SHERLOCK HOLMES ON FILM AND TV;
Sherlock Holmes is often called the most filmed fictional character in history, personally I doubt this is true, have these people never heard of Dracula or Santa Claus? At any rate Holmes is certainly in the top five and he's been found in the movies since the early days of silent film.
THE SILENT FILM ERA:
Sherlock Holmes made his first stage appearance in a London production starring one Charles Brookfield in 1893 and again the following year featuring a John Webb. Neither of these plays were on-canon nor were they written by Arthur Conan Doyle although he would have had to approve them as he owned the copyright to the character. These short plays were successful enough for Conan Doyle to decide to write a full dramatic version himself which he shopped around to producers and major stars like Sir Henry Irving and Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree, both of whom passed on the play as too trivial for their tastes. Irving also passed on Dracula which Bram Stoker had written specifically for him so his judgement was not exactly equal to his snobbishness. Conan Doyle eventually had better luck in America with actor William Gillette who rewrote much of the play and incorporated touches not in the original stories. It was Gillette in fact who wrote the phrase "It's elementary my dear Watson", not Conan Doyle. It was also Gillette who incorporated the iconic deerstalker cap, matching cloak and calabash pipe as stage props to flesh out the role. In 1898 Gillete's version was a smash hit on Broadway and touring to London. By 1903 another London version was opened with British actor Harry Saintsbury. Oddly both London versions featured Charlie Chaplin's first stage credit, as one of the Baker Street Irregulars in starting in 1905, the young Chaplin would also work with Saintsbury and later give much credit to both men for teaching him about acting. By 1901 a rival London parody was playing entitled "Sheerluck Jones" starring one Clarence Blackiston which ran for years.
The first Holmes appearance was in 1900 in a one minute vignette called "Sherlock Holmes Baffled". Like most films of the prototype days it is short and has no real plot, it's simply an excuse to play around with a few camera tricks in the Melies style. The actor playing Holmes is unknown. Even though Holmes had been portrayed on the stage with great success the first proper screen Holmes was American actor Maurice Costello, a well known leading man of the day and a member of the Barrymore dynasty by marriage after his daughter, actress Dolores Costello wed the great John Barrymore. Costello's Holmes, made in 1905 was longer, approx eight minutes. At that length it was still to short too tell a real story so it was probably merely a scene or two from a Holmes story. These sort of vignettes were popular at the time and can be seen in the various similar vignettes taken from Dickens and Shakespeare from that era. Audiences would have already have been familiar with such literary stories so they would have understood a scene taken from popular faction without needing any further explanation. At any rate this film has been long lost so we will probably never get to see it, this is a shame since it would not only be the first proper Holmes but Costello was a fairly important figure of the age not to mention a member of one of the most famous film dynasties.
"SHERLOCK HOLMES BAFFLED" ~ 1900;
Oddly for the next decade and a half the various Holmes portrayals came from not from Britain and the U.S.A. but from the non English speaking Germany, Denmark, Hungary and France. This is an indication of the worldwide popularity of Holmes, in fact Holmes was always quite popular in Germany where none other than Hitler was a fan as we shall see. Hungary did the first known foreign Sherlock in 1905 starring one Karoly Baumann. Nordisk Studios in Denmark made thirteen episodes between 1908 and 1910 written, directed and starring Viggo Larsen who then made several more in Germany when Nordisk set up operations there. Germany also had another series starring Alwin Neuss with at least three films between 1908 and 1914 including a version of "Hound Of The Baskervilles" and yet another German film in 1917 with Hugo Flink.
GEORGES TREVILLE (1912);
Unfortunately the German, Hungarian and Danish silent versions have also seem to have been lost, at least they are not available. A few copies of the French versions have somehow survived however. These starred the otherwise obscure Georges Treville and ran a respectable twenty minutes in length, a typical running time for all but the most epic productions of the day. The surviving Treville is not very impressive however. It's a version of "The Copper Beeches", from 1912 and one of the Doyle canon and thus familiar to the audiences. However it is very slow moving and somewhat archaic even by the standards of the day. There are no title cards to explain dialogue or move the plot forward and the actors often pause to mug for the camera and even gesticulate towards the unseen audience to explain their actions as if they would be able to understand them. This sort of "breaking the fourth wall" was actually quite common in the working class theaters that much of their audience were used to and is often seen in French films in particular but it makes it seem even more creaky to today's eyes. The oddest thing about this particular episode is that Holmes himself doesn't even show up until halfway through and doesn't really do very much. Watson never shows up at all. Under these circumstances Treville leaves little impression as Holmes. Nonetheless the Treville's must have been successful enough since he made at least eight in the series and it should be remembered that in the silent era any film could easily cross any language barrier as it was not hard to translate the title cards into any language so the Treville's would have been seen internationally.
Other an American version of "A Study In Scarlet" in 1914 starring Francis Ford, (brother of director John Ford) and and version with an all black cast starring Sam Robinson in 1918. These are all apparently now lost. There were also a series starring Sherlock's incompetent distant cousin "Barstup Holmes" in 1911. These were directed by Alice Guy, a pioneering female director of the era originally based in France. She made dozens and dozens of movies between 1896 and 1920, mostly shorts. She moved from France to the USA in 1910 where she married film executive Herbert Blache who she divorced in 1922 and returned to France never to work again. She died in 1968 aged 94.
"BURSTRUP HOLMES MURDER CASE" ~ 1911;
WILLIAM GILLETTE (1916);
The British finally got into the action in 1914 with a version of "A Study In Scarlet" produced by Samuelson Studios starring a bit player named James Bragington who was reportedly cast solely due to his resemblance to the classic Sidney Paget drawings. A couple years later Samuelson Studios tried again with Henry Saintsbury who had been playing role for a decade by that point. These two films are once again not available. In between those films Gillette himself made a film version in 1916 which was thought for decades to have been lost, however in 2014 a copy surfaced and is in the process of being restored for general DVD release, a few minutes have already been made public and show much promise. Gillette is leading man handsome with real stage presence and the production seems to be pretty full scale. Gillette had little interest in film work and continued to act on stage, especially as Holmes, for much of the rest of his life dying in 1937.
WILLIAM GILLETE IN "SHERLOCK HOLMES ~ 1916;
EILLE NORWOOD (1921-1923);
The British Holmes films films moved into high gear in 1921 with a series of half hour Holmes films starring Eille Norwood, a veteran stage actor who was already in his sixties by this time and thus at least a full generation older than Holmes should be. However this makes little difference as he was evidently a vigorous man and known for his skill with stage makeup and costumes so his age is not apparent. Unlike Treville, Norwood not only had presence but he was also a skilled and trained actor who understood the new medium thoroughly, there would be no more mugging to the cameras or standing about awkwardly. The Norwood's were all taken from the original Doyle canon which they stick to with reasonable faithfulness, although occasionally a car can be seen passing by in the background. Norwood made a solid Holmes, cool, confident and in control. Besides being an actor, Norwood, whose real name was Anthony Brett, designed crossword puzzles for the daily express which seems like a perfect side gig for Holmes. Watson as played by two lesser known actors, Hubert Willis and Arthur Cullin, was a bland but acceptable sidekick. The Norwood's are solid but not without their faults, most of which are due to their short length making for rather truncated stories. Being silents was also a drawback for a character for whom dialogue is so important. Overall however these films are well regarded by most Holmesians, none other than Arthur Conan Doyle pronounced himself a loyal fan. Norwood would make an amazing forty seven Holmes films, covering almost the entire canon before retiring, missing the chance to make any sound versions. He died in 1948 aged 87. Of this series at least three films survive along with a few still photos.
EILLE NORWOOD AS HOLMES IN "THE DEVIL'S FOOT" 1921; .
JOHN BARRYMORE (1922);
The first American full length Holmes movie came in 1922 and starred John Barrymore, the greatest actor of the day (and son in law of the afore mentioned Maurice Costello) in a version of the popular William Gillette play. John Barrymore (AKA The Great Profile) looks every inch the figure from Sidney Paget's drawings, tall, imposing, aristocratic, aloof, with that classic profile and bearing. Barrymore dominates the screen in ways that Treville never could dream of. There is also a Watson played well enough by Roland Young (later star of the "Topper series"). We also have the first great Moriarty in Gustav Von Seyffertitz, who is wonderfully skeletal and mantis-like. As might be expected with such a Germanic name and sinister appearance Seyffertitz had already made his name playing during the first world war playing evil German officers in various propaganda films so he was an obvious choice to play the criminal genius. Other notable names in the largely American cast included later famous names like Louis Wolheim, William Powell (of "The Thin Man"), and future Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons. The film's hour and a half length finally allowed for a detailed plot and character development. The Gillete play departed from the Doyle canon by providing a back story showing Holmes and Watson meeting at university, but it is otherwise true to the spirit of the Doyle stories, it also introduces Moriarty in a case involving a young aristocrat in trouble. The film is a major studio production with a decent budget filmed in London and is well shot and makes good use of several outside sets. The film does stray somewhat outside the late Victorian era to include a few automobiles but this should not seem especially out of place to modern viewers and doesn't at any rate play a significant role in the story. The film is the best silent Holmes but was long considered lost until a version turned up a few years back and it is now available on DVD from Kino Video.
HOLMES IN THE EARLY SOUND ERA:
Early talkies were made with Carlyle Blackwell, a well known leading man of the silent era and Robert Rendell both in versions of "Hound Of The Baskervilles" in 1929 and 1932, these are also not available and may be lost. Tod Slaughter, a British actor known for making a series of wildly over-the-top bloody horror films in the 1930's played Holmes on stage but sadly not on film.
CLIVE BROOK (1929-1932);
Compared to the silent era the British were quick to make sound Holmes films with two starring veteran film actor Clive Brook in 1929 and again in 1932. The 1929 version is not available which is not a surprise since these early talkies are crude and static to modern eye since they hadn't yet figured out how to make the mics mobile and they are pretty dull compared to the silent films. The 1929 version is confusingly named "Sherlock Holmes Returns" while the second 1932 version is named "Sherlock Holmes" and is billed as being based on the same William Gillette play the Gillette and Barrymore films were which is clearly not true since the stories are completely different. The Brook's version goes off canon adding in modern technologies like automobiles, telephones, machine guns and modern clothes, that's not unusual for the time and would also be true of the better known Basil Rathbone and Arthur Wontner versions. However this films goes more wildly off course by adding in American gangsters and ill-advised attempts at comedy. On the other hand the production values are superior to the contemporary Wontner, Rupert Owen and Raymond Massey versions and the direction has some fine expressionist camera work. Brook looks the part and has a restrained, sober air which would have well served in a better film. Brook had a career that started in silent films and would continue into the 1960's and included "Shanghai Express" and "The Four Feathers". Watson was played in the 1929 film by the obscure Harry Reeves-Smith and in the 1932 film by Rupert Owen who would Holmes himself the next year. He isn't given much to do here and drops out of the story early on. Moriarty was played by Alan Mowbray who would play a villain in a later Rathbone episode and would be a founding member of the Screen Actors' Guild.
CLIVE BROOK IN "SHERLOCK HOLMES (1932);
REGINALD OWEN (1933);
Journeyman actor Reginald Owen then got a promotion to playing Holmes himself in 1933 in yet another version of "A Study In Scarlet", which Owen himself wrote, with Warburton Gamble as Watson. In spite of it's title this version has absolutely nothing to do with the original story and it suffers from all the constraints of a low budget; cheap sets, static camera work slow pacing and a rushed feel. The film's one distinction is the presence of the great Anna May Wong as a femme fatale but she is largely wasted. As for Owen himself, he does have a confident imposing presence but he is really too stocky for the role and does not look like Holmes at all. Watson is played by one Warbutron Gamble who is utterly bland. Among the rest of the cast is Alan Mowbury who had been in the previous Brook film and would later appear in the later Rathbone Homes series later in the decade as Lestrade. The costumes worn by most of the characters, including Holmes look like regular 1930's clothes rather than 1890's period clothes. The film also includes what would become a feature of Holmes movies of the next decade, namely dropping Holmes into the modern era with 1930's cars mixing with horse and buggies. This sort of thing seems to been accepted by audiences of the era but is now viewed poorly. Like many films of the early sound era, especially the cheap ones, this film is talky, slow moving and directed with unimaginative static camera work. It is also confusing and plagued by too many extraneous characters. This film is not highly regarded but it is the oldest sound Holmes most easily available on DVD. Reportedly Owen had planned to do more Holmes versions but this film was not successful enough, especially once the Basil Rathbone series started. Reginald Owen would go on to a long career however, stretching into the late sixties and would include playing Ebeneezer Scrooge (after Owen had slimmed down) in the 1938 version of "A Christmas Carol" which would be the popular version until it was supplanted by the classic Alistair Sim version in 1951 thus giving Owen the odd distinction of having playing not one but three classic figures of Victorian literature (Holmes, Watson and Scrooge) only to see them taken over and personified by other actors. He would also appear in supporting roles in such movies as "Mary Poppins", "Mrs Miniver", the infamous bomb "The Hotel Imperial" and into the 1960's in "Five Weeks In A Balloon" as well as the TV series "One Step Beyond". He worked right up to his death in 1972 aged 85.
