As many have pointed out, if ever an actor was born for a part, Basil Rathbone was born to play Sherlock Holmes. His aristocratic profile with the aquiline nose make him a dead ringer for the Holmes of the Paget illustrations from the original stories. Rathbone holds a pipe with great ease, and his mellifluous baritone has all the requisite weight and authority. In the original two 1939 movies set in the Victorian period, his Holmes commands the screen, and the black-and-white fits the stories, especially The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The only real disappointment is Nigel Bruce as a bumbling comic Dr. Watson, a role he would continue to play in subsequent movies. Updating the later films to a contemporary setting (1940's London) was a bit jarring, as were Nazi villains and the like, and the results were more pedestrian and formulaic than with the original two films. A low point comes with a deformed actor playing the "Hoxton Creeper" in The Pearl of Death.
Still, for several decades up until the 1980's, Rathbone’s visage was generally what popped into your head at the mention of Sherlock Holmes. That all changed in 1984 when Jeremy Brett burst onto the television screen in the elaborate Granada productions with spectacular location shooting. Brett also seemed born to play the part. With his pomaded black hair swept back and his long thin frame, he also resembled the Paget Holmes. However, the contrast with Rathbone was striking.
Rathbone was always calm and self-possessed, while Brett radiated nervous energy, was slightly manic with a neurotic edge. You were never certain what his Holmes might do. His movements were often explosive: wrenching a glass from his pocket, throwing himself on the turf to look for footprints, or the like. He was edgy and unbalanced, not poised and calm like Rathbone. You could well believe his Holmes might have turned to drugs and that he had some dark depths indeed. This Holmes preferred cigarettes to the pipe, something the chain-smoking Brett encouraged to allow him to smoke on camera.
Brett’s voice was part of the difference. Despite some deeper undertones (perhaps because he smoked so much!), his was a tenor voice. Brett had started out as a singing actor and had been told that with work, he might become an operatic tenor. When he cries out or exclaims loudly, the voice has a piercing clarion quality. The voice with its dramatic shifts in intensity contributes to that sense that his Holmes is unstable and unpredictable. Unlike with the always affable Rathbone, you might think twice before inviting Brett’s Holmes to a dinner party!
Sadly, as most of his fans know, Brett’s health visibly deteriorated over the nearly ten year run of the Granada series. By the end, the thin elegance and vitality of his early Holmes had vanished. Still, he laboured on in very ill health.
Brett was lucky to have two very good Watsons, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, both of whom were clearly men of intelligence and sympathy, far cries from the comic-relief Watson of Nigel Bruce.
I think there is a rather straight line from Rathbone, to Brett, to Benedict Cumberbatch. We could never had arrived at Cumberbatch’s portrayal if Brett hadn’t led the way first. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is also quixotic and excitable. However, once again we have Holmes with a commanding baritone voice. Cumberbatch certainly captures the arrogance of the character and his unpredictability. And who knew that Holmes was made for a smart phone!
However, for my taste, all this strangeness gets carried a bit too far. Portraying him as a frustrated neurotic virgin in the episode with a very unusual Irene Adler reduced his character to almost a caricature. Ditto with making him always socially clueless and awkward. Rathbone’s Holmes was always polite, and Brett’s Holmes could be charming in his social dealings when he wished to be. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is too often simply boorish or rude. Suggesting that he has Asperger’s or some other mental illness also seem to diminish the character.
I don’t fault Cumberbatch as an actor for this. I think he is very good. It is the scripts that are the problem. I liked some of the early episodes in the Sherlock series, but 2016's The Abominable Bride was, for me, a major disappointment. At first, I loved the traditional Victorian Holmes and Watson as played by Cumberbatch and Freeman and all the wealth of Victorian decor and costume, but they lost me when they started flipping back and forth in time between the 2010's and the Victorian period. The script was too clever by far. Suggesting that certain scenes were simply a drug hallucination was just lame, as was the feminist cabal behind the murders.
However, the resulting mishmash did indeed resemble a "bad trip," one you might undergo from taking hallucinogenic drugs after binge-watching various old and new versions of Sherlock Holmes on video. I wish they would give Cumberbatch a chance to play a more straight Victorian Sherlock Holmes. What we saw of him early on in The Abominable Bride did show that he, too, was made for the part, and Martin Freeman as Watson was a nice blend of comedy and compassion.
The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The White Worm by Sam Siciliano (Titan Books) £7.99 is out now.
More information about Sam Sciliano and his books can be found on his website.