Making a good screen Holmes

When we assess the pros and cons of any actor's portrayal of the great detective we tend to go on the following criteria (whether we realise it or not):

• Visual similarity to Sidney Paget's illustrations
• The actor's ability to bring the personality of Holmes to life
• His Watson's accuracy
• The chemistry between the two leads
• The canonical accuracy of the screenplay

I have listed these criteria in what I consider to be their order of importance.

Visual similarity to Sidney Paget's illustrations
As superficial as it may seem, a strong resemblance to the Paget illustrations is a must. Is it really coincidence that the best on screen performances have been given by actors who looked the part?

Good portrayals:

• Arthur Wontner
• Basil Rathbone
• Douglas Wilmer
• Ian Richardson
• Jeremy Brett

Wontner, Rathbone and Richardson - Three of the best.

Bad portrayals:

 • Matt Frewer
 • Ben Syder
 • Richard Roxburgh

There have been good portrayals by actors that did not fit the Paget mould (such as Benedict Cumberbatch) but they are very much in the minority (and depend on the ability to meet all of the remaining criteria). It is also amusing how people who have never seen a Paget illustration seem to know when a Holmes looks right.

The actor's ability to bring the personality of Holmes to life
Sherlock Holmes has very definite character traits. His mood swings, his impatience with those less intelligent than himself and so on. However he has his softer, perhaps paternalistic, side and this needs to be shown. An extremely aggressive Holmes is as bad a mistake as a too emotional one. Christopher Plummer gave us an example of the latter in Murder by Decree.

His Watson's accuracy
Some people judge the quality of a Sherlock Holmes screen adaptation almost purely on the quality of the portrayal of Holmes but Watson is just as important. A bad Watson can drag a good Holmes down and a good Watson can go some way to rescuing a sub-standard Holmes.

Arthur Wontner, Basil Rathbone and Ian Richardson were all slightly dragged down by their Watsons. For Wontner, Ian Fleming was just too wet. For Rathbone, Nigel Bruce was too much of a buffoon and for Richardson, Donald Churchill was too pompous (and a buffoon).

Arthur Wontner and Ian Fleming (no not that Ian Fleming)

For the absolute zenith of accuracy we have to look no further than Jeremy Brett with his Watsons - David Burke and, later, Edward Hardwicke. These two men gave us portrayals of Watson that lacked accuracy in only one area. The area in question was age but the age of Holmes and Watson has been a constant issue since adaptations began.

The chemistry between the two leads
Good chemistry between Holmes and Watson is vital for a truly successful adaptation. Rathbone and Bruce had excellent chemistry and this went some way to offsetting the downsides of Bruce's Watson. Ian Richardson had an above-average Watson for his version of The Sign of Four and this went a long way towards making it one of the better adaptations. However, as a perfect example of how a bad Watson can drag an adaptation down, his Hound of the Baskervilles was much the poorer with Donald Churchill who lacked the all-important chemistry as well as being a poor Watson to boot.

Again Brett and Burke/Hardwicke demonstrate the best examples.

The canonical accuracy of the screenplay
Yes, as bizarre as it may seem, canonical accuracy comes bottom of the list. The most canonically perfect script will be ruined if the criteria above have not been well met. The recent Warner Brothers Sherlock Holmes demonstrated how a script littered with inaccuracies can actually work. Despite the script and the fact that Robert Downey Jr was hardly a clone of Paget's Holmes the film worked. This rested very much on the accuracy of Jude Law's Watson and the excellent chemistry between him and Downey Jr.

Another example is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Rathbone and Bruce. The script was close to William Gillette's non-canonical stage play but succeeded largely because of Rathbone's excellent portrayal of Holmes (visually as well as in personality) and the excellent chemistry with Bruce. This formula held them in good stead through their largely non-canonical Universal films. This, I think, demonstrates, as well as it can be, how a canonical script, while desirable, is not mandatory if other criteria are met.

Where did you go Poland?

It would seem that the citizens of Poland were only interested in my post on the interior of 221B. Since the week it was posted the numbers have dropped to single figures and, once again, the U.S. and U.K are my main audience.

You be sure to come back Poland.

Review coming soon

I am nearly finished reading The Outstanding Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. It has certainly proved an interesting read so far. My full review should appear in the next few days.

A man after my own heart

It's nice to know that someone out there shares my thoughts on what it takes to create a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche.