REGINALD OWEN IN "A STUDY IN SCARLET" ~ 1933;
RAYMOND MASSEY (1931);
Another early sound Holmes was Canadian actor Raymond Massey who played him in a 1931 in a version of "The Speckled Band". This one kept reasonably faithful to the canonical story however it also tried to modernize it. Not only the use of cars (including a sports car), radios and phones, but they even changed Holmes' office from a Victorian townhouse to an ultra-modern corporate office with secretaries (dressed in modern attire), gleaming filling cabinets, typewriters, dicta-phones, floor to ceiling windows, an intercom and even some kind of computer that uses punch cards to cross reference crime records. This makes for a jarring touch as Holmes strolls about wearing his Victorian smoking jacket in his shiny mod reception area with typewriters clicking away one minute before entering his own proper book-lined Victorian office the next. Massey himself was a fine Oscar winning actor and he makes for a rather droll, detached Holmes. Unlike Barrymore, Norwood or the later Rathbone and Wontner, Massey doesn't much resemble the iconic Paget drawings. Instead he is tall and lanky with a predominate uni-brow and mile-wide smile. In fact he looks more like the young Abe Lincoln, a role he later famously played. Watson was played again by the bland Warburton Gamble and the villainous Dr.Roylet was played by Lyn Harding, an experienced stage actor who had played Moriarty in the Holmes stage version and would later do so again in the later Rathbone series. In fact it is Harding who got top billing here with Massey taking second, Warburton as Watson is listed fourth. The film takes some liberties with the canonical story by adding an evil housekeeper and an equally evil Indian butler. Unlike the other early sound versions this one has some good camera work for the era with some moody shots and there are also some fairly inventive dream sequences. This film did well enough to lead to one more Massey Holmes film.
RAYMOND MASSEY IN "THE SPECKLED BAND" ~ 1931;
ARTHUR WONTNER (1931-1937);
The Clive Brook, Reginald Owen and Raymond Massey series are not especially well regarded by Holmesians but the in the next Holmes it was felt they got the right man. Arthur Wontner was a little known journeyman actor who like Eille Norwood was by then in his sixties had already had a long career and who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Paget Holmes drawings. Tall, with an aristocratic bearing, aesthetic features and slicked down hair, he looked exactly like we expected Holmes to look. Even better he also understood the character, combining a cool intellectual manner with just enough warmth and a touch of humour to keep Homles human. To this day Wontner remains a favorite with many. However good as he was the Wontner series has plenty of shortcomings. Like the three previous series this one was distinctly low budget and it shows. All the Wontner's have cheap sets, no-name co-stars, and static camera work. The stories abandoned the canon as well to poor effect, the scripts are pedestrian and sometimes slow moving. They also continued the practice of updating the stories to include cars, planes, phones, radios and modern clothes. There were two different Watson's; Ian Fleming (not the James Bond author), and Ian Hunter (not the singer from Mott The Hoople) who are pretty bland. The series stands entirely on the shoulders of Wontner and is solely due to him that they are remembered. He made five films starting in 1931 all but one of which is available on DVD. He would have no doubt made more if the character had not been taken over by so completely by Basil Rathbone. He died in 1960 aged 83.
ARTHUR WONTNER IN "THE TRIUMPH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES" ~ 1935;
HANS ALBERS (1937);
As mentioned above Sherlock Holmes was always highly popular in Germany, even under the Nazi's. In fact the Germans had always showed a fondness for non-political costume dramas, adventure films in exotic lands and even westerns all through the 1920's and 30's. It has been suggested that the Nazi's tolerated this sort of escapism in preference to gangster movies, monster movies and other "degenerate" movies from Hollywood. At any rate in the 1930's two Holmes films were made in Germany with the full support of the Nazi regime. Starring Hans Albers as Holmes and Heinz Ruhmann as Watson they moved away from the Conan Doyle canon but unlike many other films of the era they are devoid of Nazi propaganda and are otherwise fairly well regarded by Holmesians. "The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes" from 1937 is considered the best. Unfortunately there are no subtitles and I don't speak German so I can't give a totally informed opinion on this, although from what I can gather the plot involves a organized crime syndicate and counterfeiting. At the end of the film (spoiler alert!) it's revealed that Arthur Conan Doyle has been following the exploits of the great German detective and has been inspired to create his famous fictional British detective, thus preserving German honour. The film was made by the giant Ufa studios, the home of the classic films by Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Paul Leni and GW Pabst, unfortunately after 1933 these directors had fled Germany. Like Reginald Owen, the rather stocky, square featured Albers suffers in not looking at all like the traditional Holmes, however he gives a confident performance and unlike Owen (or Wontner and Massey) Albers does not suffer from a low budget. The film still has all the hallmarks of a Ufa film; gorgeous photography, lush sets, strong performances and tasteful music. The movie also has a some light comic touches, including an extended routine where Holmes and Watson sing in the bath (not together), and in the end Holmes and Watson even get the girls. Albers later appeared in the classic Marlane Dietrich film "The Blue Angel". He died in 1960.
HANS ALBERS IN "THE MAN WHO WAS SHERLOCK HOMLES" ~ 1937;
BRUNO GUTTNER (1939);
A second German production featured Bruno Guttner in a 1939 version of "The Hound Of The Baskervilles". The same year as the Basil Rathbone version. This one obviously stays closer to the canon but still takes plenty of liberties with new and quite unnecessary characters although the nuances of all this are lost on me as I don't speak German. Holmes is played by Bruno Guttner who at least resembles the character more than Albers (or Reginald Owen) being lean and dark with sharp features and a hawk-like nose although he looks rather sinister, more like a villain. Watson is played by Fritz Odemar who seems actually somewhat younger than Guttner. Unlike the previous German film this one does not really have the lush production and cinematography UFA films were known for and is rather pedestrian by comparison. It is easily surpassed by the Rathbone version. It is however stronger than the previous Wontner, Massey and Owen sound versions.
BRUNO GUTTER IN "THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES" (1939);
OLAF HYTTEN (1933);
Another oddity was a short film called "Sheerluck Jones; Lost In Limehouse" in 1933. Based on the parody play which had been running in London since 1901. This short has some genuinely funny moments and reminds me of a skit that might have run on the Carol Burnet show decades later, one wonders why it was never developed more fully. This short was done by RKO Studios and presumably had a decent budget, much of which was probably used on the sets which included a recreation of the Limehouse section of London which served as the city's Chinatown as well as a horde of extras to reenact a Tong War that Sheerluck inadvertently starts. Sheerluck was played by the balding, chubby Olaf Hytten who looked nothing like Holmes but given that this is a parody that hardly mattered. His Sheerluck was a cluelessly cocky boob of the Inspector Clouseau school of bumbling crime fighters. Ironically Olaf Hytten would later appear in a number of small supporting roles in some of the later Basil Rathbone series. He died in 1955. The Limehouse section was also the setting for the Reginald Owen film and there was also an even shorter version of the Limehouse theme done with marionettes in 1930 for perhaps the oddest Holmes parody.
"THE LIME JUICE MYSTERY" ~ 1930;
BASIL RATHBONE (1939-1946);
The classic era of Holmes on screen came with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson starting in 1939 with "The Hound Of The Baskervilles" and following through a series of thirteen more films along until 1946 with even more episodes of a radio series. Rathbone and Bruce would personify Holmes and Watson for an entire generation and effectively crowd out any other film adaptations until Rathbone got tried of playing the role and quit suddenly. Rathbone, with a serious background in theatre, was concerned that he had been typecast and would never be accepted in another role. He turned out to be right, he would make other films but never live down the deerstalker cap. For his part Nigel Bruce felt quite differently, by all accounts a cheerfully unpretentious fellow with no illusions that he would ever be a leading man, he thoroughly enjoyed his time as Watson. The Rathbone era is so well known that I won't spend a lot of time on it here. However we should take a minute to deal with Nigel Bruce as Watson. He gets considerable flack by modern writers for his portrayal of Watson as a bumbling oaf, which was not his role in the original stories. The literary Watson was a brave man of action; a former army doctor who had been wounded in action, he was also a writer who narrated the stories. None of this is implied by Bruce's loyal and well meaning but dull twit. Doyle's Watson was also of the same age as Holmes, not the older man portrayed by Bruce. These are valid points but it should be pointed out that the previous actors who had played Watson had made little impact and had been quickly been forgotten, Bruce was not. Whatever else can be said about Bruce he did make the role his own. The films are clearly Rathbone/Bruce films, and even Rathbone saw them as such. It should also be remembered that the character of the comic sidekick was an accepted one, usually played by Smiley Burnett or Gabby Hayes in dozens and dozens of westerns in the thirties and forties. Audiences at the time certainly enjoyed the character. Incidentally, a decade after quitting the series Rathbone would make an attempt to return for a proposed television series, but it was not picked up. One piece of odd trivia is that while Rathbone and Bruce were seen as the very epitome of British stiff-upper-lip doggedness, especially during the War, neither were in fact British at all with Rathbone being from South Africa and Bruce being born in Mexico. Supporting actors from previous Sherlocks included Alan Mowbury (from the Reginald Owen film) as Lestrade, Lyn Harding (from the Raymond Massey film) as Sebastian Moran and Olaf Hytten (Sherluck Holmes) in various minor roles. Guest stars included Ida Lupino, George Zucco, John Carradine, Ian Wolfe, Patricia Morrison, Lionel Atwill, Denis Hoey, Reginald Denny, Skelton Knaggs and Gale Sondergard.
"BASIL RATHBONE IN "THE HOUSE OF FEAR" ~ 1939;
The first two movies "Hound Of The Baskervilles" and "The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes" were made by Fox Studios were reasonably faithful to the Doyle era and were done with the usual lush Fox production values with ornate sets and costumes. However after the second film Fox dropped the popular series for some unexplained reason and it was then picked up by Universal for the rest of the series. The Universal series had smaller budgets and more importantly they abandoned the Doyle canon entirely to update them to contemporary times. This would leave Holmes riding on planes, visiting Washington and hunting Nazi spies. These later war time films also have some fairly blatant pro-British propaganda. This sort of thing may be distracting to modern audiences but these films were certainly popular at the time.
BASIL RATHBONE IN "THE SCARLET CLAW";
Of the later Universal Rathbone's "Terror By Night' is a personal favorite. Although the entire film takes place on board a train which would seem to be somewhat limiting, I like the enclosed feel and methodical no-frills pace. The somewhat limited setting also means that unlike the other Universal series this one is forced to stay reasonably close to the era and even the spirit of the Conan Doyle canon.
BASIL RATHBONE IN "SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH";
HOLMES IN THE EARLY TELEVISION ERA:
ALAN NAPIER (1949);
Rathbone was so popular that even after he bailed out of the series nobody would be tempted to make another Holmes movie for over a decade until Hammer Studios would remake "Hound Of The Baskervilles" with Peter Cushing in 1959. For a decade Holmes would instead be found on the small screen. Rathbone himself would reconsider his earlier walk away from the role and considered making a TV series but for whatever reason that prospective series never happened. The first TV Holmes would come rather early, in 1949 as a one-off filmed on Hal Roach Studios on sets left over from another movie which meant that unlike most of the early TV shows of the era this film has lush sets and costumes. Holmes was well played by Alan Napier, best known for later playing Alfred the Butler on the 1960's Batman series, and Melville Cooper as Watson. Napier was an excellent Holmes, cool and confident and it's a pity that this was only a one-off and a full series wasn't made. The plot is taken from the canon and is reasonably faithful to the original although like the Norwood silents the half hour length makes it feel rather rushed. They also add in a completely unnecessary boyfriend character to act as red hearing, but he is just annoying. Napier died in 1988 aged 85.
