Fri
Sep 11 2015 11:00am

My Best Sherlock Holmes

The first axiom of “Best of” rankings is they must be long enough to invoke the fury of fans, who know more about the subject than the idiot who wrote the list. Even if the list is only two entries long:

Second Place: Everyone Else

First Place: Jeremy Brett

This ranking includes Basil Rathbone, Robert Downey Jr., and Benedict Cumberbatch. It accounts for one-shot depictions, from Nicol Williamson in The Seven Percent Solution, to Sir Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes. Add whatever name you like. It will not change the fact that Jeremy Brett’s decade-long run of Holmes so far outpaces the pack that the order of actors behind him is irrelevant.

Keep in mind we are not concerned with who is the best actor, or whose show is the most popular, or whose last name is hardest to pronounce after a night of drinking. We have one question to answer: “Who is the best Sherlock Holmes?”

Jeremy Brett started off brilliantly (though with too much lipstick) with "A Scandal in Bohemia” and kept on going, even as his health failed him, through “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” He was overly dramatic at times, and some of his episodes were clunkers (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”). But Jeremy Brett, with his childish yips of discovery, millisecond smiles, twitchy energy (and even his severe depression) was so much Sherlock Holmes that the Brett claimed the detective was taking over his life. The New York Times noted that Brett performed Holmes with “demonic intensity” and that he was the “quintessential Holmes.” Twenty years later, there’s no reason to change that assessment.

I suspect fans of Sherlock are objecting the loudest. “Look at all the awards the show has pulled in!” “Look at how great Benedict Cumberbatch is!” I don’t disagree. The BBC could likely garner record ratings with a six-part miniseries based on Cumberbatch tying his shoes.

SEE ALSO: Read an excerpt of William's Vienna, a modern take on a classic Holmes tale!

But calling someone “Sherlock” doesn’t make it so. The decision to drop Holmes into modern London was reasonable. The decision to play him as a snarky antihero was an egregious misread of Holmes. To give Sherlock credit, this mistake was quickly corrected, just in time for Watson’s wife to step out of a 90s Tom Clancy novel. Is it great TV? Yes! (I just said it’s great show. Put the pitchforks down.) But is it Sherlock Holmes? We could have called the two leads “Charlie” and “Don” without losing anything other than name recognition.

More Sherlock Portrayals:

Christopher Plummer's Holmes

Tradition versus Competition

Holmes' Odder Fodder

Which brings us to the classic suaveness of Basil Rathbone and the gritty steampunk of Robert Downey Jr. Both renditions are entwined in the final truth of Holmes: Holmes was never great because he went into morgues and pounded the deceased with sticks (to see how long bruising occurred after death). He was great because he had a biographer who told us how great he was. Holmes without Watson is Obi Wan Kenobi without the Force: A slightly crazy man you’d cross the street to avoid.

It was a lesser Watson that all but destroyed Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock. Nigel Bruce was reduced to the thinnest of foils, spouting a hundred variations of  “Rubbish Holmes! How can you be sure?” Rathbone did a fine job of answering the call, but after endless repetitions, you find yourself wishing that Watson’s famed Afghanistan wound had been closer to a bullseye.

For all it’s faults (showing every fight twice), this is where RDJ’s Holmes (Twice!) outshines other Holmes portrayals. In Jude Law, we have a Watson worthy of respect. The Irene Adler plotline is inane, but the relationship between Downey and Law rings as true as any other adaption of Holmes and Watson. They are as close as brothers. Seeing Watson finally punch his smug friend is more rewarding than watching the bad guys get caught.

As for individual performances, I doubt many people have seen them all (right down to Brent Spiner in Star Trek: The Next Generation). But they all suffer the same shortcoming. Holmes is a creature of episodic fiction. Getting him right once is respectable. Getting him right again and again separates the contenders from the rest.

Still, as Holmes has been portrayed over 260 times on screens big and small, there is some room for disagreement. I’ll happily leave the final word to Basil Rathbone. In The House of Fear (1945), Rathbone summed up the impossibility of ranking so many Sherlocks:  “Instead of too few we have too many clues and too many suspects.”

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William S. Kirby has written for television, newspapers, and magazines. Kirby has traveled widely to such places as Great Britain, Fiji, New Zealand, France, Iceland, Belgium, Austria, Hawai'i, the U. S. and British Virgin Islands, Taiwan, Mexico, and the Canadian Rockies. Vienna is a direct result of his travels in Europe. Kirby lives with his wife in Denver, Colorado.

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71 comments
1. J. F. Constantine
You are absolutely correct in your analysis. I've read every Sherlock Holmes story and novel and studied them since childhood. I saw every episode Brett played and have watched many, many other renditions of Holmes, including Mr. Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr, etc. I've enjoyed many of them, but that doesn't mean they were good as Holmes.

