Who’s the Best Holmes and Watson On-Screen?

I asked this question of a certain kind of Sherlock Holmes expert: people who write stories in the Conan Doyle tradition. Quite a few contemporary writers take inspiration from Victorian England, Holmes’s wide-ranging if idiosyncratic erudition, and Watson’s genial writing style. I’ve had three such stories published and can attest to how much fun it is to don another writer’s hounds tooth suit.

The writers whose picks for best on-screen Holmes/Watson portrayals all appear in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, published last December by Belanger Books. Many of them have written a number of Doyle pastiches, and in the coming weeks, I’ll say more about why and how. They’ve generously shared their love of Holmesiana with me—and now you. *=one vote

*Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce
The 14 Hollywood films in this series are the classic of classics, released between 1939 and 1946, and the vehicle by which Americans first developed a relationship with an on-screen Holmes and Watson. Thus, “for tradition’s sake, maybe Rathbone-Bruce have the edge,” says author Hassan Akram. My own quibble with this series are well put by David Marcum, who says, “Basil Rathbone would be my favorite Holmes if he wasn’t saddled with Boobus Brittanicus Nigel Bruce, who was not Watson.” If you’ve seen the Rathbone/Bruce Hound of the Baskervilles [1939], you’ll know what he means.

***Jeremy Brett/David Burke/Edward Harwicke
In this Granada Television series, which over its 41 episodes (1984 – 1994) involved two actors in the Watson role, is the favorite of DJ Tyrer. “Not only does Jeremy Brett fit very closely to how I imagine Holmes,” he says, “but the series is a faithful adaptation, adding to the illusion.” George Gardner also favored this series, noting Watson’s direct voice and Brett’s “manic edge.” When he was writing, “it was Jeremy Brett’s Holmes that I saw.” Author Shelby Phoenix couldn’t be clearer: “It’s Jeremy Brett and David Burke all the way.” David Marcum takes exception. He says, Brett “did not play Holmes—he played himself, foisting his own physical and mental illnesses on the character.” (Brett took lithium to control his bipolar disorder, and the medication affected his health and appearance.)

**Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law
George Jacobs admits to missing the classic duos and to admiring the films featuring Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law from 2009 and 2011 (directed by Guy Ritchie ). Their “modern take” also appeals to Gustavo Bondoni, and Shelby Phoenix calls them “an iconic version.”

**Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman
This four-season BBC series (airing 2010-2017) is a tight runner-up for author Hassan Akram, and Kevin Thornton says Cumberbatch is “The only [Holmes] who has energized me enough in the last twenty years to sit and watch him,” suggesting an interesting tension between historical and contemporary influences in his creative process! The tabloids suggest the series would have gone on longer if the two stars had gotten along. It’s my current favorite, too, admitting great admiration for Martin Freeman. Interestingly, the producers image of Holmes was as a “high functioning sociopath.”

*Johnny Lee Miller/Lucy Liu
Here’s an unconventional choice. George Jacobs, who admits to missing the classics, found that the CBS series, Elementary, with 154 episodes that aired from 2012 to 2019, “had the best friendship chemistry and kept Holmes’s demons without losing his intrinsic goodness.”

Extra Credit
David Marcum provides a handy list of the many other actors who he believes have successfully played the Great Detective: Arthur Wontner (in a 1930s film series, set in the 30s), Ronald Howard (1954), Douglas Wilmer (in a 1964 – 1965 BBC series), Peter Cushing (a continuation of the BBCseries, airing in 1968), and Ian Richardson (1983). That Holmes has appeared in so many notable productions is irrefutable evidence of his lasting appeal.

So, who’s your favorite?

Photo of Benedict Cumberbatch by Fat Les, cc by 2.0 license.

6 thoughts on “Who’s the Best Holmes and Watson On-Screen?

  1. Ther was one with Michael Caine as Holmes and Ben kKingsley as Watson, Without a Clue,
    It was a comedy.
    Caine playing Holmes, not many people know that.

    I have written Sherlock Holmes spoofs, Shadrack Bones, mysteries.

  2. I think all of the various incarnations had their places in the lengthy Holmes legacy. While I think some of them went a bit overboard, like the Downey movies, they were still entertaining and got people interested in Holmes. For me, my personal favorite was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. It was the second time the pair of actors had portrayed the dynamic duo and the movie was true to the original Holmes books and stories portraying Victorian England and Holmes and Watson to perfection. Their previous pairing in The Hound of the Baskervilles was equally well done, and it is worth noting that Watson was not portrayed as a buffoon in these two movies, as was the unfortunate case in the subsequent Rathbone/Bruce films. In fact, in Baskervilles, the final line of the movie alluded to Holmes’ cocaine addiction. (“Quickly, Watson, the needle.”) This line was later censored in many television broadcasts. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes also had the beautiful Ida Lupino in a significant role. (She was so gorgeous that she’d make a bishop kick a hole through a stained glass window.–Apologies to Raymond Chandler and Vicki.). Lupino later became one of the first female directors in Hollywood. I’ve written a few Holmes pastiches, the latest of which is “The Girl on the Black Velvet Swing.” in Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, Volume 18.

  3. The term ‘best’ doesn’t give parameters. Are you asking for a personal favorite, an accurate to the writings, a most entertaining to watch, or what? There can be different responses for each category. The Sherlock Holmes actor for me who rates highest for me in the majority of those categories is Vasily Livanov. I grew up with Basil Rathbone, and your first love is usually the deepest, but after watching the 80’s Russian series Livanov even topped him for me. Brett, though most accurate to the writings, was too over dramatic for me, and following his illnesses down right bad in his final few episodes. Robert Downey Jr. while entertaining as Holmes was too superhero type. Benedict Cumberbatch while the best ever perhaps for 2 seasons lost steam with the horrible scripts of the final few seasons. Jonny Lee Miller was part of no more than a formula CBS police procedural, which had Watson and/or the police detective solving more of the almost strictly murder cases than him. I consider him a Sherlock Holmes in character name only, and hardly worth being in this discussion. A Sherlock Holmes performer worth an honorable mention for me, being a ballet buff, is Sir Kenneth Macmillan, who played Holmes in the 1953 Sadler Wells production “The Great Detective”.

    • Agree, though “favorite” tends to be the sum of all those parts, however a person weights the individual elements. In our home, we have 2-hour, 4-hour, and 6-hour versions of Pride and Prejudice. We might like the Greer Garson best for the classic take, the Colin Firth version for the production values, and the David Rintoul version for his perfect Mr. Darcy. Our favorite depends on the mood, and which one we choose to watch depends on how much time we have!

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