Who is ‘The’ Sherlock Holmes?


Sherlock Holmes is one of the endearing and enduring icons of British culture. The character completely changed the image of the private detective in the public consciousness and made catapulted the deerstalker hat into the pop-culture. He is Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s most famous and well loved creation. And as with all classic literary characters, he has had a nearly numeral amount of incarnations.

From the thinly veiled Dr. Gregory House to the more quirky aspects of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, Sherlock Holmes has impacted so many other successful character it is unbelievable. But the true judge of how successful he has been is by how many different iterations we have seen, across so many different mediums. From the small screen to the cinema to the radio, Sherlock Holmes has entranced millions, myself included. And so in celebration of the brilliance of the character I am going to take a look at some of his more well known rortrayals and rank them in order of how much I enjoy the performances, the characterisation, and how close it is to the source material.

This is my opinion, it is correct, and if you have a different opinion then yours is right too.

But mine is more right. 

Disclaimer: I can only review what I have seen, and i’m not even going to go through all of them.  I am well aware that there were some famous theatre portrayals of Holmes in the early 20th Century but I’m not an immortal.

So, let’s start off on the wrong end of the scale.

7. Johnny Lee Miller – Elementary (CBS, 2012 – )

Cards on the table, I hate Elementary. Setting the show in the USA irked me, not because of the idea but how badly it was handled. The supporting cast was often terrible, and the writing felt stilted. It did have one saving grace, however, which was a brilliant bit of casting that came close to saving the whole show – Lucy Liu as Joan Watson.

This shouldn’t affect how I rate Miller’s interpretation of the character, so I’m going to put all that to the back of my mind and be impartial. So, the character has been transformed into some sort of quirky British eccentric who reminds me more of Dirk Gently than the greatest detective, and whose actions make little to no sense. The acting is fine, and I reckon this is a case where the producers had a direction they wanted the show to go and everyone has bent to their whim. This isn’t Sherlock Holmes, more some weird mix of Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor and Guy Secretan from Green Wing. A lovable mad scamp who is somehow always right.

6. Robert Downie Jr. – Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2009, 2011)

Sherlock Holmes is a champion boxer, strong enough to straighten out a bent metal poker, and can run across London at the drop of a hat. He is also a master of disguise, a calculating genius, and has little to no understanding of empathy. The latter is far more prevalent in the source material; there aren’t too many punch-ups in A Study in Scarlet.

Guy Richie made these films, and it’s obvious he isn’t a director who makes deep psychological thrillers. He is much better at making people punch each other in fun and varied ways, whilst the dramatic music swells and the camera spins around the action close to 100 feet per second. So when I saw that I liked these films, don’t be shocked. It’s just I don’t count it as a Sherlock Holmes film, and if you renamed it then nothing would be any different.

Downie Jr. brings a lot of fun to the role, and he performs it admirably. His Holmes is likeable, watchable, and most importantly enjoyable. There is warmth to the character and he shows genuine affection to the few people that matter to him, most notably Watson. He is obviously enjoying himself, and the characterisation fits the plot, script, and style perfectly.

But here we come to the problem. The script and plot isn’t Holmes. There are snippets of it across both films – the sequence of Holmes jumping across London to follow a Hansom Cab, all the while donning new and impressive disguises in order to track his mark back home is brilliant, and although it bares all the hallmarks of an action film, it has the spirit of Sherlock in there. But too much of these films is spent with Holmes and Watson running through London chasing after the bad guys, usually culminating in a big shoot-out or fist fight, which isn’t how Holmes solves his problems.

The second film has an ending more in-keeping with the original characterisation, a tense battle of the mind with Moriarty, first over Chess and then in hand to hand combat over the Reichenbach Falls. The fighting isn’t gratuitous or excessive, such as the fight on the half built Tower Bridge in the first one, and it shows how the thought processes he’s going through as he battles with a mind as sharp as his. But as it gives with one hand it takes away with another. The first film showed Holmes ability to disguise himself and blend in with any situation, yet the second has made him a bumbling idiot who, when trying to blend into Moriarty’s lecture, has stuck a jaunty moustache to his face, falls asleep in the lecture hall, makes a tit out of himself and then bumbles away.

Downie Jr. is not at fault here. He plays the character that Guy Richie wanted and it is great fun to watch. However, it’s more like James Bond than Holmes in places and it can get a bit jarring. Rename the characters, rename the film, and it’s fine.

