The many lives of Holmes & Watson

Certain characters, once they are created, are no longer merely the author’s creations: each age reinvents them, finds new possibilities. Don Quixote has been interpreted both as visionary and as fool; Prince Hamlet has been portrayed as everything from sweet prince to psychotic thug. There are those who would hesitate to place Holmes and Watson in such illustrious company, but I say “Bah!”

I’ll say it again: “Bah!”

For if the Holmes & Watson stories don’t constitute great literature, what does?

There have been many interpretations of Holmes and Watson – on screen from the days of silent films to modern times; on radio; on stage; on television; on audio recordings, in retellings, in new stories… They are no longer merely the characters Conan Doyle had created. I am not even close to having seen (or heard, or read) all the countless interpretations of these two characters, but even in the small sample I know, the variety of interpretations is breathtaking.

The earliest Holmes-Watson partnership to make a mark – on me, at any rate – was the pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Let us get the obvious observation out of the way: they have very little in common with Conan Doyle’s creations. But there is no reason to see this as a drawback: these performances have a charm all of their own. And, no matter how insistently we fans of the original stories keep insisting that Watson, far from being the buffoon portrayed by Nigel Bruce, is actually an intelligent man, it is this image of the stupid assistant to the intellectually brilliant sleuth that has, to a great extent, eclipsed the original characterisations.

But there’s no need to regret this. Nigel Bruce’s performance in these films is as fine a comic performance as one could hope to see. Indeed, to accommodate this wonderfully eccentric portrayal, it is Basil Rathbone as Holmes who ends up being the straight man. As a consequence, Holmes appears a pillar of strength – reliable, authoritative, reassuring. And for those of us who imprinted on these performances – and whose identification of Rathbone with the original Holmes was enhanced by his extraordinary resemblance to Holmes in Sidney Paget’s illustrations – these are all qualities that define the great detective.

There have been other interpretations as well, and, while each actor put his own individual stamp on the roles, these qualities of reliability, authority, and reassurance remained intact: Peter Cushing, Ian Richardson, Clive Merrison (in the excellent BBC radio adaptations) all projected these qualities.

So, for those of used to seeing Holmes played in this way, it was a bit of a shock when Jeremy Brett’s interpretation (for Granada TV) first hit the screens in the early 80s. This performance is regarded nowadays in many quarters as “definitive”, but, to be honest, I must admit that I have never quite taken to it. The shock of a first encounter with a Holmes so very different from what I had been expecting has now worn off, and, on repeated viewings, I find myself becoming more accustomed to his interpretation; but it’s still fair to say that this is not quite the Holmes I imagine when I read the stories. But it’s only to be expected that a performance as idiosyncratic as this will sharply divide opinions; and one that is so far removed from what we had till then been the norm is bound to remain controversial.

I think I had been – and probably still am – too accustomed to thinking of Holmes as a sort of reassuring authority figure. Like many other readers, I first encountered these stories as a child, and this man with almost preternatural intellectual gifts (not to mention his skills in pugilism and in martial arts) struck me as someone to be unreservedly admired. His very presence was reassuring. I remember for instance when I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles: as soon as Holmes appeared in Dartmoor after his presumed absence, I felt a sense of reassurance – I felt that now, at last, things will be put right. Of course, as one gets older one becomes less starry-eyed, and one begins to see the very serious flaws in Holmes’ character – the drug addiction, the edginess, the sense of danger, the lack of sensitivity, and so on. But first impressions do tend to be strong ones. And Brett’s very edgy performance challenged all preconceptions I had about the character.

I can now see why Brett played Holmes in this way: he wanted to move away in no uncertain terms from the Basil Rathbone approach to the character. For all their merits, the performances of Rathbone, Cushing et al did not convey the darker, edgier aspects of Holmes that are undeniably present in the stories. But I still can’t help wondering whether Brett may perhaps have tipped the balance too far to the other side. I wonder, for instance, whether Holmes really is so insensitive to the feelings of others: Conan Doyle often tells us for instance that Holmes was very good at putting his clients and his witnesses at ease so they could tell their stories more coherently; but Brett’s Holmes never puts anyone at their ease. There are also many instances in the Conan Doyle stories where Holmes shows great consideration for other peoples’ feelings. For instance, towards the end of “The Blue Carbuncle”, when the criminal, tracked down by Holmes, begs for mercy, Holmes angrily reminds him that he himself had shown not the slightest feeling for the innocent man languishing in prison, or for that innocent man’s family. Holmes is not only sensitive to the feelings of the innocent man and of his family: he is furious that this person now begging for mercy had lacked this sensitivity. None of this seems to me suggested by Brett’s portrayal, in which Holmes’ utter lack of sensitivity for anyone’s feelings makes him seem almost autistic.