ALAN NAPIER IN "THE SPECKLED BAND" ~ (1949);
JOHN LONGDEN (1951);
The first attempt a Holmes series resulted in a pilot episode filmed in 1951 starring John Longden, who had appeared in some of Alfred Hitchcock's early British films. Longden is one of the worst Sherlocks, a morose man known for his heavy drinking, he was a dour presence with a bullet head and a beetle-browed glower. In fact he looked more like a Holmes villain than Holmes himself. This one also suffers from a low budget and bland supporting players. The plot is taken from "The Man With The Twisted Lip" and is reasonably faithful to the original story. This pilot was not picked up and remained a one-off but has somehow survived. Longden died in 1970 aged 71.
JOHN LONGDEN IN "THE MAN WHO DISAPPEARED" ~ (1951);
RONALD HOWARD (1953-1956);
Another TV one-off was an off-canon story called "The Sting Of Death" starring Boris Karloff as Sherlock's brother Mycroft Holmes in 1955 in an American one hour live TV production in which Mycroft is lured out of retirement in the country to solve one last crime. In 1951 the British finally got into the act with a series starring Alan Wheatley which is not currently available and given the way the BBC discarded much of it's early library may never be. The really first successful television Holmes series was an independent production done in Europe by American writer/producer Sheldon Reynolds from 1953 to 1956 that aired in Britain, North America, Australia and other parts of Europe in syndication for years afterwards. Holmes was played by Ronald Howard, the son of actor Leslie Howard of "Gone With The Wind" fame, Watson was played by Marion Crawford in a slightly Nigel Bruce mold. These half hour episodes quickly departed from the Doyle canon, sometimes widely, and they are hampered by their short length which leads to the usual rushed feel. In some of the stories Holmes seems to solve his case through dumb luck, dumb criminals or lucky coincidence rather than deductive reasoning. The stories do however at least hold true to the Victorian settings and do a good job with their fairly limited budget. Howard is a popular Holmes for many, with a dry, understated style that almost winked at the audience and fit the show's easy going style. He is easily the most likable Holmes and although that is hardly the point of the role it is not unusual for a television character of the era. Howard died in 1996 aged 78.
RONALD HOWARD IN "THE CURSE OF THE RED HEADED LEAGUE" ~ (1954);
DOUGLAS WILMER (1964);
Holmes would return to TV in with a series made by Granada for the BBC in 1964 starring the next great Holmes and Watson; Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock. Wilmer dared to portray Holmes as not especially likable, instead he was often smug, arrogant, rude and full of self-regard. This was a bold choice, especially for a television character who would be in people's homes every week, but it was true to the Holmes of the canon. Nigel Stock made for a good Watson as well; brave and loyal if still a textbook second banana. Stock did however manage to reclaim the role from Nigel Bruce's comic sidekick. The Wilmer's were the first since the Norwood silents to carefully adhere to the Canon. As such they paid scrupulous attention to detail and looked quite authentic to the Victorian era with fine attention to sets. In spite of the excellence of the series Wilmer was not happy with the experience. Relatively low budgets and short shooting schedules left little time for rehearsals, a situation made worse by the habit of delivering scripts the night before, often incomplete, leaving Wilmer to reportedly revise them himself on the fly. After a season Wilmer refused to return for another. Most of the Wilmer series has survived however and all are available on DVD. Wilmer would later reprise Holmes in an appearance in the parody film "The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" starring Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and Dom Deluise with Thorley Walters as Watson. As of this writing Wilmer is still alive aged 93 and occasionally working, including a cameo in the most recent Benedict Cumberpatch Sherlock Holmes TV series. Nigel Stock died in 1986 aged 66 after making a return in the later "Young Sherlock Holmes" film playing a tutor to the young Sherlock.
DOUGLAS WILMER AS HOLMES;
PETER CUSHING (1959-1968);
When Holmes returned to the big screen it was in the 1959 version of "The Hound Of The Baskervilles" made by Hammer Studios in Britain starring Peter Cushing as Holmes and Andre Morell as Watson. This film took some serious liberties with the original story but it was up to the usual high Hammer Studios standards with gorgeous photography (it's the first Holmes in colour), and has everything you would expect from a Hammer film; blood, lush sets, vibrant colours, women with plunging necklines and more blood. The story goes wildly off-canon in ways that most Holmesians disapprove of and has some bizarre choices with fellow Hammer player Christopher Lee totally miscast as the wimpy Henry Baskerville instead of having him play the evil Stapleton. Cushing however became the first great Holmes since Rathbone by putting his own stamp on the character. While Cushing was a little short and slight for the role he had a fidgety intensity with dart-like movements, flashing eyes and clipped precise diction. His Watson was played by the stolid Andre Morelle who worked to make Watson less of a comic relief character he had become thanks to Nigel Bruce, Marion Crawford and Melvile Cooper. Critics at the time sniffed at the movie's liberties but it has become more popular over time, largely due to Cushing. After Wilmer quit the TV series after one season Granada was not ready to give up on a successful series and replaced Wilmer with Peter Cushing returning to the role, this time in colour as two hour specials (the Wilmer's were one hour in black and white), with Nigel Stock remaining. These ran from 1965 to 1968. The Cushing episodes of the TV series are are up to the same high standards in authentic set design as the Wilmer series, in fact with their extra running times they may actually be better. Reportedly they also suffered the same problems however with scripts being fired off on the fly. The series included Cushing's second version of "The Hound Of The Baskervilles". Unfortunately most of the Cushing's have been lost except for five episodes which are now available on DVD. Twenty years later a visibly frail Cushing would return for a lack-luster off-canon film.
PETER CUSHING IN "A STUDY IN SCARLET" (1966);
CHRISTOPHER LEE (1962);
In 1962 Christopher Lee finally got a chance to play Holmes himself, albeit in a low-budget black and white German production called "Sherlock Holmes and the Necklace Of Death". Lee does a predictably solid job and the film is not bad but it looks decidedly low-rent and suffers by comparison to the lush Hammer or Fox films. Watson is played by Thorley Waters, one of the few British actors in an otherwise German cast and crew of unknowns, many of whom reportedly spoke little English. Waters, like Andre Morelle and Nigel Stock worked to humanize Watson as a more respectable second banana. Waters would return to the role opposite Douglas Wilmer in the 1975 Gene Wilder comedy "The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother".
CHRISTOPHER LEE AS HOLMES (1962);
ERICH SCHELLOW (1967-1968);
Speaking of German productions; Around the time the Douglas Wilmer/Peter Cushing series was being made in the U.K. a similar series was being made for German TV. These episodes make an interesting comparison with the Wilmer series since they are both in black & white with similar production values and are true to the canon originals, although the German versions do take a few liberties with the story in "The Speckled Band", which is the only episode I've seen. The episode is obviously in German with no subtitles but the story follows the canon enough to follow along. Holmes is played by Erich Schellow and Watson by Paul Roth both of whom had long resumes in Germany. Schellow and Roth are not as excellent as Wilmer and Stock likewise the Dr Roylott character played here by Fritz Tillman does not have the menace of Felix Felton in the Wilmer version. However they are solid enough and the sets look good if a little cramped. This episode was directed by Paul May who was another veteran of German film but was no relation to German director Joe May.
"THE SPECKLED BAND" (Germany 1968);
JOHN NEVILLE (1965);
Setting aside Christopher Lee's German quickie the 1960's saw a chance to experiment with the Holmes character in films with decent budgets and thoughtful scripts as opposed to the pure escapism of the Rathbone and Cushing films and the Howard TV series or the slavish devotion to the canon of the Wilmer and Cushing TV series.
1965's "A Study In Terror" had John Neville battling Jack The Ripper with Donald Houston as Watson. Neville was a Canadian stage actor (making him the second Canuck Holmes after Raymond Massey) who gave a solid, serious if low-key performance in a dark and, by the standards of the day, bloody film. Watson was played by Donald Huston who is not a strong as Nigel Stock or Andre Morelle. The film does have the always delightful Robert Morley as the perfect Mycroft and also starred future Holmes players with Frank Finlay as Lestrade and Anthony Quayle as a suspect. After the vibrant technicolour of the Hammer film this film was set the feel for many Sherlock and Ripper films since with a gloomy, crowded London of shadows, fog and damp cobblestones for a dark atmosphere. Nivelle would have a long career including starring in the title role in the Terry Gillium big-budget extravaganza "Baron Munchhausen".
JOHN NEVILLE IN "A STUDY IN TERROR" (1965);
ROBERT STEPHENS (1970);
This was followed by a light hearted big budget Billy Wilder epic called "The Private Live Of Sherlock Holmes" with Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakely as Watson. The film sparked some tut-tutting by briefly toying with the nature of the relationship between Holmes and Watson but was otherwise conventional enough, if decidedly off-canon. Stephen's portrayal of Holmes was fairly campy with plenty of winking at the audience and his oddly high-pitched trilling voice and detached amusement. Blakely's Watson was decidedly more hyper-kenetic and temperamental but they played off well together. Christopher Lee returned this time as Mycroft with Genevieve Page as a femme fatale and Frank Thorton ("Are You Being Served") in a bit part. The film sported fine production values and lush sets along veering off into steam-punk with a submarine and a Loch Ness Monster.
"THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES" (1970);
NICOL WILLIAMSON (1976);
Based on a successful of-canon novel "The Seven Per Cent Solution" had Holmes battling drug addiction with the help of Sigmund Freud. Holmes was played by Nicol Williamson and Watson by Robert Duval sporting a laughable accent. Williamson played Holmes as distraught, temperamental and fragile but was otherwise a believable Holmes. Set on the continent the film lacks the shadows and fog atmosphere of "A Study In Terror" or the later "Murder By Decree" nor does it have the lush production of the Billy Wilder or Hammer Studios versions but is a solid entry with an interesting premise which plays with the Holmes story while still treating it with respect. The film also featured Lawrence Olivier as a jittery Moriarty, Alan Arkin as a sturdy Sigmund Freud along with Vanessa Redgrave, Joel Grey, Jeremy Kemp and Charles Grey as Mycroft, a role he would later play in the later BBC TV versions.
NICOL WILLIAMSON IN "THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION" (1976);
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (1979);
"Murder By Decree" was a UK-Canadian production from Bob Clark that returned to the Jack The Ripper theme, it starred Christopher Plummer and James Mason who made a thoroughly human and believable Holmes and Watson. The film had a moody and eerie fog and cobblestones atmosphere and a strong cast. The plot was based on the now familiar theory about the Royal conspiracy behind the Ripper murders. The film was highly atmospheric and nicely captured the dark side of Victorian London with narrow streets of crumbling houses and damp cobblestones enveloped in sheets of shadows and fog. Plummer had already played Holmes in a forgotten version of "Silver Blaze" and here showed less detachment and more emotion and moral outrage than the normal Holmes which greatly humanized the character (Jeremy Brett would later pronounce himself a fan of Plummer's work) while Mason's Watson was a warm, loyal and stolid presence. The two worked well together and created a lived-in team. Also appearing were Anthony Quayle and Frank Finlay both of whom had also appeared in the earlier "Study In Terror" starring the previous Canadian Sherlock, John Neville with Finlay again as a fine Lestrade. The impressive all star British-Canadian cast included Sir John Gielgud (who had already played Holmes on the radio in the 50's), David Hemmings (from "Blow Up"), Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold, Susan Clark, and Chris Wiggins ("Rocket Robin Hood").
"MURDER BY DECREE";
Besides these off-canon but essentially serious minded experiments with the character the seventies brought some high profile if not especially high concept parodies.
JOHN CLEESE (1973-1977);
The first notable Holmes parody besides the long running "Sherluck Jones" skit came from Monty Python's Cleese in two TV movies; "Elementary My Dear Watson" in 1973 and "The Strange Case Of The End Of Civilization" in 1977. Cleese can deliver Sherlock's clipped rapid-fire dialogue with smug authority and he even basically looks the part in his exaggerated stork-like way. Basically he's Basil Fawlty as Holmes but it works in what is that rarity; a Holmes parody that's actually funny. Watson is played by William Rushton. Both films are set in modern times although Holmes and Watson still dress as if it were the Victorian era and rise about in Hansom cabs. There are some absurdly complicated murders and some good jokes. Personal fave; A police detective stands over a dead body with a knife in his back and asks; "Has this sort of thing happened before?". Answer; "Not to him". After that the plot gets overly weird but Cleese is solid.
