[A version of this essay originally appeared in "Proceedings of the Pondicherry Lodge", the journal of The Sherlock Holmes Society of London, edited by Jayantika Ganguly, BSI, Vol. 8, No. 2, December 2020]
I tend to be cautious when it comes to actors' portrayals of Holmes and Watson, finding that, for one reason or another, the version of Holmes in my mind is rarely reflected by the actors who have portrayed him – even those who make a sincere effort. I believe that this is a combination of having a very vivid “virtual reality” in my head when I’m reading, and also because I read Holmes’s adventures – Canon and pastiche – for years before I really had much experience with seeing him portrayed on screen. Nevertheless, over the years I’ve sought out every film and radio broadcast about the True Holmes that I can find – adaptations of Canonical adventures and original adventures – and I believe that I own every one that can be obtained, aside from digging a tunnel into the United States Library of Congress. I’ve found that there’s generally something good about most Holmes portrayals to balance any objections.
In a way, it’s because of a Holmes film that I ended up becoming such a fanatic – a missionary, as I like to say, for The Church of the True Canonical Holmes. I’ve written elsewhere about how I obtained my first Sherlock Holmes book when I was ten years old, in 1975, when I was trading for some Hardy Boys books, and the Holmes volume was thrown in to sweeten the deal. I didn’t really want it, but a few weeks later, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, the 1965 film A Study in Terror was on television and I happened across it. Somehow I recognized Holmes – it was the scene where he and Watson are having a heated discussion with Mycroft – and I was intrigued enough to retrieve my sole Holmes volume and start reading. I never looked back.
I began to read both Canon and Pastiche, finding that they had equal value – if the pastiches were Canonical in nature and tone, and didn’t veer into some misbegotten and time-wasting Alternate Universe version. Thus, for the most part, my association with Holmes in those early formative years was by way of the written word.
I did manage to track down a dozen or so of the 1940’s Basil Rathbone radio shows, on LP records at the local library (and which I later added to my own collection) . . .
. . . and that was the first time that I “heard” Holmes. Rathbone’s crisp, confident, and heroic voice cemented for me what Holmes should sound like – not a self-doubting broken whiner, but a hero – someone who already capably has all the threads in his hands, and can see what the player on the other side is going to be doing four or fives moves ahead. (Even at that early age, I was sophisticated enough to know that Nigel Bruce was not Watson, but that’s another essay entirely . . . .)
Sometime in that first year or so of being a Sherlockian, I was walking through our kitchen while the evening news was being broadcast on television, and for some reason, to illustrate a point, the story just then used a clip from Rathbone’s 1939 The Hound of the Baskervilles – where he states, “Murder, my dear Watson. Refined, cold-blooded murder.” I’d heard Basil Rathbone as Holmes for a couple of years by that point, but that was the first time I’d seen him, wearing the correct headgear. It was electrifying.
In December 1978, I received my first book about Holmes films, Holmes of the Movies by David Stuart Davies (1978) as a Christmas gift from my parents.
I know this because I recorded the fact on the flyleaf, in my 13-year-old scrawl:
This was a fascinating volume, as it revealed to me for the first time the extensive history of Holmes on film, all the way back to the beginning of the medium. As I valued pastiche as much as The Canon, I was thrilled to see that there were so many extra-Canonical tales that could be found on film, and I was able to learn early on – by way of the book years before I met them through films – just which actors looked like Holmes (Rathbone – at least in the early days before those God-awful experimental hair-styles, Arthur Wontner, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and John Neville) and those who sadly did not (Clive Brook, Reginald Owen, and Eille Norwood, for example). Of course, I couldn’t judge their performances then – I only had limited still photos in the book to make my evaluation.
