9 октября 2012 г.Автор: Евгений Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin: The Russian Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson

Dedicated to the memory of Vitaly Solomin 1941 - 2002.

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"
- Vasily Livanov in Lifestyle: A Russia Journal Publication Issue No.2 (45) -  24th Jan 2000

Of the many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes on film and television, surely the most curious and intriguing is the Russian television series featuring Vasily Livanov as Holmes and Vitaly Solomin as Watson. Filmed entirely in Russia (the then Soviet Union) between 1979 and 1986, it consists of five series broken over eleven episodes (click here for episode guide and first episode synopsis). Although an attempt to export the program, made at the Monte Carlo Television Festival in 1982, proved unsuccessful, the series was deemed one of the most successful in the history of Russian television. The series (and Holmes, of course) was so popular that as recently as January 2000 a celebration was held by Russia’s Independent Association of Newsmakers at the Nostalgia Art Club honoring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective. Amongst the guest were both Livanov and Solomin who had last played the characters some 14 years previously for Central Television.

The popularity of Sherlock Holmes in Russia is undeniable. There appears to be a Russian fascination with not only the Victorian period, but with the concept of the amateur detective himself.  Director Igor Maslennikov was quoted in Peter Haining’s The Television Sherlock Holmes with the following reasoning behind Sherlock Holmes appeal:

“Anyone who goes to him feels secure. He is reliable. Whereas the police are to punish someone, Holmes wants to help the victims. He is the personification of gentlemanly behaviour. Audiences are always in need of someone with those qualities.”

Собака Баскервилей

Since the early part of the 20th century, pirated translations of Doyle’s Holmes stories flourished in the former Soviet Union, so it should come as no surprise that Holmes received a Russian television treatment. What is surprising though is the degree of faithfulness to the original stories. While I do not speak a word of Russian, it is obvious in viewing the programs that great care and attention was given to not only capturing the essence and flavour of the Canon, but also to maintaining a literal fidelity for the most part.

Any Sherlockian without any knowledge of the Russian language, but with a decent knowledge of the Canon, can quickly grasp precisely what is taking place in almost any given scene, at times even the dialogue can be safely guessed at.  Although the films are structured as combinations of particular stories (for instance The Speckled Band is placed in the middle of the story-line to A Study in Scarlet and A Scandal in Bohemia, as a flashback, is worked into the middle of The Sign of Four) the integrity of each component is well-preserved. The format appears to work, as BBC Radio writer Bert Coules put it in a posting to the Scarlet Street Forums:

“…the story-combining appears to work OK, especially in the first episode, where the best aspects of A Study in Scarlet (Watson meets Holmes, Watson is baffled by Holmes, Watson determines to investigate Holmes) form a good half of the show. Then, sensibly, the writer/producer/whoever decides that the pair's first case together should be one of the strongest available - so up pops the distraught Helen Stoner and away we go...”


The look of the series is quite good. It can’t have been easy to recreate Victorian England in Russia, but the producers have done an exemplary job of it with first-rate costuming and elaborate sets. That is not to say that peculiarities do not creep in, as they most certainly do. The Baker Street sitting room is an extremely gloomy set, as are most interiors in the series, which gives even the lighter moments a vaguely oppressive air. This oppressive gloom does however work very well in some sequences, such as at Stoke Moran in The Speckled Band. The sitting room at Baker Street has an odd structure to it, as a short flight of steps at the back of the room leads to a visible railed landing or gallery with Holmes and Watson’s respective bedroom doors leading off of it. It is also not entirely clear as to whether or not the sitting room is on the ground floor, in any event, we never see a flight of seventeen steps leading up from the street entrance. Building exteriors are as good as can be expected, certainly invoking a 19th century look, but the overly ornate building style favoured in Eastern Europe is difficult to conceal at the best of times and occasionally does distract from the illusion. The difficulty with location shooting would have been tremendous, but the judicious use of fog and creative camera angles helped tremendously. The Reichenbach sequences are gripping from start to finish and look stunning! The steam launch chase (shot on the Neva River near St. Petersburg) also looks remarkably good in The Sign of Four.

МориартиCasting is fairly solid throughout the series, although Moriarty's henchman is something of an anomaly, as he looks like the Wolf Man...fangs and all.. Lestrade,  played by Borislav Brondukov certainly has the ferret-faced look that one expects. While he is a comic figure in the series, the portrayal never drifts into parody. Rina Zelenaya is a charming, if  matronly, Mrs. Hudson. Boris Kluyev is a relatively  slender Mycroft, who at certain angles looks somewhat like a larger scale Basil Rathbone…patent-leather hair and all. Professor Moriarty is  a masterful and intensely creepy creation. During the above mentioned Reichenbach sequence, his long arms and curled fingers give him a distinctly spider-like appearance. The fight sequence itself is a triumph of fight choreography and resembles nothing less than the clash of titans that it is.

The chemistry between the two leads is unmistakable, language is certainly no barrier as the body language and tone of voice when Holmes and Watson converse is highly demonstrative of their friendship and the respect each has for the other.

While Vasily Livanov is a touch short and slight for Holmes, he carries off the character with aplomb. His calm observational style is nicely contrasted by outbursts of both humour and activity. Perhaps not as angular in features as I’d like in a Holmes, but when he is intent on a subject, he looks the very embodiment of a Paget drawing. One odd addition to his Holmes is the use of spectacles that he wears  when reading. Unfortunately, Livanov is saddled with the deerstalker/cape combo on almost every exterior scene. One expects that this was a deliberate move by the producers to impress the popular image of Holmes on the audience.

Although Livanov is excellent, the real star of the series must be Vitaly Solomin as Watson. With his sandy coloured hair and neatly trimmed moustache, he is very much the Watson of my imagination. Dapper, but sensibly dressed, he carries himself with a no-nonsense military posture that is tempered by an air of concern that one might expect from a physician. In repose, he seems perpetually bemused by the his friend’s world and behaviour, but Solomin’s youthful and friendly face comes alive whenever he smiles or laughs. His romantic sequence with Mary Morstan when the Agra treasure is revealed as lost is simply priceless. Once again, language barrier or not, he is in my estimation one of the very best Watsons to ever appear on-screen.

On the whole, the series is an enjoyable experience...quirks and all. The strangest elements are in the grotesque henchman character that follows Holmes about at Moriarty's bidding and some odd plot shifts, such as having Watson suspected of Adair's murder in The Empty House, but these are relatively minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things. Language barrier or not, we've seen a lot worse on Western television, so If you get the chance to see the series, by all means do so as it is well worth it! 

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