Talkin' 'bout my generation

What are you on Alistair? I hear you cry. What's with the lyrics? Well it seemed an appropriate introduction to a theory first put forward in a BBC documentary.

In said documentary (The Man Who Loved Sherlock Holmes) the wonderful Elaine McAfferty put forward the idea that your first Sherlock Holmes is always your favourite (in her case Douglas Wilmer).
Brett as Holmes from the cover of
Bending the Willow by David Stuart Davies

Now I cannot agree with this as my favourite Holmes is Jeremy Brett (sorry Cumberites) but Basil Rathbone was my first Holmes. As I have observed before, by and large, there is a Holmes for each generation. For anyone under thirty it is probably Mr Cumberbatch (or perhaps Miller).

For those of my age group it is likely to be Brett and for those above me it is likely to be Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Ronald Howard or maybe, at a stretch, Rathbone.

In the 1980s, when I made my choice, Brett rather dominated the field. He had briefly shared the stage (as it were) with Ian Richardson but Richardson's series ended after two telemovies and Brett subsequently reigned unchallenged until the 1990s.

Fiddling - yes - but not while Rome burned
Even after Brett's series concluded, with his death, his performance was seen as hard to top and my feeling is that TV companies did not even wish to try as they knew what their efforts would be compared against (as Brett himself was no doubt previously compared against Rathbone and others).

The few screen adaptations that did happen during those intervening years were (sort of) one offs. Examples of these being the Alan Cubitt version of Hound followed by his original screenplay for The Case of the Silk Stocking. The BBC also produced the, in my opinion, awful children's programme starring Jonathan Pryce, which largely focussed on the Irregulars.

The only thing that could even tentatively claim to be a series was the mostly awful series of Hallmark films starring Matt Frewer - possibly the worst ever casting for the role (in close competition with Joe Pasquale). The only saving grace of these films is that they are an indispensable guide of what not to do for future screenwriters.

Leaving the above adaptations aside (along with the RDJ films) Sherlock came sixteen years after the conclusion of Brett's last outing as Holmes. This was just long enough for it to capture a fan base who were largely (not totally) ignorant of previous portrayals and therefore not already wedded to the portrayal of an earlier actor. Many of these newer fans have gone back to older adaptations subsequently and (re)discovered Brett and others - a very good thing. For many of them Cumberbatch (or Miller) will remain their number one, some others may find, as I did, that their first Holmes is not always their favourite.

Written by Alistair Duncan
Buy my books here


  1. Nearing sixty and have seen Richardson whom I liked, Brett whom I found awful and RDJ who was amusing before Cumberbatch's Sherlock. BC was the only one who clicked with me, though I'm definitely NOT a teenage fangirl.

  2. Of course, there are those of us who have no favorite cinematic Holmes. In the seventies the BBC's Wilmer and Cushing were unavailable in the States and knowing that Holmes worked in the Victorian era left me uninterested in watching Rathbone wander around a 1940's London backlot. I was disdainful of the filmic Holmes until the late nineties and early aughts. I think it has left me able to appreciate positive elements in not-so-good offerings while being able to cast a needed critical eye on the current flavors of the decade. Downey, Cumberbatch and Miller have made me more appreciative of Rathbone's characterization. The problem with Brett is his great performance calls attention to itself. It is rare that I feel like I am watching Holmes. Most of the time I feel like I am watching an actor making interesting choices in how to interpret Doyle's character. While I like "Sherlock" and "Elementary", but if neither one existed my Sherlockian world would be just as fulfilling--maybe even, dare it say it, more fulfilling--as it is now.