At some point during the late 1970’s, I was able to see The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) during an evening television broadcast. This film, starring Robert Stephens, had been listed in Davies’ book, and I thought that the story was brilliant, as well as showing the wonderful Loch Ness locations. Sadly, neither Stephens’ Holmes, nor Colin Blakeley’s Watson, were very Canonical, and rail-thin Christopher Lee as Mycroft was unexplainable (although his attitude was correct), but overall I appreciated the ambitious scale of this film.
In 1979, a new Holmes film appeared, the first to be produced since Davies’ book had been written and added to my small but growing collection, and I was able to see it when it was new, along with the rest of the Sherlockian world. Murder by Decree starred Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson, and in spite of neither really being right for the part – Mason was seventy years old at the time – Good grief! – playing Watson, who would have been thirty-six in 1888 – they were thoroughly brilliant.
I saw the film with my dad in an otherwise empty movie theater, and was absolutely stunned from beginning to end. Near the conclusion, when Holmes angrily confronts the Prime Minister himself, I realized that this was the way that I saw Holmes too – unafraid of power, and willing to do whatever it takes to stand up for right. Willing to be a hero. This has been the Holmes that I’ve supported, encouraged, and defended ever since.
This film, like the earlier A Study in Terror, had Holmes facing Jack the Ripper, and I believe that Murder by Decree is not only the finest Holmes film, but the best version of Holmes against the Ripper. (I discuss this further in my irregular blog entry entitled “Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper”:
My exposure to Holmes films continued at a much slower pace when compared to finding, collecting, and reading Holmes books. When I was in high school, people began to acquire video cassette recorders (VCR’s) for watching movies at home. (This would have been in the early 1980’s, an unimaginable time of technological backwardness for some people.) Our family wouldn’t have a VCR for several more years, but one of my friends did and, knowing that I liked Sherlock Holmes, he and his family invited me over one Saturday to watch a Basil Rathbone Holmes film that they had rented – my first full-length introduction to Rathbone as Holmes on film. It was one of the later films, set in the 1940’s. I understood all about those from Davies’ book, but didn’t know quite how I felt about the change. Sadly, after that day I still didn’t really know, as I didn’t quite get to watch the movie. My friend and I were joined by his mom, and the two of them talked so much throughout the showing that I really saw and heard nothing. (Nearly forty years on and I still feel bitter about it.) I wouldn’t really get to dive into the Rathbone films until a few years later, when I was able to rent and watch them – in peace – while in college.
It was during those college years (1983-1987) that I made a deeper dive into being a Sherlockian. I began to wear a deerstalker as my full-time and only hat in the spring of 1984. For more about that, see this entry from my blog, "In Praise of the Deerstalker":
I also found ways to track down and purchase more Sherlockian books. And in 1985, my deerstalker and I were able to see Young Sherlock Holmes when it premiered in the theatre. (I discuss that film more in this blog entry, “Actually, That Wasn’t Watson”:
As the years have progressed, I’ve made an effort to track down various volumes related to Holmes on Screen, and each has proven to be of great value. Around the same time as Davies’ Holmes of the Movies was published, two similar but much larger volumes appeared, Sherlock Holmes on the Screen (1977) by Robert W. Pohle, Jr. and Douglas C. Hart, and The Films of Sherlock Holmes (1978) by Chris Steinbrunner and Norman Michaels. As was the case regarding Davies’ book, each of these gave me basic information about and glimpses of plots for the Holmes films – good and bad – years (or even decades) before I’d ever get to see them for real.
A 1975 special-edition magazine, The History of Sherlock Hlmes in Stage, Films, TV & Radio Since 1899 made a passable attempt to look at the Holmes films up to that time:
In the mid-1980’s, after the Granada series starring Jeremy Brett began production, there were several associational volumes published, including two oversized editions of The Television Sherlock Holmes (1986 Hardcover and 1994 Revised Softcover).
Both of these books by Peter Haining were ostensibly about all of the Holmes television shows, but probably eighty percent of each volume was actually devoted to Granada’s version – which was acceptable, as the show (at least in the early years) went out of its way to be faithful to The Canon, and visually recreating many of the original Paget drawings. Additionally, David Burke was probably one of – if not the – finest Watson yet portrayed on screen, and Edward Hardwicke who followed him, although being too small and too old by then, did an excellent job as well.
