Sherlock Holmes Part II - the Legacy Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Sherlock Holmes Part II - the Legacy

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Peter Cushing, star of the BBC's 1968 series of Sherlock Holmes, with Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson.

Such is the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes, that the character and the image have entered popular culture and have been used and re-used in many different ways, while Baker Street has become almost a place of pilgrimage for devotees of the detective from around the world.

Holmes on Radio, Film and Television

Over the years, Sherlock Holmes has been played by an enormous number of actors. Some in serious adaptations of the original stories, some in pastiches or parodies. Holmes has been portrayed in his original turn of the century setting, as an up-to-date character, and as a 19th-Century man in a modern world. The combination of the strong character and the vagueness of his background have given writers and actors almost complete licence to create their own interpretations.

A full, or even partial, list of Sherlock Holmes broadcasts is far beyond the scope of this Entry, so a few selected highlights will have to suffice.


BBC radio is the only medium to have ever produced the entire canon of Holmes stories with the same actors in the leads. With Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, the project started on 3 November, 1989, with the broadcast of the first part of 'A Study in Scarlet'. The series is very true to the original stories. Merrison and Williams bring the pair to life and show how their partnership grows and develops through all the mysteries, with scenes in stories such as 'The Dying Detective' and 'The Empty House' being very emotive. The last one to be made was 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'.

An earlier radio series was broadcast by the BBC in 1974, starring Barry Foster1 as Holmes and David Buck as Watson.


The character of Sherlock Holmes has appeared in an enormous range of television dramas, many of them single stories rather than a series. The earliest was a production of 'The Three Garridebs', which was broadcast by NBC in the USA in 1937.

The BBC brought us Peter Cushing's interpretation of the great detective in a 1968 BBC1 series. Cushing had already played the role for Hammer films back in 1959. The run included a loose adaptation of A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Cushing's portrayal, accompanied by Nigel Stock as Watson, gave audiences an enthusiastic, if somewhat smug, Holmes. At the time of writing, selected episodes form this series are available on DVD in the UK.

The most famous Time Lord of all, Tom Baker, gave us his interpretation of the role in a 1982 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Filmed the year after he left Doctor Who, the most note-worthy thing about his performance was that it was the first time audiences had seen him without his trademark wild brown curls; his hair, cropped very short, was now grey.

As might be obvious, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most regularly adapted of Conan Doyles' Sherlock Holmes stories, having enjoyed at least 18 different screen versions. The most recent of which, broadcast on BBC1 at Christmas 2003, starred Richard Roxburgh as Holmes and Ian Hart as Watson.

Some might consider the casting of John Cleese as either brilliant or odd, depending on your point of view. Cleese did indeed play Sherlock Holmes, with Willie Rushton as his Watson, for 'Elementary, My Dear Watson', a 1973 episode of Comedy Playhouse in which Holmes investigated the tenuous thread that links five dead solicitors with Fu Manchu and the panel of Call My Bluff.

The most famous, and possibly the best, of the television portrayals was that of Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes in 42 of Conan Doyle's stories, from 1984 until Brett's death in 1995. Brett presented Holmes, not as a caricature in deerstalker, but a bit more as an out-of-place eccentric, given to arm waving explanations and rapid changes of mood. The depressions Holmes felt during inactivity were also given real weight in Brett's characterisation, rather than just skimmed over as a slight frustration. He also found a way to make his explanations matter of fact as if he was saying 'well this is obvious', but without irritating the audience - quite a tricky act to pull off.

At the time of writing, the latest television incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is to be Stephen Fry - a big fan of the detective - with his comedy partner Hugh Laurie as Dr Watson.

Murder Rooms: The Dark Origins of Sherlock Holmes was an interesting take on the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon, depicting the investigations of Dr Joseph Bell, a Victorian pathologist played by Ian Richardson. Dr Bell befriends the young Conan Doyle, who in turn learns the secrets of pathology that informed his later novels. While not directly related to the Holmes stories, much of the inspiration for the plots can be traced back to details in Conan Doyle's novels.


