July 07, 2015

Sherlock Holmes: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hero Still Going Strong



According to Guinness World Records, Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed literary human character. 
More than 75 ­ actors in more than 250 films have played Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective hero, from one of the earliest, Basil Rathbone, to the most recent, Ian McKellen. On television, on both sides of the Atlantic, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller appear as younger, modernised incarnations in, respectively, Sherlock and Elementary, while in print Anthony Horowitz has written two continuation novels with endorsement from the Conan Doyle Estate and approval from Holmes aficionados. Further spin-offs include the inevitable (documentaries, clothing, children’s toys) and the bizarre (a Japanese puppetry series). The great sleuth, it would appear, has never been more popular. But why now? And why at all?


Doyle, who died 85 years ago this week, wrote four Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 short stories. He finished his first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, in 1886, and had difficulty ­securing a publisher. When he switched to short stories they were snapped up and serialised in The Strand Magazine, establishing him as one of the highest paid authors of his day. But he grew tired of his creation (“I have had such an overdose of him,” he complained) and chose to kill him off by throwing him down the Reichenbach Falls. Readers responded by wearing black armbands and pleading for Holmes’s resurrection. The story in which he ostensibly died, The Final Problem , proved not to be final after all, and with his reappearance in The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901, Holmes was pulled into the 20th century.

A century on and he is very much alive and kicking — especially so in Doyle’s birthplace of Edinburgh. This UNESCO city of literature, which has spawned and celebrated the likes of Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mur­iel Spark, is fiercely proud to call Doyle one of its own. Holmes may be synonymous with foggy London, but as he was supposedly based on a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh for whom Doyle had worked as a clerk, he has his origins firmly north of the border.

Locals and visitors toast him in the Conan Doyle pub; close by in Picardy Place, where Doyle was born in 1859, stands an over life-sized Sherlock. The statue was taken down and put into storage for three years to make way for tram works. Reinstating it was crucial. The tram system has been a national farce. Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is a global phenomenon.


One of the reasons for his enduring appeal is his identifiability. As with James Bond with his 007 designation, shaken-not-stirred vodka martinis, Aston Martin and tuxedo, Sherlock Holmes is a pop culture icon with recognisable traits and trappings. Ask someone even faintly acquainted to name something associated with him and they are sure to mention one of the following: Dr Watson, deerstalker, pipe, 221B Baker Street. 

Those more well versed may supplement that with violin, chemistry, cocaine, Moriarty, Mrs Hudson, Inspector Lestrade, Baker Street Irregulars. Along with familiar ingredients, Doyle gave us stories that, for the most part, cling to a tried-and-tested formula: consulting detective Holmes receives a client who seeks his help; he is presented with an intriguing, seemingly unsolvable case; the game afoot, he embarks on an adventure with friend, roommate and chronicler Watson, investigating sometimes in the country but predominantly in London, and employing what Watson calls his “remarkable mental qualities”. In a shock or thrilling ­denouement, Holmes unveils the scoundrel, cad, robber or murderer, outfoxing poor, blundering Lestrade and astounding readers who were in the dark throughout or barking up the wrong tree.

There are two winning factors in each mystery. The first is the mystery itself. The most memorable are those that are the most baffling: the men who are recruited “for purely nominal services” providing they have red hair; the man who receives an anonymous letter ­containing five orange pips; the woman who is routinely followed on her bicycle by a bearded cyclist along the same lonely stretch of road.

In The Dancing Men, Holmes must crack a code, in The Naval Treaty he is up against a locked room mystery, while in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sussex Vampire he must sift super­natural smoke and mirrors. For Holmes’s comeback in The Empty House, Doyle gives us the additional mind-bending conundrum of working out how his hero survived his one-way plunge down the Reichenbach Falls.

The second big draw is watching Holmes apply his deductive reasoning. In contrast to Agatha Christie’s whodunits, Doyle’s fiendish puzzles are, primarily, howdunits. We are fascinated by Holmes’s unorthodox methods and formidable intelligence, and routinely try — and invariably fail — to follow his advice to Watson: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

One inspired touch that is unique to crime fiction is Holmes’s dazzling party-piece of sizing up an individual with his forensic eye, then bowling them over with observation-based inferences — offering anything from undisclosed titbits to a full character assessment. In The Blue Carbuncle, Holmes’s brief glance at a hat reveals to him the owner’s age, personality, intellect and recent haircut, together with the fact he has no gas in his house, his wife has stopped loving him and he has “fallen upon evil days”. As a stumped then astonished Watson informs us in The Stockbroker’s Clerk, “Like all Holmes’ reasoning, the thing seemed simplicity itself when it was once explained.”

The best Sherlock adaptations — whether film, TV, radio or theatre — are those that are in tune with Doyle in some way, staging similar ingenious plots or reshuffling the integral components, and all the time erring on the side of pastiche rather than parody. The Granada TV series that ran from 1984 to 1994 triumphed because it closely dramatised Doyle’s original material. (It also succeeded because it featured the mesmeric Jeremy Brett — arguably the greatest Holmes — who studied and brought out each of the character’s mannerisms and eccentri­cities).

The contemporary Holmes adventures may be sacrilege to the purists but to everyone else they work because within all that modernity Doyle’s template is still present and correct. Often the updated polishes are ingenious masterstrokes. 

