When will Holmes return to the shadows?

At the moment, with all things Sherlock riding high, it is perhaps difficult to remember a time when it wasn't thus.

Arthur Wontner
Sherlock Holmes never slips from sight entirely, he is always there to some degree, but the spotlight otherwise known as "mainstream interest" eventually moves on.  When it does, Sherlock Holmes returns to being the object of affection for long-standing societies and others with similar levels of devotion. For the masses, Holmes slips back to being something nice to watch on a cosy Sunday afternoon (especially if it's Rathbone or Brett).

While you could argue that Holmes was a steady screen presence during the 1930s and 40s (courtesy of Arthur Wontner and Basil Rathbone) the spotlight was then lost and the 1950s efforts of Ronald Howard did not really bring it back.

Basil Rathbone (left) Ronald Howard (right)

The 1960s saw a resurgence of sorts (at least in the UK) under Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing before the 1970s saw a return to the shadows (with the odd spell in the light such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes).

Wilmer, Cushing and Stephens

The return of the spotlight in the 1980s and 90s was ensured by Jeremy Brett.  His Holmes brought a level of adoration perhaps without parallel since Rathbone.  Then, once again, the spotlight moved on and the great detective went back into the shadows.

Jeremy Brett

The Hallmark pairing
The efforts post year 2000, such as the Alan Cubitt screenplays with Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett, gave us a brief fix but the shadows remained. The same can be said for the questionable Hallmark efforts.

Robert Downey Jr's labours, on their own, would have achieved little. The films were clearly successful but it is the popular television series that really puts a character on the map and gains mainstream interest. It was therefore the advent of BBC Sherlock that truly heralded the latest period in the spotlight for the great detective. Shortly afterwards, regardless of whether you are pro or anti it, Elementary undoubtedly played its part by bolstering the work started by its UK predecessor.

So what of the future? With the increasing gaps between series of Sherlock, the spotlight's presence on Holmes is perhaps largely driven by the Sherlock rumour mill, the high profile of its actors in other shows and the ongoing presence of Elementary.

The current mainstream interest in Holmes will not last - it can't. Something will bring it to an end. It could be the actors deciding to walk away from the roles or it could be the action of a TV executive. We've seen it before and it will happen again. In some respects we should be glad when it does. A character always on the screen runs the risk of boring us all and/or having his/her effect on us diluted (too much of a good thing and all that). Holmes will eventually return to the shadows where he will be cared for by those who love him come rain or shine and irrespective of the opinions of the fickle public. We will then sustain him until he is ready for the limelight again.

Written by Alistair Duncan
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  1. One could argue that those screen avatars of Holmes can bring the actual detective--that is Doyle's stories--to the fore but in our increasing post-literate age it becomes increasingly more important to distinguish between the popular avatars of the day and the real thing. Your 80's spotlight was brought about by the Great Boom of the 70's and the mass of printed material about Doyle's Holmes; readers lead to Brett. Can Cumberbatch return us to Doyle? While some say yes and can point to publishing evidence to prove it, I think it is an open question in an online world where Sherlock comes with Benedict's face, John is Martin and the majority of what passes as interest in the Great Detective is news and fanlove of actors-in-roles, when the next series will start and, oh yeah, that dusty old guy whose house is crumbling.

  2. Commenter James O'Leary himself wrote this for us last year: New Sherlock Holmes Boom? What New Sherlock Holmes Boom?

    The more things change...

  3. The expiration of copyright in the 70's, the RSC revival of Gillette's play, and The Seven Percent Soution hitting the NY Times best seller list and staying there led to a Sherlockian renascence in the States and Canada. A number of wonderful books were published, magazines launches, and scion societies born.

  4. Alistair, I just thought you've been rather quiet lately and you don't announce new blog posts on twitter anymore. And then I looked and you don't even *are* on twitter anymore. What happened?

    1. Hi. No idea where you got that from :-) I still put my posts on Twitter and am still on Twitter.

    2. Use the Twitter icon on the top right of my blog to get to my page.

  5. Thank you! I was following you on Twitter and now I'm not. As I didn't unfollow you, I thought you'd left. Will follow you again now. Twitter must've eaten my follow-list. I'm missing other people, too.