Looking back at The Baker Street Boys

Nostalgia ahoy! With Sherlock Holmes more popular than ever, Alex looks back at eighties children's drama, The Baker Street Boys...

The BBC’s contemporary take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories has made Sherlock the most popular television drama series in many years. Benedict Cumberbatch has made Sherlock his own, his approach to the role as radical for the current era as the late, great Jeremy Brett’s was a generation ago. Martin Freeman has banished our memories of his role as Tim Canterbury in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, with his wonderful re-assessment of Dr John Watson. The corporation is making the most of the Conan Doyle franchise. After from two rather lacklustre yuletide cases, firstly with Richard Roxburgh in 2002 then Rupert Everett in 2004; they finally have a hit on their hands. The benchmark hitherto has always been Granada Television’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which began on ITV in 1984.

A forgotten gem made its debut a full year before the big budget Granada show. Anna Home, a talented producer  with a brilliant pedigree in children’s TV drama was looking for new ideas to fill two weekday slots traditionally occupied by Grange Hill, itself a landmark commission in 1978. The Baker Street Boys would focus on the so-called “Baker Street Irregulars” who featured in both the original Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet and its follow-up The Sign of Four. It has been suggested the title may have been modified, perhaps to avoid the unfortunate, yet obvious jokes about bowel movements.

The series was the brainchild of Anthony Read, erstwhile Script Editor of Doctor Who, with script contributions from the late Richard Carpenter who brought ITV viewers the mediaeval wizard Catweazle in the early seventies; the memorable Ghosts of Motley Hall and the supernatural Sapphire and Steel, a late-seventies vehicle for Joanna Lumley and David McCallum. Carpenter would go on to breathe new life into the Robin Hood legend with  HTV’s Robin of Sherwood in the mid-eighties.

Despite the show’s name, the gang of urchins (as in the original books) comprised four boys and two girls: The leader was the charismatic Arnold Wiggins,  played by teenager Jay Simpson, with a confidence and swaggering cockney charm that belied his relatively young age. “Shiner” was a shoe-shine boy, played by a young Adam Woodyatt, just 18 months from his casting as Ian Beale in Eastenders.  Read was canny enough to develop the two female roles, thus broadening the series’ appeal across the young target audience. Debbie Norris played the motherly Queenie, who looked out for the other members of the gang. Norris was best known at the time for her role in By The Sword Divided, the BBC’s big budget costume romance set in the Civil War and would go on to appear in Jonny Briggs. Suzy Ross was the young flower girl Rosie; David Garlick played the “baby” of the gang – “Sparrow” (Garlick was cast as The Artful Dodger in the 1985 BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist on the strength of his role here) and Damion Napier played “Beaver”, (effectively a junior Watson to Wiggins’ Holmes) so named for his ablity to get into small spaces.

Roger Ostime played Sherlock Holmes, oft referred to yet given to very brief appearances (never showing his face, sometimes he seen in silhouette, sometimes just the merest hint of his costume) in just four of the eight episodes. Hubert Rees was Doctor Watson in five episodes. The series ran with the idea the urchin gang would be the master detective’s “eyes and ears” in London, whenever he was elsewhere, in Devon perhaps looking for a hound or possibly abroad in Switzerland? Playing Inspector Lestrade was future Ever Decreasing Circles star, Stanley “Howard Hughes” Lebor, still a year away from his most famous role. Mrs Hudson was played by the late Pat Keen, perhaps most familiar for her work with John Cleese in Fawlty Towers (The Anniversary episode, which coincidentally featured Una Stubbs!) She also appeared in the film Clockwise. Keen would reprise her role as Mrs Hudson for Michael Caine’s 1988 Sherlock spoof Without A Clue. Colin Jeavons, who a year later would play Lestrade to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, is seen here playing Professor Moriarty with great vigour and relish. Other guest stars included the late, great character actor, Don Henderson; the versatile Cyril Shaps and Hammer veteran Michael Ripper.

