Seldom has a name meant so many things to so many Sherlockians. Warm and fuzzy memory. Offensive caricature. Comic genius. He's the sort of figure from our past that inspires further thought when he comes up, as he did today. Especially as considered next to some of our more recent spins on Watson.
Dr. Watson, in the original print entertainments, was our narrator, our guide, a role not so necessary in film or video. We saw very little of Watson's personality in those tales, as he was simply the man holding back the curtain for us. Only when he's reflected by the mirror of Holmes's words or deeds do we get any sort of look at him. Movies, as we well know, changed all that.
When one watches The Scarlet Claw or some other Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce tale of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, one really doesn't identify with Bruce's Watson. He's our not-so-bright but lovable friend, not us. No, we identify with Basil Rathbone's Holmes, clever and in control during those adventures. Watson is along for comic relief.
In the less satisfying modern attempts at capturing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on film (though we don't actually use film any more, I guess), Watson is given to us as our character to identify with, while the fellow called Sherlock Holmes is the goofy friend, taking up Nigel Bruce's mantle. Which always makes me wonder . . . if Watson is who creators think we want to identify with when watching Sherlock Holmes, now, as opposed to the films of the 1940s, is it because they think we're seeing ourselves as the less intelligent of the set?
Are we now Watsons instead of Holmeses in the American mass market?
Sure, Nigel Bruce's Watson was happy with his Holmes, comfortable in his own skin, and didn't care if some guy showed up at Baker Street bringing Petri wine instead of the good stuff. If he had his cookies and a comfy chair he was as serene as a Buddha of Baker Street. He wasn't us, but he was our friend, and he'd let us be Sherlock Holmes. Because we sure didn't want to be him.
Nigel Bruce does cause a certain imbalance in the Sherlockian Force. His ying does not fully match Rathbone's yang to the modern mind. But the current adaptations that take things the other way don't really improve upon that mix.
I consider one of the great achievements of Sherlock is the fact that they've given us the best balance of Holmes and Watson we've seen since the original stories. Jeremy Brett and his Watsons made great strides in that direction, but then, they were trying to hit the Canonical nail right on the head as closely as possible. Holmes still tends to take center stage, even without a Nigel. Yet with the updated Sherlock, it actually seems possible to relate equally to Holmes and Watson, both as strong personalities, relatable characters, and even as both Cumberbatch and Freeman serve as Nigel Bruce, often at the same time.
So in a way, we're back to Nigel Bruce. But this time, there's a sharing of the load.