"ELEMENTARY MY DEAR WATSON" (1973);
In the second episode Holmes and Watson are the direct descendants of the originals, still working as detectives in contemporary London as the descendant of Dr Watson is bumping off the world's greatest detectives. And Henry Kissinger. More silliness ensues. This episode has a stronger supporting cast with Arthur Lowe as an exceptionally clueless Watson, Connie Booth (Cleese's then wife and "Fawlty Towers" co-star) as a foul tempered Mrs Hudson, the great Denholm Elliott ("Trading Places" and the third Indiana Jones movie), Bert Kwouk (the crazed houseboy from the Pink Panther movies) and Joss Ackland, best known as the ogreish South African ambassador from the second "Lethal Weapon" movie.
"THE STRANGE CASE OF THE END OF CIVILIZATION" (1977);
PETER COOK (1978);
Peter Cook was an obvious choice to do a Holmes parody and he did the character a few time on TV before making the 1978 version of "Hound Of The Baskervilles" along with his usual partner Dudley Moore playing a frenzied Watson. Other stars of British comedy appear as well including Denholm Elliot, who had already appeared in on of the John Cleese parodies and Terry-Thomas. Consisting mostly of a series of unrelated skits with only a nodding aquaintance with the original Conan Doyle story, the film is notorious as being the worst Holmes parody of all time. Actually there are a few laughs but overall the film is too loud, crude and tasteless.
PETER COOK & DUDLEY MOORE;
DOUGLAS WILMER RETURNS (1975):
1975's "The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" was a Gene Wilder production securely in the Mel Brooks school of crude slapstick wherein Wilder played a previously unknown jealous younger brother Sigurson Holmes who is a rival detective. The film features other Mel Brooks regulars like Marty Feldman, Dom Deluise and Madeline Kahn and is of a predictable level of silly horseplay. Shelock Holmes himself is played by none other than Douglas Wilmer, returning to the role a decade after leaving the TV series with Thorley Walters from the Christopher Lee version as Watson. The two (especially Wilmer) bring a much needed sense of familiarity to their roles and the biggest surprise is that Wilmer is actually quite good at comedy and is certainly funnier than Deluise's hammy mugging. The film also does a reasonably good job with production design unlike the Cleese and Cook parodies and at least looks good.
"THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES' SMARTER BROTHER" ~ (1975);
NICHOLAS ROWE (1985);
Also off-canon but not a parody was "Young Sherlock Holmes", a Stephen Spielberg/Barry Levinson production in 1985 with Nicholas Rowe as Holmes and Alan Cox as Watson. The story has Holmes as a teen in private school meeting Watson and solving his first crimes. This is directly off-canon since Conan Doyle's stories clearly has them meeting as adults but it's still true to the feel of the characters. Rowe is a perfect young Sherlock, already cool, aloof and self-contained with intelligent eyes and a lean frame. Cox's Watson is a chubby, eager to please but not unintelligent second banana happy to be in Holmes' shadow. The typically big-budget production has a battery of special effects including an Egyptian temple and a flying machine. Holmes get a love interest (sort of) in pretty Sophie Ward and Anthony Higgins as Moriarty. The film also marked the return of an older Nigel Stock this time not playing Watson. Rowe's strong performance should have been star-making but his career has been pretty low key since, probably because he chose to stay in Britain. He most lately appeared in supporting roles in British detective series like "Midsomer Murders" and "Inspector Gently". In 2015's "Mr Holmes" (with Ian McKellen) Rowe made a cameo as a film version of Holmes that the "real" Holmes watches in a theatre.
"YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES";
MICHEAL CAINE (1985):
Even more upbeat and further off-canon was "Without A Clue" in 1985 with Micheal Caine playing Holmes as a drunken impostor and Ben Kingsley as Watson who turns out to be the true genius detective. Caine's Holmes was a bumbling boob who is hired as a frontman for Watson's literary character while Watson actually solves the crimes. Caine looks nothing like Holmes but under the circumstances that hardly matters, he waltzes through the procedings with his usual droll if roguish charm. Kingsley's Watson is perpetually annoyed with having to take a backseat to the cloddish fake Holmes-monster he created. Kingsley has the erect military bearing and clipped speech of the military doctor that Watson was supposed to be. Also on board are Jeffery Jones as a doltish and jealous Lestrade and Lysette Anthony as a femme fatale. Anthony would also play opposite Caine in a TV movie "Jack The Ripper" and looks nicely Victorian. The movie is an affectionate trashing of the Holmes legend that even a Holmesian should enjoy.
"WITHOUT A CLUE";
BACK TO TELEVISION;
STEWART GRANGER (1972);
The first American colour TV version of a Holmes story was of "The Hound Of The Baskervilles" starring suave British leading man Stewart Granger, best known from the 1950's versions of "King Solomon's Mines" and "The Prisoner Of Zenda". Granger has presence and would have been a decent choice twenty years earlier but by 1972 he was really too old for the role. His Watson is Bernard Fox, best known for roles as a bumbling Brit in TV comedies like "Hogan's Heros" and "The Monkees" although he also appeared in the war epic "The Longest Day". Then again so did everybody else. Fox brings nothing new to this second banana role. More notable is William Shatner (yes; that William Shatner) as the murderous Stapleton and Anthony Zerbe, normally cast as a snide, oily heavy, as the somewhat confused Dr Mortimer. Shatner is given little to do and perhaps would have been better off cast as Henry Baskerville with Zerbe as the villainous Stapleton. With a running time of only about an hour the story is rather rushed but stays true to the canon and has decent set and costume design. Granger would go on to star in the 1978 war movie "The Wild Geese" with another former Sherlock, Roger Moore. Granger died of cancer in 1993 after a life time of chain smoking. Fox would go on to play similarly noble if dense characters in "Titanic" and "The Mummy".
ROGER MOORE (1976);
"Sherlock Holmes in New York" starred Roger Moore (already better known as Bond, James Bond) chasing Moriarty to New York City. Watson was played by Patrick McNee from another spy icon of the sixties; "The Avengers". Moore's Holmes was widely dismissed but he makes an acceptable Holmes although his feathered hair, sideburns and suspiciously contemporary clothes are a distraction. A bigger distraction is that it is difficult for the audience to get past the fact that it is clearly James Bond as Holmes. In his previous best known roles as Bond, Simon Templer ("The Saint") and Beau Maverick ("Maverick") Moore's trademark was a suave, droll self-aware winking at the audience but here he is brisk and no-nonsense, closer to the character he played in "folkes". McNee's Watson is a not-too-bright but well-meaning, warm and good humoured proving the personality that Moore's cold Holmes lacks. The story is off canon but in character although some business with Holmes dressing up in various outlandish costumes and hamming it up (twice!) goes on too long. Charlote Rampling shows up as Irene Adler but is given little to do. John Huston steals the show as an ogreishly campy Moriarty.
ROGER MOORE ~ "SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK" 1976;
GEOFFREY WHITEHEAD (1980);
In 1980 Sheldon Reynolds, the American television writer and producer responsible for the 1950's Ronald Howard series tried again with another syndicated series shot in Europe and starring the obscure British actor Geoffrey Whitehead as Holmes and Donald Pickering as Watson. Both are merely adequate, Whitehead lacks the affability of Howard although the somber Pickering is an improvement over the bumbling Marion Crawford. Somewhat surprisingly the half-hour series credits as one of it's writers novelist Anthony Burgess ("A Clockwork Orange") and the series is less accordingly more authentic and less lighthearted than the previous Reynolds version. Unfortunately it was also less successful. The budget appears to have the same limits however, and even seems to use the some of the same sets. Unlike the Howard series which is easily available on DVD this series has been largely forgotten. As a note of trivia one of the villains is played by Julian Fellows, best known as the later creator of "Downton Abbey". Let's just say that as an actor he makes a good writer.
GEOFFREY WHITEHEAD AS HOLMES (1980);
GUY HENRY (1980);
Before Granada scored with the Jeremy Brett series they had a mini-series "Young Sherlock", in 1980. The story is completely different from the movie and could be seen as a prequel of sorts to the later Spielberg movie. Working with a limited budget and mostly shot in a rural setting the series lacks entirely the atmosphere and meticulous attention to detail of the later Brett series or the previous Wilmer and Cushing series. It's also slow moving at eight chapters which could have been easily edited down to a third of that. As the young Holmes the obscure Guy Henry is not nearly as perfect as Nicholas Rowe had been in the movie. There is no Watson although Mrs Hudson does make an appearance along with a reference to Sebastian Moran. Henry has since turned up in the Harry Potter series.
GUY HENRY AS YOUNG SHERLOCK;
FRANK LANGELLA (1981);
American actor Langella had played on stage in a revival of the Gillette play which was filmed for public TV in 1981. Langella had already made his name as Dracula both on film (in 1979) and stage and he has his usual smooth assurance. Since the production is simply a filmed version of the play it's very, well, stagy, with no exterior shots at all or credible action scenes. There is also an audience which is a little distracting when they laugh or applaud. Watson is played by the dull and elderly Richard Woods. More interesting is the supporting cast which includes George Morgoffen as Moriarty, Susan Clark (who had been in the Christopher Plummer movie), Stephen Collins ("Seventh Heaven"), Dwight Shultz ("A Team" and "Star Trek TNG"), Tom Atkins "Lethal Weapon") and a young pre-teen Christan Slater as Holmes' houseboy Billy, the role previously played by the young Charlie Chaplin.
FRANK LANGELLA AS HOLMES;
TOM BAKER (1982);
Tom Baker, already well known as the most popular Dr. Who, took over Holmes for a version of "The Hound Of The Baskervilles" in 1982. The production is pretty low budget but acceptable enough for a British TV series of the time and sticks close to the original story. Baker is a solid Holmes, dry and brisk, more focused than the rather scattered Dr Who, but he lacks the distinctive personality of Wilmer or Cushing. Watson is played by Terrance Rigby, a recognizable British character actor, as slightly buffoonish Watson.
TOM BAKER IN "HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES";
In 1983 brought another Holmes BBC TV series with "The Baker Street Boys" which has the odd distinction of being a Sherlock Holmes series with virtually no Sherlock Holmes. The series is focused entirely on the street urchins Holmes sometimes uses in his cases, the Baker St Irregulars known here as the Baker St Boys, even though two of them are actually girls. The Irregulars solve crimes with occasional encouragement from Holmes who is never actually seen except in shadow or silhouette or sometimes an off-screen voice. He is played, if we can call it that, by Roger Ostime who obviously needs no particular talent for this role. Watson is played by Hubert Rees who gets some actual screen time and dialogue, albeit as a minor role. Rees bears a strong resemblance to Nigel Stock, who played Watson opposite Doulgas Wilmer, and he plays him in a similar vein. Moriarty is played by Colin Jeavons who would later show up in the Jeremy Brett series as Inspector Lestrade while Lestrade is played by Stanley Lebor as a sneering bully. The production values are similar to those of the contemporary Geoffrey Whitehead series with perhaps less variety in sets. The show was aimed at kids (the boys actually rescue Holmes at one point) but is watchable for adults and likable enough and while obviously departing from the canon treats the Holmes universe with respect.
"THE BAKER STREET BOYS";
PETER O'TOOLE (1983);
Peter O'Toole is, like Christopher Lee, another actor who would seem to be an obvious choice to play Holmes and indeed he was originally supposed to play the lead in the 1977 "Murder By Decree" with Watson to be played by Lawrence Olivier who had already played Moriary in "The Seven Per Cent Solution". At least that was the plan. When O'Toole was approached by director Bob Clark he immediately said yes but warned Clark that he and Olivier were not on speaking terms and that Olivier would probably say no, which he eventually did. By the time Clark was ready to start filming neither O'Toole nor Olivier were available anyway so Clark quickly signed up Christopher Plummer and James Mason who turned in an excellent job. Olivier would go on to play Van Helsing in "Dracula" opposite Frank Langella and O'Toole would have to wait for his chance to play Holmes in a 1983 animated series. The stories are of the canon and straight-forward enough while the animation is merely competent, for that matter so is O'Toole who sounds bored with the whole thing.
"HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES";
IAN RICHARDSON (1983);
Another British TV attempt, this time (1983) starring that fine character actor Ian Richardson who had already appeared in the 1979 Christopher Plummer movie as Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren. Richardson made a nicely droll Holmes, especially while playing off Terence Rigby as a bumbling police inspector. Rigby was a recognizable character actor who had already played Watson opposite Tom Baker and he plays the inspector as the typically pompous blimp; stuffed full of baseless self-regard, and he practically steals every scene he's in. However Watson as played by David Healy is a bland nonentity. Ironically the first episode featured a guest shot by yet another Watson in Thorley Walters who had already played opposite both Christopher Lee and Douglas Wilmer. Two full-length episodes were filmed ("Sign Of Four" and "Hound Of The Baskervilles") with reportedly more planned until Granada unveiled the Jeremy Brett series. The sets are typically well done but the direction lacks the understated atmospherics of the Brett series. Richardson would later play Conan Doyle's mentor and role model for Holmes play Sir James Bell in a British mini series "Murder Rooms" but became best known from the original British version of "House Of Cards" he died in 2007.
"THE SIGN OF FOUR" ~ 1983;
JEREMY BRETT (1984-1994);
From 1984 to 1994 Granada returned with probably the greatest Holmes of all time in Jeremy Brett. The Brett television series is simply perfect with it's fanatical attention to detail, beautiful photography and slavish devotion to the Victorian canon which extended to staging certain shots as thorough reproductions of Sidney Paget's original illustrations. Brett thoroughly understood the role to the point of embodiment. He had carefully read all the stories (he even carried dogeared and scored copies about while filming) and studied the previous portrayals to make the him the definitive Holmes, taking special note of the work of Wilmer, Cushing, Lee, Stephens and Plummer, all of whom he knew well. Brett's Holmes is deeply nuanced; with purposely theatrical flourishes and odd vocal cadence that suggest Holmes need for attention balanced by his isolation. His detachment masking his intensity and moodiness. He is surprisingly subtle, with brief flashes of amusement and predatory hunger and pride flickering across his face.
His Watson was played in the first season by David Burke (who had played a villain during the Wilmer series) and thereafter by Edward Hardwick, whose father Cecil had played Holmes on the radio, both also did solid work. The series was blessed with a fine supporting cast including Charles Grey as Mycroft (a role he had already played in "The Seven Percent Solution"), Colin Jeavons as Lestrade and Rosalie Williams as Mrs Hudson, all were typically perfect. There was also a notable stable of guest stars including some who were former or future Holmsians including Frank Finlay (who had played Lestrade opposite both John Neville and Christopher Plummer), Susanna Harker (who would be in "Crucifer Of Blood" opposite Charlton Heston), Jenny Seagrove (who would appear in "Incident At Victoria Falls" with Chrisopher Lee), Jeremy Kemp (also from "Seven Percent Solution"), Joss Ackland (who had appeared opposite John Cleese), Peter Wyngarde (who had appeared in the Peter Cushing series) and Jude Law who would later play Watson. Other guests from the uniformly excellent cast included John Thaw (from "Inspector Morse"), Marina Sirtis ("Star Trek TNG"), Ciran Hinds ("Game Of Thrones") and Natasha Richardson.
By the final season Brett was a very sick man, afflicted by heart disease and bi-polar disorder, and he became shockingly pale, bloated red-eyed and pasty, frequently too weak to engage in physically strenuous activity. During one episode in the final season he collapsed while filming forcing the directors to shoot around him. The directors attempted to cover for this problem by using increasingly artsy camera work in the final two seasons which can make these shows a little confusing. During another episode Brett was too ill to work at all and they had to improvise by making Mycroft the sleuth while Brett contributed only the opening and closing segments. Even with all this Brett soldiered doggedly on and was planning to shoot more episodes hoping to film the entire Conan Doyle canon when he died in 1995 aged 61.
JEREMY BRETT IN "THE SPECKLED BAND" ~ 1984;
LEONARD NIMOY (1987);
Mr Spock from "Star Trek" had been playing Holmes in a stage production of the Gillette play since 1975 when he played Holmes in "The Interior Motive", a 1987 half-hour PBS TV special. The playlet is actually a not a Holmes story at all but rather a science lesson about measuring the interior of the earth and it's temperature. Nimoy is brisk and business-like and doesn't even bother to fake a British accent. Watson is played by the much older Burt Blackwell.
"THE INTERIOR MOTIVE";
HUGH FRASER (1986);
An oddity from the BBC; "Murder On The Bluebell Line", a 1986 half-hour one-off has Holmes attempting to solve the mystery of Piltdown Man. In this low-budget quickie Holmes spends most of his time on a train or walking across the fields spinning his theories as told in flashback, and that's about it. The title is blatantly misleading since there is no actual murder. Holmes is played by Hugh Fraser better known as Colonel Hastings in the later long-running Poirot series and Ronald Fraser as Watson. Hugh actually makes a decent Holmes and could have conceivably have played him in a more serious production. Ronald as Watson is far too old however.
HUGH FRASER IN "MURDER ON THE BLUEBELL LINE" ~ 1986;
BRAIN BEDFORD (1989);
One episode from the 1990's "Alfred Hichcock Presents" TV series remakes featured a breezy half hour quickie starring Brian Bedford (Clyde Tolson from Oliver Stone's "Nixon") as Holmes. Bedford is smuggly superior but too portly to pass for Holmes but given the mocking tone it doesn't really matter. Watson is played by the dull Patrick Monkton while Lestrade is played by respected Canadian character actor John Colicos who has a long pedigree playing sci-fi villains is "Battlestar Gallactica", "Star Trek", "Star Lost" and "The Changeling". If you don't see the plot twist coming you really shouldn't be watching Sherlock Holmes. Nice punchline at the end.
BRIAN BEDFORD IN "MY DEAR WATSON" ~ 1989;
EDWARD WOODWARD (1990);
1990's "Hands Of A Murderer" was an American TV movie starring Edward Woodward, a British actor best known in America for the TV series "The Equalizer" and accordingly he delivers a hard-boiled Holmes. He has genuine presence and unlike many Sherlocks he seems quite capable of delivering a good beating to some goon. On the minus side Woodward looks and acts more like an Anglo-Victorian Mike Hammer than Sherlock Holmes which is a distraction. Watson is played by John Hillerman best known as Higgins from "Magnum P.I.", oddly while Hillerman is known for playing stuffy Englishmen he is in fact from Texas.
"HANDS OF A MURDRER";
1991's "Crucifer Of Blood" was based on a successful off-canon play starring a seriously miscast and tired Charlton Heston (with a vague accent that says "I'm Charlton Heston and I don't do accents") and an only slightly more awake Richard Johnson as Watson. Ironically Jeremy Brett had actually played Watson on stage with Heston which must have been odd given that must have been the first time a Watson was visibly much younger and energetic than Holmes. The story was a really a copy of Conan Doyle's "The Sign Of Four" and featured the always excellent Edward Fox and the always beautiful Susanna Harker, who had also appeared in the Jeremy Brett series. Fox's character is unfortunately so totally dour and foul tempered that Fox's usual charm and lilting diction are wasted. Harker gets to steal the show playing against type as a femme fatale. Harker is one of the few actresses who actually looks at home in a Victorian costume drama and with her china-doll face, perfect skin, big blue eyes and slightly crooked mouth she looks every inch the Victorian sex symbol, unlike some of the bigger names who have dropped into Sherlock's world. Rachel MacAdams comes to mind. Not to mention Morgan Fairchild.
"CRUCIFER OF BLOOD";
CHRISTOPHER LEE RETURNS (1991);
Fully thirty years after playing Holmes in 1962's low budget "Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace" returned to the role in two bigger budget TV two part movies "The Incident At Victoria Falls" and "Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady" with Patrick McNee as Watson. Filmed in Europe and South Africa both have some fine locations and good costumes. However the stories drag, the direction is bland and many of the supporting players are mediocre at best. Lee and McNee would have obvious choices twenty years earlier but by this point Lee was really too old for the part although the movies get around this by simply setting them in the later Edwardian era so it's not a serious problem in-and-of-itself. However Lee seems utterly bored while McNee is typically game for anything. In "Victorian Falls" Claude Akins shows up as a boisterous Teddy Roosevelt to liven things up. The contrast in leading ladies is jaw dropping. In "Victoria Falls" Jenny Seagrove plays Lilly Langtry, she had already played opposite Jeremy Brett and setting aside that she looks nothing like Langtry, she is another beautifully intelligent British actress who looks quite at home in a period piece. On the other hand "Leading Lady" features Morgan Fairchild as the most miscast Irene Adler of all time. Actually Fairchild is stunningly photogenic and even does look amazingly like a Gibson Girl, however she has zero presence and she and Lee have all the sexual chemistry of a department store manikin under a dusty blanket. Playing an opera singer (!) she also has a scene in which she proves she is the laziest lip-sync singer since Charlie McCarthy. It's too bad Lee and McNee didn't get a chance to play Holmes and Watson twenty years earlier. And in a better production. Both films are easily available on DVD.
"INCIDENT AT VICTORIA FALLS";
PATRICK MCNEE (1993);
After playing Watson to Lee and Moore's Holmes McNee finally got his chance to play Sherlock himself in a low-budget quickie Canadian production based on a stage-play version. This time it's McNee's turn to look utterly bored and sleepwalk his way through this even more lackadaisical knock-off. The rest of the cast are unknowns who would stay that way. Watson is faceless, the Irene Adler (who bears a strong resemblance to Cassie Yates) is far too young for the elderly Holmes and Moriarty looks like Buffalo Bill Cody. There are a few attempts at humour which are mostly jarring. The film is visibly stage-bound with most of the action (such as it is) literally taking place on a theatre stage, thus there is not even the sort of lush sets and scenery that even other cheapo Holmes versions managed to provide. In spite of the title this version has nothing to do with the Hound Of The Baskervilles, or any dog at all. Other than being a dog itself of course. McNee retired in 2003 and died in 2015.
PATRICK McNEE in "THE HOUND OF LONDON";
RICHARD E. GRANT;
Another made for TV oddity, this one features a young Grant as the spirit of Holmes (or not) coming to life to haunt his creator Arthur Conan Doyle, then it gets weird. Grant has the presence and arrogance for the role although he was really too young at this point in his career. He would later appear in a made-for-TV version of "Hound Of The Baskervilles" (see below) and he could easily play Holmes again. Doyle is played by Holmes veteran Frank Finlay who had already played Inspector Lestrade twice; in "A Study In Terror" and "Murder By Decree" as well as appearing in an episode of the Jeremy Brett series.
RICHARD E GRANT IN "THE OTHER SIDE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES";
The immediate success of the Brett series had the same effect as the Rathbone series; discouraging anybody else in Britain at least from trying their hand at the role. After Brett's death Granada tried to return with a darker remake of "Hound Of The Baskervilles" starring Richard Roxborough (who oddly enough would also play Moriarty in "The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen") and then again with Rupert Everet, both feature Ian Hart as Watson. These could not live up to the Brett levels but are done in the usual high Granada production standards and look great. Roxborough has classic leading man looks with his square face, lantern jaw and piercing eyes and is one of the few Sherlocks who actually looks like he could win a fist fight. However he lacks the remote, ascetic look of a Holmes. This is even more true for Rupert Everett who is clearly too much of a moody matinee idol. Ian Hart gives a strong take on Watson, making him angry and resentful of Holmes' arrogance and caviler attitude, at times he seems about to take a swing at Roxborough's inconsiderate Holmes. This is an interesting take but it actually makes one wonder why he stands by Holmes at all. The role of the villainous Stapleton is played by the always excellent Richard E. Grant who probably should have been given a shot at playing the lead with Roxborough playing Stapleton. The Role of Stapleton's sister/wife goes to Scottish actress Neve McIntosh who is both darkly beautiful and troubled. "Baskervilles" was bloodier than usual and makes some unwise changes to the story for no apparent reason.
Roxborough begged off for the next Granada version, either because he was too busy or because he didn't enjoy the experience, depending of who you ask. "Silk Stockings" goes off-canon having Holmes making use of fingerprint technology. Besides Everet being too young and too pretty for the role he also seems thoroughly bored and sleepwalks his way through with none of the light charm he has shown elsewhere. Hart's Watson is less ill-tempered than the previous outing otherwise he would completely overshadow Everet which would just be wrong. The story is set later than normally in the early 1900's with telephones and fingerprint technology (but oddly no automobiles) which in not unique to the Holmes world but it also makes Everet's youth even more noticeable. The cast includes Micheal Fassbender and has some links to other British mystery series with Neil Dudgeon of "Midsomer Murders" as Lestrade and Pertida Weeks, sister of Honeysuckle Weeks from "Foyle's War" as a damsel in distress.
RUPERT EVERET AS HOLMES;
MATT FREWER (2000-2002):
From 2000 to 2002 a Canadian-UK series would feature Matt Frewer in his usual oddly mocking tone and Kenneth Welsh as one of the better Watsons. Canadian actor Frewer is best known for "Max Headroom" a role he probably wishes he could live down, along with Stephen King's "The Stand", and his peculiar nasal twang, stork-like movements and general air of offhand irony do not suit Holmes at all. Welsh, a recognizable Canadian character actor, makes a solid Watson, intelligent and loyal but often exasperated by Holmes' rudeness and lack of consideration. The films are mostly on-canon and have fine sets and photography.
JAMES D'ARCY (2002);
"Sherlock; A Case Of Evil" was a made for TV movie, filmed in Romania and Switzerland which rewrote Sherlock's origin story to imagine yet another version of Sherlock's early cases. In this one he is already a detective albeit not yet well-known. He is radically different from the Sherlock we know; he is cocky, flashy womanizer he loves getting press attention. The point of this movie is to explain how he became more cold and aloof by his experiences with Moriarty, played by Vincent D'Onofrio. Sherlock is played by James d'Arcy who actually bares a striking resemblance to Benedict Cumberpatch (although this movie predates the Cumberpatch series) but his smug, smirking Holmes is jarring. Yes I know that's supposed to be the point but it's still a distraction. Watson is played by Roger Morlidge as portly and somewhat stuffy but not a dullard. As stated Moriarty is played by Vincent D'Onofrio which is a little odd since the stocky American looks nothing like the cadaverous English professor but he plays the role with enough sneering arrogance to get away with it. The damsel in distress is played by Gabriel Anwar ("Scent Of A Woman") who for a change isn't named Irene Adler, although by the end you know why that is. She actually looks more comfortable in period costume than Rachel McAddams say, but isn't really given much to do and we get no real reason why the rakish Holmes should be so suddenly smitten with her. Richard E Grant is back for another Holmes movie, this time playing Mycroft. Like D'Onofrio the skinny Grant looks nothing like the famously fat Mycroft but what the Hell, it's Richard E Grant. The question of why he has never actually played Holmes or Moriarty is itself a mystery. D'Arcy would go on to play the unflappable butler in the "Agent Carter' series while Morlidge has appeared in various minor roles in British productions.
JOHNATHAN PRYCE (2007);
A 2007 two-part British TV series, this not by Granada, would feature Johnathan Pryce and focused on the Baker Street Irregulars. Pryce, who has played villians in "Ronin" and a Bond villain in "Tomorrow Never Dies" is actually a rather laid-back Holmes and does not try to match the intensity of Brett, or for that matter Plummer, Wilmer or Cushing. Watson is played by the affable Scottish actor Bill Paterson ("Law & Order U.K."). Irene Adler is played by Anna Chanceller as Holmes arch-enemy she does a good job with an over-used character and would later turn up in Downton Abby
"THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS";
ROBERT DOWNEY JR (2009-2011);
2009 brought the first serious big-budget Holmes production since 1985 with British director's Guy Ritchie's film starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson. The film is wildly off-canon with Holmes as a dissolute amateur pit-fighter and plenty of noisy steampunk FX. Downey is perhaps too American and too modern to blend into the role the way that English and Canadian actors with costume drama training like Jeremy Brett, Ian Richardson, Christopher Plummer, John Neville and Peter Cushing however after a while he is able to make the role his own. Downey is always fun to watch, always seeming the same but always able to find a way to make the role distinctive. His Holmes is a slovenly, scruffy, unshaven and uses his detachment to mask his emotional immaturity and dependence on Watson. Jude Law's Watson is frequently exasperated by Holmes' behavior and torn between his desire to marry and get a life of his own and his loyalty to Holmes. Law had Holmes experience having previously played a role in an episode of the Jeremy Brett series. There was some criticism that Law was too young for the role but it is always implied that Holmes and Watson should be about the same age. The film is notable for it's costumes. Usually Victorian men are shown wearing well tailored but dour black suits, the Richie characters wear a more flashy combination of checks and plaids that is actually more authentic than the sepia tones that come down to us from photos of the era. This is a trend that has since turned up in British TV series such as "Ripper Street" and "Copper". So far so good. However the film's insistence in making Holmes into a steampunk action hero with plenty of CGI explosions is pushing it regardless of the justifications given by Guy Ritchie who insisted that Holmes was an expert in martial arts. Maybe so but turning Sherlock Holmes into a steampunk James Bond is a bridge too far. Similarly casting the over-rated Rachel McAdams is a distraction, she neither looks nor acts like a Victorian woman of any type unlike the likes of Susanna Harker, Jenny Seagrove, Anna Chanceller, Lysette Anthony or Neve McIntosh. By contrast Mary Reilly, who plays Watson's fiance, looks more at home here but none of them had the name recognition of McAdams. Still the film is fun, has plenty of action and while the larger-than-life version of Victorian London lacks the dark atmosphere of "Murder By Decree" or "A Study In Terror" it is certainly alluring and the film was more than successful enough to justify a sequel with 2011's "Game Of Shadows". This film, while have much the same qualities as the first film loses much of it's feel by leaving London and focusing more on action and CGI and yet another female lead who just doesn't work. It does however have a smugly creepy Moriarty in Jared Harris who would later go on to play Ulysses Grant in "Lincoln". This film was also a hit and there has been talk of another with both Downey and Law on board but nothing has happened yet with Ritchie since moving on to remaking "The Man From Uncle" so there might not be a third in the series.
BEN SYDOR (2009);
2009 would bring a big budget extravaganza with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. This was a big hit and has lead to one sequel so far. It also inspired a low budget quickie starring the utterly unknown Ben Syder in which Holmes battles dinosaurs and steampunk machines. It was in fact Syder's first film and he has so little presence he basically fades into the over-the-top props. He's also too short for the tall Holmes as well as too young. Watson was played by the more experienced Gareth David-Lloyd who does an adequate job. The film got poor reviews but has enough FX silliness to appeal to steampunk fans.
BEN SYDER IN "SHERLOCK HOLMES" 2010;
ANTHONY MANN (2011);
Another Canadian production, this time a low-budget straight to video version entitled "Sherlock Holmes & The Shadow Watchers" written, directed by one Anthony Mann who has also done similar versions of Victorian classics like "Dracula", "Phantom of The Opera" and "A Christmas Carol". Accordingly he chose to cast himself as the lead role. I have't seen his other films but in this case he was miscast. Mann is too short, dumpy, pasty, and sulky to play Holmes. He looks more like a morose Tim Conway. He would have been better off finding a more suitable Holmes and taking the Watson role for himself. The rest of the cast are amateurs who's only other credits seem to be Mann's other films. The direction is mostly drab and static with several scenes involving little more than characters standing around talking. That said there are a few sequences which are actually well done and atmospheric and the sets are appropriately Victorian. The story has a Jack The Ripper tie-in somewhat taking off from "A Study In Terror" and "Murder By Decree".
ANTHONY MANN IN "SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE SHADOW WATCHERS";
"Murdoch Mysteries" is a popular Canadian/UK TV production onair from 2008 that is based on the premise of a Toronto based detective set in the late 1890's using scientific methods. So he's a similar contemporary to Holmes but in the Murdoch universe Holmes is still a fictional character. However they still found ways to incorporate Holmes into their stories. One was by having Arthur Conan Doyle himself show up a few times but another was having a delusional character who believes himself to be Holmes. He dresses like Holmes and volunteers to solve crimes using Holmesian methods. He is played by British actor Andrew Gower who looks and acts so much like Andrew Scott (who played Moriarty in the Cumberbatch series) that I honestly thought it was Scott until I looked it up. Gowar has also showed up in an episode of "Endeavour".
SIR IAN MCKELLEN (2015);
2015 saw a new Holmes with Gandalf himself in "Mr Holmes". McKellen plays an older Holmes at the end of his life, living in retirement in post World War Two rural England. Told partly in flashbacks as the old man tries to remember his last cases. McKellen has an inherent stagy dignity that works perfectly for the role. Watson is long dead and is only shown in flashbacks in shadow or as disembodied hands. There is a scene where Holmes goes to the movies to see the film version of himself who is played by none other than Nicholas Rowe who played Holmes in "Young Sherlock Holmes" thirty years earlier.
SIR IAN MCKELLEN IN "MR HOLMES";
HOLMES IN THE TWENTIETH AND A HALF CENTURY;
The past couple of years have seen two successful TV series that update Holmes to a thoroughly modern context, a British one starring Benedict Cumberpatch and an American one starring Johnny Miller with Lucy Liu as Watson. Both these shows have been critically acclaimed but controversial with Holmesians due to their complete abandonment of not only the Doyle canon but the entire Victorian or Edwardian milieu but it should be said that they did finally find an answer to the vexing question that has faced all Holmes adapters for the last twenty years; namely how do you followup Jeremy Brett. It is hard to see how it would be possible to out-perfection Brett so the most successful recent adaptations have simply ignored the canon for action and FX (ie the Downey Jr and Syder versions) or modernizing completely as Cumberpatch and Miller have. These last two are not the only attempts to place Holmes in the modern era.
LARRY HAGMAN (1976);
"The Return Of The World's Greatest Detective" was a 1976 made for TV movie which had Larry Hagman then best known as the harried husband from "I Dream Of Genie" as a bumbling American cop who is struck on the head and suffering amnesia decides he is Sherlock Holmes. A premise later explored to better effect in the great British TV series "Life On Mars". This one is played for minor laughs, or at least smiles, and Hagman is enjoyable enough but the whole thing is a decidedly low rent time-waster. Watson is played by Jenny O'Hara as a social worker who knows plays along with the fake Sherlock and the cast includes Nicholas Colosanto (Coach from "Cheers") as a police detective, Nicholas Guest and a young Ron Silver. This movie may have been intended as a pilot for a proposed series which might have been passable.
MICHEAL PENNINGTON (1987);
1987's "The Return of Sherlock Holmes" has Holmes being frozen and thawed out a century later by Watson's great grand-daughter who is herself a private eye to solve a series of murders. Holmes is played by the obscure Micheal Pennington who basically looks like the Paget drawings although he is really too short and slight. Perhaps being frozen solid for a century will do that. He is also too bland and lacks Holmes' intensity. Watson is played by the equally bland Margaret Colin, also along are Nicholas Guest (brother of Christopher and best known as the obnoxious neighbour in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation"), Barry Morse ("Space 1999") and Connie Booth from the John Cleese parody. Only Booth has any personality at all. This made for TV low-budget quickie is a perfunctory waste of time.
"Star Trek; The Next Generation" featured a recurring storyline wherein the Commander Data character (played by Spiner) enters the holo-deck and pretends to be Holmes, in costume, solving crimes in a Victorian setting. He's not actually Holmes of course but the character is reasonably true to the spirit of Doyle's character and he probably would have approved.
MR DATA AS HOLMES;
ANTHONY HIGGINS (1994);
"1994 Baker Street; Sherlock Holmes Returns" was a made for TV movie that was actually intended as a pilot for a proposed TV series which was never actually picked up. Once again Holmes has had himself frozen and thawed out in modern times, this time in San Francisco, to chase after the descendants of Moriarty. Holmes is played by Anthony Higgins who had previously played Moriarty in the "Young Sherlock Holmes" movie and he is a much better actor than Pennington having more presence and vigor aside from some laughably bad make-up in the early scenes. Watson is played by Linda Farentino who burned up the screen in "The Last Seduction" but oddly other than a sly sultry-nerd turn in "Men In Black" she hasn't done much else of note and she's pretty bland here. This one has better production values and a better script than the previous two entries and a stronger performance from Higgins and it might have made a passable series although due to it's rather silly premise it lacks entirely the mood or atmosphere of the later Cumberpatch and Miller series.
"1994 BAKER STREET";
JASON GRAY-STANFORD (1996);
"Sherlock Holmes In The 22nd Century" (1996) was only the second animated Holmes series after the Peter O'Toole series. This time with another frozen-Holmes-being-brought-back theme. The setting being a 22nd century space-age London with occasional trips to the Moon. Holmes is brought back to life by a female descendant of Lestrade, still a Scotland Yard inspector. Naturally Moriarty is also back, and cloned. As is Watson, as an android, and a latter day version of the Baker Street Irregulars. Many of the stories are loosely adapted from the Conan Doyle originals. Sometimes very loosely; the Hound Of The Baskervilles as a robot and a hologram for example or Sebastian Moran with a ray gun that freezes it's victims solid. The animation is an odd combination of conventional animation on 3D sets. Unlike many cartoons the the voice actors are not well known with Holmes being played by one Jason Gray-Stanford who is merely adequate. Inevitably there is also a Japanese anime version as well.
"SHERLOCK HOLMES IN THE 22ND CENTURY";
MEREDITH HENDERSON (1994-1996);
While not technically a Holmes vehicle the Canadian TV series "Shirley Holmes" has a Holmes descendant, a grand niece, living as a middle-school tween in Canada who solves mysteries. Made for tweens, the series is bloodless and the and the crimes are mostly thefts.The stories are basically light-hearted and the episodes are only a half hour long and breeze by quickly, but they treat the character respectfully enough. Holmes is played by serious, somber Meredith Henderson. While she does have a sidekick in a bad-boy from another school who is not however named Watson, although her dog is. There is a nemesis in the form of another school girl, the devious Molly Hardy, obviously named after Moriarty. The show is intelligent enough and still fine for it's intended audience and tolerable for adults although of marginal interest for Holmesians. Henderson has since grown up and moved on to roles in "Queer As Folk" and playing Shania Twain in a biopic. One of the villains in the pilot episode is a young Ryan Gosling.
"THE ADVENTURES OF SHIRLEY HOLMES";
BENNEDICT CUMBERPATCH (2010-2015);
These Holmes in the twenty-first century shows were not taken seriously so when Granada finally returned to Holmes in 2010 and they made the decision to update the canon there was controversy from Holmsians. Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberpatch a then obscure young British actor with a comically Dickensian name. The role made him a star and even a sex symbol overnight. Cumberpatch is tall and angular with sharp cheekbones, sharper eyes and a deceptively deep and well modulated voice. He can spit out the volumes of Holmes' detailed dialogue with machine-gun efficiency and has some of Jeremy Brett or Douglas Wilmer's air of imperious self-amusement. On the other hand he shows little of Brett's vulnerability although he does show occasional warmth towards his few friends in a fine performance of real depth. Watson is played by the then equally obscure Martin Freeman who does a fine job as well. He rises to the occasion and brings depth to a role that is too often treated as a servile second banana or comic relief. His Watson has the usual dogged loyalty along with the occasional annoyance at Holmes displayed by the most interesting Watsons. This desire to make Watson more the equal to Holmes is a more recent development going back to Ian Hart, Jude Law and Kenneth Welsh. Mycroft is played by the more experienced character actor and writer Mark Gattis who is also one of the creators of the series. He looks nothing like the portly, slow-moving Mycroft of the stories but then again neither did Christopher Lee who also played the role. He is nicely arch, smug and superior, in fact since he is one of the series' writers no doubt means he can give himself a larger role than is normally the case with Mycroft. The series has strong supporting cast including Rupert Graves as Lestrade, Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, Louise Brealey as a new character Molly Hooper and Lara Pulver as the sexiest Irene Adler yet. Personally I've gotten bored and even annoyed with the whole Adler character long ago. The original character only turned up in one story and was not a master criminal let alone a life-time nemesis like Moriarty and the reworking of the character by film-makers has been an attempt to introduce sexual tension into stories that didn't have any in the first place to appeal to film audiences. I get why they do it but it's still annoyingly predictable. Even so Pulver as Adler has more than enough cool intellectual sex appeal to justify the character. Besides unlike some other Holmes series (see below) they don't drag out the character endlessly until she overstays her welcome. Moriarty is well played by Andrew Scott who chews the scenery with an obnoxiously snide manner and theatrically nasal sneer.
The strong performances, especially the star making turn by Cumberpatch, brought rave, and even rapturous reviews which stifled all reservations about the updating of the canon. However it must be said that the attempts to modernize the stories are often laboured and gimmicky. Watson as blogger? Maybe. But the Hound Of The Baskervilles as a chemically induced hallucination? I don't think so. And the placing of the Richenbach Falls finale on top of a building and then toying with the explanation is not clever, it's just annoying and manipulative. The lack of the fog and cobblestones of a Victorian era setting is a loss as well but perhaps an unavoidable one. One personal pet peeve is the series insistence on continually referring to Holmes as a "sociopath", even by Holmes himself. This is nonsense; sociopaths have no sense of loyalty, honour or decency. Holmes has all three. He is smug, self-satisfied and emotionally remote but he does care about his immediate friends and the audience never doubts he will always do the right thing.
The series has so far lasted four seasons but had to go on hiatus due to the new found popularity of Cumberpatch and Freeman who had no shortage of other good roles tossed their way. Cumberpatch has since been in "Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy" and got an Oscar nomination for "The Imitation Game". While Freeman was Frodo Baggins in "The Hobbit" trilogy so there's no way of knowing if they will be able to return to the series, or if Granada could even afford them at this point.
UPDATE: The entire cast did return in 2015 for a one-off episode set that was set in the Victorian Era (sort of) which showed to nobody's surprise that they could indeed pull-off a convincing recreation of the Holmes world. The characters are unchanged from their 21st century version with the notable exception of Mark Gatis (one of the series creators) in a fat suit as Mycroft. The episode has plenty of in-jokes and eventually gets complicated and gimmicky like a serpent eating it's own tail.
BENEDICT CUMBERPATCH, MARK GATTIS AND LARA PULVER;
JONNY LEE MILLER (2012-Present);
The success of the Granada series led to the American TV series Elementary in 2012 starring Jonny Miller, best known as Sickboy from "Trainspotting". American versions of British TV shows are usually dismissed as crude knockoffs, except for "House Of Cards" of course, and among Holmsians the attitude towards this show has been dismissive. Once again the updating of the canon doesn't always work. Mrs Hudson as a transvestite? Really? However since American TV series have much more episodes than British ones they had to abandon the canon midway through the first season anyway and move on to new ones which is just as well. The acting has been unfavorably compared to the Cumberpatch version but Miller actually does a fine job here. His Holmes is a distinct character, his twitchy intensity masking his fragility and loneliness, and his Holmes puts the issue of drug addiction central to the character in ways that have never been done before. Past Sherlocks, except for "The Seven Per Cent Solution", either glossed over Holmes' admitted drug use or completely ignored it. This Holmes lives in even more squalor than Downey's which gives it a seedy New York atmosphere to compensate for the lack of a Victorian setting. Watson is played by Lucy Liu and while I am not totally convinced by the gender change she does an empathetic job with the role which is more than a second banana. The always reliable Aiden Quinn is fine world-weary Lestrade character who for a change is not a buffoon. Some strong guest stars include Rys Ifans as Mycroft and Vinnie Jones as Sebastian Moran. However I can do without Natalie Dormer (from "Game Of Thrones") as Moriarty/Irene Adler. Merging the two characters was somewhat clever (although I have to say I saw it coming) but once again dragging out the Adler character as an all-knowing criminal mastermind is just irritating. Especially since Dormer has none of the cool wit and sex appeal of Lara Pulver. I know she's from the sainted "Game Of Thrones" but she's a charisma-free zone and her attempts to play worldly and seductive come off of as petulant. The show has gotten decent ratings and is likely to be around for a few more years.
JONNY LEE MILLER;
Once it became possible for amateurs to make cheap knockoffs of their own and post them on youtube it was inevitable that Sherlock Holmes would become a subject. The character is both widely popular as well as not requiring much in the way of special effects or costumes unlike, say, James Bond or Batman. The stories can be shot using only a limited number of sets and characters who are also usually not required to do any histrionic acting. It is obviously not fair to compare these amateur micro-budget, non-profit productions, usually done by teenagers, with those of professional studios with proper budgets, crews and professional casts who charge audiences money. It is only fair to treat professionals more seriously and potentially harshley for their product. However a look at some of the amateur productions on the web is illustrative of just what can be done by rank amateurs with the relatively new technology and a little imagination.
This series has vaguely updated adaptations of classic Holmes stories clearly influenced by the Cumberpatch and Harris series. Done by one Nathan Carter, a British teen who stars as Holmes who also (as the credits helpfully point out) writes, directs, edits, produces and apparently does pretty much everything else. The shows are half hour long some of which is taken up by skillful use of stock footage and montages and a lot of standing around talking. Carter also reuses the theme from "Elementary" as well as snippits of music from the Jeremy Brett series and "Downton Abbey". Since most of the cast are clearly teens pretending to be adults rather than the previous sort of "Young Sherlock Holmes" films the audience gets the odd sight of an "Inspector" who has more in common with Encyclopedia Brown but we can let that pass. The Waston here was apparently too jarringly young even for this project as he disappears in one of the episodes never to be heard of again. I am never entirely comfortable with modernizing Doyle's stories and characters but it was the right choice in this case since there is no way a group of teens on a micro-budget could have done a plausible recreation of Victorian costumes and sets. One episode amusingly features an unknowing cameo from "Downton's" Michelle Dockerty as a murder victim (as a series of flashback photos) which gives Carter the chance to add her name to the cast of his amateur troupe. I imagine he enjoyed that immensely. Other photo cameos include Daniel Dae Kim ("Lost") and Jaden Smith ("Karate Kid") as Kim's son, which is just odd. The acting and editing is a little stiff at times and the micro-budget sometimes shows it's limits (such as in the obvious use of somebody's basement larder to double as a prison cell) and some of the dialogue exchanges were clearly filmed while cast members were not in the same time or place. However the whole thing is well put together and respectful and is a sign of what talented and ambitious amateurs can do with the sort of technology which can be had much more easily than would been the case even a decade ago. We can no doubt expect to see more of this sort of thing in the future, probably even from Master Carter, whether or not he ends up getting a job in film or TV. He also done Dr Who remake episodes as well.
NATHAN CARTER AS HOLMES;
The Hollbacks, Jacob and John, are two British brothers in their late teens or early twenties who tried their hands at an adaptation of "The Speckled Band" in 2009 with a two part follow-up the next year in "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House". The stories are on-canon and in fact essentially keep to the scripts from the Jeremy Brett series, sometimes down to imitating individual shots, albeit reducing the stories to a half hour. Unlike most of these type of projects they do not modernize the stories but instead try to keep to a Victorian setting, which can be a challenge, especially with costumes which never look quite right. These one is actually fairly slickly done, given the inherent budget limitations. However for their first outing John (who directs) makes over-use of a cheesey green screen which is a distraction and conjures up memories of zero budget cable access shows of the 1980's. Fortunately by the time of the next two episodes there is thankfully less green screen and more actual outdoor sets. Holmes is played by Jacob who, taking into account his age, actually does look like Holmes and acts competently enough. Stolid Watson is played by John who also plays a leering Moriarty. A Hollback sister is employed in "The Speckled Band" and there is little other cast to speak of. By the time of the second and third episodes the direction is less stiff and better use is made of music and stock footage along with better credit design. The first episode is fairly clumsy but by the second and (thus far) final episodes the brothers seem to have hit their stride. This series is probably the best of it's type.
