I’m a huge fan of everything to do with Sherlock Holmes, to the point where I will inevitably have to edit this article to remove parts where my fanatical obsession drags me into the realms of the really, really boring. I’m also a fan of TV, meaning that I’m finding it very difficult to wait for the third season of the BBC’s excellent Sherlock series. The writing is superb and it’s by far the best transmutation into a modern setting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective has ever received. I imagine there are plenty of people reading this who are also counting down the days until the new series, so I thought I’d run through a few of Holmes’ other incarnations on the big and small screen. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but there should be something for everyone.
Most recently of my selection, there are of course the Hollywood Sherlock Holmes films. The on-screen chemistry of Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson is the ideal viewing experience for anyone who likes really shit films. They are dreadful. Too many fight scenes and not enough plot mean that the Sherlock Holmes films of Guy Ritchie are essentially poor quality remakes of Shanghai Knights. Jude Law is particularly objectionable as a Watson that seems to consistently despise Holmes, devoting his entire dialogue to belligerent grunts and screaming in rage at Holmes’ attempts to save his life. The only redeeming feature the films have is the perfect casting of Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, but his stellar performance is marred by a scene in which he is naked for no reason, save that Guy Ritchie was worried someone might escape from the ordeal with some dignity intact.
ITV’s Sherlock Holmes series in the 80s are largely a good watch, and Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes is a good one, though it might take some getting used to, as it did with me. Brett fully captures the cold, calculating nature of the character, as well as his capacity to be bitingly sardonic. This makes his portrayal of Holmes almost disconcerting at times, and hard to relate to on a human level, which is of course absolutely the desired effect. The Watsons played by both David Burke and latterly Edward Hardwicke are similarly faithful to Conan Doyle’s original character, and fulfils a much-needed human element to counteract Brett’s cold, unemotional Holmes.
By far my favourite classic Holmes is that of Basil Rathbone. His films and radio dramas throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s see him portray a truly archetypical Sherlock, sometimes charming, sometimes, cold, always brilliantly intelligent. Very much like the new series, many of the films take elements of stories from the canon of Arthur Conan Doyle, but are largely new creations, perfect for the obsessive fan. Not only this, but the films have a feel of forties Hollywood about them, from the soundtrack and lighting, to the quick-witted dialogue and strong and often deadly female characters, which I am just a sucker for.
My only issue with these films is that I feel that John Watson is dealt something of a raw deal by Nigel Bruce. He’s played as a blithering idiot who spends his time bumbling around, repeating what Holmes has just said and falling over. I shit you not, there is a five minute scene in one of the films in which Watson looks for a piece of paper that’s stuck to his elbow. I won’t lie, that is the point at which I shouted, “He’s a qualified army doctor!” at the screen.
I hope this is useful in passing the time before your next Sherlock fix, and if there are any you’d like to recommend, do comment or tweet, as I’m running low.