Sherlock Holmes: 10 offbeat takes on the Great Detective

From spoofs to point-and-click adventure games, here are 10 of the most memorable unusual incarnations of Sherlock Holmes...

We don’t know a great deal about the content of the 90-minute Sherlock special set to air later this year, but one thing has emerged from the set photos and tantalising titbits of information we’ve seen so far. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson will be in nineteenth-century garb, pitching them back into the setting of the legendary detective’s original adventures: 1895, to be precise. Why that happens is as yet unclear, but all will be revealed.

For those still craving their Holmes fix in the meantime, the new film Mr. Holmes offers us Ian McKellen’s take on the character, musing upon an old case as he looks back on his long career from the vantage point of retirement. Jonny Lee Miller’s ultra-modern, US-based Sherlock will be entering his fourth season of the reliably superb Elementary later this year, too. New tensions are guaranteed by his personal struggle with addiction and the introduction of the peerless John Noble as Holmes’ mysterious father. Meanwhile, in a pleasing twist for fans of Guy Ritchie’s fun films, Robert Downey Jr. recently confirmed that there are plans to make a third in the series. 

All things considered, it’s a great time to be a follower of Sherlock Holmes. While the current slew of adaptations might be unprecedented, though, it’s just the most recent manifestation of an unmistakeable fact. We’re never too far away from another reimagining of the master detective’s story. Some tweak Doyle’s iconic characters for comic purposes, while others play with the imagery but leave Holmes himself out of the equation. And that’s all before we broaden the scope of our inquiries by investigating media other than film and television… Here are ten of the most memorable excursions into the further reaches of the Holmes mythos.

Murder Rooms

Subtitled ‘The Dark Beginnings Of Sherlock Holmes’, this BBC/WGBH Boston co-production (2000-2001) fictionalised the events of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life by exploring his relationship with a figure whose name is well known to most Holmes aficionados. Dr. Joseph Bell, Conan Doyle’s tutor in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, is said to have been his inspiration for Holmes due to his remarkable powers of observation and deduction. That concept was the basis for this compelling miniseries, starring Ian Richardson as Bell (Conan Doyle, here cast as the Watson figure to his mentor’s Holmes, was played by Robin Laing in the pilot episode and Charles Edwards in the subsequent series). If you’re wondering just how brilliantly Richardson would have played Holmes, wonder no longer: he took on the role of the great man in The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Sign Of Four, both for the BBC in 1983. The notion of a medical man with Holmes’ pin-point accuracy in identifying symptoms should sound familiar; a few years after Murder Rooms aired, we would run into him again in the shape of Gregory House.

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Sherlock Holmes In New York

A View To A Kill wasn’t the only occasion on which Roger Moore and the late, great Patrick Macnee teamed up to fight crime. On this earlier outing, though, Grace Jones sadly didn’t come along for the ride. We do, however, get to meet another unforgettable female character in the form of – you guessed it – Irene Adler (Charlotte Rampling), a music-hall singer encountered again by Holmes (Moore) and Watson (Macnee) while on the hunt for Moriarty in New York City. A typically action-packed chase follows as the duo investigate a daring bank robbery in Boris Sagal’s 1976 film. It’s interesting to note how many Holmes adaptations provide the famously celibate detective with a love interest, and this one’s no exception. It’s strongly hinted that – shippers, contain yourselves! – Adler’s clever young son was fathered by Holmes himself…


The Seven-Per-Cent Solution

Also in 1976, Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (based on his novel of the same name) offered an unusual take on Holmes’ complex psychology. Meyer – himself the son of a psychiatrist – showed us a Holmes fighting for mastery over his own mind. Watson has come to believe that Holmes’ pursuit of Professor Moriarty, the man he believes to be a criminal mastermind, is merely the result of his cocaine-fuelled delusions. With the aid of Holmes’ brother Mycroft (played here by Charles Gray, who would go on to reprise the role in the Jeremy Brett TV adaptations of Conan Doyle’s mysteries), Watson persuades Holmes to travel to Vienna, where he is treated by Sigmund Freud, who uncovers a buried memory from the detective’s past. With actors of the calibre of Nicol Williamson and Robert Duvall as Holmes and Watson – not to mention Laurence Olivier as Moriarty – it’s no surprise that the film succeeds in its attempt to present a new, more human, side of Sherlock Holmes. Duvall’s casting as a notably intelligent Watson was a conscious effort to counter the more traditional screen portrayal of the good doctor as a doltish foil to his friend.