The Tady Brothers are two more British teen brothers who have made at least one Holmes adaptation in 2014 with more promised and apparently finished but not yet posted. Again like the Hollback brothers they try to keep to a Victorian setting. Like the similar Nathan Carter versions, they make use of music from the Guy Ritchie and Jeremy Brett versions as well as copping the opening credits from the Brett series. The brothers do literally everything here and are apparently the entire crew as the credits helpfully, and somewhat amusingly, point out. They also employ another brother and sister as extras.The story is an on-canon version of "The Dying Detective" which has previously been shot in the Jeremy Brett series. This is actually an unfortunate choice since the story has no action to speak of but this may have been by design since it also requires only a few sets, mostly indoors, and a tiny cast, but it also makes it talky and gloomy looking. Holmes is played by Samuel Tady and Watson by Andrew. They try to hide their sibling resemblance by giving hiding Watson behind a mustache and hat with limited success. They are obviously too young for the parts which is a bit of a distraction, albeit an unavoidable one. The restrictions of the story mean that Samuel (Holmes) literally spends almost the entire play in bed looking miserable while Andrew (Watson) spends his time moping around. Nathan Carter and Jacob Hollback had more presence in their versions although Carter's supporting players were weaker. This may be partly due to the restrictions on the Holmes character in this story but I doubt it. This leaves the actual acting to the villainous Culberton Smith played by an actor who bears a remarkable resemblance to Eddie Redmayne and is appropriately smug. There is also a perpetually upset Mrs Hudson and a gun-toting Lestrade. The playlet is only a half hour long which means that the story is so truncated that Culbertson Smith's motives are glossed over from the original story and a shootout is added to the end which would ordinarily be annoying but is actually not wildly inappropriate to this story. Overall this is rather well done but inferior to the Nathan Carter and Hollback versions which make better use of outdoor sets and stock footage for more variety, this version does have two scenes of Watson supposedly in a carriage and another in a train car which are obviously fake but still look less cheesey than the green screen used by the Hollbacks. Ultimately however the story is still slower, talky and more claustrophobic than the more lively Carter and Hollback versions. The closing credits (which copy those from the Brett series) are well done however.
SAMUEL TADY AS HOLMES;
This 2012 version (this time American) once again attempts to use a Victorian setting, however with less attention to detail as the outfits are cheap leisure suits, and modern electric lights are frequently easily visible along with a modern pump-action shot gun and felt-tip marker. Holmes also seems to live in a cheap college dorm with noticeable holes in the drywall. Perhaps Americans are just inherently less comfortable and less able to do costume dramas and use historical settings, (except possibly for Westerns) they also have less such settings to make use of. On the other hand where other fan-fiction adaptations are happy to make do with shortened versions of on-canon stories, usually cribbed from the Jeremy Brett series, Lynskey actually went through the trouble to write an actual script for a new story. "A Murder In Five Acts" has Holmes chasing after Jack The Ripper. This story line has already been done in "A Study In Terror" and "Murder By Decree" (not to mention "From Hell") but Lynskey, who stars and also wrote and directed, didn't simply copy one of those stories but came up with a new conspiracy theory which includes actual figures from other Ripper conspiracies like James Maybrick and Joseph Tumblety. At only a half hour he doesn't get much time to flesh-out his story but he doesn't do a bad job here. There is even some good dialogue by-play. Lynskey is also a better actor than the other teen Sherlocks although not a better director than Carter or Hollback. He does at least avoid any cheesy green screens, presumably because he doesn't own one. Lynskey also looks like a passable young Sherlock. Watson is played by Robert Bagdon and Lestrade by Nick Sellers who are competent enough by the standards of these things and Jack Ripper by Jacob Swing who is slightly better. They are appear to be slightly older than the Hollbacks and definitely older than Nathan Carter or the Tady Bros which may explain a few things. Lynskey also has another similar film in a version of the Titanic sinking shot in black and white which he really should have considered for this project as well.
THOMAS LYNSKEY AT HOLMES;
Another American version, with two episodes so far. It's supposed to have a Victorian setting but they're so slapdash that modern electric lights, appliances and wall sockets are clearly visible. One outdoor scene even has a garbage dumpster in the background. On the plus side, like the Lynskey episode they do have a script of it's own. They go for laughs and actually have some witty dialogue and one silly scene with Holmes trying to communicate to Watson via sign language which I actually laughed out loud at. Another climatic shootout is stupid in an Inspector Clouseau way. These are rather funny while the inside jokes (a murder victim is named Arthur Doyle and a suspect named James Earl Ray) are not. Sande, who also wrote these, plays a droll (if gawky) Holmes with Watson (Mitchell Gleiter) as nebbishy straightman. Sande looks too nerdy to be a proper Holmes and the cast are younger than either Lynskey or the Hollback Bros so Moriarty and another villain (both of whom are played by director Isaac Tackman) have no presence. Tackman has little sense of style here and at only 14 minutes these are too short to do very much but I suspect with some more thought they might be able to make a workable light comedic young Sherlock.
A British production with a slightly older cast than most of the others, this one uses a modern setting and is competently acted and directed with some professionalism. Thacker plays Holmes in the Robert Downey jr mode; scruffy, unkempt and rude while Watson is played by a perpetually annoyed Alexander Abineri. No writer is listed but that is the biggest weakness here as the story is perfunctory and has little Holmesian flavour to it. It's also merely nine minutes long which leaves little time to write a half decent script. That run-time also includes the credits which are quite slickly done and once again lift the theme music from the Downey series. There is some skill here but more thought needed to be put into this.
RYAN THACKER AS HOLMES;
By comparison here is another fan-created video remake, this time from America circa 2010. Directed by one Nathaniel Jamison-Root who was reportedly a Vermont University student studying English rather than film who seems to have done this as a one off hobby rather than as part of an ongoing film project as the others did. There is however a trailer on Youtube although you will have to find the actual film elsewhere as Root's Youtube channel hasn't seen any action for several years. This adaptation is an update of the Conan Doyle story "Charles Agustus Milverton", which is an odd choice since it's Holmes' dreariest case but since Root was an English rather than a film student he must have more interested in the dialogue which stays true to Doyle's rather than anything inherently film-able. The direction is at the level of a home movie, it's poorly lit, the sound somewhat muffled and the acting is strictly highschool play level. I don't know anything about Gordon Telling (as Holmes) or the rest of the cast but they clearly weren't real actors. I understand the need to use a modern setting but what appears to be rural Vermont in late Fall looks pretty drab especially compared to Carter's lavish use of London stock footage to add to the setting and incidentally kill time. The use of music is less skillful as well, basically alternating between blaring classical music and snippits from an old Santo & Johnny album. Actually that's the best part.
GORDON TELLING AS HOLMES;
OK; If you are going to produce one of these things, even taking into account zero budget and general amateurishness, you really need to give some thought to writing a script, direction, costumes, props, sets, and blocking-out action sequences. Especially in the latter case if you are going to be having no less than three fight scenes, a sword fight (with oversize plastic swords) and a shootout in less than fifteen minutes. Also a few rehearsals would be a good idea so your cast (which consists a a half-dozen British teens and a few parents) can remember their lines and not keep looking at the freaking camera. Actually the kid playing Holmes seems pretty confident on camera and is presumably in charge of this silliness since he's also literally the only one who stays in character and knows his lines. I know that this is just a few kids goofing around but they just made me sit through this. Besides after seeing how some minor but enjoyable works can be done by a bunch of kids I'm not trying to discourage anyone. Just check out some of the others listed here. On the other hand if you had given 15 year old me and my friends a camera there's a good chance we would have come up with something only slightly less silly. Albeit with less sword fights.
On the other hand this one was apparently done by some British university students who are only marginally more talented than the previous teens. It's credited to three directors although it's hard to see what they could possibly have done. They certainly didn't bother with even a perfunctory script. I know it's supposed to a joke but the funniest part was discovering Sherlock Holmes eats Coco Puffs for breakfast. I really hope these weren't film or theatre students. This seems like the sort of thing they thought was kinda funny while mildly high. The next day? Not so much.
The previous fan fiction versions, were done by amateur casts and crews in their teens and early twenties. Whatever their failings the best of these, basically the Nathan Carter, Thomas Lynskey and Hollback Bros versions, have some genuine charm, cleverness and even a sense of style. Those that don't work out still deserve a little slack due to the ages and limited resources of those involved. But how do we assess the results when grown adults try their hands at this? And fail completely? Which brings us to....
KEVIN GLASER (2011);
Another attempt to update Holmes to the 21st century was "George Anton's Sherlock Holmes". That's right; he gets his name before Holmes. There are only a few film-makers who would dare put their name before a classic work of fiction. There's "Francis Ford Coppala's Dracula", "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein", "Cecil B DeMile's Ten Commandements", "Walt Disney's Scrooge" and now we have George Anton. Of course one of these names is not like the others. Those other guys had, you know, talent. Not to mention name recognition. This low-budget vanity project answers the question; "What if "Room" director and talent-free ego-maniac Tommy Wissau decided to make a crime flick?" Glad you asked. This is absurdly misguided from start to finish. The acting is laughably inept, the script slow-moving, confused, silly and tasteless and there are some truly bizarre musical choices which apparently come from Anton's eagerness to make use of public domain tracks. Accordingly he tosses in upbeat Jazz and Ragtime numbers from the 1920's which clash glaringly with the actual scenes they are in and with the film as a whole but which would be at happily at home in a Betty Boop cartoon.
The film does have plenty of George Anton though as he directed, produced, shot, and edited along with handling props, music and credits all of which the credits helpfully point out. He probably did the catering too. Done for "Anton Pictures" (of course) which has a spinning earth logo ambitiously swiped from Universal Pictures. Somewhat surprisingly unlike Anthony Mann, Thomas Lynskey, Nathan Carter or the Hollback or Tady Bros, Anton did manage to resist the urge to cast himself in the film which is kind of a shame really since that would have been just perfect. Instead we get a stolidly wooden Kevin Glaser as Holmes. He is actually not as jarringly inept as most of the cast including Charles Simon as quite possibly the dumbest Watson yet, and that's really saying something. A sleepwalking Daniel Rios plays the least intimidating Moriarty ever, although for some reason he gets mentioned twice in the credits. Given the low budget a few of the cast also do double duty as extras including Glaser and Rios just to further confuse things. The best scene is the opening in which a disreputable looking group gather in a darkened conference room to be yelled at by their awkwardly over-the-top boss. Only then do we find out that this group of seedy looking mobsters are actually high-ranking police officers. None of the cops in this town seem to have uniforms, nor is there an apparent police station. The commander gives them a comically scenery-chewing rant about a serial killer on the loose while gesturing to a map which is simply a large-scale map of the entire United States apparently borrowed from a grade school class. So far the film seems like an SCTV parody of "Ciminal Minds". Unfortunately the commander character then disappears and the rest of the movie is merely dull and pointless. The credits claim the plot is borrowed from "The Woman In Green" although I found it too boring and silly to pay attention to. There is also a "Charles Agustus Milverton" subplot as well. Anton has also tried his hand at "Dracula", because of course he has.
"GEORGE ANTON'S SHERLOCK HOLMES" 2011;
One note in fairness; while the film itself is devoid of any redeeming features, the closing credits are actually quite good. Done by Anton himself (naturally) in the style of a comic book (similar to Stephen King's "Creepshow") they are also used through out the film to cover over scene changes. A little over-used actually but they are well made nonetheless so while Anton has no future as a film-maker he could have one as graphic designer of film and ad credits.
HOLMES IN RUSSIA;
As we've seen Sherlock Holmes is an international character and has been played from the start by British and American actors as well as French (Georges Treville), Hungarian (Karoly Bauman), German (Hans Albers, Hugo Flink, Alwin Neuss, Bruno Guttner), Danish (Viggo Larson), South African (Basil Rathbone) and Canadians (Raymond Massey, John Neville, Christopher Plummer, Matt Frewer and Anthony Mann).
Holmes not only thrived in Nazi Germany but also in the Soviet Union. The Russians have always liked Holmes and in the 1980's they made a reasonably faithful series starring Vassily Livanov as Holmes and Vitali Solomin as Watson. Litvanov is a solid enough Holmes while Solomin, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nigel Stock from the 1960's British TV series, makes for an uncommonly young Watson. Both remain popular in Russia and get respectable reviews from non-Russian Holmesians notwithstanding the low budgets. I assume these were mostly filmed in St. Petersburg which would have enough Victorian buildings, but they simply don't look like London and they are often visibly rundown and weather-beaten with peeling plaster and fading paint. I'm also pretty sure that the windswept moors of "The Hound Of The Baskervilles" shouldn't look like an abandoned rock quarry in Minsk.
The Russians also produced a series of Holmes cartoons which while somewhat crude and straying far from the canon are more imaginative and amusing than the earlier Holmes toons. One Alexei Koltan does the voices not only of Holmes but also Watson and Lestrade which must be some sort of record.
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE LITTLE BLACK MEN";
Some guy has done an exhaustive research on the various Russian Sherlocks which can be read here online. Most of the film clip links offered however are broken. There are a number of Russian Holmes series on Youtube which look great but are not in English. There is also a German TV production from the 1960's in black and white and without subtitles. More recently there was a version from Brazil that looks interesting from what little I've seen.