The actor Jeremy Brett found his way into his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes by giving the original stories the first close reading they’d had by an actor in many years. He found this line: “Holmes wriggled with pleasure in his chair.” And that was it. He was in. His pale, spidery, twitchy and explosive Holmes made everyone before him look stupid. Holmes, it has to be said, also drove him mad, as it had Robert Stephens before him. The actors were, in Brett’s phrase, “great best friends”, and Stephens warned him of what Holmes would do to his head. Both men were in relatively early graves.
There’s a deep strangeness to Holmes that rarely makes it out into adaptations. One of the first mentions of Holmes made to Dr John Watson — a war veteran with a dodgy left arm — describes a lunatic at loose in a morgue, whacking corpses with a big stick to see if people bruise after death. The walls of his disgusting rooms are slathered yellow from the hundreds of tobacco products he’s lit and let burn out there so that he can study and catalogue the peculiarities of their ashes.
In an early CSI, William Petersen is found whacking a fake head filled with fake blood with a rebar to observe blood-spatter. In the first MONK, Tony Shalhoub sniffs a curtain and can tell that someone was standing next to it smoking Newports. These are the same gags, minus that certain berserk intensity. He may not have been the first fictional detective, but he invented everything in the genre you see today. Holmes himself, though, is missing.
The BBC recently made one of its periodic attempts to adapt THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES — not the best of Holmes, but of a convenient length for adaptation. Ian Hart, skinny and nasty-eyed, nails Watson like no-one else. He contains the curiosity that keeps him in Holmes’ company, as well as an innate sense of justice. Richard Roxburgh’s burly, muscular Holmes, urbane and charming, is a fairly serious mistake. Holmes was not charming. Holmes was a prick, frankly. A colossal misanthrope with a fair amount of gynephobia, immensely arrogant, ripping the piss out of Scotland Yard’s detectives, not averse to telling a policeman that his head may as well be a large ornament, and generally fucking with anyone who crosses his path. Holmes would not be a pleasant dinner companion. Roxburgh is; and yet lacks the presence, the strange charisma that keeps you interested.
(And the CGI’d Hound was a bit of an embarrassment.)
Like all good heroes, Holmes wears black.
There was a radio play some years ago, a new Holmes story, a black comedy where it transpires that Watson was Holmes’ greatest enemy all along. At one point, LeStrade of the Yard tells Holmes he must be provided protection. The excellent Simon Callow as Holmes is clearly heard to crisply utter: “Bollocks.” If only Conan Doyle had had the freedom to have Watson call Holmes a bastard every now and then. He clearly wants to.
There’s a lot left there. Not for comics, perhaps, but for film or TV, there’s meat still on the bone. Particularly film, which, curiously, cannot survive without taking on works from other media. As Coppola, himself a collapsed writer of original works, said, “[Even Scorcese] needs that perfect book.”
(Written January 2003. Since then, the BBC has mounted another one-shot Holmes production, with Rupert Everett replacing Roxburgh. Everett takes on Holmes as a languid, slowing junkie whose best days are largely behind him. The production was interesting/odd in that it actually has time moving on in the cycle of Holmes stories — grey in Iain Glen’s hair, Watson marrying, telephones and electricity appearing, Watson’s fiance as a psychologist, hinting at the profiling, serial-killing crime fiction to come.)