Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The circle of Holmes

The phrase "THE Holmes" came up this morning on Sherlock Peoria's Facebook page. Basil Rathbone got mentioned, Jeremy Brett got mentioned . . . poor William Gillette probably doesn't have any Facebook fans at this point, and the Benedict Cumberbatch crowd is probably watching Tumblr more closely than old FB.

History may prove otherwise, but to me, that's the current list of iconic Holmes of their generations:

William Gillette
Basil Rathbone
Jeremy Brett
Benedict Cumberbatch

There's a roughly 30 to 40 year cycle when you look at it historically. There have always been other Holmes actors, even at the same time as the big four. Folks like Peter Cushing are hard to ignore, and do have their fans, but just don't quite make the cut, when all is said and done. Cushing could have been an iconic Holmes, but the timing and the reach of his work didn't quite hit. And the generation that might have taken him to heart was already enamored with Rathbone.

One key to an iconic Holmes in my mind, is a working actor that audiences click with for the very first time when he's in the role of Sherlock Holmes. All of the fellows above had done parts and been seen before Holmes, but when audiences first got to really know them, it was as Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey Jr., as big a box office as he pulls in, will always be Iron Man playing Sherlock Holmes, even to his most ardent fans. But Benedict Cumberbatch, whatever he plays after this, will come to mind first as Sherlock Holmes, the blessing and curse of a true iconic Holmes.

An iconic Holmes also has to get there first. Jonny Lee Miller is going to be the Ronald Howard of this generation of Holmeses. Sure, he's got a lot of TV episodes that completists and diehard fans will go back and watch, but the mojo to be an iconic Holmes? It's just not there. Too late to the party and not dressed for the occasion, figuratively speaking.

"THE" Sherlock Holmes is always going to depend upon how old you are and when you came upon Sherlock Holmes. My own bonding during a preview of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has left me with a less-attached view of that question. Rathbone predominated my youth, Brett was the upstart newcomer whom I both enjoyed and criticized, and Cumberbatch is the happy surprise whom I'm comfortably accepting as the new face of Sherlock.

As much as our cycles of information and entertainment are speeding up, the cycle at which we see iconic Holmeses is probably going to remain keyed to the hearts of generations of Sherlock Holmes fans. If the fans live longer, the cycle could slow slightly. Or we could wind up with multiple generations of fans all singing the praises of their personal Sherlocks all at once, either in beautiful chorus or cacaphonous discord.

But just as Irene Adler was THE woman to Sherlock Holmes, while Watson remained the Mary Morstan fan, THE Sherlock Holmes will always be a very personal choice for generations to come.

Pause . . .

Pause . . .

Pause . . .

. . . unless you're claiming it's Jonny Lee Miller, in which case, you just need help.


  1. BC will probably always be *my* Holmes, as he was the one to get me interested in the character. I cannot really watch the Rathbone movies as they're too old and too outdated to really resonate with me. Jeremy Brett just didn't leave any impression, though I must have seen him sometime even before Sherlock and although I watched and liked the first SH-film with RDjr. he didn't really touch my heart.

    I have watched other Holmeses since and liked "The Private Life" and "The Seven Percent Solution". I quite liked Ian Richardson in the role, though I understand he is considered problematic? I liked his effortless superiority and humour though.

  2. I'm the one who called Brett THE Holmes this morning. I actually saw Rathbone in the character of Holmes first and felt that no one could replace him...until I discovered Brett. As much as I love Brett in the role, his performance does occasionally make me cringe when it clashes with my image of Sherlock from the original stories (which is where I first fell in love with the character). Still, I haven't found another actor I like better in the role. Cumberbatch comes closest, but he is just a bit too cold for me. The Holmes I see in the stories has more heart, but I did see some cracks in the ice of Cumberbatch's character in the final episode of season 2.

    That said, I have a friend who is slowly becoming a Sherlockian. Her first experience with Holmes was Downey, Jr., whom she loves. She doesn't like Brett at all. (I still love her, though.) We agree wholeheartedly on Cumberbatch, so we confine our discussions of Holmes in visual media to him.

    I refuse to expose her to Johnny Lee Miller...

  3. I have yet to find another person who dislikes "Elementary" as much as you and I do, Brad. Our work is cut out for us.

    1. Don't look any further. That person would be me!

  4. I classify my favorite adaptation Holmeses by two categories; Victorian and Modern. My VICTORIAN Holmes will always be Brett. My MODERN Holmes is Benedict Cumberbatch, hands down. I very much love Rathbone too but I can't classify him as Victorian(only two(?) of his Holmes works are in Victorian era) nor Modern(During his time yes, he's modern. Not now though.)
    In short, those three are my Holy Trinity of Holmeses. I can't rank them; they're all equal in my eyes. :)