Who can be replaced?

It has been reported that both Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have stated that they would not continue to make Sherlock if they lost the services of either Benedict Cumberbatch or Martin Freeman. Is this an artistic decision or a commercial one?

The Granada series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes saw a change in Watson from David Burke to Edward Hardwicke after two series and the BBC series of the 1960s saw the actor playing Holmes change from Douglas Wilmer to Peter Cushing. Both adaptations continued to be as successful with these changes.

I imagine that the difference with Sherlock is largely down to social media and the sheer level of fan interest and investment this has facilitated in the programme. I suspect, for many devoted fans of the new series, the actors and characters are not easy to separate - the adoration is as much about the men themselves as the roles they inhabit.

With the two series alluded to above the makers clearly felt that sufficient continuity was created by retaining one of the two leads. I believe it was suggested in some quarters that when Jeremy Brett started to get seriously ill the role of Holmes should have been recast. I'm glad it wasn't done but I say that without knowing what it would have been like if they had done so. If Granada had wrapped up one series. Left a gap of a year (or two) and then returned with a new Holmes or even a new Holmes and Watson what would the reaction have been like? It is hard to tell.

I have always maintained that, in British TV and film, there are only two characters where you can change the actor over a short period with little argument. Those two roles are Doctor Who and James Bond. My rule is yet to be tested with Sherlock or John and I suspect that most people would not like to try it.

For more information on Arthur Conan Doyle and his time at Undershaw please refer to my book, An Entirely New Country which is available through all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Classic Specialities, and in all electronic formats including iTunes, Kobo, Nook and Kindle .

The Norwood Author is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Waterstones UK, Amazon UK,  Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon Kindle, iBooks for the iPad/iPhone, Kobo Books, Nook.

Close to Holmes is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USABarnes and NobleAmazon UKWaterstones UKAmazon KindleKoboNook  and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.

Eliminate the Impossible is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.


  1. I began watching Granada's Holmes late in the game, say, 1991 (because that was when I finally got a TV), so I didn't see David Burke as Watson until a couple of years ago. Even then, it took some getting used to. He was so bouncy, and had so many visible teeth! I wonder how audiences felt about the transition when the show was new. Still, you can kind of kid yourself that Hardwicke's Watson is Burke's, just a bit older. I cannot even IMAGINE Granada replacing Jeremy Brett's Holmes, however. Even though I sometimes think it might be nice to have a Victorian reboot (as I am not too excited about RDJ/Guy Ritchie's films), I think it will still be hard, at first, to accept that Brett won't be in it. In BBC Sherlock, too, Cumberbatch and Freeman ARE their roles, much as Brett WAS Holmes. My flailing fangirl soul aside, I can't imagine anyone, no matter how competent, could replace either of them.

    (Leah Guinn)

    1. It's a tough one. I too want a good Victorian Holmes and I am more than ready to accept someone post-Brett. It won't affect my Brett appreciation.

  2. There is a long history in television and cinema of replacing the actors of major characters in series. Most of the time it is accepted through suspension of disbelief (James Bond, Dumbledore, Jack Ryan, Darren Stevens, Charlie Chan). Sometimes there is a knowing wink to the audience (as when Jazzy Jeff was the only one that noticed that Janet Hubert-Whitten was replaced by Daphne Maxwell Reid on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air") or is a premise of the show (as in "Doctor Who"). Today, the trend is to the "reboot", which not only allows the producers to make recasting a virtue, but, as in superhero films allows the retelling of the origin story--a proven money maker.

    With fans so wedded to Freeman and Cumberbatch, I cannot imagine the show continuing on without them (although, I can imagine Una Stubbs and even Mark Gatiss as Mycroft being replaced. Think about it.). I don't think that Moffat and Gatiss could reboot the series unless an appreciable amount of time, say ten years or more, had elapsed. On the other hand, in the early '90's, I can imagine a successful Granada reboot after a two year grace period. All that would depend on finding the right actor to take over the role of Holmes. Another Jeremy--Irons--could have extended the Granada franchise quite ably. But twenty years on, I think we are at a point, with 24/7 social media, that replacing Cumberbatch or Freeman would be impossible. It's not that Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes, but Sherlock is Benedict Cumberbatch. For many fans, Cumberbatch is not doing a modern take on Doyle's literary creation but Cumberbatch and Freeman are avatars of Moffat's 21st century detective duo that did not exist before 2010. It is a cult of personality not seen since the original "Star Trek". It took forty years for the icons of Kirk, Spock and McCoy to be play by other actors. And it may explain the resistance to "Elementary" that existed long before the show aired. Miller and Liu were not continuing in the long cinematic tradition of contemporary Holmeses and Watsons, but despoiling the virgin ground broke by Cumberbatch, Freeman, Moffat and Gatiss. The longer "Sherlock" runs, and I hope it's a long time, the more improbable, nay, impossible, it would be to replace them.