At least it didn’t end up with Holmes fighting a giant mechanical dinosaur though…

I was once told it is better to be bad than mediocre. I’m not sure this is true with acting, but we’re about to get into some very middling performances…

5. Basil Rathbone – 1939 Film Series (Universal, 1939-46)

I’ve had to be a bit vague with the titles that Basil Rathbone played Holmes in. Across 8 years he starred as Sherlock Holmes in some 14 films produced by Universal, 5 of which were original stories, and the other 9 films were based off 11 Sherlock Holmes Stories. If you do the maths you will see that 5 plus 11 equals 16. That is because one of the films they made was a mish-mash of 3 of Conan-Doyle’s short stories. Why? Who cares, it’s a terrible film and the plot doesn’t work.

Rathbone is the definitive screen Sherlock Holmes. From the way he acted to what he wore, everything he did on screen has shaped the stereotypical Sherlock Holmes look for over 80 years. From the hat, to the clothes, even down to the shape of the pipe that Holmes uses, Rathbone’s ultra-popular performances are very much stained onto the fabric of society.

And yet, why have I placed him in the middle of the list? It’s boring.

Partly due to the era in which they were made, partly due to the stilted scripts, and partly to do with the acting, these films can be a hard watch. There are pearls amongst their number, the Hounds of the Baskervilles is one of the best adaptions of the story that has ever been made, but on the whole they are a hard watch. Rathbone doesn’t help. his Holmes is very, very dry, and you can at times struggle to like him. Lacking in empathy is one thing, but being an arse is another, and Rathbone’s Holmes could be quite the arse. But the work that Rathbone put in to the characterisation, strictly following the methodology of Holmes, and how closely they stay true to the character from the books, they are performances that any fan of Sherlock Holmes has to watch. Sure, the films themselves aren’t always superb, and in some cases they’re dross, but his Holmes is engrossing and intriguing.

5. Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock (BBC, 2012 – )

I was deeply torn on which way around this section should have gone. Rathbone and Cumberbatch are both good performances, both of which are heavily influencec by the source material. But in the end Benedryl Bamblecluch pipped Basil of 5th. Why? It was more entertaining to watch.

BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ was not without it’s problems. It’s massive, massive problems. First off, some of the writing and plot points were piss weak, secondly Sherlock’s new ‘thought palace’ was a terrible idea, and thirdly, Stephen Moffat cannot write women to save his life. Not only that, the series features some terrible, unrealistic moments and they wrote themselves into so many corners that they just kept hitting the ret-con button and starting from a new, ignoring the cliffhangers they’d spent a season building towards.

That isn’t to say the show isn’t fun. The plots are MOSTLY sensible, and they keep you engrossed most of the time too. The supporting cast is universally brilliant, from Amanda Abbington, Una Stubbs, Martin Freeman, Louise Brealely, Marc Gatiss, and I could go on. But how is Cinderblocks Sherlock Holmes?

In a word: Different.

In the stories, Sherlock Holmes is a reclusive, eccentric, drug-addict who makes connection that no one else can see and who has never quite understood emotion. In BBC’s Sherlock, Benefit Corbynbutt plays him exactly like that, but takes it all too far. He’s reclusive, pretty much refusing to speak to anyone outside of his work besides his perfectly cast housekeeper Mrs. Hudson. His eccentricity is turned up to 11, as he has now taken with shooting a 9mm handgun at his wall when he gets bored. His drug addiction is fine though, the right amount of heroin and cocaine abuse, as only a classic Sherlock can gt away with. He’s been now labelled as a high-functioning sociopath, and he revels in his pigeonholing. It all comes across a bit try-hard, and what’s worse is they don’t even get the definition of his ‘condition’ right.

It was a bold re-imagining of the character, and Babadook Cucumberwatch has helped to modernise Holmes as well as introduce him to a whole new audience. But it was a flawed, because by removing the character from the original setting you do have to change them to fit the surroundings. This wouldn’t be too problematic, as long as all the characterisation is kept the same, and unfortunately they changed Sherlock Holmes a good chunk from the source material. Plus, Beveldrill Coloursnatch has a weird face.

That was dull. So much boring, so forgettable. It’s great from here on out though, we’re separating the wheat from the chaff…

3. Vasily Livanov – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Soviet TV, 1979 – 1986)

A Perfect English Gentleman. Ish. 

Yeah, throwing a curve ball at you. Shown in the final decades of the Soviet Union, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson’ has garnered cult status in the UK and rightly so. Despite being in Russian it has rightfully earned it’s following, at has received mass acclaim.

Vasily Livanov plays the titular Holmes, and wow, does he encapsulate the performance. He takes the role and character directly from the stories, and the acting is top notch. From his relationship to Watson, to the way he handles cases, how he distances himself from society in order to achieve what he needs. It’s a very thorough and impressive interpretation of the character, albeit not perfect.

Lavinov is, as to be expected, dry. Very dry. And I don’t want to blame Communist Russia, but I’m going to. He’s so dry, and lacks some of the warmth that I expect in Sherlock Holmes, and the humour is lacking, not completely missing, just lacking.