The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes

Billy Wilder’s comic portrayal of Holmes and his relationship with Watson suffered a difficult production history, and – much like the model of the Loch Ness monster lost when shooting at that location proved too difficult – sank without trace on release. Wilder had originally planned it as a 165-minute touring production (then very much in vogue) comprising four interlinked adventures. By the time of its release, however, the moment for such roadshows had passed, and two of the film’s stories were excised completely from the final cut. With time, however, it’s risen in viewers’ esteem; Mark Gatiss told Den of Geek in 2010 that it was a key influence on his and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock. It’s not hard to see why. Wilder’s sensitive take on Holmes’ complex personality touches on the detective’s difficulties in forming close ties, especially with the opposite sex, and hints at concealed romantic feelings towards Watson. Robert Stephens as Holmes receives sterling support from Colin Blakely’s Watson and the already much missed Christopher Lee as elder brother Mycroft. The subplot, in which a Russian ballerina attempts to secure Holmes as a father for her child with a view to perpetuating his more distinguished traits, was amusingly echoed in Elementary’s third season.

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The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

Another Wilder had a little more success with his reimagining of the Holmes myth in 1975. Comedian Gene wrote and directed The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother after producer Richard A. Roth suggested a spoof. Wilder was uneasy about getting involved in a parody of such a beloved character, but came back to Roth with an idea. Holmes’ never-before-seen younger brother, Sigerson (named for an alias used by the detective in Conan Doyle’s stories) was about to enter the world, in a teasing twist on Holmes’ oft-repeated statement that his brother Mycroft had always been his intellectual superior. Alongside the inimitable Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn, Wilder’s resentful sibling tries to claw his share of the limelight from the brother he derides as ‘Sheer-Luck’. In a pleasing touch, the elder Holmes is played by Douglas Wilmer, who had already appeared as the character in the 1960s BBC series. His Watson, Thorley Walters, was making the third of four appearances in the role. One of the Sherlocks he had accompanied was Christopher Lee (in 1962’s Sherlock Holmes And The Deadly Necklace), while another was Christopher Plummer in 1977’s Silver Blaze.


Murder By Decree

Plummer’s appearance as Holmes in Silver Blaze would not be his last. In Murder By Decree, however, his Watson was played by James Mason. Inevitably, Mason’s doctor was a highly intelligent and capable character who bore only a superficial resemblance to the lovable bungler portrayed by Nigel Bruce in Basil Rathbone’s films. Holmes’ interest in the Jack the Ripper murders is heightened by Scotland Yard’s unusual failure to approach him for help in solving the case. The persistent duo soon learn that graffiti at the scene implicates a group of Freemasons, and the game’s afoot. Donald Sutherland’s psychic and Frank Finlay’s Lestrade are just a few of the memorable characters they encounter on the way. The forward-thinking social attitudes sometimes evident in Conan Doyle’s mysteries are to the forefront here, while John Hopkins’ screenplay deserves extra credit for attempting to locate Holmes in contemporary history (with, as New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby noted, a seeming nod towards Watergate).


The Lost Files Of Sherlock Holmes

Even in the point-and-click adventure’s heyday, good detective games were oddly rare. Two of the very best, however, draw on the Holmes iconography to give us new cases that stand with the finest of the canonical adventures. The Case Of The Serrated Scalpel (1993) sees Holmes drawn into a grisly murder at first believed to be the work of Jack the Ripper, but soon revealed as the centre of a complex web of intrigue. Its follow-up, 1996’s The Case Of The Rose Tattoo, sets the stakes even higher, plunging the dogged duo into a murderous conspiracy threatening the highest levels of British society.  

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Developed by Mythos Software and published by Electronic Arts, The Lost Files adventures fascinate with their keenly observed and richly detailed settings while delighting fans with their fond references to Holmesian lore. Click on an item and you’re rewarded with Holmes’ typically astute observations; question a suspect and learn which gaslit corner of the Victorian underworld you’ll be roaming next. From chemical analysis in Holmes’ lab to affectionate spats with Lestrade, the atmosphere remains perfectly judged. Those who find pixel hunting and lots of reading a chore are better served elsewhere, but mystery fans will do well to search out these games.

In recent years, Frogwares’ mystery adventures have taken up the Lost Files’ mantle. Last year’s excellent Sherlock Holmes: Crimes And Punishments concocted an intriguing blend of mystery and moral dilemma as the detective, haunted by his reading of Dostoyevsky’s great novel, was forced to decide whether to condemn or spare various miscreants. Strange as it may seem, this isn’t even the most audacious crossover Frogwares have attempted. Previous outings pitted Holmes against French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, and, fabulously, a cult of Cthulhu’s followers.


