Many actors have taken on the iconic roles of Holmes and Watson, but who did it best? This January and February, we’re inviting Sherlockians to join in the debate and state their case. So, who’s your favourite?
Pat Hardy, Sherlock Holmes exhibition curator
My favourite Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson characters are from the latest BBC series played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, because they capture the essence of the Conan Doyle stories but with a contemporary twist. Operating in a London of the twentieth first century they have access to the latest technology (mobile phones rather than the 1890s telegraph) but so does the fiendish enemy Moriarty, a dynamic which ensures the plots are not only complicated but also moving and exciting.
It also has some interesting re imaginings, for instance Watson now suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after serving as a military doctor in a Taliban war zone, is an update on A Study in Scarlet, 1887 in which, shocked by his Afghanistan war experience, Watson ‘naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained’.
Cumberbatch and Freeman don’t treat the characters as parodies or figures of fun and they are very credible in their resolute pursuit of answers to the mysteries and problems which they face and in combating the evil presence of Moriarty. Cumberbatch demonstrates the many sides to Holmes, an idea which we have explored in the exhibition. He is a scientific thinking machine with a theatrical side as well as a master of disguise, something which Cumberbatch caught perfectly in the scene in which he reveals to Watson that he was not killed at the Reichenbach Falls. Holmes is also portrayed as a model gentleman in his familiarity with the inner workings of government and the Crown (often retrieving stolen military secrets or compromising letters) but again he is shown to have a bohemian aspect when he is not busy on a case and becomes extremely bored and listless, playing the violin and performing outlandish experiments usually in his mouse coloured dressing gown.
London is wonderfully showcased with beautiful views of iconic landmarks, many of which appeared in the stories and which are shown in the exhibition. They vividly evoke the dynamic society of 1900s London, and Cumberbatch encapsulates that sense of mastery of the city, knowing every street and district, every criminal or potential criminal.
Cumberbatch created a Holmes who seems familiar but who has adapted his unique consulting detective qualities to assist today’s world. He is at once a reassuring character, always able to prevent evil from pervading society but also one who is ultimately unknowable and beyond our reach. This elusive nature, tempered by the matter of fact shrewdness of Watson (now assisted in the series by his wife) could account for the continuing popularity of this apparently objectionable detective as each generation tries to reinvent him for their own time.
Joe Saunders, Museum of London host and Sherlock Holmes tour guide
My favourite incarnation of Sherlock Holmes was the portrayal by Clive Merrison on the BBC Radio 4 dramatisations. Clive Merrison, with Michael Williams as his Dr. Watson, was the only actor to complete the entire “canon” of all 56 short stories and 4 novels of Sherlock Holmes as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After having completed 60 excellent radio plays he took up the mantle, or rather donned the deerstalker again, to star in The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. These were based on allusions made by Conan Doyle to other stories that were never written.
Merrison brought a gravitas and sense of drama to the role that I believe remains unequalled. It is interesting though that he fits into the classic image everyone has of Holmes as perennially middle-aged, however he is described in the very first novel, A Study in Scarlet, as a young man. He was probably about 27 when he began his career as the world’s only Private Consulting Detective in 1881. Therefore I probably prefer Merrison, to any other Holmes, because his commanding voice suits the character of Holmes. It would frankly sound very odd having the same lines coming from a 20-something.
My favourite Dr. John H. Watson was performed for Granada Television by Edward Hardwicke alongside Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. Hardwick had played Watson to Brett’s Holmes previously on-stage in the excellent The Secret of Sherlock Holmes. The play was a triumph and returned with Peter Egan and Homes and Philip Franks as Watson. Hardwick wasn’t the only person to play Watson with Brett on Granada, the first portrayal was by David Burke. After The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Burke left the role and personally recommended Hardwick as his replacement. The reason he is my favourite is because he gives a measured performance of a sensible man who has experienced life and adventure as a soldier and a doctor. He is far removed from the bumbling buffoon of Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson from the World War II-era films. For me, Ian Hart comes a fairly close second in the BBC feature-length dramas, but he was hampered by a lack of on-screen chemistry with the below-par Richard Roxburgh as Holmes. The trick with playing Dr. Watson is being believable and interesting enough to shine alongside the main protagonist and, I think, Hardwick was the most memorable Watson there has been.
My favourite other Sherlock character was played by Sir Ian Richardson. Richardson played Holmes twice for TV movies and was much better than the budget and production should have enabled. His stand-out performances showed potential though and his talents were used by the BBC to make a feature-length drama about Arthur Conan Doyle’s life at university. Conan Doyle based his character of Sherlock Holmes on a real person, the man who taught him and took him on as a clerk, Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell had real-life skills of observation and deduction that Conan Doyle called upon to flesh out his detective. It was Conan Doyle’s teacher Bell that Richardson played. After the success of this drama, entitled Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes, the next chapter in Conan Doyle’s life; in medical practice in Southsea, was the setting for a series of 4 episodes. The show imagined Dr. Bell and the young Dr. Conan Doyle solving crimes together and blended reality and fiction together brilliantly. It was even brave enough to suggest an early romance of Conan Doyle’s was ended by Jack the Ripper.
Roz Sherris, Curatorial Administrator
The first screen Holmes I remember is Basil Rathbone, and his second outing, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), is still among my top Holmes films (for one disguise in particular if nothing else). Benedict Cumberbatch brings a wonderful 21st-century geeky excitement to the role. New to me when film-hunting for the exhibition was Arthur Wontner who made 5 British films in the 1930s. The stories are messed about and the costumes contemporary, but Wontner looks and acts the part very well. Robert Stephens in Billy Wilder’s fond spoof The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) is great fun, and Clive Merrison is a radio delight (and recorded every single Holmes story). But for someone who captures the quicksilver and lethargy of Holmes, in period, with great sets and faithful (for the first few years, at least) to the originals, my overall winner has to be Jeremy Brett.
Sadly, Nigel Bruce doesn’t work for me. He’s amiable, but from the start he’s too old and too silly (and it only gets worse later on). Nigel Stock, who was Watson for both Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing (BBC, 1960s) is not silly but a bit old and stolid. More to my taste are both Jeremy Brett’s Watsons, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke; Jude Law for the Robert Downie Jr films, and Colin Blakely with Robert Stephens. I can imagine any of them being a competent doctor and a good friend to have in a tight corner, but I can also see they might be appealing to a Mary Morstan. But my favourite Watson is all those things, but also captures the extremes of elation and frustration that being Holmes’s right-hand man must bring – Martin Freeman.
Honorable mentions include Irene Handl who gave a comedic gem of a cameo in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as Mrs Hudson and Colin Jeavons as a splendidly weasely Lestrade in the Brett series. I’d have to say, I don’t think anyone’s got Moriarty spot on. Basil Rathbone managed to kill off three different ones during his run: George Zucco, Lionel Atwill and Henry Daniell – all stalwart Hollywood villains. Eric Porter, with Brett menaced well, but was a little old.
Mycroft too I find slightly problematic – Mark Gatiss is great, but far too thin, so I suppose Charles Gray would be my pick, though I have a vague memory of Robert Morley as a rather effective Mycroft in A Study in Terror (1965). Finally, none of The Sign of Four adaptations I’ve seen have done full justice to Toby, the wonderful creosote-sniffing dog.
We’ll be debating the merits and downfalls of different Holmes and Watsons in our two events Who’s the best Holmes and Who’s the best Watson, at the Museum of London this January and February. Tickets are on sale now!