However, it is certainly a most striking performance, and there are many who are fans at least as fervent as myself of the Conan Doyle stories who reckon Jeremy Brett’s performances to be hwell-nigh definitive. Brett himself took the Conan Doyle stories very seriously, apparently bringing the books to the shooting, and frequently referring to them to ensure fidelity to the originals.

Recently, of course, we had the BBC series Sherlock, created by the self-confessed Sherlock Holmes nuts Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. The conceit is such a good one, one wonders why no-one had done this before: it considers what Holmes and Watson might have been like had they lived in contemporary London, and had access to modern technology. The stories are far more convoluted than Conan Doyle’s, and, where the original stories moved at the pace of Watson’s thinking, this series moves at the frenetic pace of Holmes’s. But the results – with frequent and affectionate references not only to the original stories, but also to the various adaptations – are wonderfully entertaining. The entire internet now seems to be buzzing now with theories on how exactly Holmes faked his death in the last episode of the second series: it seems to have made as great an impact as “The Final Problem” did in Conan Doyle’s time.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, like that of Jeremy Brett (though in a different way), is far more edgy than reassuring. Perhaps this is a reflection of our age that doesn’t believe in reassuring figures of authority; or, at least, is reluctant to see such figures as heroes.

Of course, one should not write about Holmes without writing about Watson: it is the relationship – perhaps the most unlikely friendship in all literature – between the two that is at the heart of these wonderful stories. We have long, I think – I hope – stopped seeing Watson as a buffoon, but it is still not generally appreciated, I think, that Watson is, in his own way, an intelligent character. Holmes, after all, is unlikely to have put up with anyone who isn’t; and throughout the stories, Holmes consistently displays complete confidence in Watson’s medical expertise. Of course, in Holmes’ own area of speciality, Watson is no match for him – but who is? Watson in recent adaptations – Michael Williams with Clive Merrison, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke with Jeremy Brett, and, most recently, Martin Freeman with Benedict Cumberbatch – have all been remarkably successful not merely in depicting the character that – to my mind at least – is closer to Conan Doyle’s Watson than previous incarnations had been, but equally successful in convincing us that two such different people could indeed be close friends, and have so warm a regard for each other.

I am sure we will go on re-inventing Holmes & Watson in ages to come. I don’t know that there are any other fictional characters whose immortality is more guaranteed.

2 responses to this post.

  1. I’m in a weird position as regards the Granada/Brett version (still my favorite). It aired shortly after first appearing on ITV, on PBS’ “Mystery!” series in the States (now subsumed into “Masterpiece”), introduced by Vincent Price. I was instantly taken with Brett’s performance, and the convincing recreations of Victorian England (both Watsons were superb, but their being two different actors diffused the impact a little, at least in comparison with Brett). What heightened the effect was that I was first reading the stories at the same time (I was in my immediate pre-teens, I think, when the show first came out). I’d read a few in “Classics Illustrated” format before that (“The Red-Headed League” and “The Speckled Band,” among others) but hadn’t gotten to the actual stories. Reading them, and watching the show, in tandem was a peculiar experience, and probably weighted my perspective on Holmes and his universe ever since. I’ve never been able to take Rathbone seriously as Holmes, for example, though I’ve never had a major problem with any of the others. I think I was one of the few people, at least on the British Horror Films Forum, who didn’t want to see Richard Roxburgh tarred and feathered, even if I didn’t care all that much for his performance. Now that I think of it, it’s weird how deeply the individual experiences are occasionally lodged in my memory. I first read “Charles Augustus Milverton,” for example, in the parking lot of a McDonalds’ in Baker, Louisiana, en route to my grandparents’ in Mississippi. And I haven’t thought of that in *decades*.

    What’s your opinion on the Guy Ritchie films? Having heard of his wretched reputation elsewhere, I was a little leery but have greatly enjoyed them. It can get a little “blockbustery,” but one thing he seems to do very well (even if there are departures from what I remember of their portrayal by Doyle) is the peculiar nature of the Holmes-Watson friendship. It’s not quite what Doyle wrote, but it preserves the ineffable spirit of the thing, which I think any good literary adaptation should do.


    • I recently watched the Jeremy Brett version of “The Dancing Men” again. the production values were excellent, it looked right, was well paced, etc. But Holmes is aprupt with his client to the point of rudeness: indeed, his client took offence at one point, and Watson had to smooth matters over. I re-read the story to make sure, and could fi nd not the slightest hint of Holmes being rude. I know Brett’s Holmes is much admired, but I do confess to finding this jarring. This is very far from teh Holmes I imagine when reading the stories, but I suppose we all have our own view of what Holmes should be like.

      I haven’t seen the Guy Ritchie films, I’m afraid; I’ve got out of the habit of going to the cinema these days. But each generation will re-invennt Holmes & Watson – andthat’s fair enough, I guess: after all, the stories will always be there!


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