The Shadow of Sherlock Holmes

Cumberbatch and Freeman in Sherlock
Now that the end of the second series of BBC’s Sherlock is coming into view (for the UK) the inevitable debates as to whether or not there will be a third series have commenced. This would have been the case in any event but it is even more so when the concluding episode of the second series is to be based, at least in part, on The Final Problem.

Some on-line articles have been suggesting that Benedict Cumberbatch may not wish to return to the role. To what extent this is true or not is really only known to him but it made me think about many of the past actors to take on this iconic role and how they fared.

I don’t think any actor truly appreciates how this role can define you (and take you over) until such time as they find themselves playing it. It doesn’t matter what you read about your predecessors you will not truly know until you, as it were, don the deerstalker.

One of the earliest (but not first by a long way) Holmes actors was Arthur Wontner who starred in five films in the early 1930s. Perhaps as a result of only doing five films he avoided being forever associated with the role although he was pretty much typecast in aristocratic/patrician roles. The same was not true for the man who followed. Basil Rathbone became defined by the role, playing him in 14 films and countless radio plays. He eventually put Holmes behind him but by then it was too late and he found other work harder to come by. He ultimately returned to 221B in a play written by his wife – which flopped.

Arthur Wontner
Douglas Wilmer, the notable character actor, is one of the few people who successfully played Holmes on screen more than ten times without being consumed by the part. His series (after a 1964 pilot) aired in 1965 but when he was asked to return to the role he declined highlighting production issues. Although he did go on to make many radio appearances as Holmes his lack of screen outings, helped him to shed the Holmes image with the public.

Wilmer’s replacement, Peter Cushing, possibly escaped being defined as Holmes because he was already largely identified with the role of Van Helsing in the Hammer Dracula film series. He too only made one series for the BBC. However both he and Wilmer returned to the role in one-off appearances. Wilmer in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and Cushing in The Masks of Death.

Jeremy Brett
Jeremy Brett was the next notable actor to take on the role and he very much made it his own. With hindsight it is quite clear that the role more or less consumed him with negative consequences. He appeared to go from loving the part to loathing it and finally to being determined to film the entire canon regardless of the cost to himself. In the end his death brought about the end of his mission.

It is perhaps Brett’s experience more than any other that has shaped the attitude of actors to the role since then. Within the UK most actors have taken on the role for only one film - Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett making one film each for the BBC. When Jonathan Pryce took on the role in a Holmes drama for children he too confined himself to one appearance (although that might have been due to the fact that it was a pretty poor drama).

So now we have Mr Cumberbatch with six films under his belt. Does he fear the Holmes curse? Perhaps, but I like to think he will stick with the role as long as he gets to do plenty of other contrasting roles elsewhere. For us viewers it could mean that the price of retaining our leading man is longer gaps between each series. Can we cope with that? Probably not. Will we cope with that? We’ll do our best.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post about the various actors to portray Sherlock Holmes!

    Have you tried the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes. He is one of my favorite Holmes actor along with Jeremy Brett.