Review: Sherlock Holmes on Screen
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An encyclopaedic insight into Holmes over the years...
If there is one famous literary character that has made such an impact on film and television, it has to be Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s immortal detective. Holmes has generated such a fascination for filmmakers; he is probably more popular, and certainly more prolific, than Dracula and James Bond put together. The number of Holmes films produced since the pioneering days of the silent era is so extensive it’s unlikely the Great Detective will ever be absent from our screens for very long.
Within the last couple of years, Holmes has become fashionable again thanks to Robert Downey Jr’s cinematic reinvention of the role in two successful Guy Ritchie movies and the excellent TV series Sherlock, which effectively transports Holmes (brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to modern day London. Oddly enough the concept is not a new one considering Holmes, like Dracula, is a man of his time and the popular Basil Rathbone series of the forties was modernised to emphasise the War in Europe.
Holmes has been tackled by a variety of actors with very mixed results. They range from the classic (Rathbone of course), the brilliant (Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Ian Richardson), the good (Christopher Plummer, Arthur Wontner), the stiff (Charlton Heston) the controversial (Downey’s performance has certainly split fans’ opinions), the miscast (Patrick MacNee), the bizarre (Matt Frewer), the eyebrow raising (Roger Moore) and the downright awful (Peter Cook). The complex nature of the character often provides any actor the artistic, and sometimes daunting, challenge of his career.
Because Holmes has been so successful on the silver screen, several excellent film-related books have been written over the years. But if you want the ultimate book on the subject, Sherlock Holmes on Screen ranks as the definitive work. It’s a comprehensive and exhaustive companion to Holmes’ film and TV career, ranging from the Rathbone classics to the more obscure foreign language movies (it’s surprising to learn how popular he was in Germany and Denmark). In fact everything is covered, from one-off TV dramas to spoofs and pastiches. Alan Barnes has certainly done his homework here; his enjoyably written and informative book is a must for all new and established fans.
Sherlock Holmes on Screen is basically an A-Z of films and TV shows featuring The Great Detective, so it’s the kind of book you can just pick up and check the movie you want to know all about. There’s plenty to choose from too. In fact the various screen adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles would make a book in its own right.
To keep the concept of the book as Holmesian as possible, most of the film reviews open with The Mystery (the main crime/plot), The Investigation (Holmes getting on the case), The Solution (Holmes winning the day!) and a critical evaluation of both film and central performance, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. Mr Barnes makes very good use of his research covering everything, right down to the Scooby Doo cartoons! He also gets to include a number of ‘lost’ films. Who knows how many more long forgotten movies are still out there!
Among some of the historic films Mr Barnes covers with great detail is Sherlock Holmes (1916) starring William Gillette, one of the most prominent actor/managers of the American theatre. Not only did Gillette write the first authorised play The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1899, he was the first actor to receive universal acclaim for playing the Great Detective on stage. The play itself was filmed with Rathbone in 1939. Although Gillette’s Holmes is strictly confined to the theatre, the fact he played him on film is an invaluable and important record of his long and distinguished career.
Since nearly everything about Holmes on film and TV is extensively covered, we get to read about the number of very fine actors who have played the part but are now so overshadowed by Basil Rathbone and others that they have disappeared into the Holmesian ether. Among those who portrayed Holmes with some distinction are Clive Brook, Ellis Norwood (the star of several silent screen adaptations), John Barrymore, Alan Wheatley (who played him in the first ever BBC TV series – now lost), Ronald Howard (who played him in the first American produced TV series) and Geoffrey Whitehead (playing Holmes in an Anglo-Polish TV series in the 80s, which was naturally eclipsed by the Jeremy Brett series). It is important not to forget their own unique contribution to the role and it’s to Mr Barnes’ credit that he brings them all back into the public eye.
There are several TV and Cinema efforts where Holmes only plays a peripheral or non-existent part. The popular series The Baker Street Boys (1983) has Holmes’ regular informers, a group of orphan boys known as The Baker Street Irregulars, trying to solve their own murder case. Dr Watson and the Darkwater Hall Mystery (1974) was an interesting comedy-drama where Holmes’ trusted colleague (Edward Fox) gets a chance to solve his own mystery. A pity the author forgot to include The Adventures of Shirley Holmes (1996-2000), a popular Canadian children’s series featuring a bright and personable performance from Meredith Henderson as the Great Detective’s great niece.
Another intriguing TV series is The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (2000), about the early life of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (Robin Lang), then a student at Edinburgh University, and his mentor Dr Joseph Bell (Ian Richardson), the alleged inspiration for Holmes. It would have been nice to include the other TV dramas featuring Conan-Doyle; the part has been played by Nigel Davenport, Peter O’Toole and Frank Finlay. At least Peter Cushing’s performance as Conan-Doyle in The Great Houdini (1977) gets a brief mention as part of the review for his last Holmes movie, The Masks of Death (1984).
But these minor quibbles do not detract from this thoroughly informative and interesting book. Sherlock Holmes on Screen is highly recommended for both connoisseurs and movie fans alike. If you want to learn more about The Great Detective’s movie and TV career, you can’t go wrong with this excellent effort.
The glossy cover features (naturally) Basil Rathbone, complete with trademark deerstalker with insets of Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Let’s see what the 21st Century has in store for The Great Detective. Elementary my dear Watson!
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