Hey internet, Ernie here with a fresh piece from Andrew Egan, who decided to nerd out on a very specific theme. If you like the theme songs to detective shows, especially those inspired by a Holmesian detective, you’ll dig this.
Today in Tedium: To say Sherlock Holmes is an icon of modern society is a bit of an understatement. The deductive detective has been reprinted, reimagined, and reinvented countless times. Sherlock became so successful as to effectively ruin his creator’s ability to write anything else. Where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saw a burden, future writers saw opportunity to adapt Sherlock to new media and changing times. Whether direct adaptations of the original stories or more dramatic interpretations, shows and films about Sherlock have delighted for nearly a century. But an often unnoticed, or at least underappreciated, aspect of these productions are the weird and wonderful themes they often produce. Today’s Tedium takes you from foggy London to the Australian Outback and even into the 22nd century as we look at some of the amazing theme songs produced by the various versions of Sherlock Holmes. (And as a quick side note, I always thought the saxy classic “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty had some connection to Holmes but, nope. It’s the same Baker Street but Rafferty managed to avoid referencing its most famous resident. Feels kinda rude.) — Andrew @ Tedium
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The amount of money Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received for the complete copyright to the first Sherlock Holmes novel, “A Study in Scarlet” from publisher Ward, Lock and Co. While that is grossly underpaid for the creation story of a future icon, it’s not as bad as it appears. Adjusted for inflation, it’s almost $900 today. Yeah, okay, that is really bad.
A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes book.
What counts as a Sherlock Holmes adaptation, anyway?
Edgar Allen Poe is widely recognized as inventing the modern detective story, but it was Doyle who made the quirky but brilliant detective a fixture in pop culture. (Poe’s story actually predates use of the word “detective” in English.) In A Study in Scarlet, Watson attempts to document Holmes’ knowledge and character traits, conveniently giving a blueprint for future writers to create their own versions. While Holmes has a keen understanding of chemistry and crime, basic knowledge, like the fact the earth rotates around the sun, often escapes him. Following Watson’s description, a proper Sherlock Holmes adaptation must include a detective with the following traits:
• Frightening observational skills
• Unique and high specialized knowledge
• Quirky personality which can often annoy those around them
Any adaptation also gets bonus points if they:
• Have an addiction of some type
• Work as a consulting detective rather than directly for the police department
• Have a brother that is similar to the detective but is either better or worse off for it
Using this criteria, we end up with a better guide for what constitutes a Sherlock Holmes interpretation. Dr. House, for example, would not qualify because he is not a detective despite his creators clearly stating he was meant to be a version of Sherlock. (I would also argue that, while House possesses highly specialized knowledge, it is not unique for his profession.)
The USA Network has made millions following this formula, most notably with Psych and Monk. Of the two, Adrian Monk is probably the most true Sherlock adaptation in recent memory. He hits five of the six points easily and you could argue his obsessive compulsive disorder is a type of addiction. (It’s not a great argument especially for those dealing with mental issues but Monk’s OCD tends to manifest itself in similar ways, at least in the show.)
So now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the amazing, awesome, and sometimes bizarre theme songs that have been inspired by the world’s most famous detective.
Here’s the ending theme to Miss Sherlock, a direct adaptation of Sherlock but with a female Holmes and Watson and based in modern-day Tokyo. Produced by HBO Asia and Hulu Japan, Miss Sherlock’s theme incorporates elements of Japanese music (opening with a gong) while clearly pulling from motifs of the popular BBC reboot Sherlock, which made Benetine Cucumberdish a household name. If you enjoy all things Sherlock, it would be criminal to overlook this one.
The modern BBC Sherlock adaptation that introduced the world to Benedict Cumberbatch. (via BBC)
Sherlock themes can get pretty wild
Direct interpretations of Doyle’s work into TV and film is a pretty good place to start. The very first Sherlock Holmes movie was released in Doyle’s lifetime but had no theme as it was a silent movie. Once considered a lost movie, a print was found in 2014. (IMBD does list earlier film versions of the character but these were reported to be less than a minute long and were often found in turn of the century arcades.)
