OK, confession time: I happen to be fascinated by a website called Frock Flicks, wherein costume experts review actors and films/TV shows that feature period costume, with often hilarious (and sometimes fairly profane) commentary. From time to time, I check in with the site to see what they've said about this or that period drama.
Of course, they have been known to tackle Sherlock Holmes from time to time. So, for your enjoyment, here is a link to their article about a few of the costumes from Granada's television adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, featuring the marvelous Jeremy Brett as the Great Detective...
Frock Flicks: A Historical Sherlock Holmes – No, Not That One!
A few years ago, I did a series of posts where I discussed the Top 5 actors who, in my opinion, have played Sherlock Holmes the best. A couple weeks ago, I promised to re-think that list. And now I have. This time, I shall present all of my Top 5 in one post, rather than stretching it out into five different posts. I realize many Sherlockians will disagree with this list, but at the moment, it's where I stand. First, here is my original list:
And now I shall revise that list, and explain my reasons for each ranking...
#5. Ronald Howard
I no longer have Basil Rathbone on my Top 5 list, even though he was Sherlock Holmes for many fans for several decades. Having watched the Rathbone/Bruce films, and comparing them to the TV series from the 1950s, I find Ronald Howard's portrayal quite superior to Rathbone's. He's a younger, bouncier Holmes, with much more of a sparkling sense of humor. He may have been just a bit too handsome to play Holmes, but overall, I find what he brought to the role to have been much more impressive than Rathbone's portrayal. Moreover, his Watson, played my Howard Marion Crawford was quite good, one of the earlier performances to buck the Nigel Bruce trend of playing Watson as a bumbler.
#4. Benedict Cumberbatch
My thoughts on Cumberbatch's portrayal of the great detective have changed an awful lot since I originally put him at the top of my list. One of the things that changed my mind on Cumberbatch was Season 4 of Sherlock. It may have happened gradually throughout the series, but by the last episode of Season 4 it became painfully obvious that Cumberbatch's Holmes had become something very different from what it was in the first season of the show. Sure, he and Martin Freeman still make a very good duo, but the show replaced its earlier emphasis on Holmes's deductive abilities with an action hero ethos (Exhibit A: Sherlock and John jumping out of the window of 221B when a grenade explodes). What was originally, for me, a really remarkable reimagining of Sherlock Holmes became a slightly annoying caricature.
#3. Jonny Lee Miller
Now that I've watched much of the first five seasons of Elementary, I can't help but think that the format of the American series has allowed Miller to inhabit the role of Sherlock Holmes much more than most actors have. Meanwhile, I think Miller's portrayal of Holmes has been more consistent overall than Cumberbatch's. And the Holmes/Watson partnership demonstrated my Miller and Lucy Liu (as Joan Watson) has been intriguing. So I've moved Jonny Lee Miller above Benedict Cumberbatch on my new list.
#2. Jeremy Brett
I very nearly put Jeremy Brett at the top of my list, as so many of his performances were so good! However, watching later installments of the Granada Sherlock Holmes series, it is painfully obvious that Brett's portrayal, and the quality of the series overall, were negatively impacted by the actor's numerous health problems. If all that survived of Brett's portrayal of the great detective was that first series of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I believe he would very likely top my list. However, I feel that I have to take into account how the series suffered as Brett became more and more ill. Incidentally, both David Burke and Edward Hardwicke did an admirable job at playing Watson.
#1. Peter Cushing
Not only did my new #1 do an amazing job at portraying Sherlock Holmes in the 1959 Hammer Films production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but Mr. Cushing also nailed the role of Holmes in the TV series he did in 1968. Just looking at the consistent quality of his performance in everything he did as Sherlock Holmes, I'm impressed by his attention to detail, the perfect physicality he brought to the role. He has the piercing glance, as well as the quiet frenzy as he works, that makes him a perfect Holmes to my way of thinking. And Nigel Stock is a top notch Watson, which makes the pair almost perfect.
As I mentioned above, I am quite sure that other Sherlockians will disagree strongly with the ranking above. Give it another few years, and I may end up disagreeing with myself! Still, at this point in 2019, this is where I stand. I'd love to hear readers' comments and feedback.
