Interview with Howard Ostrom


For over 30 years, Howard Ostrom compiled a list of all the interpreters of Holmes and Watson and collected autographs from many of them. At the same time, He was author of essays on the great detective and producer of documentaries. He decided to gather his knowledge in an encyclopedia, published in editions Mycroft’s Brother, in October 2018.


La Gazette du 221 : I’ll start with the traditional question: may you introduce yourself and your Sherlockian journey?

Howard Ostrom : My name is Howard Ostrom, author of “Sherlock Holmes Cyclopædia”, my Sherlockian journey began as many, with a reading of the canon at a young age.

To transition ahead to how I became, what many refer to me as, a Sherlock Holmes media pundit, follows a long and winding road. At Albany University in New York in the early 70’s, in the basement of a fraternity house, at midnight on Saturdays, the Basil Rathbone series of films were always shown. A fellow student we nicknamed Professor Berg knew every line of everyone of these films. He made it game for us to predict what was going to be said next. I learned my Basil Rathbone extremely well from this game. Jumping ahead to the early 90’s, a move to Dallas, Texas, introduced me to the Maniac Collector, Don Hobbs, B.S.I. a neighbor, and at the same time, the Hounds of the Internet discussion group was starting up. Through the Hounds of the Internet (although I got run off that discussion group for always talking media Holmes to an elitist literary group) I met Alexander Orlov of Russia. Alexander desired Jeremy Brett VHS tapes (remember those LOL!) which I gladly sent him in trade for Vasily Livanov and Vitaly autographs. Alexander was a great researcher and friend, who still these many years later is the major source of my Russian entries. Don Hobbs, to lighten my load when I moved traded me a Jeremy Brett autograph for books. I had now transitioned from a book collector to an autograph collector. I was determined to get the autograph of every Holmes and Watson actor. This seemed like a doable task based on the existing reference books on the subject. Jumping ahead again for the sake of brevity, universities, libraries, and newspapers began posting searchable magazines and newspapers on the internet and I discovered so many new Holmes and Watson performs my finite collection suddenly had become an infinite collection. Many errors in the previous reference works appeared to me (which I don’t blame earlier researchers for since they did the best they could with what they had), yet I knew something better was needed. I began writing niche essays, on subjects like Female Holmes, Russian Holmes, Polish Holmes, Comedian Holmes, Afro-American Holmes, a monstrous Silent Film work, and many others. A brilliant English lad Ross K. Foad posted these on his website, and proceeded to make Youtube films out of many the essays. These films he dubbed the Diogenes Documentaries now on Youtube. Abandoning autograph collecting, I started “The A-Z List of Sherlock Holmes Performers”, a list presently at 4,500 and growing daily. Friends like Adrian Nebbett, Ray Wilcockson, Jennie Paton, Peter Blau, Alexis Barquin, and many others contribute often to this list. I also developed a following on Twitter, my Twitter Street irregulars worldwide who contributed. The grand finale being Thierry Saint-Joanis contacting me in his role as a publisher and saying we need to join forces. Only a few message from Thierry and I knew the book had to be written. The man with the same heart for the subject as me, Thierry, had to be the publisher.

G221B :  What motivated you to write this work? What makes it different from already existing books on the same subject?

H.O : First a number of people over the years on discussion groups questioned why, since I had all this knowledge, why didn’t I write a book? My answer was I was constantly finding new things, and by putting the facts into my niche essays on the internet I could easily do additions and corrections. I would lose that ability in a book. Then one day Les Klinger, who had mentioned in a humorous article in the “Baker Street Journal” that Maurice Costello (listed in all the reference book as the first credited Holmes of film) had not played Holmes, which led to my first essay declaring Gilbert M. Anderson was the first credited Holmes of film, cc’ed me in a message to publisher Stephen Doyle. He said had read my work on Silent Films and that it must to be made into a book. Well when such a distinguished Sherlockian and author as Les Klinger says you work should be in a book, it makes you think twice about. I never heard from Stephen Doyle, nor did I attempt to contact him. A year later when Thierry Saint-Joanis messaged me it just seemed the time was right. We make a great team, I must add. Thierry Saint-Joanis had for thirty years gathered data for a project to create an encyclopedia addressing all adaptations of Sherlock Holmes in all forms, from the entire world, as well as an encyclopedia on the life and work of Conan Doyle. For a similar period of time I too was gathering information on Holmes in the media, but from the other side of the Atlantic. Fate and our love of the subject brought us together to create our Cyclopædia.2_orig.jpg

So why Cyclopædia and not Encyclopedia? In 1728, the Cyclopædia was one of the first general encyclopedias to be produced in English. It was the inspiration for the landmark Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. Cyclopædia is a reference work (often in several volumes) containing articles on various topics (often arranged in alphabetical order) dealing with the entire range of human knowledge or with some particular specialty. For our purpose, the speciality is Sherlock Holmes. Of course there are many reference books about Sherlock Holmes on paper, or articles online, but this will be the first Cyclopædia because its something different. It is more complete than the previous ones, due to the methods of research, the manners for the exposition of the facts, and the criteria of selection. We believe our Cyclopædia Sherlock Holmes will be the definitive encyclopedia.

G221B :  How do you conduct research, how did you find so many documents?

