It was 125 years ago that a young Scottish physician called Arthur Conan Doyle wrote some stories about a master detective, mainly to amuse himself between appointments at his surgery.
His creation, Sherlock Holmes, loosely based on his mentor, forensic surgeon Joseph Bell, first appeared in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, in a story called A Study In Scarlet. The maverick detective has since appeared numerous times in films and on television, portrayed by a cornucopia of eccentric actors from around the world, though chiefly from Britain and America.
The iconic image of deerstalker, pipe and tweed overcoat was a gift to comedians, and consequently, Holmes has been embodied by (amongst many others), Buster Keaton, Peter Cook and John Cleese. More recently, David Mitchell and Robert Webb played both Holmes and Watson in a confusing sketch where the two continually swapped roles. Avengers star Patrick Macnee is also among a handful of actors to have played both Holmes and Watson.
This top ten concentrates on actors who’ve played Sherlock Holmes in drama. There are so many great performances out there, that just bubbling under is Rupert Everett, who appeared with Ian Hart in 2004’s BBC movie, The Case Of The Silk Stocking.
It was no easy task to identify a top ten. I’d welcome your own lists and thoughts. This, then, is my personal choice, so here goes…
10. Ellie Norwood
Norwood played Holmes in 47 silent films, modelling himself on the classic illustration of the detective by Sidney Paget. A true method actor, Norwood studied the role with enormous diligence and brought a wonderful intensity to his portrayal both in film, opposite Hubert Willis as Watson, and on the stage. Although not especially well-known today, Norwood should be remembered as one of the first to establish and embody Sherlock Holmes beyond the pages of Strand magazine.
9. Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe was the star of the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie Young Sherlock Holmes. The film followed Sherlock’s early life and his first meeting with John Watson as the two were caught up in the first of many exciting mysteries. Rowe was engaging enough and the film has much to recommend it, but the idea of depicting the character’s formative years wasn’t entirely new. Some three years earlier, Guy Henry played a juvenile Holmes in ITV’s Young Sherlock made by Granada television.
8. Tom Baker
A year after leaving Doctor Who, Baker was invited to play Holmes by his former producer Barry Letts. The 1982 BBC television production of The Hound Of The Baskervilles, shown in the Sunday afternoon classic serial slot, was well received. Terence Rigby played Watson in a bluff style, akin to Nigel Bruce. The cast dubbed the production ”the Tom and Terry show”.
Later though, Baker admitted he felt he had “failed” in the role, pointing out his “dry run” for the part, in Doctor Who, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, was far more successful. While not a role he’s immediately associated with, Tom Baker was a memorable Holmes, and the part was a gift for his natural eccentricity and boundless charisma.
7. Arthur Wontner
Arthur Wontner won the role of Holmes having played Sexton Blake, a character seen as a flattering imitation of the Baker Street detective. Wontner earned appreciation from staunch Holmes experts, including Conan Doyle’s wife, for his approach to the role in the film The Sleeping Cardinal, which fused two separate stories: The Empty House and The Final Problem.
He appeared in five films in total between 1931 and 1937. All Wontner’s pictures had alternative titles to the original Conan Doyle. Silver Blaze, for instance, was later retitled Murder At The Baskervilles in an attempt to draw attention away from the successful Basil Rathbone movies. In point of fact, it can be seen as a sequel to that most famous of all Holmes stories.
6. Douglas Wilmer
Douglas Wilmer became the first television Sherlock Holmes when the BBC produced The Speckled Band in 1964 for anthology series, Detective (what took them so long?). He made a further twelve Conan Doyle stories in 1965. Basing his portrayal very much on Basil Rathbone, he played the role with just the right measure of forensic analysis and detached composure. Nigel Stock appeared as Watson, a role he continued to play when Douglas Wilmer handed over the deerstalker to Peter Cushing in 1968.
5. Robert Downey Jr
Over the course of two Guy Ritchie films, Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows (2011), the magnetic personality of Robert Downey Jr has allowed his rather crass, cynical, yet likeable portrayal of the master detective to be enjoyed by cinema-goers across the world.
Supported by Jude Law as a rather dignified Watson, Downey Jr has made the part his own and delights a new generation of fans with his unkempt eccentricity and Tigger-like enthusiasm. It’s fair to say Downey Jr can empathise with Holmes’ mood swings having had something of a rollercoaster career to date. Another film will probably seal his reputation one way or the other, but it would be interesting to see him working for a different director too.
4. Peter Cushing
Although Peter Cushing first portrayed Holmes in the 1959 Hammer version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles, he is perhaps better remembered for the 16-episode, 1968 BBC series, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, when he replaced Douglas Wilmer as the Baker Street sleuth. Even as late as 1984, Cushing appeared as Holmes in the TV movie The Masks Of Death.
With his distinctive, rather bony features, Cushing certainly looked the part, and never gave anything less than a watchable and engrossing performance. Cushing played many iconic characters in his long career, but his take on the great detective is one of his best.
3. Basil Rathbone
Arguably the actor most commonly identified with Sherlock Holmes on film, Sir Basil Rathbone made 14 Sherlock Holmes movies between 1939 and 1946, creating the deerstalker and cape look in the process. Nigel Bruce played Watson in a blustering and bewildered style, which more recently has fallen by the wayside. Rathbone’s performance in the 1939 version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles was a cinematic benchmark for all the actors who followed.
Rathbone played Sherlock over 200 times on radio, and he was the distinctive Holmes during the Second World War, a time when cinema truly was king. His impact is enduring, not least on those who grew up loving the films, whether at the cinema or on television (a special season was transmitted on BBC2 in 1978, which introduced me to the character, and aired again to celebrate the centenary in 1987). Rathbone’s silhouette is iconic, and he is often spoken of as “the doyen of the detective melodrama”.
2. Benedict Cumberbatch
Star of the current BBC series Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch is Holmes for the 21st century. Doctor Who supremo Steven Moffat and writer and actor Mark Gatiss created a series of stories loosely based on Conan Doyle’s work, but with a distinct modern day slant. As Moffat declared during the 2010 launch of the series, “Holmes is about detection… if that means to hell with the crinolines, then so be it! Other detectives have cases, Holmes has adventures…”
Benedict Cumberbatch is a fast-talking, perceptive, high cheek-boned Holmes, aloof yet prone to incredible social faux pas. Cumberbatch eschews the deerstalker image for a long coat and scarf (though his brief affection for deerstalkers was an occasional joke in series two), and nicotine patches replace the pipe. He is accompanied by the ever-perplexed Martin Freeman as an equally modern, technology-savvy Doctor Watson, who’s often seen blogging his diaries.
The BBC has a major hit with this superb and (at times) controversial 21st century retelling of the adventures of the world’s most famous consulting detective. Even purists are reconsidering things after this series, awash with GPS, texting and on-screen graphics as an integral part of the storytelling. It proves that Conan Doyle can be as relevant in 2012 as he was in the 1890s.
1. Jeremy Brett
The sorely-missed Jeremy Brett was a genuine one-off – an actor of immense skill and intense personality. In 1984 Granada television, fresh from the success of The Jewel In The Crown, produced an equally superb television adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Supported first by David Burke and then Edward Hardwicke, both intelligent and thoughtful as Watson, Jeremy Brett made Sherlock Holmes so much his own that any fresh television adaptation would have to approach Conan Doyle’s work from a very different direction.
Brett was bipolar, which heightened his mannered performance as Holmes, making his sudden flashes of manic thought, wit and melancholic malaise truly convincing. Brett filmed 41 of the Conan Doyle stories over a period of ten years. Like Ellie Norwood, Brett became obsessed with character, often taking method acting to the extreme to fully embody the spirit of Holmes. In part, this dedication to intricate character detail contributed to his untimely death in 1995.
Nearly 30 years since he first portrayed the master detective from Baker Street, Jeremy Brett is seen by many as the definitive Sherlock Holmes.