more than any other, in my academic work, I was delighted to find my joy in it renewed by viewing it in a room full of energetic Sherlockians. I highly recommend group viewing for such fare—it’s easy to lose the humour and the suspense when you relegate yourself to watching films alone. If you don’t have a community of Sherlockians in your city, similar pleasures are available through frequent “tweet-a-longs”—make haste and join in.

Saturday was stuffed with programming, and began in the dealers’ room, where those with an itch for book collecting were able to scratch to their hearts’ content (though, no doubt, to their groaning luggages’ dismay). After escaping with a very moderate purchase of four volumes, I settled in to the auditorium for some brief opening remarks to kick off the presentations.

The first presentation was from the disgustingly talented Bonnie MacBird (actress, author, screenwriter, producer, artist, teacher, and all around good egg) who offered insights into the scripting of BBC Sherlock. It was fascinating to read the show through a screenwriter’s eyes and see how its construction on the page translates to what we see on screen. She broke down some of the fundamentals of good scripting evident in the programme, and guided us through the levels of creative input and interpretation that lead to the finished product.

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The second speaker on the schedule was our own Kristina Manente. She spoke on “how fandom plays the game”, which offered a look at the modes of engagement and fan traditions within Sherlock fandom, with an eye to connecting concepts such as headcanon, meta, and fancasting to their counterparts in traditional Sherlockiana. (If traditional Sherlockians have settled on their own narrative for where Holmes went to university, if they’ve written explanations detailing the inconsistencies in Watson’s war wound, or if they’ve imagined a particular actor donning the deerstalker, they’ve engaged in each activity, possibly without realising it.) The talk was very successful, and I heard many positive comments from those who may have been on the fence regarding the what they’ve perceived as an influx of young turks into their sphere.

Following lunch we heard from David Stuart Davies on the use of humour in otherwise serious adaptations. David himself was, as ever, sharp and witty, and we will therefore forgive his use of an extended clip of Matt Frewer’s Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s a shabby trick to spring such a foul thing on a captive audience, but I still love you, David, and your presentation was a breath of fresh air.

Next up was Bert Coules, who gave a brief history of Sherlock Holmes on British radio, lingering, quite rightly, on his own impressive contribution. We were treated to an exclusive video of Clive Merrison and Michael Williams in the recording studio. It was splendid, but reminded me how sad I am that Merrison has never played Holmes on screen. Bert suggested that the actor would jump at the chance should he ever be asked, though he confided that Merrison “is not what you’d call on the tall side.” It hasn’t stopped Robert Downey Jr. though.

The final presentation came from Paul Annett, and it followed a screening of the first episode of Granada’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett. Much like Friday’s screening of Hound, the electricity generated through the enthusiasm of so many Sherlockians in a single room made viewing “A Scandal in Bohemia” a rare treat. An even rarer treat was the interview with Paul—who’d directed the episode—that followed, as Steven Doyle encouraged him to discuss Brett’s approach to Holmes, the process of creating an episode, and the minutiae of directing facial expressions and hand gestures. Here we learned of the epic battle between Paul’s good instincts and Brett’s flappy wrists.

Photo by Carla Kaessinger Coupe

Photo by Carla Kaessinger Coupe

The dinner banquet followed next, and while Kristina disappeared to a mythical speakers’ table at the front of the hall, I was treated to the pleasure of dinner with 221B con’s fabulous Crystal Noll on one side and both Henry Boote, the musical director for the BSI, and the scrumptious  Tim Greer on the other. As so many have noted in their recollections of this event and other Sherlockian gatherings, Sherlockians’ variety of interests, talents, and inevitable aptitude for repartee is what sets our humble little hobby apart. Our dinner conversations ranged from extensive quoting of The Princess Bride to a discussion of Sherlockian ethno-musicology, and involved a lot of laughter and more than a few fingers of whisky.

Photo by Tim Greer

Photo by Tim Greer

The programme was capped off with another screening at the IU cinema, this time of Rathbone’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It was introduced by legendary film scholar Professor James Naremore, who noted a love of this particular adaptation. I got to see the film anew, as I was with Kristina who was still a Rathbone/Bruce virgin. She laughed, she squealed, she rolled her eyes, and she got completely taken in by one of Holmes’ disguises, which led to an absolutely priceless noise that I cannot even hope to describe. It was the most fun I’ve had watching a Holmes film in quite some time.

Tired though we were, we followed our feet back to the hotel and found ourselves in a room full of Sherlockians in their natural habitat, that is to say, circled around a liquor cabinet, and enjoyed several hours of stories, laughs, and banter before the late hour and our general exhaustion demanded sleep.

Sunday morning brought us all back together for one more meal. Sad goodbyes, and promises to reconvene at the next event abounded. Kristina and I hugged many hugs and with hours left before our ride to the airport, went on a last walkabout through Bloomington. After finding that our reputations preceded us into a used bookstore, where unsurprisingly, Sherlockians had already descended and gobbled up what Doylean stock they held, we accidentally ate a second brunch, which, as mentioned earlier, included a pair of not insignificant mimosas.

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In all, From Gillette to Brett IV was a rousing success; it struck every vital chord, from the impeccable programme to the ample time for bandying persiflage. I arrived looking forward to renewing old friendships, and left with many more friendships to renew next time. Here’s to 2017.

Kristina, Ashley, and Bonnie MacBird. Photo by Carla Kaessinger Coupe

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