Edward Hardwicke, known to fans round the globe as the second actor to play Dr. John Watson in Granada Television’s beloved Sherlock Holmes series, passed away due to cancer at the age of 78 on the 16th of May, 2011. A former pilot officer in the Royal Air Force, he is survived by daughters Kate and Emma, stepdaughter Claire, and his second wife, Prim Cotton.
Known by his friends and co-workers as a man of great warmth and generosity of spirit, Hardwicke’s connections to the Sherlockian world were almost uncannily extensive. Hardwicke’s father, contract RKO actor Cedric Hardwicke, was close friends with Nigel Bruce, of the iconic Rathbone and Bruce productions of Sherlock Holmes for the big screen, when the family lived and worked in Hollywood.
Edward was a little boy of around eight years old (and thus too young to realize that Bruce was filming Nazi-thwarting tales of the Great Detective and the Good Doctor at the time), and he refers fondly to Bruce as a “lovely, avuncular, amusing man.” I can hardly think of a better series of personal requirements for playing the role of John Watson, for—while cunning and drive and despair and pique and countless other attributes can all readily be put on by professional actors—the quality of “loveliness” is rather a tough row to hoe without possessing it oneself, and Mr. Edward Hardwicke owned it in spades. Every actor ever to attempt the role of John Watson has realized at one time or another that playing decency personified could all too easily lead to a very dull performance indeed. When faced with the conundrum of playing “the conductor of light” to Sherlock Holmes’s acid brilliance, natural loveliness is an asset not to be underestimated.
“Well, I think he’s the audience,” Hardwicke once told an interviewer. “…I think Watson really is Everyman.” A very true statement in a structural sense, but not every man is ready at a moment’s notice to fetch the service revolver and chase spectral hounds across moors, nor is every man patient enough to tolerate a fellow lodger who indulges in indoor target practice and takes his early morning exercise transfixing pigs with harpoons. Watson’s resigned amusement at the antics of his biographical subject were drawn with careful, quiet brushstrokes by Hardwicke: an amused huff of breath from time to time, here and there the twist of a warning eyebrow. “Two people who work together in those circumstances have to have a lot of humor,” Hardwicke insisted, regarding the Holmes-Watson dynamic. “There has to be a lot of laughter.”
Hardwicke and Jeremy Brett (the unforgettable Holmes to Hardwicke’s Watson in the Granada series) had in the 1960’s been part of Lawrence Olivier’s company at the National Theatre, a now-legendary group of artists, and both actors in the grace of their characterizations often betrayed the time they spent there. “I feel I’m disappearing inside my costume,” Hardwicke recalls confessing to Brett during filming of “The Abbey Grange,” only to solve this dilemma alongside director Peter Hammond through the concentrated, focused, narrow range of motion they decided Watson would have used in smoking his cigarettes.
It was just such subtle and intelligent choices which made Hardwicke compelling to watch, even when placed behind and just to stage left of one of the most eye-catching leading men ever to play Sherlock Holmes. Only an actor of extreme sensitivity could dream of pulling off such a feat, and Hardwicke—veteran of productions of Shakespeare’s Othello and Ibsen’s The Master Builder alongside Olivier himself—brought the same level of care to every role in which he appeared.
In a circular Six Degrees of Separation game irresistible to the avowed Sherlockian, it is intriguing to note that Hardwicke had a small role in the film Love, Actually, in which actor Martin Freeman—who is at this very moment playing John Watson in the second series of BBC’s Sherlock—also appeared. Though Hardwicke passed in his late seventies, a figure many see as sadly young by today’s medical standards, it is somehow a wistful reassurance to think that the man who recalled Nigel Bruce with such apparent fondness may well have met the next generation’s John Watson and found him a similarly good soul. Natural loveliness is a quality that cannot be allowed to pass from this earth, and Hardwicke will be much missed, by his loved ones and by fans the world over.