Young Sherlock Holmes

Barry Levinson’s 1985 film asks us to imagine a different first meeting for Holmes and Watson from that in the origin story we’re all familiar with. In Young Sherlock Holmes, written by Chris Columbus, the two friends cross paths when both studying at the same private boarding school. The teenage Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) isn’t the character we’ve come to know; he’s impulsive, emotional and deeply in love with his friend and only intellectual equal, Elizabeth (Sophie Ward). As he and new pal Watson (Alan Cox) investigate a sinister and murderous cult devoted to the ancient Egyptian god Osiris, the path is laid for an adventure – and a terrible loss – that will shape the great detective’s future.

The hallmarks of executive producer Steven Spielberg are all over Young Sherlock Holmes. It’s a fun, exciting film that’s been unjustly neglected, but will doubtless thrill fans willing to overlook the departure from the Holmes canon. Its young cast do a fantastic job with the material, bringing real pathos to the events of the youthful Sherlock’s formative years. Those taken with Rowe’s fine performance and left wondering how he might have played the mature Holmes will be delighted to spot his cameo in Mr. Holmes, playing the master sleuth in a film watched by none other than Ian McKellen as the man himself.


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Without A Clue

Even the most ardent Holmes buffs must be aware that the great detective’s career, with its unforgettable characters and settings, is – like anything of any substance – rich in comic potential. Gene Wilder had sidestepped outright mockery of the character, to great effect. Without A Clue, however, is a wonderfully daft send-up of the familiar figures we know and love, with the twist in the tale being that Holmes is a fictional character. Before I’m accused of getting a bit too lost in Baker Street lore, let me explain. In Without A Clue’s universe, Holmes is and has always been a work of fiction, not just in our world but in his own, concocted by shy doctor John Watson (Ben Kingsley) as a front for his own career as a detective. This deception is carried out using dissolute actor Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), of whom the film’s title is a more than apt description. In a clever script penned by Holmes superfans Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther, everything we know about Conan Doyle’s creation is turned on its head.

Without A Clue is a riot from start to finish, with Caine and Kingsley bringing all their considerable skills to these comic roles. Kingsley’s coiled-spring intensity and suppressed rage towards the sleazily charming Kincaid, played by Caine with his inimitable comic touch, is a joy to behold. The exasperated Watson’s attempt to pitch himself as ‘The Crime Doctor’ after tiring of Kincaid’s inadequacy is doomed to fail, but yields the priceless scene in which ‘Sherlock Holmes’, deprived of his mentor, tries to present his own theories about Moriarty’s identity to an expectant public. If you can ever watch another Holmes adaptation without secretly wondering whether, just this once, the Napoleon of Crime’s real name might actually be Arty Morty, then you’re a better fan than I.


They Might Be Giants

After the huge success of their Oscar-winning historical drama, The Lion In Winter, director Anthony Harvey and writer James Goldman’s next step was to make They Might Be Giants. The 1971 comic romance was based on Goldman’s play of the same name; he’d never been satisfied with it, and had forbidden any further productions after a London run in 1961. The film didn’t do well at the box office and received mixed reviews. As the DVD release is no longer available, catching it on one of its occasional television appearances is the only way to see this strange gem of a film.

George C. Scott is Justin Playfair, a retired judge whose identity has been submerged in that of his new alter ego, Sherlock Holmes, after the death of his wife. His brother Blevins wants him committed in order to get his hands on his wealth. Enter Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward), a psychiatrist who sees Justin as a textbook case of psychosis. He’s not impressed by the argumentative doctor, either – that is, until he hears her name. The mismatched pair set off on a journey through New York on the search for Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ nemesis and, he believes, the unseen evil behind every crime and tragedy in the city. Watson’s initial scepticism gradually dissolves as the two begin a tentative romance.

Although They Might Be Giants didn’t achieve the same level of recognition as The Lion In Winter, it shares many of that great film’s strengths, not the least of those being another beautiful score by John Barry. Frequently hilarious and often deeply touching, with an ambiguous ending that hits all the right emotional notes and two brilliant central performances, it’s a film that lingers in the memory. Justin Playfair may not really be Sherlock Holmes, but They Might Be Giants gets to the heart of our abiding fascination with the character as an abiding symbol of justice and decency in an unfair world. Like Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills, Holmes’ pursuit of Moriarty is a bid to see beyond the obvious. For all the intoxicating fun of the chase, however, They Might Be Giants’s ultimate message is that love is the only one of life’s abiding mysteries really worth pursuing.

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