This week’s case is a far-from-elementary one: who is the greatest Sherlock Holmes from cinema and TV? Guinness World Records has the great detective as “the most portrayed movie character”, starting with the 30-second American silent Baffled from 1900 (shown on a single-viewer device). His latest incarnation is Will Ferrell in boisterous comedic take Holmes and Watson (in cinemas from Boxing Day). So, more than enough pipe-sucking logicians from whom to choose.
To deduce the ideal Holmes, we’ve come up with a top ten in chronological order. But the final vote is yours. Read all about them, then scroll to the bottom to make your choice…
John Barrymore (1922)
Mr Barrymore (pictured, left), as he is listed in the credits of once-lost silent Sherlock Holmes (adapted from a play by William Gillette but based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories), gives Holmes a suavely scatty demeanour. Described in one intertitle as “a marvel at digging out things”, he takes years to pin the blame on Moriarty in this case, but he models the pipe and smoking jacket rather well along the way.
Basil Rathbone (1939-46)
Arguably the definitive silver-screen Sherlock, Shakespearean stage star Rathbone went a long way to hallmarking the Holmes of lore over 14 films (currently available on TCM), ranging from first film in the series and location grandstander The Hound of the Baskervilles (Mon, Wed) to chamber pieces like the train-set Terror by Night (Fri 14 Dec). With Nigel Bruce’s slow-witted, colonially inclined Watson (“Great Scott!”), little beats the duo’s clipped repartee.
Christopher Lee (1962)
Having played Sir Henry Baskerville opposite Peter Cushing’s Holmes in Hammer’s 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles, Lee snatched the pipe
to star in dubbed black-and-white Euro-pudding Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (directed by Hammer’s Terence Fisher). He’s at home by the hearth and lankily debonair in a cape, but the production is cheap and beneath his and — as Watson — Thorley Walters’s talents.
Peter Cushing (1968)
Not to be outmanoeuvred by Lee, Cushing went long-form in Sherlock Holmes for BBC1. Facially suited (he’s introduced in silhouetted profile in the credits), he essayed a camply rakish incarnation, taking over from Douglas Wilmer for the show’s second run in 1968. Another Nigel — Stock — warmed up Watson and, despite theatrical staging on chipboard sets, its casting was spot-on. One case, The Blue Carbuncle, featured Dad’s Army spiv James Beck as the butler. In modern parlance Cushing owned it, but no third series was ordered.
Nicol Williamson (1976)
Rangy Scottish thesp Nicol Williamson doesn’t actually play Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, an arch, lavishly all-star 70s pastiche based on the bestselling novel by Nicholas Meyer, but a deluded man who thinks he is. A harassed Moriarty (Laurence Olivier) asks Watson (a horribly miscast Robert Duvall) to have his friend psychoanalysed by Freud (Alan Arkin). Williamson is left to dash about like a manic loon.
Peter Cook (1977)
Comic portrayals of Holmes abound but few match Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as a prissy Holmes and a Welsh Watson in full-on spoof The Hound of the Baskervilles, filmed at Hammer’s Bray Studios and cast from comedy’s top drawer: Kenneth Williams, Terry-Thomas, Max Wall, Joan Greenwood, “with a fleeting appearance by Spike Milligan”. Cook gives Holmes a speech impediment and a domineering mother who calls him “Shirl”. They even work in an Exorcist gag.
Jeremy Brett (1984-94)
The connoisseur’s Holmes, for the sheer eccentricity and physicality Brett brought to the part and the 41 faithful adaptations Granada racked up over ten years… Brett called the part “harder than Hamlet or Macbeth”. An assiduous researcher, he aimed for authoritative perfection and Sherlock’s quasi-bipolar personality came to echo his own. A New York Times obituary in 1995 declared Brett’s Holmes “quintessential”.
Benedict Cumberbatch (2010-present)
While Elementary stacks up season upon season on CBS with Jonny Lee Miller as a post-rehab Holmes in Manhattan, our own beloved Benedict is rationed by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss into “event” mini-series that strut like a grown-up Doctor Who. Cumberbatch’s nicotine-patched Sherlock and Martin Freeman’s Afghanistan-vet Watson text, Google and GPS, and generate real emotional jeopardy with fancy narrative footwork over four increasingly complex seasons. The deerstalker is now ironic.
Ian McKellen (2015)
Certainly the oldest screen Sherlock, McKellen’s post-Second World War diagnostician retires aged 93 to a beekeeper’s idyll, in the sedate, flashback-driven Mr Holmes (based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind). There, he paternally encourages housekeeper’s son Milo Parker to develop his investigative skills while grappling with an account of his last case. McKellen brings a funereal pace and the dignity of age to the detective.
Johnny Depp (2018)
A slight cheat, as Depp appears in voice only in the self-consciously pop-driven US/UK animation Sherlock Gnomes. But he takes the English accent seriously enough and allows a hint of Jack Sparrow into his actually upright and traditional case-solver — when he’s not sniffing the ground like a bloodhound or duelling with Moriarty (a Pillsbury Doughboy-like mascot) on Tower Bridge. If the animators based this Holmes on a previous model, then it’s surely Rathbone.