An experiment in stereophonic sound

From the earliest days, the BBC was experimenting with stereophonic sound. But in the late 1950s, these experiments became a full-scale programme of broadcasts, in stereo, of music and drama. One of these broadcasts, in November 1958, was of a specially-written play, “Scenes from Sherlock Holmes”, itself based on the play “Sherlock Holmes”, written by William Gillette, famously with permission from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. No recordings of the test transmission are known to exist, but again we have an example of the BBC pioneering new technology and bringing Sherlock Holmes to the public in an innovative format.

The story of stereophonic broadcasting by the BBC began in the 1920s with test transmissions of opera from The Opera House, Covent Garden, in London. There was no means of broadcasting two channels over a single network station in those days, so the left channel was transmitted over the 2LO frequency and the right over the Daventry frequency. Anyone wanting to listen to the broadcast would need two radio sets that were in range of both transmitters.

Writing in Wireless World in June 1958 about these early experiments, Capt. H J Round, says that they had no idea if anyone heard their broadcasts, but that they gave valuable insight into the difference between listening to stereo from loudspeakers and from headphones. The location of broadcast sounds heard from loudspeakers matched the location of the original sounds in relation to the placement of the microphones, whereas the location of sounds in headphones seemed to be partially determined by their frequency. A soprano voice (high frequency) seemed to come from in front of the listener, but the orchestra (mixed frequencies) came from behind. Male voices (low frequency) also appeared to come from behind with the orchestra. More bizarrely, someone walking from the left microphone to the right microphone appeared to walk over the listener’s head rather across in front – but this only when listening on headphones. What this has to do with Sherlock Holmes will not be obvious at this stage but, about twenty years later, in 1978, the BBC was again experimenting using Sherlock Holmes stories, broadcast in “binaural sound” specially engineered to the be listened to with stereo headphones. A future article on the Barry Foster/David Buck Sherlock Holmes Series first broadcast in 1978 will explain further.

By the late 1950s, many people had a television set as well as a radio, and the BBC’s experiments could reach a wider audience by using the television broadcast channel for the right-hand channel and the radio for the left. Such a series of experiments were carried out over two and a half years from January 1958. Not all of these broadcasts are listed on the BBC’s Genome database, perhaps because they were broadcast only in the south and the regional versions of the Radio Times used to populate the Genome database are not always from the south. The earliest listings of “Stereophony” broadcasts in the Genome database are from July 1959 but a full list of the broadcasts is given in a BBC Engineering Department report from 1961.

This lists a variety of programmes, mainly consisting of orchestral music, but listed for 1st and 2nd October 1958 is a drama entitled in the report simply “Sherlock Holmes”, performed at Broadcasting House, Studio 6A. These dates may be rehearsals, recording sessions, or actual broadcasts but the only reference to the public hearing these programmes appear in the Daily Express for 12th November 1958 where listeners are promised, on Saturday 15th between 10:15am and 11:15am, the sounds of a “knife whizzing right across the room, the passing hansom cab, [and] the sound of Holmes’s violin at one side of his study as Watson enters through the door at the other.”

Having your listening equipment set up correctly was important and the BBC printed this guidance in the Radio Times:

But what of the programme itself? For his 1899 play, the American actor, William Gillette, had asked Arthur Conan Doyle for permission to adapt some of Holmes’s stories for the stage. He telegraphed Conan Doyle asking “May I marry Holmes?” and Conan Doyle famously responded, “You may marry or murder or do what you like with him”. It appears that Gillette’s play, which introduced some novel elements of its own (the curved pipe, which has become iconic, though Holmes never used one to my knowledge) was chosen for this new presentation by one of the BBC’s most innovative producers, Raymond Raikes.

Raikes had a reputation with the BBC’s listeners for delivering “a spirited production of the highest quality which would be both hugely entertaining and probably educative. It would also be directed with utmost professionalism and incorporate the latest developments in sound technology”.

He had produced a programme based on Gillette’s play for the BBC Home Service on 3rd January 1953. This starred Carleton Hobbs as Holmes and Norman Shelley as me. The programme lasted ninety minutes so must have been shortened to fit into the sixty minutes for the stereophonic broadcast. Whether this utilised a recording, the same actors in a live performance, or other actors is not known. The fact a studio was used implies a live performance. The programme is also referred to elsewhere as “Scenes from Sherlock Holmes” implying some abridgement of the original broadcast.

Although Raikes maintained a prodigious output for the BBC, including the station’s experimental quadrophonic broadcasts in 1974, he never produced another Sherlock Holmes story for the BBC.

If anyone can provide further insight into this pioneering broadcast by the BBC, then please get in touch.

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