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Sherlock Holmes - the greatest fictional detective

PUBLISHED: 11:21 25 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:21 25 April 2018

Caption: Sherlock Holmes (Philip Porter) and Professor Moriarty (Peter Horrocks) of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London fight at the Reichenbach falls in Meiringen, Switzerland.
 Picture: ALLESSANDRO DELLA BELLA

Caption: Sherlock Holmes (Philip Porter) and Professor Moriarty (Peter Horrocks) of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London fight at the Reichenbach falls in Meiringen, Switzerland. Picture: ALLESSANDRO DELLA BELLA

We all have our favourite depictions of Sherlock - for Lynne Mortimer, it’s Jeremy Brett

Sherlock Holmes continues to be one of the most popular subjects for stage and screen adaptations. Touring company The Pantaloons brought their Sherlock to East Anglia. Picture: THE PANTALOONSSherlock Holmes continues to be one of the most popular subjects for stage and screen adaptations. Touring company The Pantaloons brought their Sherlock to East Anglia. Picture: THE PANTALOONS

Sherlock Holmes is, undoubtedly, the world’s greatest fictional detective although Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would undoubtedly challenge the assertion. Both men have appeared on screen in film and TV adaptations and, like Doctor Whos, we will all have our favourite.

For me the definitive castings of the three roles were pipe-playing Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, David Suchet as Poirot and Jeremy Brett as Sherlock.

It was on April 24 1984, that one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes’s strode into the TV schedules, delivered with patrician precision by the late Jeremy Brett. The actor came to inhabit Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Holmes’ sniff brought on not only by disdain but by his drug habit. Brett, I feel, was the first modern Holmes, successor to Peter Cushing, Douglas Wilmer and Basil Rathbone, precursor to Robert Downey Jr’s big screen Holmes and, to an extent, Benedict Cumberbatch’s tech-age Holmes.

Arrogant and with a total lack of empathy, Holmes is somehow still able to divine the intimate details of the lives of clients and villains. With amiable sidekick Doctor Watson at his side, Holmes beguiles us with his huge mental capacity, his penchant for traipsing around the country in bewildering disguise. and his unforgettable run-ins with the implacably evil Moriarty.

Conan Doyle’s books were devoured by his devoted readers and when his flawed hero arrived on screen he was no less admired.

Sherlock Holmes is said to be the most prolific screen character in the history of cinema. The first film, in 1900, lasted less than a minute - not worth buying popcorn for that one. There are too many others to itemise but there have also been foreign-language versions of Holmes’ cases, cerebrally solved from his base at 221B Baker Street, London.

Stage plays and video games have drawn on the character and there have also been a number of Sherlock Holmes spoofs.

Radio has been a popular medium for Holmes, both in the US and the UK. In America, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce paired up for both movie and radio adaptations. In a casting blinder from the BBC and ABC, the 1950s saw John Gielgud as Holmes with Ralph Richardson as Watson. Gielgud’s real-life brother, Val, took the role of Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, and Orson Welles showed up as Moriarty.

The earliest television adaptation dates back to a BBC mini-series in 1951. But its TV zenith was arguably when Jeremy Brett stepped so elegantly into the role of Holmes.

I am, as so often, indebted to Wikipedia for the details of the Granada series that ran on ITV between 1984 and 1994 coming to an end with the death of Brett in 1995, at the age of 61. The first two series were called The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes and were followed by sub-series bearing the titles of other short story collections by Conan Doyle.

As well as featuring a definitive Holmes, the series brought us a competent and dependable Dr. Watson. The part was initially played by David Burke (who had earlier played the villain in a 1965 BBC Sherlock Holmes story starring Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock). Burke stayed a year before leaving to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was replaced by Edward Hardwicke, who played Watson for the remainder of the run. Other actors in recurring roles were Rosalie Williams as housekeeper Mrs Hudson, Colin Jeavons as Inspector Lestrade, Eric Porter as Professor Moriarty and Charles Gray as Mycroft Holmes. Another familiar face was that of Jude Law who appeared in a 1991 episode as a young servant. Law later played Dr. Watson in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes and its 2011 sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

Of the 60 Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 42 were adapted in the series, spanning 36 one-hour episodes and five feature-length specials. (The elements of two stories were combined in one episode). Sherlock, created by Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat, first broadcast in 2010, brought the great detective into the 21st century but, personally, I like the atmosphere evoked by late-Victorian pea-souper London.

The 80s Sherlock is not as slick as some film and later television adaptations but it has an integrity that sets it apart from cosier versions and so I commend this 34-year-old series to serious Sherlock Holmes fans. Elementary? Perhaps but it is still one of the best ever realisations of the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Jeremy Brett said of this seminal role: “You must have a twinkle in your eye, a naughtiness – and the audience must realise your mind is working faster than your words.”

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