Basil Rathbone starred in The Hound of the Baskerville and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, period dramas released by 20th Century-Fox in 1939, after which Universal Studios bought the rights. Poor Rathbone (subject of a new biography, David Clayton’s The Curse of Sherlock Holmes) had to play Holmes in a string of B-movies set in the 1940s.
Conan Doyle didn’t object, since he made a fortune out of the Sherlock Holmes play, starring the actor William Gillette, that saddled the detective with this inelegant country headgear. With only a few exceptions, Sherlock Holmes films and television series had him walking around London as if dressed for an Edwardian shooting party.
Fans of Peep Show may recall an episode in which Mark, played by David Mitchell, takes a job doing London history walks but refuses to brandish ‘the mythical Meerschaum’ on the grounds that Holmes never smoked one. From his first appearance in print in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has spent more than a century facing all sorts of villains, solving a myriad of mysteries, and sharing quips and retorts with his trusted companion, Dr. John Watson.
Alongside the legends of other British heroes like Robin Hood and King Arthur, the tales of Sherlock, Watson, the dreaded Moriarty, and their fellow London denizens continue to pop up in endless forms of cinematic and televised storytelling. This canon has been added to as recently as 2020, with the Netflix FIM Nola Holmes, starring Millie Bobby Brown as the sister of the intrepid detective, here brought to life by Henry Cavils.
While Downey's take on Holmes in the Guy Ritchie -helmed Sherlock Holmes films does have some issues, there's no denying that his usual charm and idiosyncratic style of performance creates a fun, offbeat take on the British detective, especially when paired with an equally game Jude Law as his Watson. In Ritchie's world, Holmes is just another Quincy action hero, turning the detective into a hulking, tough guy boxer type, replacing wit with buffoonery and style with muscles.
Though his Watson here is brought to winning life by Jude Law, Downey's Holmes leans too much into the style of generic blockbuster heroes, rather than the Baker Street detective we've become so accustomed to. All is revealed in this story, where the young Holmes is brought to life by Scottish actor Nicholas Rowe, who was not even 20 when he filmed this role.
Rowe is a fun, youthful Holmes, adrift in an eerily strange adventure involving stained-glass ghosts and Egyptian curses. That changed when celebrated director Billy Wilder (of Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, and Sunset Boulevard fame) came onto the scene with his late-career take on the British sleuth: 1970s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Wilder's take leans heavily on the comedic aspects of the Holmes legacy, creating something closer to a studio comedy than a dramatic mystery. But Stephens is more than able to handle the trademark Wilder wit that's at play, tackling every barbed witticism with the necessary seriousness and comedic timing it needs.
If you've ever wondered what would happen if someone tried to create a piece of lovingly crafted Oscar bait out of the world of Sherlock Holmes, then Mr. Holmes is what you're looking for. Unsurprisingly, McAllen shines in the tragic role of a Holmes desperately grabbing at the last vestiges of his remaining sanity, even if the film he's in less resembles The Hound of the Baskerville than it does Still Alice.
Transplanting Sherlock Holmes from the streets of 19th century London to 21st century New York, Elementary follows modern-day detective Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) as he brings his deductive expertise to the assistance of the NYPD, primarily in collaboration with Dr. Joan Watson (the incomparable Lucy Liu). But Elementary definitely has some fun contemporizing the Holmes stories (including Natalie Dormer providing a fresh take on the villain Moriarty), and Miller is a wonderfully oddball performer that brings humor, humanity, and a ton of heart to this modern detective show.
His performance creates a detective whose dedication to the mystery at hand, while removing some comedy of the role, results in a uniquely compelling sleuth. Chances are, when you hear the name Sherlock Holmes, ” your mind jumps to either the lovable scamp that is Benedict Cumberbatch (we'll get to him soon, promise) or the recent Robert Downey Jr. punch-fests.
Here, Basil (voiced by Barrie Ingham) provides a wonderfully faithful mouse version of the famed detective, balancing his deduction skills, nimble fighting, and veiled madness into a delightful concoction of a main character. He faces off against one of Disney's all-time greatest villains, Professor Vatican, devilishly voiced by Vincent Price.