Sherlock Holmes is listed in the Guinness Book of Records (2004 edition) as the most filmed character in cinema history, narrowly beating Count Dracula to that accolade.

Probably the most famous portrayal of Holmes on film was that by Basil Rathbone, who starred in 15 films in the 1930s and 40s, beginning with The Hound of the Baskervilles. Dr Watson was played by Nigel Bruce, and it is perhaps his portrayal that led to the general perception of Watson as an incompetent bumbler.

Although some of the films featured Conan Doyle's stories, several of the Rathbone films used new material, taking only minor details from the original works. For example, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) is a classic piece of World War II propaganda, featuring Homes battling Moriarty and the Nazis. The secret code used by the enemy is similar to that used in the Conan Doyle story 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men' (1903).

Moriarty was a common foe in the Rathbone films, and was played by three different actors: Lionel Atwill, George Zucco and Henry Daniel. The latter is possibly the best of the three, with a sneakier appearance by the villain.

Other actors to play Holmes on film include:

  • Maurice Costello
  • Buster Keaton
  • Christopher Lee
  • Peter Cushing
  • George C Scott
  • Michael Caine
  • Christopher Plummer
  • Matt Frewer
  • John Neville
  • Roger Moore
  • Peter Cook
  • Leonard Nimoy

Sherlock Holmes for Children

There have been several children's TV series and films based on Holmes. Here is a selection:

  • The Young Sherlock Holmes. Directed by Barry Levinson and written by Chris Columbus, this adventure saw a young Holmes - who had just met Watson at boarding school - facing a cult enacting revenge for the desecration of an Egyptian site.

  • The Adventures of Shirley Holmes. A teenage descendant of Holmes finds a trunk of his with a puzzling lock. She uses her deductive powers to work out how to unlock it and inside finds Holmes's detecting equipment and a message saying that if she has managed to open it she is the inheritor of his detecting abilities. Hence lots of foiling crime associated with her school and home town.

  • Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. A defrosted Holmes, with a robotic Watson, and a female Lestrade try to foil a Moriarty clone.

  • Basil the Great Mouse Detective. A Disney film centring on Basil, a detective mouse, who has learned everything he knows from Mr Holmes2. Basil and assistant Dr. Dawson are determined to stop the evil Professor Ratigan.

  • One of the more imaginative related TV projects was an eight-part 1983 drama series, The Baker Street Boys. The series was inspired by recurring characters from Conan Doyles' novels - 'The Baker Street Irregulars' - who were a band of homeless street urchins that Holmes sometimes employed to do the footwork for some of his investigations. The series provided an early TV role for a young Adam Woodyatt, who, two years later, would join the cast of fledgling soap opera EastEnders as Ian Beale3.

Holmes and the Next Generation

In Star Trek - the Next Generation, Data (Brent Spiner) is an android who loves all things Holmes. He created many encounters and stories on the ship's Holodeck4 with himself in the starring role.

In the episode 'Elementary, Dear Data', his friend Geordie la Forge suggested that simply re-creating Conan Doyle's stories offered no challenge, and asked the computer to generate a more worthy opponent. The computer created a version of Moriarty, but unfortunately Geordie made the mistake of asking the computer to give Moriaty the power to 'defeat Data' instead of the fictional Holmes. The undefeatable Moriaty took control of the Enterprise, and only capitulated to Captain Picard when he agreed to try and find a way to make Moriarty fully sentient with the ability to leave the Holodeck.

In a later episode - 'Ship in a Bottle' - Moriarty is accidentally freed from the memory file where he had been stored and once again takes over the ship. This time, he is tricked into believing that he has left the Holodeck, thus fulfilling his dream. In the artificial world created by the crew of the Enterprise, Moriarty sets off to explore the Universe.