10 Rules for Sherlockian Pastiches by Willis G. Frick.

The Wayward Hound of the Baskervilles

Continuing with the theme of dramatic licence, it is a fact that the most dramatised Sherlock Holmes story is The Hound of the Baskervilles. There are many reasons for this which we won't go into here. However its popularity is also its curse as each time a screenwriter pens a film or television version they seem to feel compelled to put their own stamp on it. They presumably do this in an attempt to make their version stand out from the crowd but, in many cases, this ends up being damaging rather than beneficial to the finished product.

The most famous of the early dramatisations is, of course, Basil Rathbone's. It is, in most respects, an excellent adaptation and its drawbacks are little more than niggles. Firstly, we have the poor casting of some of the characters. The most notable example of this miscasting is that of Doctor Mortimer. In fact Mortimer is the most consistently miscast character in screen versions of this story. In the original novel he is described thus:

"a young fellow under thirty, amiable, unambitious, absent-minded, and the possessor of a favourite dog"

However in almost all film versions that I have seen, with the exception of Granada's, the man cast has been over forty (sometimes close to fifty). The versions starring Rathbone, Cushing (the Hammer film), Richardson, Frewer and Roxburgh all miscast the role in this way.

The Rathbone and Roxburgh versions also featured the absurd idea of Mortimer's wife being a medium and consequently both featured a séance in which an attempt was made at contact with the spirit of Sir Charles Baskerville. I still remain unsure whether the scene was introduced in these films to acknowledge Conan Doyle's belief in spiritualism or to mock it (or perhaps one of each). Either way, such a scene was nonsense and added nothing to the story.

We also have the vanishing and multiplying Lyons family. Laura Lyons is not a significant character in terms of activity within the story but she is significant in that she is the reason for Sir Charles Baskerville being out on the night that he died. In the Roxburgh film she (and her father) do not feature at all and aspects of her motives and actions are transferred to Beryl Stapleton. I have since heard that this was due to these roles being cut from the final edit.

In Ian Richardson's version we gained a Lyons in the form of the lady's estranged husband (played in a typically understated way by Brian Blessed). The presence of the character only made sense because it allowed him to become a suspect in the murder of his wife (who does, of course, not die in the original story).

Turning our attention to the young Baronet Sir Henry we quickly find that he is another frequently miscast character. The choice of Richard Greene for the Rathbone version seemed to work despite the fact that he was British and noticeably devoid of a Canadian accent. The best examples I have seen of the casting for this role were those by Granada (Kristoffer Tabori) and the BBC's Roxburgh version (Matt Day). The significant aspect to both these versions was that the character was correctly described as Canadian. It is surely no coincidence that two of the worst castings of this role portrayed the character as an American. These versions being the Frewer version (with Jason London) and the Ian Richardson version (with Martin Shaw). Shaw of course is as British as they come and his American accent was a wonder to behold (and not in a good way). Also his Sir Henry followed an American pro-republican anti-aristocratic agenda by being highly dismissive of his title and making clear his intention of selling everything before going back to America (a large departure from the book and closer in many respects to what Stapleton hoped to do when he came into the estate after the planned death of Sir Henry). Given that Richardson's two films were American-driven this line was hardly surprising.

As a final note, after Mortimer and Sir Henry, the other most frequently miscast character was of course the hound itself. The absolute nadir for this had to be the Frewer version where we were presented with an angry mongrel which was about as far removed from a mastiff/bloodhound cross as it was possible to get.

Dramatic licence - good or bad?

Here's a question. What do you all think about dramatic licence? Are you in the camp (as I used to be) who demand complete and total fidelity and adherence to the source novel, are you at the other extreme where you think anything goes or are you somewhere in between?

I, as stated, used to demand a rigid adherence to the source material and so was frequently annoyed, to some degree or other, by most Holmes dramatisations. Now I realise that this looks odd to anyone who knows me and also knows that the film that first got me interested in Holmes back in 1982 was Basil Rathbone's The Scarlet Claw. Anyone who has seen it will know how un-canonical it is.

Over time I have drifted from this strict position (but not too far). I still think that outrageous dramatic licence (which is more about a director/screenwriter's ego) should be discouraged but intelligent changes designed to suit the medium should be encouraged.