But, I’m not going to take that away from him. He’s rightfully known as one of the best Holmes for a reason, even so much that he was given a MBEin 2004 for his portrayal, arguably the greatest praise that any actor could receive for a role that he’d finished nearly 20 years prior.

2. Jeremy Brett – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Granada, 1984 – 1994)

The Eyes of a Shark

There is one man who should come to your mind when you think of the definitive television Holmes. From his slicked back hair, the sweet, sharp black suit, and his pale, sharp features, Jeremy Brett is superb.  He is cold, has the eyes of a shark, and is massively lovable.

As a Sherlock Holmes, he is everything that is written in the books. You can see his thought processes, practically hear the cogs whirring as he steps around every crime scene, meticulously piecing the stories together in his mind. The mannerisms, the movement, the crisp, perfect accent, it’s all there.

He’s not perfect, of course. Jeremy Brett was getting extremely ill by the end of the run and it was obvious to look at him. Holmes is a fighting fit man, and unfortunately Brett was not, dying in 1995 of a myriad of complications. The action side of the character was lost, there are none of the the scuffles, and you struggle to believe that the man was a champion boxer or could twist metal with his hands. He does also lack the gentle humour that the books are full of. The sarcasm is there but not the wit, and it does make the show slow at times, ad at times you lose the sense of play that Sherlock Holmes should be filled with. These challenges are like games to him, riddles to be broken and he needs to revel in the sport. When he’s not detecting he should resort to whatever he can to keep himself stimulated, from drugs to meaningless science experiments. Unfortunately, despite how brilliant Brett is, he’s not the best Sherlock Holmes.

That was really good. shaped the character, moved it forward and introduced it to a whole new audience. However, in the words of Highlander, ‘There can be only One’. And the gold medal very obviously goes to…

1.Clive Merrison The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (BBC Radio, 1  1989-1998, 2002, 2004, 2008-10) 

The Perfect Pair

Hot damn now we’re talking.

It should have been obvious from the start that the best Sherlock Holmes performance would have come from the only man to have adapted every Sherlock Holmes story, be them short or full novel, and be the only one where your imagination could create the perfect image of the character and build a full world. That man is of course, the incomparable, Clive Merrison.

It’s difficult to compare the visual medium to that of the radio, so I’m not going to. Well, not yet. Merrison’s Holmes is perfect, pretty much because of why the radio is so good. If you want to imagine Holmes exactly as written, you can. If you want to change it up, go ahead. If you want to make him a dwarf transvestite with a flaming red beard you can, but you probably shouldn’t you weird freak.

Everything that Merrison does is perfect. His delivery of the lines, the ability to go from cold and calculating to exploding with laughter in an instance. We see Holmes at his very worst in the thralls of cocaine abuse, at his deathbed, to beating a man with the whip and forcing him from his lodgings. The relationship between Holmes and Watson is played very well too, as Merrison and his John Watson, played by Michael Watson funnily enough. Their love for each other grows as they go through all the stories, and the humour and fun they share is wonderful, and unlike most the Holmes’ on the list, it is apparent that they are firm and genuine friends. Even the sillier, more camp elements of their relationship, when they end up giggling on the floor together “like schoolgirls” is silly but doesn’t seem out of place. The character that Merrison created just through his voice alone is amazing, and is one of the greatest vocal performances I’ve ever experienced.

Because the radio plays were adapted directly from the original stories there is no worry about getting the character wrong or misinterpreting the information, Bert Coules did a very good job with the work on the scripts. The sound design too helps in creating a full and active late Victorian world. Some of the supporting cast can be a tad ropy, but what do you expect for a low budget BBC Radio production? The crowning glory of the whole show is the music, the haunting violin tune performed by Leonard Friedman which fits the tone of the show like the last piece of a jigsaw – with it in place you can step back and appreciate the art that has been created.

I was brought up on the radio, from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Hancock’s Half Hour, The Fear on Four, etc., etc., and I have always held these productions as the pinnacle of all of them. Not only did Clive Merrison create the greatest Sherlock Holmes of all time, he may have been part of the greatest radio series of all time, if not the best adaption of anything ever.

Take that, Cumberbitches.


And there we have it. 2800 words to find the greatest Sherlock Holmes, and in the end it was obvious. The best performance could only come from the only man to have done every story, and who had the time to perfect his craft. What’s more fun, is that he appeared opposite Jeremy Brett in The Three Gables on Granada Television, just before he started recording as Holmes himself. So that’s nice.

Published by Adam Unwin

Yeah, I write stuff occasionally, make things up on stage, and like saying words other people have written in a dramatic way.

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