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.

Chicago Theater Treat

Sherlock Holmes

Michael Aaron Lindner (as Arthur Conan Doyle) and Nick Sandys (as Sherlock Holmes) contemplating “A Three-Pipe Problem”

Hey there, Chicago-land readers and visitors: For a fun time, see The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes, a lively musical on stage at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Avenue, through March 20. The book is by popular Chicago theater stalwart John Reeger, with music and lyrics by Michael Mahler and the late Julie Shannon. Plot, acting, musical numbers, and singing voices—all super!

The story has two main strands (sorry, Sherlockians!). The first deals with the outraged aftermath when Arthur Conan Doyle published “The Final Problem,” a short story in which Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor James Moriarty are said to die in a plunge over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. Doyle was sick of Holmes and wanted to write something else, but The Great Detective’s fans were furious.

The second thread, also drawn from real life, covers Doyle’s own efforts at crime-solving in the case of solicitor George Edalji. Edalji was the son of an Indian vicar and Scottish mother, none of whom were well accepted in their small Staffordshire village of Great Wyrley. George was falsely accused of harming a number of horses and served three years’ hard labor before Doyle’s and others’ campaign led to his pardon.

If Edalji’s story sounds familiar, it was explored in the 2005 novel, Arthur and George by British author Julian Barnes (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), and a UK television series last year. The Mercury theater production differs from the television version in that it brings in Sherlock Holmes himself, channeled by Doyle, and proposes a different solution.

The entire 13-member cast was strong, especially singling out Nick Sandys (Sherlock Holmes), Michael Aaron Lindner (Doyle), McKinley Carter (Louise Doyle), and Christina Hall (Molly Jamison). Sandys and Lindner even physically resemble the characters they play! Having a live five-piece orchestra added immensely to the enjoyment. Energetic and well staged by director Warner Crocker.