There have also been several associational volumes related to the Granada show, including the oversized A Centenary Celebration of Sherlock Holmes 1887-1987. While showing some of the overall history of Holmes, this, listed as Granada Companion – Number One, understandably focused on their own television show. (While writing this essay, my research showed that this is considered by some to be “one of the rarest and most collectable of [Jeremy Brett] memorabilia.” Who knew? I’m very glad that I grabbed two of them!)
Jeremy Paul, one of the principal writers of the Granada television series, published several of his own scripts from the show, and also for the 1988 play that he wrote (starring Brett and Hardwicke) The Secret of Sherlock Holmes:
Also providing a valuable insider’s view of the show is producer Michael Cox’s invaluable A Study in Celluloid (1999, Revised 2011) derived from a number of articles originally in Sherlock magazine, relating invaluable behind-the-scenes information about the earlier years of the Granada series.
I was personally thrilled with the late Mr. Cox provided a foreword to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories Parts VII and VIII – Eliminate the Impossible:
Some of Cox’s book is quoted extensively in two recent volumes by Maureen Whittaker, both published in 2020, Jeremy Brett – Playing a Part (a huge volume looking at Brett’s overall career), and Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes (which pulls out the Holmes section of the former book as a separate work.)
There have been several other invaluable volumes that deal with the entirety of Holmes’s screen career. Following his 1978 volume, David Stuart Davies returned with two editions of Starring Sherlock Holmes (2001, Revised 2007):
For those who inexplicably didn’t care for the Basil Rathbone cover, there is a Jeremy Brett cover on the opposite side of the dust jacket.
In 2002, Alan Barnes created a massive and very handy volume with a deep dive into various Holmes films and television episodes, Sherlock Holmes on Screen. When new information became available, he issued revised editions in 2004 and 2001.
Howard Ostrom is compiling an amazing look at Holmes’s film appearances – not just in movies and television episodes, but in commercials and cartoons, and many other locations as well, such as Abbot and Costello films – by taking a scrapbook-like approach in Sherlock Holmes on Screens, having sections for each jammed with obscure information (clippings, set photos, etc.) and explanatory text. Long may this series wave! I have the first two volumes, I believe there is a third, and I can’t wait to someday have them all.
While Ostrom’s books are visual treats, there are several scholarly volumes that rely a great deal on very informative text. One of these is Gordon E. Kelley’s invaluable Sherlock Holmes: Screen and Sound Guide (1994). Based on information available at the time, Kelley compiled extensive and very complete lists of Holmes films and television episodes from all over the world, as well as cartoons, advertising, computer programs, and especially radio broadcasts. The radio information is especially useful. Somewhat similar is Ron Haydock’s Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen (1978). Haydock’s book is very similar in size to Kelley’s, but he limits his efforts to film appearances, and rather than providing lists, some of his information is in the form of essays, meaning that while it’s quite useful, it isn’t always easily found when one is in a hurry. Michael Pointer’s The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes (1975) also begins with essays, with the first half of the book focusing on certain earlier Holmes actors – such as William Gillette, Eille Norwood, and Basil Rathbone – while the second half includes lists of most Holmes film appearances up to the mid-1970’s.
Pointer continued with this informative take on Holmes films with The Sherlock Holmes File (1976) and The Pictorial History of Sherlock Holmes (1991), a particularly fine volume nearly fifteen inches tall!
Ronald Burt DeWaal’s two massive works, The World Bibliography of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (1974), and The International Sherlock Holmes (1980) also have lists and information related to Holmes’s appearances on film, but by their very ambitious nature, they were out of date by the time they were published.
