Monday, 30 January 2012

The Best of Baker Street

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

Sherlock Holmes is everywhere at the moment. With Guy Ritchie giving us another frenetic outing in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and the British public currently wondering just how the writers of Sherlock are going to get themselves out of this season’s cliffhanger, someone might want to tip off Topman that this season’s headgear is definitely deerstalker. With this in mind, and with meerschaum in mouth, we take a look at how some Sherlocks from past and present measure up. Here, then, in ascending order, are our top portrayals of Baker Street’s finest sleuth:
Tom Baker in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982)
Having already given us some absolutely top notch business in foggy Victorian London whilst wearing a deerstalker (albeit a Victorian London complete with a mutilated 51st century war criminal and a giant rat in the Doctor Who classic The Talons of Weng-Chiang), Tom Baker really had nothing to prove. It might be for this reason that the man himself feels his performance as Holmes in this BBC adaptation was a weaker moment in his career, but it certainly shows that his range extends beyond his signature performance as the Doctor. His is a gleeful Holmes, who enjoys the thrill of the chase rather than showing off, and as usual with Tom Baker none of the other actors stand much of a chance beside him.
Basil in Basil the Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Obviously a bit of a cheat, given that Holmes himself also appears in the film (via voice clips of Basil Rathbone), but Basil of Baker Street is a sadly overlooked Disney character. Helped no end by a brilliant voice performance from Barrie Ingham, Basil is a nicely idiosyncratic hero, capturing the outwardly cold and calculating but inwardly much more caring character of his human idol. Not canonical, clearly, this film prefigures the steampunk aesthetic of some later Holmes adaptations with an army of clockwork robots and a thrilling fight inside the cogs of the clock on the Houses of Parliament.  The film deserves extra praise for being the success which brought about Disney’s 90s renaissance.
Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes (2010)
It seems unlikely that we were alone in being surprised by the quality of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. The sacrilegious casting of an American and the equally worrying choice of Jude Law as Dr Watson seemed due cause for alarm, but we were worrying for nothing. Both actors put in thoroughly likeable performances, with the only minus point in Downey’s portrayal being his sometimes unintelligible accent. Points will be deducted by purists from the film for the storyline which, while tremendous fun, strays far away from canon.
Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock (from 2010)
Much has been made of Doctor Who gurus Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s 21st century rejig of Holmes, and it is true that it has made for some great telly. However, while Cumberbatch is unquestionably a good actor, his Holmes spends far too much of his time on the mean and unpleasant side of antisocial. He should be odd, but not repellent. One wonders why Martin Freeman’s Watson doesn’t find himself another lodging with a less monomaniacal flatmate.
Basil Rathbone in Fox/Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series (1939-1946)
Regarded by some as the definitive Holmes, Basil Rathbone certainly has had huge cultural impact (witness aforementioned Basil of Baker Street for an example!). He makes the role his own, and even manages to bring dignity to the later Universal films which transfer Holmes and Watson (and Mrs Hudson) to the 1940s and function for a time as wartime propaganda pieces. The main problem with the series does not lie with Rathbone, but rather with the decision to turn Nigel Bruce’s Watson from a perfectly capable doctor to a somewhat oafish and bumbling foil for Holmes. This appears to have been done to make Holmes seem more brilliant, but conversely it makes him less believable.
John Neville in A Study in Terror (1966)
Neville’s Sherlock is something of an action man – leaping around in the fog after his quarry, engaging in some impressive fisticuffs with a gang of goons (“Brisk work, Watson!”) and finally taking on Jack the Ripper in a rip-roaring punch-up. This is a Holmes with a blade in his cane, both literally and metaphorically, and Neville deserves far more recognition for his go at the role – if he had been offered a canon story to work with he would probably be even further up the list.
Jeremy Brett in The Adventures/ Return/ Case-Book/ Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)
There are many who will accept no other contenders to the Holmes throne. Brett starred for a decade in ITV’s highly faithful adaptations and received high praise from public and critics alike. Given a likeable Watson in David Burke and then Edward Hardwicke, Brett shone in the role, particularly relishing the moments where Holmes gets to highlight his intellectual superiority. Sadly Brett died before he was able to finish the Conan Doyle canon, but his remains one of the most consistently entertaining, albeit rather too cynical, portrayals of Holmes.
Peter Cushing in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Peter Cushing actually essayed the role a number of times, but his peak has to be in Hammer’s version of Conan Doyle’s most famous tale. In the same way as he turned Van Helsing from a boring old Dutchman into a committed agent for goodness with a penchant for a good ruck, so Cushing brings out the driven, obsessive dark side of Holmes. He is a joy to watch, subtly portraying Holmes as a hungry man – desperate to nourish himself either intellectually on the case or with a fix of morphine. Crucially he remains immensely likeable and human, proving that with the right actor the complicated character of Sherlock Holmes as written by Conan Doyle can indeed be brought to life.

1 comment:

  1. Basil Rathbone was a very masterly Holmes. He is one of my favorite Holmes as well :)