In Elementary, Holmes’s sidekick is Dr Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu. In the much slicker Sherlock, Holmes uses technology to solve crimes, Watson writes a blog and each adventure’s title — A Study in Pink, The Hounds of Baskerville — is a neat riff on the original. Robert Downey Jr’s bare-knuckle-fighting, costume-changing Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s two high-octane films may feel like the least faithful personification to date, until we remember that Doyle’s Holmes is an accomplished boxer and a master of disguise.

There is one final reason for Holmes being particularly popular now. In these dangerous and dumbed-down times we need a source of escapism fronted by a brainy hero who relies on wits more than weapons to take down villains and bring about social justice. 

Holmes’s cerebral adventures and unconventional approach puts him at a considerable remove from today’s ­carbon-copy detectives and action heroes plodding through the motions in generic dramas. All the current Holmes revamps, both on screen and in books, have amped up that danger and opposed that dumbing-down by using Holmes’s dastardly nemesis and intellectual equal, the “Napoleon of crime” himself, Professor Moriarty.

Doyle once told The New York Times the true purpose of fiction is “to amuse mankind, to help the sick and the dull and the weary”. Holmes continues to amuse and ameliorate in more formats than fiction and with more than one actor in the role. 

Since his first outing we have seen Holmes in murky, gas-lit London and modern, post-9/11 New York, as schoolboy, young man, middle-aged man, and now, coming full circle with McKellen, old man in his dotage. Clubs and societies used to keep Holmes alive; nowadays he belongs to the mainstream and has never been in finer health. For as long as audiences have appetites for a good mystery, and as long as writers don’t stray too far from Doyle’s evergreen source material, Sherlock Holmes will go on confounding and enthralling future generations.

Only one literary creation can top Sherlock Holmes’s screen count — and that’s the Count: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, who has made 270-plus appearances in film and television. Given the unflagging appeal of the Baker Street sleuth and the Transylvanian bloodsucker, it is perhaps not surprising there has been some dramatic overlap between their stories.

The recently departed Christopher Lee played Holmes in a 1962 German film, six years before he became the most famous screen Dracula. He reprised the role 30 years later in two TV movies. Peter Cushing, Lee’s antagonist Van Helsing in Dracula, brought Holmes to the screen a number of times, including in a 1959 Hammer Films The Hound of the Baskervilles — with Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville — and in a 1960s BBC TV series (where he replaced Douglas Wilmer).

Lee was a retirement-age Holmes in those 90s TV films, and Ian McKellen takes the chronology further in the upcoming Mr Holmes, in which the great man is 93. Sir Ian is not the first knight thespian to channel Holmes, others being Lee, Michael Caine (stage) and John Gielgud (radio).

It’s a role that has attracted everyone from John Barrymore (the first movie-star Holmes, in 1922) to Basil Rathbone, the definitive Holmes in 14 films between 1939-46, to comedians Peter Cook and John Cleese, to modern stars such as Robert Downey Jr. Leonard Nimoy, who would became famous as another character who prized reason over emotion, had a go (on stage), as did Roger Moore, Charlton Heston and, perhaps most improbably, Larry Hagman.


Yet despite this diverse talent pool, the question of the greatest screen Holmes seems almost elementary: a duel between Rathbone’s high-minded, gentlemanly (though not without edge) detective and Jeremy Brett’s more manic, ruthless inquisitor (that disconcerting half-smile, that violent laugh) in the 1984-94 Granada TV series. Benedict Cumberbatch in TV series Sherlock has staked a strong claim in recent years as a Holmes for the Asperger's age. Less raved about but equally brilliant is Jonny Lee Miller in another contemporary incarnation, the New York-set Elementary. 

When Brett died of a heart attack in 1995, aged 61, veteran New York Times critic Mel Gussow said he was the “quintessential Holmes’’, a verdict with which many will concur. Brett, Eton-educated, Old Vic-trained, late-diagnosed manic depressive, lived the role. He didn’t want to play Holmes but become him: “When it works,’’ he said of acting, “the actor is like a sponge, squeezing himself dry to remove his own personality, then absorbing the character’s like a liquid.” He said it was his most challenging role, tougher than Hamlet or Macbeth. (Divertingly, Brett started his Conan Doyle career as Dr Watson, opposite Heston’s Holmes in a 1980-81 Los Angeles stage production of Paul Giovanni’s The Crucifer of Blood, based on The Sign of Four).

Fans of the Granada series will have their own favourite moments but the scene I’ve never forgotten is the bar fight in The Solitary Cyclist (season one) in which Holmes demonstrates (six times) the superiority of a gentleman’s straight left over a ruffian’s roundhouse swing. The ruffian in question, Woodley, was played by Tasmanian actor Michael Siberry. Two decades later an Australian would graduate to the top role: Albury-born Richard Roxburgh in a 2002 BBC film of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

To conclude with a truth (almost) universally acknowledged: Holmes is the second most interesting character in the stories. Most fascinating is the “Napoleon of crime” Professor Moriarty, who has attracted his fair share of great actors (including Roxburgh). Yet it’s hard to go past one of the most recent: the mesmerising Andrew Scott in Sherlock.

By Stephen Romei

With many thanks to The Australian 


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