A third version of DeWaal’s bibliography, The Universal Sherlock Holmes, was available from the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, and is also maintained online at the University of Minnesota, but it isn’t updated:
There are a number of other scholarly works that drill deeper into specific areas of interest, instead of simply providing lists and short summaries of Holmes’s many film appearances. One such is Sherlock Holmes – Behind the Canonical Screen (2015), edited by Lyndsay Faye and Ashley Polasek, containing papers from a 2012 UCLA conference with discussions related specifically to Holmes films:
Ms. Polasek followed up with Being Sherlock, a collection of 11 Canonical adventures, interspersed with essays that contained information related to film adapations, as well as photographs of different actors portryaing Holmes and Watson:
More recently, Alexandra Kitty has made a study of Holmes on stage in The Dramatic Moment of Fate: The Life of Sherlock Holmes in the Theatre (2020):
A really fun book examining the power of the 1940’s Rathbone Holmes films to help lift morale during World War II is Amanda J. Field’s England’s Secret Weapon (2009). It provides new insight to these sometimes anachronistically troublesome efforts for those of us who do not want to see Holmes presented in the incorrect time period.
(My own theory about three of the Rathbone wartime films, and who is really the main character – it isn’t Sherlock Holmes! – can be found in my blog entry “Basil Rathbone’s Solar Pons films”.)
Kieran McMullen did a study specifically related to Watsonian portrayers, The Many Watsons (2012):
William S. Major has taken a lifetime of collecting theater posters and lobby cards from old Holmes films to assemble the attractive and full-color Elementary Art: 100 Years of Sherlock Holmes (2017)
When considering Holmes films, some will doubtless find that volumes related to the actors themselves can be useful. There are many of these that I don’t have - such as numerous biographies of Basil Rathbone - as I generally limit my collection to works about Holmes instead of his portrayers. However, two books in my collection (bought from the authors themselves in the Dealer’s Room of the amazing From Gillette to Brett conference) are Sherlock Holmes and the Fabulous Faces (2012) by Michael A. Hoey (son of 1940’s Lestrade actor Dennis Hoey), and Tony Earnshaw’s study of Peter Cushing, An Actor and a Rare One (2001).
(One of the amazing things about the From Gillette to Brett conferences is how one can spend great amounts of time with the celebrity guest speakers. At the 2011 conference, I sat next to Mr. Hoey in the theater during a showing of Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Before and after the film, we talked about my ever-present deerstalker, his experiences in Hollywood, and how my mother was a Rathbone - thus making me half-Rathbone - and his memories of Basil Rathbone when he was a boy on the Hollywood sets with his father in the 1940's - it was an incredible experience!)
While this essay has been mostly confined to screen portrayals, some of these aforementioned books also address Holmes’s many appearances on radio. As I related, it was several years after I’d discovered Holmes before I truly saw him on screen, so old radio shows were the way that I heard him. I believe that I’ve been able to collect every available Holmes radio performance – except for those that are practically impossible to find, such as programs stored at the U.S. Library of Congress – and I value all of them, as they present new interpretations of The Canon, and also countless additional extra-Canonical investigations.
The first major source of Holmes pastiches were the radio shows of the 1930's, written by Edith Meiser. After the various Canonical stories had been adapted and broadcast several times, Meiser – with the permission of the First Literary Agent’s family – began to pull previously unknown extra-Canonical stories from the Tin Dispatch Box, the first being “The Hindoo in the Wicker Basket” (broadcast January 7th, 1932). There were many other extra-Canonical stories broadcast in the years between 1930 and 1944, when Meiser relinquished the writing duties. All of these have intriguing titles – “The Corpse in the Cab”, “The Syrian Mummy”, “The Sinister Wind Bells”, and “The Case of the Walking Corpse” – and a number of them were converted into daily comic strips with art by Frank Giacola. These have since been published by Eternity Comics and ACG, and also in a few books:
After their 1939 film premieres as Holmes and Watson, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce began a long run on radio - even during those years when they weren't playing the parts on screen. A number of those broadcasts have since been converted into text form by Ken Greenwald (The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes 1989) and by H. Paul Jeffers(The Forgotten Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - 2005) These were based on episodes that are fairly easily found. A number of others from the 1942-1943 season, by Leslie Charteris and Denis Green, are considered lost, but fortunatley Ian Dickerson located a cache of scripts, as he is associated with caretaking Mr. Charteris's estate. He published a number of them in Sherlock Holmes: The Lost Radio Scripts (2017) and Sherlock Holmes: More Lost Radio Scripts (2018) As Mr. Dickerson wasn't able to publish all of the scripts he discovered, several of them from that "lost" season have been included in various volumes of The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories.
