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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Changing Face of Sherlock Holmes

The original Basil of Baker Street
Today I turn Baker Street Beat over to guest blogger Rohase Piercy for a look at how portrayals of the world’s first consulting detective have changed over the decades.

“What is wrong, surely, is Mr. Rathbone’s reading of the great character,” complained Graham Greene, reviewing Basil Rathbone’s 1939 performance in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, “the good humour (Holmes very rarely laughed), and the general air of brisk good health . . .”

Commenting on the same actor’s portrayal in The Hound of The Baskervilles, Greene elaborated: “. . . he forgets that he belongs to the end of a century, and probably met Wilde at first nights.  One cannot imagine this Holmes indolent, mystical or untidy (there were tobacco jars and not – shouldn't it have been? - a Turkish (sic) slipper on the chimney piece).”

Yet when I was growing up in the 1960s, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were the only portrayals of Holmes and Watson on screen – a manly, stiff-upper-lipped detective striding purposefully across London with pipe clenched between his teeth, accompanied by a genial and somewhat dense old buffer in a greatcoat.  What had happened to the languid, violin-playing cocaine addict of the original stories, who lounges on the couch in his dressing gown in the middle of the day complaining of ennui and describes his life as “one long effort to escape from the commonplace of existence”? What had happened to his handsome, active, ex-military sidekick?

From the 1930s onwards some rather drastic reshaping of the Great Detective had taken place in order to make him fit the contemporary mold. “A pipe, a dog and a golf club,” opined Sydney Horler, whose Tiger Standish stood alongside Sapper's Bulldog Drummond and the heroes of Edgar Wallace as the ideal of British masculinity; “if you want to win the heart of a man, give him one of these.  And when I say a man, I mean a man – not one of these emasculated cigarette smokers.”

To those of us who noticed and resented the glaring difference between this hearty, healthy portrayal and the fin-de-siecle phenomenon that had fascinated Doyle’s original late Victorian readers, what a breath of fresh air was Jeremy Brett when he flounced onto our television screens in 1984 in the Granada TV adaptations!  Languid as a panther, sporting the “quiet sartorial primness” of the original Paget illustrations, Brett’s Holmes – partnered originally with David Burke’s handsome, soldierly Watson and later with Edward Hardwicke’s sensitive, intelligent portrayal – re-introduced the original troubled, cocaine-addicted Holmes to a public on the cusp of another fin de siecle.

And then came the 21st Century!  So far we’ve had Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law camping it up in Guy Ritchie’s “bromance” movies, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman wielding i-phones and hailing taxis in the BBC’s “Sherlock” series, and Sir Ian McKellen staving off dementia in Mr. Holmes, the film adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick Of The Mind.  It seems that every era wants to re-create Sherlock in its own image. 

Rohase Piercy is the author of several novels, including My Dearest Holmes. Her new Sherlock Holmes mystery, co-authored with Charlie Raven, is A Case Of Domestic Pilfering.  She describes the books as post-Freudian takes on the original "indolent, mystical and untidy" Holmes. Rohase lives in Brighton, England with her husband Leslie and dog Spike.

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