Please comment and let me know which adaptations of Holmes stories have pleased/irritated you the most

Greetings Poland

I would like to say hello to my readers in Poland. You have now become the second largest group of readers just behind the United States.

Read-through nearly complete

I have about eighty pages of my manuscript to read through and perhaps tweak before it goes for for its second round of editing.

221B Layout

As most Sherlockians / Holmesians will know, one of the questions that has occupied scholars in the field the most has been the location of 221B Baker Street. However I would venture to suggest that the arguments over the internal configuration of the address are also a worthy topic of debate.

The layout of the address, and in particular the famous sitting room, has been subject to some debate. The lack of any totally agreed format has been in evidence from the considerably wide ranging layouts given to us in the various film and television adaptations.

The one consistent mistake is that the sitting room is portrayed as larger than it would have been in reality. For all its faults, the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 239 Baker Street is still representative of the houses of the period and its sitting room is modest in size.

Pictorial representations of the layout have also made their way into journals and other media. An example is the one below.

By Ernest H. Short. Published in the Strand magazine in 1950.
This depiction appears, at first glance, to conform to Watson's original description of 221B as stated in STUD:

"They consisted of a couple of comfortable bed-rooms and a single large airy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows."

It is, however, wrong as I shall demonstrate.

On occasion the layout presented to the viewer was actually done so with a specific (although not necessarily laudable) aim in mind.

Ian Richardson, in an interview given to David Stuart Davies (for the latter's book Starring Sherlock Holmes), stated that one aspect of the layout of his 221B was made against his wishes. It was made very clear in his 221B that Holmes and Watson had separate bedrooms by having them both adjoin the sitting room (similar to the drawing above). Richardson suggested that this was designed specifically to please conservative elements and stress (as if it needed stressing) that there was no homosexual relationship between the two men.

The topic of Holmes's sexuality is an emotive one with strong opinions on both sides and it is a discussion somewhat outside the scope of this article. That said, I think it was wrong for the filmmakers in this instance to have pandered to (perceived or real) intolerance by taking this step. The stories are, after all, first and foremost about the solving of crime and the enacting of justice (even if it is sometimes Holmes's justice rather than that of the land). They are not about the lead characters' sexual preferences.

Returning to the matter in hand, what do we really know about the layout from Conan Doyle's original texts?

• The sitting room was on the first floor (SCAN & MAZA).
• There were 17 steps from the ground floor hall up to the first floor (SCAN).
• Holmes's bedroom adjoined the sitting room and communicated directly with it. A second door connected to the landing (SCAN & MAZA).
• Watson's bedroom was on the second floor and to the back of the building. Through the rear window a plane tree could be seen (SPEC & THOR).
• The sitting room had two large windows which faced onto the street (STUD & BERY).

This basic configuration is born out by the museum (as mentioned above).

Now Conan Doyle was famous for being inconsistent and it was in MAZA that Holmes's bedroom gained a second door that connected with the sitting room. This was a device to ensure that the plot worked but does not get away from the fact that it was architecturally absurd.

In BERY Watson says that the windows facing onto the street are bow windows. The established architecture of Baker Street houses makes clear that this was never the case. An earlier allusion to this type of window was made in SPEC when Miss Stoner was described by Watson as "sitting in the window".

There are of course many other clues about 221B's layout and they appear throughout the canon. What facts have you unearthed?

Getting there one page at a time

I am presently putting myself through that torture that most authors inflict upon themselves - the read-through. This is where you repeatedly scan through your WIP looking for the flaws that you are convinced you missed the last time you read it through. The ironic, and all too common, result is that you tinker with something that was fine and thus create a problem (which you often won't see until the next read-through).

I will eventually (under deadline pressure if past experience is any guide) break out of this cycle. When I do so the WIP is going off for its second round of third-party editing. When this is done, and the issues acted upon, the book will be ready to go.

Drum roll.

New Facebook Page

For those of you on Facebook I have set up a new page called The Bagatelle Club. Please join and come along for a game of cards. There is no one around to shoot you after the game.

I'm now on seems to be the place to be at the moment. You can find me on it here:

New review of Eliminate the Impossible

The following new review of my first book is available to read at Always

"Duncan does a fine job of outlining the major plot points, allowing the reader to immediately begin considering all those fascinating peccadilloes, inconsistencies and mysteries that makes Holmesian scholarship so fulfilling."