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Holmes Fest 2024 - A Review by Richard Doyle
1 March, 2024

Holmes Fest 2024 - A Review by Richard Doyle

Great Nephew of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Richard Doyle - attended Holmes Fest 2024 in the Square Tower, Old Portsmouth, England on the evening of Sunday 18th February. He gives his review of a thoroughly well enjoyed evening and a great community gathering ...

"Great Uncle Arthur himself could not have picked a better venue.  He certainly would have known it, being a short walk from his Southsea practice.  Over the centuries it has evolved through Governor's residence to armed fort, Royal Navy powder magazine, Admiralty victualling store, semaphore station (the first link in a chain connecting Portsmouth and the Fleet to London) and then once again to a gun emplacement.  Nowadays it has been sympathetically restored and is used as a community venue hosting weddings and events. It emanates history from every flagstone and proved to be one of the characters of the evening.

As the house took their seats a 30-minute film was projected onto the stage curtain, showing a compilation, by Matt Wingett, of old footage of Victorian and Edwardian streets, intercut with Holmes trailers, and other Conan Doyle footage. This was all put to a soundtrack of old music compiled by Matt from old 78 records, with projections throughout the evening overseen by Roy Hanney.

Master of ceremonies and organiser of the event, Matt Wingett, then took to the stage and welcomed us all. He gave an insightful and amusing talk on ACD and particularly Mr Holmes' Portsmouth roots, using a 5 minute film by Paul Miller to illustrate the links. Then the show began:

First Half

Jackson Davies appeared as A C Doyle, giving a potted history of his life in rhyme. Themed  “A Fresh Prince in Bohemia”, the delivery and content of this well-written, cheeky and superbly delivered “Rap” set the tone for the evening.

Christine Lawrence gave the "true" story behind the Holmes / Watson relationship - in which Watson is pulling all the strings and even committing crimes for Holmes to "solve", while he rakes in the cash from the newspapers for story sales and rewards for crimes solved. Another funny and entertaining act.

The Gosport Steampunk Society Players, led by Stuart Markham and his partner Heather, told the story of the last duel between Englishmen in Britain, the impetus for which started in Southsea. Many similarities between this true story and the 1891 tale by ACD, "The Colonel's Choice", leaves the intriguing question as to whether this true story inspired the great author. The GSS Players know full well they are an amateur troupe, and the performance played on that throughout, with self-deprecating humour and silliness all part of the fun. Again, great performances made all the better by the fun exuding from the whole cast.

The first half was rounded off by Hudson and LeStrade - a Victorian / Edwardian music hall duo, singing strange and macabre music hall songs, played by singer Janet Ayers and banjoist and drummer Matt Parsons. These were a smash and lifted the performance to a new high. Bringing a thigh-slapping, foot-stomping “Music Hall” feel to the evening.

During the interval, there were several things for people to do:

Michael Gunton, Senior Archivist from the Arthur Conan Doyle Archives held by Portsmouth City Council, was available to talk with.

James Waterfield was selling his artwork inspired by Doyle - including skeletons of fairies, dinosaur eggs and heads of mummies.

A selection of Doyle and Portsmouth-related books published by Life Is Amazing, Matt Wingett's publishing company were available to buy - while Christine Lawrence's novel "Emily" was also for sale.

And of course a well stocked bar!

Second Half.

Hudson and Lestrade opened with two more songs, including "The Ghost of Sherlock Holmes". This was a music hall hit during the period in which Doyle had killed off the super-popular sleuth at the Reichenbach Falls. That the song was doing the rounds of the music halls is testimony to how deeply ingrained Holmes already was in the Victorian psyche.

Next came The BBC Holmes Service, a 15-minute comedy play written and performed by local actors Nick Downes, Vin Adams and David Penrose. This was a masterly, extremely silly comedy in which Holmes and Watson visit Portsmouth to meet a spiritualist who warns of terrible things to come. The conceit was that this was a radio play, and they were short of an actor and the sound effects technician, so were having to double up and make silly noises throughout. It was an extremely deft piece of comedy which had the whole audience laughing.

This was followed by Matt’s brother, actor Mark Wingett, playing Sir Algernon Blenkinsop-Carver, a Victorian actor, somewhat out of touch, who has decided to read a poem by Kipling - "The Female of the Species is More Deadly than the Male". After some toing and froing with Matt as compere, Matt exasperatedly gave up and let Sir Algernon perform Kipling at a Conan Doyle night. The poem is a reactionary piece of misogyny, and Janet Ayers and Matt Parsons mocked the poem as Blenkinsop-Carver read it out, culminating in their dramatic dropping of a massive banner behind him reading: "MR KIPLING MAKES EXCEEDINGLY BAD POEMS" - which brought the house down. No offence to Kipling fans intended!

After Sir Algernon left the stage and Matt came on to wrap things up, shots were heard. Sir Algernon staggered back on stage and died a hammed-up death, whereupon Sherlock Holmes, played by Jonathan Fost, jumped up from the audience. After some deliberation, he hauled up a couple of suspects from the audience - only to reveal that the whole thing was a ruse to award them the prize for The Best Dressed Victorian.

The show was then rounded off by Hudson and LeStrade engaging the audience to help sing the Holmes Fest anthem: "Thank You Arthur Conan Doyle", which is a hilarious take on ACD's many achievements.

When the Conan Doyle Estate agreed to sponsor Holmes Fest 2024 it was on the basis of Great Uncle Arthur’s strong local community links and Matt’s obvious passion and talent. We are pleased to be associated with such a fantastic event. Matt Wingett and the whole cast really delivered and should be very proud.

Matt tells me that the show sold out with a week to go, and he is sure there is an appetite for a bigger show; something I can only agree with.  It was a truly great evening. I can honestly say that my wife and I have not laughed so much in a long time. It was, to be frank, a hoot and a triumph in equal measure and I look forward to the next Holmes Fest."

Richard Doyle - Great Nephew of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Images - Curtain Call - credit Ausra Vaisvailite
The Square Tower was sold out for Holmes Fest 2024 - credit Maggie Bowers
Jackson Davies as MC AC Doyle - credit Rebecca Lodge
Matt Wingett as The Host - credit Rebecca Lodge

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