Outside of science fiction, Holmes also has a presence in 'real space': one of the lunar craters near the Apollo 17 landing site was named 'Sherlock' by geologist-astronaut Jack Schmitt.

Holmes and the Marx Brothers

In the 1900s, cartoonist Don Mager began a series of cartoons in the New York World, featuring various monkeys named after their main character trait, such as Braggo or Tightwaddo. This adding of 'o' at the end of names became a brief-lived fad, during which the Marx brothers - Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo - took their names. The most famous of Mager's cartoon creations was Sherlocko, a monkey detective, and his sidekick Watso. The names were so similar to Conan Doyle's creations, that Conan Doyle threatened to sue. To avoid legal action, Mager changed the name of his monkey detective to Hawkshaw.

New Stories

Ever since Conan Doyle stopped writing, many other writers have taken it upon themselves to extend the lifespan of Holmes and Watson. Numerous collections of new short stories have been published. Some, such as The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures feature many different authors5, while others are by a single author. Familiar characters occasionally make an appearance, such as the reference to Moriarty in The Beekeepers' Apprentice, by Laurie R King, in which Moriarty's daughter takes her revenge on Holmes for the death of her father.

Holmes has also provided a less direct inspiration for other characters and stories. For example, the gentleman-thief Raffles was created by Conan Doyle's brother-in-law EW Hornung. The preface to Raffles: the Amateur Cracksman contains the legend 'To ACD. This form of flattery'.

'Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?'
'To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.'
'The dog did nothing in the nighttime.'
'That was the curious incident,' remarked Sherlock Holmes.

'Silver Blaze' (1892), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

A more recent story inspired by the works of Conan Doyle is the award-winning6The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. This tells the story of a boy with Asperger's Syndrome who is a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and uses his methods to work out who killed his neighbour's dog.

Holmes and Jack the Ripper

Michael Dibdin wrote a book called The Last Sherlock Holmes Story in which Holmes is bored with common criminals so he invents a supercriminal - namely himself - and tries to track himself down. This criminal is Jack the Ripper.

Two other Ripper-related Holmes products are the films A Study in Terror and Murder by Decree, both having Holmes battling the Ripper. Holmes is played by John Neville in the former and by Christopher Plummer in the latter.

Holmes and Dracula

Holmes has also faced less-human foes... In The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count Loren D Estleman tells the story of Holmes's encounter with Dracula.

Holmes and the English Language

'Excellent!' I cried
'Elementary, said he.'

'The Crooked Man' (1893), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Through the Holmes stories, Conan Doyle has added a number of phrases and sayings to the English language. However, the most famous 'quotation' - 'Elementary, my dear Watson' - never appeared in any of Conan Doyle's stories7.

Sayings or pseudo-sayings that have come into the English language, directly or indirectly, from the stories include:

  • Come, Watson, the game is afoot ('The Abbey Grange', 1904)
  • Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth (several stories)
  • The dog that didn't bark ('Silver Blaze', 1893)

It's unlikely that Conan Doyle would approve, but the expression 'No sh*t, Sherlock' is also in common parlance, to express an opinion that what has just been said was blindingly obvious.

Baker Street Today

The address '221b Baker Street' did not exist in Conan Doyle's day, as what is now the northern end of Baker St had another name. Today, 221b Baker Street is the home of the Sherlock Holmes Museum. The museum is like a mini-Madame Tussaud's, with waxworks of Holmes and Watson in Victorian getup and surroundings. There is also a souvenir shop and a display of letters from children to Sherlock Homes ('My cat keeps disappearing... can you tell me where it goes every night?').

Before the museum was opened, the Abbey National Building society - which runs from 215-229 Baker Street - used to be so inundated with letters to Sherlock Homes that a secretary was employed to handle them. A letter was sent out to everyone who had written to Holmes:

Dear 'writer'

Thank you for your letter, which Mr Holmes was delighted to receive. He has asked me as his secretary to reply on his behalf.

