A Holmes for every season
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The new season of BBC’s Sherlock, which is being shot as we speak, is slated for early 2017. There is, of course, the delicious prospect of Ian McKellen as an elderly Sherlock tending his beloved bees and fighting amnesia in the just released Mr Holmes. Missing a fix of new Holmes in my life, I’ve been nosing through all the old stuff, starting from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels, right through the thousands of homages, pastiches and parodies that have appeared since the last set of Sherlock Holmes stories were published in 1927.
Having exhausted those, I started looking for Holmes on celluloid, especially Basil Rathbone’s omniscient Nazi-hunter Holmes from the 1940s, Jeremy Brett’s masterful (and to me, definitive) Sherlock from the 1980s-90s and, of course, the twin peaks of 21st century adaptations that are Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Jonny Lee Miller’s Elementary.
Holmes is malleable: He fulfils every generation’s need for a master problem-solver unencumbered by convention or tradition, who exists to demystify the most impenetrable of puzzles. In this he has no equal.
This probably explains why the neurotic, pipe-smoking, violin-playing, coke-injecting denizen of 221B Baker Street holds the Guinness World Record for the “most portrayed literary human character in film and TV”, with over 75 actors having portrayed him 254 different times on screen (his nearest rival is the “non-human” Dracula, with 272 screen portrayals).
The first portrayal of Holmes after the books was in the 1899 play Sherlock Holmes, followed by a surreal 45-second silent film, Sherlock Holmes Baffled, the next year. The play ran till 1916, with over 1,000 performances, culminating in a 1916 film based on the play. Then there was a film series between 1921-23, and the first Holmes “talkie”—1929’s Return Of Sherlock Holmes, filmed, of all places, in New York City. Holmes had transcended the gas-lit, fog-shrouded, Jack the Ripper-haunted Victorian London that gave birth to him.
The first colossus was Basil Rathbone. Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox wanted to cash in on Holmes, and its first effort was the big-budget, 1939 spectacular, The Hound Of The Baskervilles. It was a runaway hit, prompting the studios to make a second film before World War II broke out. In this era of big studios, 20th Century Fox “lent” Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who played Dr John Watson, Holmes’ Boswell, to Universal Studios, which ditched the Victorian setting, cut costs to a bare minimum, and churned out 12 B-grade films, updating Holmes to the 1940s and essentially recasting him as a super-agent fighting the Nazis.
Watching The Hound Of The Baskervilles today is still quite a thrill. Shot in spooky black and white, with a very scary hound, and Devonshire’s moors drenched in dark and deep noir shadows, there’s a palpable sense of the new, a feeling of an icon being created. Rathbone, the suave Shakespearean stage actor and portrayer of smooth criminals on screen, gave us the deer-stalker and the cape, the iconic Holmes silhouette, the searing intellect and the high cheekbones—he seemed to have stepped out of Sidney Paget’s illustrations of The Great Detective in The Strand Magazine. Rathbone’s Holmes is steely and magnetic, imperturbable and sarcastic. His drug habit, too, is alluded to—in the last line of the film, Holmes says: “Oh Watson, the needle”.
In many ways, Cumberbatch’s reimagined-for-the-21st-century Holmes is a successor to Rathbone. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the show’s creators, have often spoken of their fondness for the 1940s’ films. But Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is resolutely a post-globalization, 21st century, “high-functioning sociopath”, just as Rathbone was a patriotic, hard-working wartime hero. This new Holmes, all sexy cheekbones, fashionable coats, personable rudeness and glib talk, embodies the new millennium and its distinct neuroses like nothing else in modern pop culture. But after a century of Holmes portrayals, he is also wry and self-critical as no other Sherlock before him.
Sherlock’s triumph, unlike earlier iterations, resides less with Cumberbatch and more with the ensemble cast. Take any one of the characters away, from Martin Freeman’s Watson to Gatiss’ Mycroft, and the show won’t work. Sherlock’s Holmes needs his foils.
But between Rathbone and Cumberbatch lies probably the best Holmes ever portrayed on screen—the brilliant Jeremy Brett. Star of Granada TV’s decade-spanning Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, which started broadcast in 1984, Brett is the purist’s Holmes.
Set in a rigorously faithful Victorian universe, the show follows Conan Doyle’s stories to a T. A preternaturally beautiful thespian in his 50s, Brett suffered from bipolar disorder, with a drug habit to match. This seemed to give him an almost uncanny ability to pitch Holmes just right. Brett’s Sherlock could be overcome by lassitude, raise an eyebrow in amused sarcasm, reach for the cocaine with studied languor, burst into sudden manic energy, take the mickey out of Watson with gentle humour, and rage against the world and its injustices in a way that would take your breath away. Before the drugs prescribed for his illness started turning him into a bloated shadow of his former self, Brett moved with a lean and wiry feline agility and grace that is still unmatched.
With the success of Sherlock, it’s very clear that Sherlock Holmes, as a character, is so tractable that he can be made to fit any zeitgeist. Someday, Cumberbatch’s portrayal too will be history, and a new Holmes will come along, wowing the public with a signature mix of distance, manic energy, and a razor-sharp brain—a dependable light in the darkness.