Mr. Dickerson delved deeper with an amazing review of the Holmes radio shows, and particularly those of Rathbone and Bruce, in Sherlock Holmes and His Adventures in American Radio (2019):
From the early 1930’s broadcasts (with William Gillette and Richard Gordon and Luis Hector), through the long influential tenure of Basil Rathbone, and then those that followed him (including Tom Conway, John Stanley, Norman Shelley, Sir John Gielgud, and so many others), the Holmes radio tradition has been strong. The torch is currently carried by John Patrick Lowrie and Lawrence Albert of Imagination Theatre, respectively portraying Holmes and Watson, who are now both the longest running radio performers in those roles, and also one of only two radio duos to perform The Complete Canon. A number of the scripts performed by Lowrie and Albert have been published in Imagination Theatre's Sherlock Holmes (2017), with scripts from every one of the authors who contributed to the series, and also The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (2019), a three-volume set containing all the Holmes scripts written by Imagination Theater founder Jim French:
Additionally, some further Imagination Theatre scripts by Matthew J. Elliott have been published in Sherlock Holmes on the Air (2016), and more by Mr. Elliott and Steven Philip Jones appear in Sherlock Holmes on the Air! (2016 - Nearly the same title, but two completely different books). Both have also provided scripts or text adaptations of their Imagination Theatre scripts for volumes of The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories.
The only other pair of actors who have portrayed Holmes and Watson in every adapation of the Canonical stories were Clive Merrison and the late Michael Williams. The Merrison and Williams broadcasts for the BBC were supervised and partly written by Bert Coules, and were absolutely brilliant. As I’ve said many times – to Bert and others – Merrison and Williams’ voices were how I always heard Holmes and Watson in my head, years before they were actually cast in this series. Bert Coules has written a brilliant volume, 221 BBC (1998, Revised 2014), telling the behind-the-scenes story of those productions.
There have been a number of associational books published in connection with specific film projects. These include The Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson Annual (1979) to go with the short-lived 1979 television series starring Geoffrey Whitehead and Donald Pickering – itself something of a remake of the Ronald Howard and C. Marion Crawford series of 1954-1955. In 1979, the previously mentioned Murder by Decree entered my life with a thunderclap, and I was thrilled to find not long after that there was a novelization by Robert Weverka – and in some ways it’s better than the film. Then there's D.R. Bensen's novelization of Alvin Sapinsley’s film script of 1976’s Sherlock Holmes in New York, starring Roger Moore and Patrick Macnee. I’ve always especially enjoyed this book and film – although I didn’t read or see either until many years after they’d first appeared – because of Holmes’s encounter with Irene Adler and her very important son . . . .
For more about Irene's son, see this entry from my blog, "Re-reading the Nero Wolfe Adventures":
A good spin-off novel of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was written by Michael and Mollie Hardiwck (1971). Here's the hardcover Ian Henry edition:
There were two spin-off novels for the television mini-series Young Sherlock (1982), the first (shown below with the DVD’s of the show) being a novelization of the television story, Young Sherlock: The Mystery of the Manor House (1982) and a second novel which was rumored to be based on the script for the un-filmed second series, Young Sherlock: The Adventure at Ferryman’s Creek (1984).