H.O : The trivial odds and ends, plots, and fun facts I basically had from my niche papers and many years of notes. A chronological year order of items had to be constructed. Once I had it all written, in pages (i’m an Apple guy) I had to convert it to word format to send to Thierry. This meant the photos used had to be sent separately. My monstrous written entries totaling over 650 pages (without photos) was then placed in the able hands of Thierry, who now realized this much information must be formatted into volumes. We agreed it must be hard-covered and on the best paper for photos, despite the costs, because we are both collectors and would not settle for less. I’ll let Thierry take it from here: “How? You know my methods, Watson… About the documents, most of them are from the SSHF collection, constituted by Thierry Saint- Joanis. There are two kinds of documents used: pictures and clippings. For press clippings, they are almost all unpublished in this genre of work on cinema and Sherlock Holmes, because it is rare to reproduce identically this type of document in a book. But we felt it was more useful to provide the source of information for use by those who will need it for future studies. We took the time and money to find them in the press archives around the world. MV5BYzFjNGE0YTAtYTg5OC00OTFlLThiYWYtN2U2OWQ4OTRmYmRmL2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjA1NjU0NTc@._V1_By bringing them together in a single publication, we want to facilitate the work of future researchers. There are many lessons to be learned from a contemporary article about a film, about the film itself, but also the view of the audience, and most importantly, the level of Holmesian knowledge of the audience of the time. Today, quotes like « elementary, my dear Watson » are universal. But, one discovers that in the thirties, the press used rather formulas like « Quick, Watson, the needle », which is today totally forgotten, even prohibited by what one designates as politically correct.

For the photos, we have made the choice to privilege unpublished or rarely used images in the books already published on the subject and that all our readers should have in their library. Of course, this only concerns the few films already known. The majority of those presented in our book have never been cited in any Holmesian book. Here, everything is new. We unfortunately could not reproduce all that we found for lack of space. We then selected the images providing information on one of the specificities of the film, an artistic choice, an interpretation, an anomaly or an error. Here too, the sources are multiple. Some images were miraculously found in unexpected documents and places. From now on, Sherlockians or Scholars will only have to look at them, without wasting time looking for them. They are all in one book.”

G221B : why did you start your cyclopaedia in 1929, while there have been apparitions of Holmes on screen as soon a 1900?

H.O : I would have liked to started with 1900, since I spent years combing newspapers and magazines studying them and of course it would be chronologically correct. However I believe the decision to start with the talkies in 1929 was two-fold. First, for a multi-volume work, if volume 1 is not successful you may not get a chance to do volume 2. Therefore the publisher determined starting with the talkies had a better chance of selling to a larger crowd than a silent film volume. Second, I was scheduled to attend the “Gillette to Brett V” conferences at Indiana University in less then 6 weeks, the perfect spot to introduce such a work, and The Silents section was too large to get done in that time frame. Therefore volume one will be the smallest volume, yet it would be more beneficial to get this nugget of gold to the public, to start the gold rush.

Eventually there will be silent film volume, and I guarantee it will be a dandy when it makes its appearance. Volume 2 is in the works now, it will cover from 1940 until 1959, except for the 1959 Hammer Hound, which will begin volume 3, the first Holmes film in color.

G221B :  How would you qualify the adaptations of the period you treated? Was there at this time, a special way to adapt Sherlock Holmes story, did you figure out a general line or trend, or are the adaptations very different from one another?

H.O : I suggest the readers to figure this one out for themselves. The purpose of including the reviews from the period is for the reader to feel what it was like if they were their and not to influenced by modern opinions. I will point out, as demonstrated by the Wontner series, filming on modern sets, rather than Victorian sets had now become the trend. Of course due to the stranglehold of the Doyle estate, a common trend was to use Holmes items, like the deerstalkers, pipe, and magnifying glass in poster and promo shots, but have the characters be some other detective in the actual film. This is a carryover from the silent film era, and is very prevalent in film promotions done outside of the U.S. and the U.K.

G221B :  What was the place of Sherlockian adaptations in the cinematic landscape of this period?

H.O : There is a very simple formula which applies to every period for any type of Sherlock Holmes production. Sherlock Holmes = $$$$

G221B :  Personally, which one is your favorite adaptation in this period, and your favorite performers ?

Rathbone_as_Holmes_-_F&R.pngH.O : I’d have to warn you I’m a big Mark Brothers, and a big Stooges fan, and they are in this book. But I’ll play it straight and say the 1939 “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. I have a soft spot for Basil Rathbone singing I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside in it.

G221B :  Do you consider compiling other cyclopedia after this one, for example one about Sherlock Holmes adaptation in comic books?

H.O : Yes, the editor, Thierry Saint-Joanis, already programs it. He plans to dedicate volumes to my discoveries on theatrical, musical adaptations, and many others. With other specialist authors, including him, future volumes will present toys, games, pastiches, comics, studies, places, clubs, Holmesians themselves. In short, everything related to Sherlock Holmes. In addition, part of the Cyclopædia will be devoted to the author, Conan Doyle, with the rest of his work and the events of his life. And since there is never an end with Sherlock Holmes, the future will bring new items, on all topics, to fill new volumes. The Cyclopædia Sherlock Holmes will be an ever-ending adventure.

Find the interview in french here

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