© Oxford University Press
Previously on this blog I discussed two arguments that I’ve often heard flare up in British pubs. Well, they’ve often flared up in pubs where I’ve been drinking with my mates. One of these arguments concerns the question, “Who is the best James Bond?” (My answer: Sean Connery.) The other concerns the question, “Who is the best Doctor Who?” (My answer: Tom Baker.)
I’ve never, though, been in a pub when an argument has broken out about which actor has been most successful at portraying a third icon of British popular culture: Sherlock Holmes, the pipe-smoking, cocaine-and-morphine-sampling, deductive-reasoning (though actually it was abductive reasoning) Victorian detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Still, I thought I’d devote a blog-post to the topic and list my seven best cinematic and TV Sherlock Holmes-es.
Incidentally, I’ve been thinking about Sherlock Holmes a lot lately. Last year I bought a weighty volume containing all of Conan Doyle’s writings about him and I’ve been gradually working my way through it. I’ve read the novels A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of the Four (1890) and The Valley of Fear (1915) and the short-story collections The Adventures (1892), The Memoirs (1893) and The Return (1905) of Sherlock Holmes. I just have to read His Last Bow (1917) and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1927) and I’ll have finished the lot. (1902’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was sorted out long ago because I read it twice when I was a kid.)
© Compton-Tekli Film Productions / Colombia Pictures
Anyway, seventh in my list is a lesser-known Sherlock Holmes. John Neville, who’s perhaps best known for two roles he played later in his career, as the title character in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and as the ‘elegantly manicured man’ in eight episodes and a movie version of The X-Files (1995-98), played Holmes in a 1965 movie called A Study in Terror. The terror of the title comes from the film’s premise that Holmes investigated the most gruesome real-life crimes of the 19th century, the murders committed by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel in 1888.
Given the subject matter and the fact that A Study in Terror’s producers included Tony Tenser and Herman Cohen, two men better known for their horror movies, it’s unsurprising that as the movie progresses, the plot fills with macabre and sensational incidents and Neville’s Holmes becomes less a cerebral problem-solver and more a man of action. Not that that’s bad, because in the original stories Holmes was a skilled boxer and a practitioner of the 19th-century martial art of bartitsu; but it’s a little surprising to see the thin, slightly fragile-looking Neville explode into fisticuffs when a gang of toughs attack him in Whitechapel’s backstreets. Still, I find his performance in this film agreeably good-natured and sparky. There’s also strong support from the Welsh actor Donald Houston as a doughty (if slightly slow-on-the-uptake) Doctor Watson and the delightful Robert Morley as Holmes’ older and supposedly smarter brother Mycroft.
Occupying number six is the actor who’s most famously played Holmes in the modern era – yes, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch from the Steven Moffat / Mark Gatiss-masterminded BBC TV show Sherlock (2010-present). I respect Cumberbatch for taking risks and making Holmes an aloof, awkward and oddball character, possibly lodged on the milder end of the autism scale. Nonetheless, I think Cumberbatch is lucky to have such a likeable supporting cast, including Martin Freeman as Watson, Rupert Graves as Inspector Lestrade, Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson and Gatiss as Mycroft, who help to soften his sharp edges. Without them around, giving the show some humanity, I suspect the Cumberbatch Holmes would be hard work.
At number five is an actor who played Holmes in another movie involving Jack the Ripper. This is the great Canadian performer Christopher Plummer, who donned the deerstalker for 1979’s Murder by Decree (and who’d already played him in a 1977 TV film called Silver Blaze). Murder by Decree has no connection with A Study in Terror, save for the curious coincidence that in both movies Inspector Lestrade is played by Frank Finlay. Inspiring the film is Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), which postulated that the Ripper killings were the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the Royal Family – a theory also informing Alan Moore’s celebrated graphic novel From Hell (1989-98) and its subsequent 2001 movie adaptation.
© AVCO Embassy Pictures
Murder by Decree is a classy movie with handsome production values and a big-name cast and Plummer essays a correspondingly classy and cultivated Sherlock Holmes. Also deserving praise is James Mason as Doctor Watson. Despite a jarring disparity in their ages – Plummer was around 50 at the time, Mason around 70 – the pair make a charming double-act. They’re clearly bound by great affection and loyalty for one another, even if there are occasional moments of irritation and sulkiness, and they go about their business like a long-term and mostly-loving married couple.
There’s a similar married-couple vibe in the film featuring my fourth-favourite Sherlock Holmes. The movie is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and it’s possibly the first to suggest that something homoerotic is going on between Holmes and Watson, who are respectively and splendidly played by Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely. Incidentally, this is an idea that Sherlock-the-TV-show has had a lot of fun playing with and its makers have freely admitted that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has been a big influence on them. (Mark Gatiss has said of the movie’s director Billy Wilder and scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond that they “gently take the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way that you can only do with something that you really adore.”)
© The Mirisch Corporation / United Artists / MGM
Despite the are-they-or-aren’t-they jokes about Holmes and Watson and some gloriously far-fetched steampunk nonsense about a Victorian submarine disguised as the Loch Ness Monster, there’s a melancholic aspect to the film and to Stephens’ performance. It shows him falling in love with a woman called Gabrielle Valladon, played by Geneviève Page, who turns out to be a German spy, and it ends on a mournful note when Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft (Christopher Lee) informing him that Gabrielle has been executed by a firing squad.
Third in my list is Peter Cushing, who played Holmes on three occasions in three different decades: in a celluloid version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, filmed in a typically gothic fashion by horror-movie specialists Hammer Films in 1959 (in fact, I think of it as Holmes Under the Hammer); in a 16-episode BBC TV series in 1968; and in a rather lame but amiable TV film in 1984. His Watsons were, respectively, André Morell, Nigel Stock and Sir John Mills – all of whom gave solid performances. The gentlemanly Cushing misses some of the arrogance of the literary character, but he invests him with a dynamism and intensity true to Conan Doyle’s stories. (When Watson first meets him in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is running around with a test tube exclaiming, “I’ve found it! I’ve found it!”) Cushing’s sharp, angular features also match Conan Doyle’s description of Holmes as having a ‘thin, hawk-like nose’ that ‘gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision’. Incidentally, Cushing once played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, in a 1976 TV film called The Great Houdini.
© Hammer Films
Second place goes to an actor who, like Cushing, was often known for villainous and macabre roles – Basil Rathbone, who played Holmes in 14 films between 1939 and 1946. The first two were big-budget affairs made by 20th Century Fox and set in Victorian times. The remaining dozen were cheaper ones made by Universal Pictures and they cheekily updated Holmes to the then-present-day (so that he could devote a lot of time to fighting Nazis).
Rathbone’s appearance, bearing and voice are perfect for the role, but for me his films are slightly tarnished by Nigel Bruce’s performance as Dr Watson, which reduces the sensible and dependable narrator of the original stories to a bumbling comedy side-kick. Yes, Bruce’s ineptitude generates some entertaining moments, but it’s unlikely that someone as smart as Holmes would tolerate having someone as slow-witted as Bruce’s Watson around him all the time. I particularly cringe at the climax of The Spider Woman (1944), which has Holmes tied up by the villains behind a moving target in a fairground shooting gallery – and Watson at the front of the gallery, obliviously blasting at the target with a rifle. (To be fair, the not-much-brighter Inspector Lestrade, played by Dennis Hoey, is shooting at it too.)
© Universal Pictures
And in first place is Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes from 1984 to 1994 in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series of dramas made by Granada Television that adapted 42 of Conan Doyle’s 60 Holmes stories. It’s a tragedy that Brett’s declining health prevented him from completing the full set. Brett was a perfectionist and went to the extent of compiling a dossier on Holmes, nearly 80 pages long, about all the characteristics, mannerisms and habits attributed to him in the stories and he’d constantly refer to this on the set. The production team displayed a similar, exacting attention to detail, with the result that most Sherlockians – Holmes fans – regard both Brett as the apogee of Sherlock Holmes portrayals and the series as the apogee of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.
A great many other actors have played Holmes over the years, of course. Among those deserving mention are: William Gillette (who played him on stage, radio and the silent screen), Christopher Lee (who also played Mycroft Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville), Douglas Wilmer, Stewart Granger, Nicol Williamson, Ian Richardson, Nicholas Rowe, Charlton Heston, Matt Frewer, Rupert Everett and Ian McKellen. And let’s not forget the Russian actor Vasily Livanov, who played Holmes for seven years in a Soviet-era TV series and now has a statue of him as the character standing outside the UK embassy in Moscow. By the way, I haven’t seen two Holmes performances that have attracted much attention in recent years – those of Jonny Lee Miller in the US TV show Elementary (2012-present) and Robert Downey Jr in two films in 2009 and 2011 directed by Guy Ritchie (which to be honest, not being a Guy Ritchie fan, I don’t really want to see).
Finally, has there been any overlap with the two other British cultural icons mentioned at the start of this post? Yes, there has. The fourth Doctor Who, Tom Baker, played Sherlock Holmes in a 1982 BBC TV adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. His performance has its admirers, though Baker himself wasn’t too happy about it. Also, the above-mentioned Holmes Peter Cushing played the Doctor in two non-canonical movies Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966). And in 1976, in between his appearances in the James Bond franchise, Roger Moore swapped his safari suit for a deerstalker and played the title role in an American TV movie called Sherlock Holmes in New York. It’s on Youtube here. Watch it if you dare.
Anyway, that’s settled it. Best Sherlock Holmes? Jeremy Brett, surely.
© Granada Television