In 1983, The Baker Street Boys was also a short-lived television mini-series with a companion book. The book series was later reinstated with seven more volumes (so far . . . .)
As mentioned above, I saw Young Sherlock Holmes when it premiered in 1985, and soon after found the paperback novelization. It’s shown here (bottom right) along with the DVD (top right), the children’s storybook version (top left) and the hardcover edition of the novelization (bottom left).
For more about these type of Holmes adventures, see my blog entry, "A Consideration of Children in the World of Sherlock Holmes":
Finally, the last example I’ll provide of film-related books is for 1965’s A Study in Terror, the movie mentioned at the beginning of this essay that prompted me to get up as a ten-year-old and find my only Holmes book and start down this incredibly rewarding Sherlockian Path. Shown here with the DVD of the film are three editions of the novelization, including the yellow hardcover with the alternate British title Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper. What’s especially important to me about this book, in addition to its connection to the film, is that it was written by Ellery Queen who, in additon to Holmes, is one of my all-time favorite heroes. In the book version, Ellery receives Watson’s old manuscript of the case, and in alternating chapters he begins his own investigation. When Watson’s tale is told, Ellery continues, only to find a second unknown solution in addition to Holmes’s from 1888. It’s a brilliant idea, and the combinatoin of two of my heroes working together, even if decades apart, thrills me as much now as when I first read it while still a teenager.
This is only a fraction of what’s available regarding Holmes and film. There are numerous other books and articles – some of which I have, and others I don’t. (There are much better experts than me in this aspect of The World of Holmes – for example, Charles Prepolec, BSI, springs to mind.) And as mentioned, there is a massive amount of biographical information about the actors who have played Holmes, but I limit my interest to Holmes himself, rather than his portrayers.
It’s very sad that – except for a very few stand-alone television films – there has been absolutely nothing whatsoever about Sherlock Holmes on television since the Granada version ended in 1994. Theatrical releases have also been sparse, with only a couple of action-oriented outings starring Robert Downey Jr. And yet, Holmes will certainly return, and when he does, the old reference books will need to be updated, and new ones written.
I’m looking forward to reading them!
©David Marcum 2021 – All Rights Reserved
David Marcum plays The Game with deadly seriousness. He first discovered Sherlock Holmes in 1975 at the age of ten, and since that time, he has collected, read, and chronologicized literally thousands of traditional Holmes pastiches in the form of novels, short stories, radio and television episodes, movies and scripts, comics, fan-fiction, and unpublished manuscripts. He is the author of nearly eighty Sherlockian pastiches, some published in anthologies and magazines such as The Strand, and others collected in his own books, The Papers of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and A Quantity of Debt, and Sherlock Holmes – Tangled Skeins. He has edited over fifty books, including several dozen traditional Sherlockian anthologies, such as the ongoing series The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, which he created in 2015. This collection is now up to 27 volumes, with several more in preparation. He was responsible for bringing back August Derleth’s Solar Pons for a new generation, first with his collection of authorized Pons stories, The Papers of Solar Pons, and then by editing the reissued authorized versions of the original Pons books, and subsequently additional volumes of new Pons tales. He has done the same for the Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke. He has contributed numerous essays to various publications, and is a member of a number of Sherlockian groups and Scions. His irregular Sherlockian blog, A Seventeen Step Program, addresses various topics related to his favorite book friends (as his son used to call them when he was small), and can be found at http://17stepprogram.blogspot.com/ Since the age of nineteen, he has worn a deerstalker as his regular-and-only hat. He is a licensed Civil Engineer, living in Tennessee with his wife and son. In 2013, he and his deerstalker were finally able make his first trip-of-a-lifetime Holmes Pilgrimage to England, with return Pilgrimages in 2015 and 2016, where you may have spotted him. If you ever run into him and his deerstalker out and about, feel free to say hello!
His Amazon Author Page can be found at:
and at MX Publishing: