The recent adaptations of the wonderful Stories of Holmes and Watson in the BBC Television series and the latest cinematic appearance of Holmes, played by Robert Downey Junior and Watson by Jude Law are the latest in a long line of versions of these great stories.
In this two part article Tom Swanston recalls the history of the roles from the very start.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), directed by Billy Wilder, starred Robert Stephens as a florid, Oscar Wild-like Holmes. But he was actually adept at playing it straight and thus making it funny. It was another first for the screen version of Holmes in that there was a glimpse of his attitude towards the female sex with the line “I don’t dislike women, I merely distrust them.” However, his emotional and loving side also appears, even showing that he is capable of romantic agony. The brilliant casting of Christopher Lee as Mycroft stirred up stormy sibling rivalry.
By the mid-1970s Holmes was played and parodied by many men including Gene Wilder, Roger Moore, Christopher Plumber, John Cleese, and Peter Cooke. However it was a serious novel adaptation that became the next heavyweight Holmes film entitled “The 7 Per-Cent Solution” (1976), by American author Nicholas Meyer. It was a protest against all the Holmes films and pastiches, which he felt had missed the mark. Holmes is placed onto the psychiatrist’s couch in the office of none other than Sigmund Freud himself.
The very talented Nicol Williamson was cast as Holmes. He seemed to relish the difficulties of playing this particular part, and through the role was working out his own deep-seated issues. He threw himself so entirely into the role that he said “if you don’t like my Holmes, you don’t like me.” During a session of Freudian hypnotherapy Holmes has a total loss of self-control and reveals a repressed memory of his father shooting his mother. This upset people who thought it was not the real Holmes, possibly because audiences did not want their hero to have the same neuroses as themselves.
For my own generation, the Holmes that we first came to know and love was played by Jeremy Brett for over a decade in the Granada TV series (1984-1994). Brett’s Holmes was mannered, Victorian, impeccably presented, and with hawk-like features. But within his slightly uneven intonation there was an element of unpredictability, occasionally manifested in bursts of manic energy that were quite theatrical. Brett was a splendid Holmes, but felt he never quite portrayed the morose, apathetic side of Holmes, where the character would slide into a stupor for days.
He was the only actor to play all the Holmes stories, and in this sense, he was the complete Sherlock Holmes. He described playing Holmes like revealing a character “only through cracks in the marble… in mirrors”; glimpses of a dark, reclusive character. In common with his predecessor Nicol Williamson, Brett was playing out his own demons through the role. As the series progressed the actor and the character became more sullen and ill-looking, and Brett actually died only a year after his final Holmes’ performance.
Contemporary television versions are currently played by Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC) and Jonny Lee Miller (CBS), who were also cast together as creator and monster in the National Theatre stage production of Frankenstein.
Playing with the masterful writing of Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat and Steve Thompson in the BBC series, Cumberbatch is superbly adept at portraying the temperature and speed of thought of Holmes, amid bouts of melancholy frustration and teenage petulance. He is in fact a reluctant hero. He is the finest of all the Holmes actors at uncovering the character’s Asperger’s traits: astonishing attention to detail, memory recall and a remoteness from human communication and relationships. He is constantly fighting his total disdain for the feeble-mindedness others. But he has an intense and mutually respectful relationship with Watson, played wonderfully by Martin Freeman. Both characters are on the edge, and need each other for survival.
Jonny Lee Miller is the standard British Holmes, but housed in New York, where he has recently left a rehabilitation centre and is constantly fighting drug addiction. Watson, this time a female, played by Lucy Liu, is introduced as his chaperone or “sober companion”. Although the series does not have the scale, speed and production value of the BBC version, Miller is an adept Holmes and his relationship with Watson is the focus of the piece, with an ever bubbling sexual tension between the two.
Finally, we have the swashbuckling Holmes created by Guy Ritchie and played by Robert Downey Jr in the recent Warner Bros. feature films. Set in the original Victorian era, but with a heavy dose of mischief, comedy and action. Indeed, this time Holmes is a man of action, but simultaneously quirky and street-wise. Ritchie invented what he calls “Holmes vision”: the ability to visualise exactly a fight sequence before enacting it in precise detail. He is much more of the classic superhero than previous versions, but with boredom and drug-addiction always lurking round the corner.
Holmes is not an immutable character, but has been adapted and shaped by actors, writers and directors to fit the mood of the times. He has many faces and can take on contemporary traits. It is highly likely that the character will reappear again on our screens in some other form. But people’s favourite Sherlock tends to be the one with whom they grew up.
Part one of this two part article can be found here.
Image Credits: Study in scarlet magazine cover image from http://www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk/. Robert Stevens image from http://images.tvrage.com/. Nicol Williamson image from http://image.toutlecine.com/. Jeremy Brett image from http://www.cyfraplus.pl/. Benedict Cumberbatch image from http://i.telegraph.co.uk/. Robert Downey Jnr image from http://www.daringtodo.com/