Mr Holmes has now retired to the Sussex countryside and no longer undertakes investigative work. He prefers to pursue his hobby of beekeeping these days.

He is however pleased to know that there is continuing interest in his cases. Letters arrive from all over the world addressed to the great detective. He is clearly alive and well in many people's minds.

Mr Holmes has asked me to pass on to you his kind regards.

Yours sincerely

Secretary to Sherlock Holmes.

Baker Street today also boasts a statue of Holmes, and the walls at Baker Street Tube station have images of the classic Holmes profile, with deerstalker and pipe. The Jubilee Line platforms also have panels illustrating scenes from some of the Holmes stories.

Statues of Holmes can also be found in Karuizawa, Japan and Meringen, Switzerland, while in Edinburgh - Conan Doyle's birthplace - there's a statue of Sherlock Holmes at Picardy Place, a short walk from the east end of Princes Street towards Leith Walk, with a pub near it called 'The Conan Doyle' on York Place.

A Little About the Author

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in 1859 at Picardy Place, Edinburgh. His parents were Charles Altamont Doyle, a civil servant in the Edinburgh Office of Works, and Mary Doyle (nee Foley).

Conan Doyle based Holmes closely on one of his teachers at Edinburgh University Medical School - Professor Bell. The BBC produced a television series called Murder Rooms: the Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes in which Bell (played by Ian Richardson8) and the young Conan Doyle (as a Watson-type character) solved mysteries, many of which resembled stories that later became Holmes' adventures. It has also been said Conan Doyle drew upon Edgar Allen Poe's Murder on the Rue Morgue in creating Sherlock Holmes.

With the success of Holmes, Conan Doyle began to resent the character he had created, and wrote his death in 'The Final Problem'. In particular Conan Doyle wanted time to work on other characters, and he remained bitterly disappointed that he was forced to resurrect Holmes, when he was much more keen on writing about other characters such as the remarkable Professor Challenger, who may have been the first ecologically conscious hero in British fiction.

Away from writing, Conan Doyle firmly believed in fairies, perhaps looking for a way to console himself after the death of his wife. He spent more than a million dollars trying to prove their existence and he also backed the infamous 'fairy photographs'. He died at his home in Sussex in 1930 from heart disease.

Summing Up

Perhaps the main reason Sherlock Holmes continues to delight generation after generation is because he was in many ways the first of his kind. He was extremely forward thinking and unbelievably intelligent compared with everyone he met, but was also a typical Victorian, very patriotic and right wing. Not only that, but Sherlock Holmes offers a valuable insight into the minds of the people who lived through one of the most significant times in British history. It's also helped by the fact that so many great actors have helped to make the books more 'accessible'. That and the fact that, although the stories may twist and turn, they still come back to fact, they don't just spring the solution on people without explanation.

Science fiction author Arthur C Clarke once claimed that Tarzan was more famous than Sherlock Holmes, but can that be true? Although there are many versions of Tarzan on film and television, it's hard to imagine that more people have read Edgar Rice Burroughs's books than Conan Doyle's. With lots of Holmes shows and films being released on DVD, there can only be more interest generated. In 2004, for example, the BBC's Peter Cushing adaptations from the late 1960s are coming out, along with Christopher Lee's Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and a re-mastered series of the Rathbone films. It's great to know Holmes' future is so bright.

1Best known for playing TV detective Van Der Valk.2Voiced by Basil Rathbone.3Woodyatt's unbroken almost-20-year stint on EastEnders makes him the longest serving member of the cast.4A room that can be programmed to create physical, three-dimensional holograms of people and places.5Including Adrian Conan Doyle, youngest son of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.6Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year award, 2003.7Although later authors have been unable to resist the temptation.8Richardson also played Holmes twice in the early 1980s, in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four. He would have made more adventures but, unfortunately Richardson's series clashed with the Jeremy Brett series and had to be abandoned.

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