The earliest version of a Sherlock Holmes theme, as near as I can determine, is the 1931 British film The Sleeping Cardinal, partially based on the short stories “The Empty House” and “The Final Problem”. This was also the first Sherlock Holmes movie to feature speaking actors. By this point the character had already appeared in at least nine silent film adaptations.
To quote my girlfriend and quarantine partner, “Yeah, that sounds like I thought it would. Old movies all have themes like that.” Fair point.
So perhaps the first truly distinct Sherlock theme came from the movie that created the first iconic depiction of Sherlock. Basil Rathbone was cast as Holmes in the 1939 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles and would go on to play the character in 13 more films until 1946. The actor became so heavily associated with the role that he found himself typecast and sought to escape the character. Sir Doyle almost certainly would empathize.
Over the subsequent decades, as more direct iterations and reboots of Holmes followed we got a wide variety of themes.
The modern BBC remake:
The one from the time Roger Moore played the character for a made-for-TV movie:
And the trippy, awesomely animated version from the 22nd century:
As interesting as these are for dedicated fans of the character, I must admit that direct interpretations of Holmes don’t inspire the greatest theme songs. But while you could call writers lazy for creating their own Sherlocks, these interpretations tend to have FAR superior themes.
“It’s a Jungle Out There”:
“I Know, You Know”:
If you’re a fan of either show, these themes probably hold a special place in your heart. Randy Neuman’s caterwauling about the dangers of everyday life fit the tone of Monk perfectly. The Psych theme also suits its show like James Roday’s wit with the added accomplishment of lodging the refrain (“I know, you know that I’m not telling the truth/I know, you know they just don’t have any proof”) into my brain for the better part of 13 years. (At this point, I would like to point out that I am disappointed I had to discount House M.D. since that Massive Attack theme song is dope AF.)
Of course, this is not to say that all adaptations of Sherlock yield amazing themes. From time to time, they get downright weird. And occasionally racist.
The number of episodes of Boney, an Australian adaptation of Sherlock Holmes featuring a half-Australian, half-Aboriginal detective that uses his tracking training and knowledge of the Outback to solve difficult crimes. The series was controversial during the 1970s, you’ll get a taste of why in a moment.
(via the Australian Television Information Archive)
“A walking, talking, post-modern cultural studies essay”
Of the many themes to result from interpretations/adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Boney is in a class of its own. Following the adventures of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, Boney managed to find a wide audience in its short run including some foreign celebrity admirers. Orson Wells was said to be a fan.
So what was the show like? Well, here’s the theme song and it should give you a bit of context to what was on Australian TV in the mid-1970s.
While the aesthetics of that theme fit the time, depictions of Australian Aboriginal people in the show were considered problematic, to say the least. This was in addition to the fact that in both the TV show and a made-for-TV movie version the actors hired to play the detective were white. But that doesn’t even come close to the absolutely bonkers song the TV show inspired.
That song is Australian entertainer Rolf Harris’s attempt to pay tribute to the character, which was also a series of books, and was included on “The Australian Album” released in 1970. A sort of unofficial theme for the character, Harris’s song was understandably not popular and failed to chart. One blogger has noted they cannot find a copy of the single in Britain, where it may or may not have been released but it was promoted. This was not the first, or last, time that comments about Aboriginals made by Harris drew condemnation.
Some commentators have noted that the character is arguably the country’s greatest literary export as Allied troops found their way to the original books while stationed in Australia during World War II. Today, the books can barely be found in their home country despite being popular for nearly four decades. Though I haven’t read one of the books, episodes from the 1970s TV series can be found on YouTube. Imagine that a mid-20th century Australian tried to create their own version of Sherlock set in the Outback. It’s every bit as uncomfortable as you think.
There really is no quintessential theme for Sherlock Holmes, though the recent BBC version is solidifying its position. This gap has allowed the massive flock of Sherlock imitators to distinguish themselves from their predecessor in a way the Baker Street detective would find amusing.
Where they all pale to Sherlock, at least we can have a jaunty tune to know what type of person they are. The incomparable Mr. Holmes needs no such introduction.
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