Since Sherlock Holmes’ creation, dozens of actors have attempted to portray the great detective – on stage, on radio, in films and on television. But their efforts to breathe new life into this enigmatic character might well have been greeted with bemusement by Holmes’ creator, who wrote in a letter in 1892: “Holmes is as inhuman as Babbage’s Calculating Machine.” Did you know…
1) The first actor to take on the role of Sherlock Holmes in any official capacity was the American William Gillette, whose 1899 stage play was adapted from a script by Conan Doyle himself. Opening six years after the author had attempted to kill off his creation at the Reichenbach Falls, the play was a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic: between 1899 and 1932, Gillette performed the role more than 1,000 times.
Gillette is also credited with introducing the curved briar pipe that was to become synonymous with the great detective – possibly because a straight pipe obscured the actor’s face when he delivered his lines. On first meeting Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Gillette is said to have appeared in character, complete with deerstalker, and after examining Conan Doyle most minutely, to have opined: “Unquestionably an author!”
2) Gillette was also one of the first to annoy the purists by introducing a love interest for Holmes. When he telegraphed Conan Doyle with the question “May I marry him?” the author is said to have replied: “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him!” It’s impossible to count the number of writers who, since then, have taken Doyle at his word.
3) Holmes, having survived the Reichenbach Falls, refused to die with his creator. By the time of Conan Doyle’s death [7 July 1930], Holmes was already a star of stage and screen. His film debut, Sherlock Holmes Baffled, came as early as 1900. Just a few seconds long, the film used stop-motion camerawork to show Holmes attempting to grapple with a burglar who repeatedly disappears, then reappears in a different part of the room.
4) One of the oldest surviving film adaptations of Conan Doyle’s work dates to 1916 (William Gillette again), but it was the English duo of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the 1940s who for many years became identified in the public imagination as the Holmes and Watson.
British actors Nigel Bruce (left) as Dr Watson and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in ‘Pursuit to Algiers’, 1945. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Rathbone and Bruce made 14 Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946 (and starred in more than 200 dramatisations for American radio), yet only the first two films were set in the Victorian period. The others had a contemporary setting, allowing Sherlock Holmes to pursue Nazi spies and to urge the purchase of war bonds. Bruce’s dim, bumbling Watson tends to infuriate Holmes purists.
5) The Adventures of ChubbLock Homes, an early comic strip, appeared in Comic Cuts magazine as early as 1893, and the urge to parody the great detective has never gone away. In 1901, while William Gillette’s official Holmes play was running in London, audiences at Terry’s Theatre were enjoying performances of the rather more frivolous Sheerluck Jones. The comic strip Sherlocko & Watso was hugely popular in the USA in the early 20th century, and silent film parodies abounded. Later in the century, Peter Cook and John Cleese both played comedy Sherlocks on film (Cleese’s character was Arthur Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock’s grandson).
Less well remembered, perhaps, is the 1976 TV film The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective, in which a youthful Larry Hagman (before his JR Ewing days) played a deluded motorcycle cop, Sherman Holmes.
6) Even in his early days, Sherlock Holmes was helping manufacturers to sell their products. In the 1890s, the makers of Beecham’s Pills ran advertisements suggesting that the great detective was a devoted user. And as a smoker, Holmes was popular with the tobacco companies. Early cigarette advertisements using Holmes’ image included brands such as Lambert and Butler’s ‘Varsity’ mixture, Chesterfield, Ogden’s, Gallaher’s and Players. Since then, products as diverse as furniture cream, mouthwash, breakfast cereal and photocopiers have all benefited from association with the great man.
“Holmes, it’s Marvelous” Pippins Cigar print advert featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. From a series of booklets distributed with The Boston Sunday Post in 1911. Sherlock is drawn to resemble actor William Gillette. (© Contraband Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)
7) With the growth of television after the Second World War, the Baker Street detective was quick to adapt to the new medium. Alan Wheatley was the first actor to portray Holmes on British television – his 1951 series was broadcast live. But it seems Wheatley was not a fan of Holmes. When asked about Holmes’ character, he is said to have replied: “In my opinion he just seemed to be an insufferable prig”.
8) Peter Cushing appeared as Holmes on the BBC in the 1960s. He had already played the detective in the 1959 Hammer film The Hound of the Baskervilles, alongside Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville. Lee was to play Holmes himself in a 1962 film; then, nearly 30 years later, he took up the pipe again, playing an ageing Sherlock in two TV films known together as Sherlock Holmes the Golden Years. Throw in an appearance as Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and Sir Christopher almost bagged the complete set. Alas, he never appeared on screen as Doctor Watson.
English actor Peter Cushing as fictional detective Sherlock Holmes with Andre Morell as Dr Watson in a scene from ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, 1959. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
9) For many people, the definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes was by Jeremy Brett, for Granada Television, in the 1980s and 1990s. Brett appeared in 41 episodes, including five feature-length productions. However, even that impressive achievement doesn’t make Brett the most prolific Holmes. That title must go to the British actor Clive Merrison, who played the detective on BBC Radio between 1989 and 1998, and who completed the full canon – dramatisations of all 60 of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories and novels.
10) And so to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, in which Andrew Scott rose to prominence playing Moriarty. Scott has since appeared in the new James Bond film, Spectre, joining an illustrious club of actors who have performed alongside Britain’s most famous spy and Britain’s most famous detective.
But only Sir Roger Moore has played both leading roles on film. Sadly his one appearance as Holmes – in the 1976 TV-film Sherlock Holmes in New York – is not, perhaps, his most memorable work. Sean Connery never played Holmes, but he did play the ultra-astute friar William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose, so you might say that he came close.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock (season 1). (© Photos 12/Alamy Stock Photo)
11) The actor playing Dr Watson to Roger Moore’s Holmes was Patrick Macnee, most famous as John Steed in The Avengers. Macnee played Watson again, 15 years later, alongside Christopher Lee’s Holmes. Then, in 1993, he donned the deerstalker himself in The Hound of London, thus becoming that very rare thing – an actor who has starred in films as both Holmes and Watson.
Martin Davies is the author of Mrs Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse. To find out more, click here.