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The series was shot on videotape in the multi-camera format, nowadays only used for soap opera and sitcoms. The exterior locations were shot on 16mm film. In short, it was typical of the televison production of its era. The filmed sequences have an inherent sense of period,  the actors clearly relishing the setting, albeit the somewhat familiar London of the fog-bound 1890s, beloved of all fans of Conan Doyle and Victoriana in general. It’s the London encountered by Tom Baker’s Time Lord in the superior Doctor Who serial The Talons of Weng Chiang. Baker, of course, was later to play Sherlock Holmes himself, though he felt “miserably inadequate” for the role, in the October 1982 BBC adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sherlock Holmes was clearly “flavour of the month” as Guy Henry became ITV’s Young Sherlock just a few weeks later.

Well-mounted, with surprisingly high production values for a children’s progamme, The Baker Street Boys shared some of the quality embodied by Granada’s 1984 ITV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, itself entering production as the Baker Street Boys was transmitted. The series clearly had ambitions beyond lightweight Victorian melodrama, which was deemed acceptable children’s fare at the time. It wasn’t afraid to show a particularly gruesome stabbing, a scene that today would no doubt provoke outrage from the press and strongly worded (and probably misinformed) letters to Points of View.

Debuting ahead of the Jeremy Brett series by some thirteen months, The Baker Street Boys was first broadcast on BBC1 on 8th March 1983 at 5.10pm. Shown on Tuesdays and Fridays in (what those of a certain vintage would recognise as) “the Grange Hill slot”. The eight episodes were split into four two-parters – one for each case – the original transmission dates and a brief synopsis of each case follows:

8, 11 March 1983: The Adventure of the Disappearing Dispatch Case

The gang get mixed up in political intrigue when a Foreign Office Minister’s dispatch case goes missing, exposing London to a dangerous gang of anarchists.

15*, 18 March 1983: The Ghost of Julian Midwinter

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In a genre hop, the urchins are caught up in a supernatural chiller. Does Julian Midwinter really exist or is a ghost somehow committing crime?

22, 25 March 1983: The Adventure of the Winged Scarab

The urchins hunt down jewel thieves who’ve stolen a valuable winged scarab (a piece of Egyptian costume jewellery in the shape of a beetle). Wiggins’ methods are questioned by his colleagues as he becomes obsessed by the case. This story was my personal favourite. Wiggins asking the rest of the gang to whisper the word “beetle” in his ear, next time a case gets the better of him, particularly stuck in my mind.

29 March, 1 April 1983: The Case of the Captive Clairvoyent

The gang rescue a young girl called Mary from her evil stepfather, Marvin the Mystic who performs seances and is in league with Professor Moriarty. Rosie the flower girl replaces Mary in the stage act, but the urchins are forced into action when the mystic is killed and Rosie is kidnapped.

*The episode transmitted on 15 March was shown on BBC2 because of coverage of The  Budget on BBC1. The series was produced by Paul Stone and directed by Marilyn Fox and Michael Kerrigan. The script editor was Jenny McDade who went on to adapt the SuperGran stories for the memorable Tyne Tees series. The Baker Street Boys was repeated in April and May 1985, to capitalise on both Adam Woodyatt’s sudden fame and the impending release of two stories on video.

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The basic premise was revived by the BBC in March 2007. Sherlock Holmes and The Baker Street Irregulars was a one-off feature-length production for the children’s drama slot. This version, which starred Jonathan Pryce as Holmes with Bill Paterson as Watson, gave the master detective a slightly bigger slice of the action. Oddly, it  didn’t feature Arnold Wiggins, utilising a character called Jack instead, the others gang member’s names changed too in a desperate attempt to make the urchins more relevant: “Sticks”, Jasmine and “Tea Leaf” if you please? Clearly, not one for the purists.

Anthony Read novelised the stories into a successful range of books, for which he recieved critical acclaim and an award for originality. He retitled some of the stories so each began with the prefix “The Case of…” The original TV Tie-Ins (based on The Disappearing Dispatch Case and The Captive Clairvoyent), however, were written by Brian Ball and published by BBC/ Knight Books. BBC Video released two edited cases from the series (The Adventure of the Disappearing Dispatch Case and The Adventure of the Winged Scarab) on VHS in 1985. Suffice to say it has long since been deleted. Ebay may turn up the videos for those who still own VHS players, however, it would seem an obvious candidate for a remastered DVD release, and would be especially timely based on the phenomenal success of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock. Time to start petitioning the BBC methinks!

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