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holmes2The 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 character of Sherlock Holmes first appeared in printed form in 1887, soon after the arrival of cinematography. He has existed for the entire length of time that people have been watching moving images.

Alongside Conan Doyle’s vivid descriptions of Holmes, the original serialised stories were illustrated, so there was a distinct visual form to the character, which almost all Sherlock actors have tried to portray: tall, elegant, and lithe, with chiseled, refined looks.

More than eighty actors have played the part in over two hundred films, television series, theatre shows and comedy sketches. It would take an extensive treatise to review all the actors who have taken on the role, so we shall focus on the most significant and memorable of these.

gillette as holmesThe first to play Sherlock was William Gillette, an American from Connecticut, who brought the character to life on stage. It was a daring endeavour, as the character was already widely loved, and it is always difficult to match the imagination of an avid readership. But the debut in Buffalo in 1899 was an instant success and the show was taken on tour immediately. Gillette dared to add new facets to the character, including the particular type of pipe that Sherlock smoked. In fact, the infamous line “Elementary, my dear Watson!” was an invention of Gillette’s.

In 1916 he was also the star of a silent film adaptation, but which has unfortunately since been lost.

Gillette’s mannerisms have been adopted by almost all subsequent actors, and he became a kind of blueprint for the way to play Holmes.

180px-NorwoodNext in line was Eille Norwood, who starred in the first, still existing, Sherlock film, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (1921), in a contemporary, real life setting of the 1920s. He was utterly committed to the role and even shaved his head up to his temples to look more intellectual.

Between 1921 and 1923 Norwood starred as Holmes in forty-seven silent, black and white films. All were successful. He played out the character in almost every Holmes story that was written. His real name was Anthony Brett, but he changed it to Eille after his devotion to a lady named Eilleen, providing him with a kind of ready connection with Holmes, who was only ever drawn to one woman; Irene Adler. Conan Doyle was quoted as saying of Norwood that “his wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me.” Norwood was considered a master of makeup and disguise, and an inveterate practical joker. On more than one occasion he fooled directors and colleagues with his disguises.

BRNBHOLMESBasil Rathbone then took up the mantle in 1939, playing the role in fourteen Hollywood films produced over a seven-year stretch. A South African-born brit and a Shakespearean actor, he was elegant and smooth, portraying the cool, calm, ascetic mind of Holmes. He was adept at conveying the lack of feeling that makes the character so compelling. His lean physique and sharp profile were true to the original illustrations and his clipped English accent combined neatly with the arrogant air of Holmes. In the first of his Holmes films, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, he became famous for the very last line he delivered “Watson… the needle!” It was the first screen reference to Holmes’s drug addiction.

Alongside him was Nigel Bruce as Watson in a portrayal that was for the first time on equal billing with Holmes – paired in a kind of comedy double act. It was also the advent of sexual tension for Holmes with the arrival of the femme fatale, in the form of Irene Adler.

Although he had great success as Holmes, Rathbone felt burdened by the character for the rest of his life, saying “the only mystery I couldn’t solve was the same one Conan Doyle had – how to get rid of the damn man.”

Peter-CushingPeter Cushing had just one outing as Holmes in the 1959 film of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, alongside Christopher Lee as Sir Henry. Cushing was more forthright than his predecessors, both as an actor and as the character, even adding and changing lines that he thought were incorrect. He absolutely engrossed himself in the role, as evidenced by his scripts, which were full of annotations and drawings.

With incredible enunciation and his regular use of “the finger” (raising his index finger to make a point), he was marvellous at displaying the forensic side of the character.

Unfortunately the film was not a success, partly because the producers wanted it to have an “X” rating, but it only achieved an “A”. It simply was not frightening enough.

In 1963 the BBC commissioned a series starring Douglas Wilmer. A clever choice as the actor had a lot in common with Holmes; untidy, detailed, obsessional, and depressed. He played a grumpy, moodier and more introverted Holmes, a brooding, gothic anti-hero, which was possibly too ahead of its time for the audiences of the day and did not receive the critical acclaim it might have deserved.

Part 2 of this article will follow next week.

Image Credits: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes book cover image from William Gillette image from Eille Norwood image from Basil Rathbone image from Peter Cushing image from

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