Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Back to Nigel Bruce.

Nigel Bruce.

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.


  1. Good post. I'm one of those people who can't watch Rathbone because I hate Bruce SO MUCH.  A few weeks ago you had a post presenting the proposition that Benedict Cumberbatch was the best Holmes ever.  I think there's some merit in that, but I don't consider him a shoo-in.  However, after quite a bit of reflection, I DO believe that Martin Freeman is the best Watson ever.  For the first time we're seeing a Watson who's young -- old enough to have been through medical school and been sent off to war, but young enough to have just recently come home from that war after being retired early due to wounds received (and young enough to believably take an interest when Mary Morstan comes along).  A Watson who is not only an MD but also a former officer, and who isn't shy about taking charge when the situation warrants it.  A Watson who isn't some old coot in an armchair wittering about his tea, but a thinking intelligent man who genuinely admires his friend's amazing talents for observation and deduction.   A Watson who could actually gain Holmes's trust and affection for his loyalty, dependability in a crisis, and common sense.  I liked both Burke and Hardwicke, viewing them as huge steps forward in reclaiming the reputation of the Dr. Watson I admired in the books.  But I think Martin Freeman finishes the job.  Best Watson Ever.

  2. Watson was never the brightest of bulbs. He was an everyman, after all, and they're not known for their smarts. Doyle called him "Holmes's rather stupid friend." Make him too intelligent and he's just not the Dr. Watson of the Canon. Oh, sure, people identify with him, so they want him to be smart, but that's just the vanity of the reader at play.

    Benny and the Hobbit are fun to watch, but I'd never call either the best, either in appearance or in performance.

  3. Hmm, I hope you don't know TOO many "stupid" doctors....

  4. Yes, actually. Especially politically.

    And back in the 19th century, doctors had to use the tradesman's entrance. I know more about effective medicine after taking science requirements in college and consulting my copy of THE WELL ADULT. I sure as hell would never give alcohol to someone who's fainted.

  5. Remember - 50% of all doctors graduated in the bottom half of their class.