Despite the fact that I only rated Jeremy Brett as my second favorite Holmes actor in my "Top Five Sherlock Holmes Actors" series awhile back, I still maintain that he is a very close second to Benedict Cumberbatch (in my opinion). And certainly, as far as Victorian settings of Sherlock Holmes go, I don't believe any actor can match him. Even though he had a lot of personal problems that had a negative impact on some of the later episodes of the Granada series, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes episodes were marvelous.
One of my all-time favorite scenes in that first set of adaptations featuring Brett was the scene below, from "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist." Whereas Holmes's fistfight was merely described by Holmes himself in the original story, the Granada adaptation shows us the whole scene in all its glory, and Jeremy Brett is sublime. Watch and enjoy...
#2. Jeremy Brett
If I had come up with this Top Five several years ago, there is no doubt that Jeremy Brett would have been my number one choice. And I still think, as far as Victorian portrayals of the great detective, no one has ever matched Brett's version. When the BBC series starring Brett as Holmes began in the early 80s, I was a teenager, and though I was relatively new to the Sherlock Holmes canon, it was clear to me that no actor had ever really captured the true spirit and style of Sherlock Holmes. And then I saw Jeremy Brett...
It was as if Sidney Paget's drawings had come to life! Every little pose, every mannerism was just as I had imagined Holmes, based on the illustrations I had seen. For many years, then, to my way of thinking Jeremy Brett was the Sherlock Holmes. As I've read more about that BBC series, and its ups and downs, I've learned that the series consciously imitated Paget's drawings as closely as possible, and that Brett himself had an almost obsessive insistence on the most minute details. (He also smoked several packs of cigarettes a day, which contributed to his poor health in later installments of the series...)
As I've gone back and watched many of the episodes of this very successful BBC Sherlock Holmes series, I'm still immensely impressed by Brett's finely detailed portrayal of the detective. Sure, some of the adaptations of the stories tend towards slavish adulation, while other episodes add somewhat poorly rendered plot lines to flesh out the stories. And Brett's performances in several of the later episodes was negatively impacted by his failing health. But Jeremy Brett at his best inhabited the role as very few actors have managed to do.
As I said above, if I had written this several years ago, Brett would have easily been my favorite choice, but then along came a series called Sherlock...and my world changed. But more of that in my next article...
I remember well when I was a teenager and I saw Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes for the first time. In the 1980s I don't think I had seen any of the Rathbone films, though my grandfather talked of Rathbone as if no other actor could possibly play the detective. Come to think of it, I don't recall if I had ever seen any screen versions of the Holmes stories at that point in my life. All I knew was, when I saw Brett, he was exactly how I had pictured Holmes, having read my facsimile edition of the stories as they appeared in the Strand Magazine, with illustrations by Sidney Paget. Brett seemed to have that perfect balance between dignified and manic that Holmes displayed in the stories, and God knows, he looked just like the Paget drawings, if perhaps a bit less handsome.
Since those days of having to wait until episodes were aired on PBS, I have seen most of the adventures from Granada TV's Adventures and Return of Sherlock Holmes, as well as The Hound of the Baskervilles, on DVD. Most, if not all, of the Granada series starring Jeremy Brett, are available on YouTube as well. For the most part, the adaptations hold up very well, even if Cumberbatch and Miller have stolen much of my affections. I've read that, as Mr. Brett became more and more ill, the Granada series began to suffer. But, ever the true professional, Brett soldiered on.
I would be remiss if I didn't say a few words about the Watson(s) to Jeremy Brett's Holmes. I really liked David Burke in the first series: he was the first Watson I remember seeing who broke out of the stereotype of Nigel Bruce. Burke was handsome, intelligent, and perfectly believable as someone whom Holmes would want to work with again and again. When Burke was replaced by Edward Harwicke for the second series and onward, I remember being a bit confused (there was no IMDB to go to, to look up what had happened with the casting). I think Hardwicke was more than adequate, but he couldn't hold a candle to Burke's portrayal, and there have been much better Watsons since. (Martin Freeman is particularly good, I think.)
Since starting this blog, I have gone back and watched a few of the Jeremy Brett Holmes adventures, and I would like to watch more, especially of the later episodes that I don't have on DVD. After all, the man was my favorite Holmes for the better part of three decades, and he's still definitely in my top three. For Sherlock Holmes in his original Victorian setting, I don't think you can do any better.
I'm a stay-at-home dad, and Director of Music Ministries at a United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, TN. And a longtime fan of Sherlock Holmes.