A star comes to Huddersfield!
In 1923 a true Yorkshire film star hit the stage at Huddersfield's Theatre Royal, playing a remarkable Sherlock Holmes. More than 80 years on, Brian Haigh - who's creating an archive of Huddersfield's fantastic theatre history - looks back!
The recent adaptation of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' at the West Yorkshire Playhouse shows the enduring popularity of the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In his 'Universal Sherlock Holmes', Ronald B. DeWaal, lists over 25,000 stage adaptations, films, television productions and publications featuring the enigmatic detective invariably accompanied by his companion and chronicler Dr Watson.
Theatre Royal: The place to be!
Portrayals of the most famous of Baker Street's residents by actors including William Gillette, Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett have made such an impact over the years that they have helped to shape the character and appearance of Holmes in the popular imagination.
It was William Gillette who gave the sleuth his deerstalker cap and curved meerschaum pipe when appearing in Conan Doyle's own stage play 'Sherlock Holmes'. Gillette made extensive alterations to the script, which proved the hit of the Broadway season in 1899. He brought the production to London in 1901 and continued to appear on stage in the role until 1932. The American actor was the first man to play Sherlock Holmes on radio and made a silent film adaptation of the play in 1916.
Yorkshire-born Eille Norwood, the first actor after Gillette to be considered a definitive Sherlock Holmes, starred in 47 films made between 1920 and 1923. These were mostly adaptations of original stories lasting about twenty minutes each. Conan Doyle himself admired Norwood's portrayal, saying: "His wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me."
Huddersfield audiences had the opportunity to judge the actor's performance for themselves when he appeared in person in 'The Return of Sherlock Holmes' at the town's Theatre Royal in 1923. "Mr Norwood not merely played Sherlock Holmes. He WAS Sherlock Holmes. Every trick, every mannerism of the immortal sleuth was there – so real, so natural that one wondered whether in private life the actor had a personality of his own. It was a great performance," enthused one reviewer. "It would surely be impossible to find a nearer physical or temperamental approximation to the part than that given by Mr Norwood," insisted another.
A later Holmes in action!
Audiences were no less enthusiastic. Thunderous applause and numerous curtain calls followed the first night and the Huddersfield crowd would not let Mr Norwood leave the stage until he had made a short speech. Thanking them for their reception, he reminded the audience that he was a Yorkshireman playing to Yorkshire folk. Nothing could have pleased them more. He concluded by saying that Huddersfield cloth had something in common with Huddersfield's theatre. Both, he observed, were noted for their 'good wearing'! Mr Norwood's pun wasn't lost on the cheering public, who were grateful to the Theatre Royal's energetic General Manager, Alfred Wareing, who had secured the personal visit of Eille Norwood, billed as 'the world-famous embodiment of the great detective', and his London company.
'The Return of Sherlock Holmes', which had enjoyed a successful run at London's Prince's Theatre (now the Shaftesbury), was an entirely new story based on Conan Doyle's characters by Harold Terry and Arthur Rose. A melodrama with a gripping storyline, plenty of action, some humour and a little love interest, it could not fail with audiences who could not get enough of the world famous detective. They gripped the edges of their seats as Holmes pitted his wits against his new arch-enemy Colonel Moran, successor to Moriarty, and members of his gang who were scheming to steal Lady Frances Carfax's jewels and imprison her fiance, the Hon. Philip Green. Narrowly escaping their clutches on a number of occasions, at one point, it looked as if the game was up for our hero who faced two revolvers pointing at his temple. But, in an instant, the tables were turned as Holmes seized the revolver from one of his assailants and tripped up the other. In the end it was Moran who was led away in handcuffs, promising Holmes that they would meet again.
'Hound of the Baskervilles' @ WYP
Eille Norwood hoped to return to Huddersfield but that didn't happen. Instead, local audiences had to make do with his many film performances. During his visit, the actor considered the differences between acting on stage and film, which he felt were widely different forms of expression. Having an audience made the greatest difference to an actor. He could judge his performance from their reactions. In the film studio, there was no audience to help and inspire. On the contrary in the studio, bustling with noisy carpenters and activity of all sorts, there was everything to distract the actor. Combined with the bright lights, the need to perform within a confined space, and the shooting of the story out of sequence, there was little wonder that not all actors were able successfully to make the transition from stage to screen! Norwood had himself successfully surmounted the obstacles, and he believed that seeing himself on the silver screen had helped improve his stage performances.
Today's actors have to be versatile. The three actors who created all the characters in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' at the West Yorkshire Playhouse had wide experience in stage work, film and television. Like Eille Norwood, their style of performance, which combined visual ingenuity with verbal absurdity, required that an enthusiastic audience go with them over a desolate moor to tremble at the hellish howl of the Hell Hound and be amazed by Holmes' finest powers of deduction!
Brian Haigh is currently working at Huddersfield University on a project to develop an archive about theatre in the town. More Huddersfield theatre tales to come!
last updated: 20/05/2008 at 17:13