Before he received a doctorate in being Strange in the MCU, Cumberbatch rose to prominence with his magnificently crafted contemporary spin on Doyle's detective in Sherlock, the BBC television series that, arguably, brought Sherlock Holmes back into the public sphere. Cumberbatch met the challenge of bringing Sherlock to the 21st century with gusto, and his stylish, witty, one-of-a-kind performance emerged as nothing short of iconic.
If Basil Rathbone represents the definitive classic Holmes in the world of cinema, then his television equivalent must be Jeremy Brett, starring in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from 1984 to 1994, and even bringing his talents to the London stage for a theatrical take on his more-than-elementary interpretation. It's a wonderfully faithful adaptation, and what it may lack in any sort of reinvention or overt stylistic interpretations, it more than makes up in Brett's fantastically authentic performance, bringing to life what could be called the “definitive” take on Doyle's character.
HI's droll, dry, witty-beyond-comprehension read on Holmes feels as fresh as ever these days, and made even more impressive that he was able to carry this performance over the course of a decade. Edit Series cast summary: Jeremy Brett ... Sherlock Holmes 13 episodes, 1984-1985 David Burke ... Dr Watson / ... 13 episodes, 1984-1985 Rosalie Williams ... Mrs Hudson / ... 8 episodes, 1984-1985 View production, box office, & company info.
Edit Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a scandal in Bohemia involving Irene Adler, chalk drawings of dancing men, the identity of a crooked man, a missing naval treaty, a solitary cyclist's mysterious follower, the dangers of a speckled band, and a blue carbuncle found in the crop of a goose. Plot Summary | Add Synopsized Trivia This show was very much correct on Victorian fashion and Sidney Page's illustrations on Arthur Conan Doyle's stories.
In later years, when Brett battled both physical and mental health problems, he developed a complicated relationship with Holmes. All 41 episodes of JeremyBrett’s Sherlock Holmes are available on Briton, which now has the largest collection of Holmes on any UK streaming service.
Indeed, some would argue that the definitive Sherlock Holmes had already been done, as played by Basil Rathbone, who portrayed the character in an incredible 14 films between 1939 and 1946. In the Sixties, the BBC produced its own series: first in black and white, starring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes ; then, with Peter Cushing replacing Wilmer and reprising his role from the 1959 Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskerville.
“He stressed to the producer Michael Cox that he wanted to do justice to Conan Doyle’s character and not play about with it.” The series cost £5 million and constructed a full Baker Street set at Granada Studios in Manchester.
It comes like a burst of energy, with a sound and sense of humor that allude to some inaccessible intellectual plane. “When you dig deep into the portrayal of the character, you see just how hard he was constantly working,” says Gus about Brett.
David Stuart Davies has written extensively on Sherlock Holmes (he's on his ninth novel when we speak) and tells me that many good actors have failed as Holmes. He cites John Gielgud, who played Holmes on the radio in the Fifties, as an example who was (rather diplomatically) “less than good”.
Recently, the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle took umbrage with the portrayal of Henry Cavils’s “emotional” version in the Netflix series, Nola Holmes. It filed a lawsuit against Netflix, claiming that Holmes emotions were exclusive to stories under copyright in the US, but the case was dismissed.
Arguably, Burke’s version laid the groundwork on TV for Martin Freeman’s serious-minded war hero in the Cumberbatch series. Highlights of the second series include The Empty House, The Mus grave Ritual, The Six Napoleons, and The Devil’s Foot.
At the end of shooting the first series, Brett’s wife Joan Wilson was diagnosed with cancer; she died in 1985. Medication from both his bipolar and heart conditions caused him to put on weight and slow down (“He hated looking at the later series,” says Stuart Davies.
“ Jeremy Brett was a representative of that, an ambassador of a particular British way of expressing something internal in the form of the Sherlock Holmes stories, which have penetrated every corner of the world, and that needed recognition.” The real trick to JeremyBrett’s performance is not just his fidelity to Doyle’s original texts, but the fusion of character and self.
Stuart Davies explains that his book on the series, Bending the Willow, was named after a phrase Brett used to describe the process. “I think he had a struggle within himself to tamp down the explosiveness, and he became the marble statue that is Sherlock Holmes, ” says Gus Howard.