Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Sherlock Holmes won’t go away.

And why should he? Throughout the entire history of cinema, film-makers have enjoyed playing with the persona of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s cerebral, faintly demented private detective. The Internet Movie Database lists a truly impressive 231 film and TV projects featuring Holmes …

Sat, Jul 24, 2010, 17:27

   

And why should he? Throughout the entire history of cinema, film-makers have enjoyed playing with the persona of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s cerebral, faintly demented private detective. The Internet Movie Database lists a truly impressive 231 film and TV projects featuring Holmes and Dr Watson. In Russia, the characters, apparently, appear in every second barroom joke. Quite a few snooty¬† philosophers have used his adventures as a vehicle for the propagation of complex, head-spinning ideas. Too many¬† people still think him a genuine historical character.

All of which is a prelude to my saying that I am looking forward to the BBC’s new take on the stories. Sherlock, which begins tomorrow, updates the stories to the present day and in, respectively, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, offers us younger than usual versions of Holmes and Watson. I am sure that many Baker Street Irregulars will be concerned, but the instigators of the show seem like men you can trust. Mark Gattis, co-creator of The League of Gentlemen, is an expert on Victoriana and a man with a taste for English Gothic. Steven Moffat has done good work as the current director of operations at Dr Who House.

The series comes, of course, just six months after Guy Ritchie offered a different re-imagining — steampunk meets Sax Rohmer — of Conan-Doyle’s imperishable universe. You might wonder why two such transformations have occurred at just this point. Coincidence, I guess. A more interesting question is why, over the previous 100 years, there have been so few attempts to radically tamper with the stories’ key elements. The later Basil Rathbone films were set contemporaneously, but, aside from introducing Nazis into the picture, the temporal shift did not radically alter the series’ character (not least because it was only 40 years since the last tales had been published).

Sherlock Holmes adaptations vary in quality, but they rarely alter much in appearance or ambiance. It’s usually foggy. Holmes is always eagle-faced and eccentric. Watson is always some sort of duffer (though rarely as dumb as Nigel Bruce’s adorable imbecile in the Rathbone flicks). It’s taken a very long time for this re-invention craze to set in.

Or has it? You might reasonably argue that the entire history of 20th-century detective fiction (and movies and TV) has been a series of experiments with the Holmes template. Holmes’s key feature is his superhuman intelligence. From the moment the story starts, the seeds of the solution appear to be germinating in some corner of his brain. Remind you of anyone? Philip Marlowe is a noir Holmes. Lieutenant Columbo is a scruffy Holmes. Miss Marple is an elderly female Holmes. All are eccentric. All have a peculiar intelligence. All — even Columbo, who baffles his superiors and can’t fire a gun — work outside the traditional framework of law enforcement. So we have, perhaps, been constantly re-inventing the great man without quite knowing it.

Anyway, it’s time to consider…

FIVE NOTEWORTHY TAKES ON SHERLOCK HOLMES

JEREMY BRETT

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Got the borderline-insanity just right. It was also a very nicely produced TV series.

VASILY LIVANOV

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Legendary as the detective on Russian TV. Holmes was madly popular in the USSR and remains so in the former republics.

BASIL RATHBONE

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Unfortunately, the films got increasingly crummy (see this clip). But he did define the role for at least a generation.

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER

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That’s right. That’s Chris in the sadly overlooked, if utterly mad Murder by Decree (1979). He’s after Jack the Ripper, you know.

NICOL WILLIAMSON

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Like Murder by Decree, Herbert Ross’s 1976 The Seven Percent Solution veered away from Doyle. As always, Williamson seemed nice and barmy.

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