Brett was hands down, the absolute Best Holmes Ever. Anyone who disagrees has not read and/or understood the stories - period. Your analysis is well done. Bravo!
Francis Cardosi
2. stridr222
Often had this debate and appreciate the slant given here.
Gordon Bingham
3. gordonbingham
Have long enjoyed Brett's brittle interpretation. Look forward to this one.
Thomas Walker
4. twalker
I like Cumberbatch and RDJ portrayals and first learned of Holmes through the Basil Rathbone movies, which, I still enjoy seeing now and again. But Brett , of course is by far the best. I have enjoyed watching the Brett series multiple times.
Great stuff!
5. DebP
I was really interested in this article, and I must say that I am in agreement with the writer. Love Cumberbatch, but Brett really is the best.
peter greene
6. shanachie
I recently read that the first Sherlock Holmes movie from 1916 starring William Gillette was recently rediscovered in Paris. Gillette played Holmes on the stage more than 1,000 times but he became the first cinematic Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle met Gillette and approved of his portrayal. Supposedly Conan Doyle started writing The Hound of the Baskervilles after the play premiered to rave reviews. In the modern era, I always thought that among the one time Holmes that Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree made Holmes more humane than Basil Rathbone.
Rebecca Brothers
7. RileyC
Aside from your declaration that Brett's "The Speckled Band" was a clunker--surely the dreadful adaptation of "The Sussex Vampire" earns that description above all others--I agree on every point.
Nissa Evans
8. nevans72
I would really like to win the Vienna book. I love to read historical fiction or historical non fiction books. That is my favorite genre. I think I have become addicted to entering giveaways for free books. I just love publishers for giving me an opportunity to read and review their books. It is a win-win for everyone.
Patricia Hill
11. plhill2000
Brett is my favorite, although the new one,Cumberbatch, is very strange and interestin
David Boyington
12. tardisguy
I was surprised when mentioning past and present performers of Sherlock Holmes that there was no mention of Jonny Lee Miller from CBS show 'Elementary". I think his series is very entertaining just as benedict cumberbatch in "Sherlock" in showing a modern day version of the great detective. But aside from that, I have to say that I have enjoyed all the tv and movie performances of actors who have portrayed Sherlock Holmes. I do have a special preference toward the Basil Rathbone films though because watching those when I was a kid got me hooked on being a fan of Holmes.
Sharon Kaminski
13. casaflamingos
The Vienna book sounds like a great read, would love it!
Russell Moore
14. russrpm
I agree that Brett is, hands down, the best Holmes we've seen so far. His look and mannerisms evoked the literary Holmes about as well as can be done. I also agree that Watson is the key to the series. I could never understand why anyone would think that Holmes would want the Nigel Bruce version of Watson as a partner.
Jeffrey Malis
15. bravejam
Agreed! While I appreciate the diversity, no other portayal comes as close to Brett's at capturing the 'essence' of Sherlock Holmes found in the collected works of Arthur Conan Doyle. Thank you for the article and the opportunity!
16. Author author
One of my friends recently commented that they didn't think Brett was the best and talked about Basil Rathbone. However, I agree with you still that Brett caught Sherlock's essence the best! His little quirks do more than entertain on the screen. Only these fit with the personality that one who is fascinated with constantly collecting details might have. I did try watching the new Sherlock again, but although the graphics do enhance the show by demonstrating his thought process, Sherlock appears too normal to me.
Mary Stojak
17. marystojak
Only those who haven't watched them all, would choose anyone except Brett. The PBS Sherlock is all too normal. M
Linda Knowles
18. strigoivii
Brett's interpretation is the closest to the Holmes of the Conan Doyle Novels. But I have a special love for Rathbone's portrayal, as I was introduced to Sherlock through his movies.
Irene Menge
19. Goldenmane
I still remember watching Basil Rathbone 60 years ago on Sunday afternoons. Brett is excellent, but my favorite (for nostalgic reasons) is Rathbone.
lynette thompson
21. LYNETTE52
I live and breath Sherlock Holmes. Love the stories and the actors who have played him. Looks like a wonderful book.
Robin Pasholk
23. arel1
I have a certain fondness for Sir Christopher Lee as Holmes in "Sherlock Holmes und das Halbsband der Tode", and I grew up on Basil Rathbone (though I agree that Nigel Bruce's Watson was often a twit!). I've seen a fair few good, bad, and budget-hampered Holmeses. But one thing must be remembered in watching old movies of any kind: they are products of their time, and even the best will reflect to an extent that time--especially in acting styles and interpretation of characters.
Caren Luckie
24. czluckie
I have such fond memories of watching Basil Rathbone!
Sandi Saunders
25. vademsandi@yahoo.com
I am Basil Rathbone all the way because he was my first Sherlock.
26. Windycindy
I find it difficult to pick the best portrayal of
Sherlock Holmes. Each actor brought their own
twist and quiks to the eclectic detective!
I do appreciate whom you choose, and your points are well taken...
Thanks, Cindi
Tracy Lech
27. tracy.lech
Even though he doesn't follow the stories exactly, I really liked Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. I loved the little bits of humor that were injected into the character.
28. Sharron Walker
It has been many years since I have watched the older Sherlock movies, and I only actually remember Basil Rathbone. Now I want to revisit them to see what I think. I have been enjoying Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, but maybe I just like the actor, hmmmm. Do enjoy the quirkiness of his portrayal!
Louis Burklow
29. Nash62
I really enj0yed The Seven-Percent Solution for bringing in Freud to finally understand what drove Holmes. That said, I agree with your list 100%.
Dave Brzeski
31. cathaven
Absolutely, to the extent that it's now Brett's voice I hear in my head while reading a Holmes book. My sympathy goes out to Rupert Everett, who was the actor first given the job of trying to follow Brett by the BBC in the TV movie, 'Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking' (2004). I could barely sit through it.
Margot Core
32. AnnaZed
I am an adoring Homes fan, in all of his manifestations. I love them all (almost). I once too worshiped Jeremy Brent, but found on a recent revist that he seemed a bit brittle and mannered. Also, not enough kind can be said about Martin Freeman's Watson, which I this is marvelous.
33. Jahbeh
I couldn't agree more, though I love the cumberbatch shows and I grew up with the basil rathbone movies, no one (NO ONE) has done Holmes better than Jeremy Brett.
susan beamon
34. susanbeamon
I find that I am in agreement with your analysis.
35. Lara M
I haven't seen enough of Brett as Holmes to join the fan club. Perhaps I ought to look up that vintage of on screen Holmes. I wasn't crazy about Downey as Holmes, but I think it had as much to do with the overall production as the actor in question. Those big screen, Holywood Holmes movies don't work well. I do , however, quite enjoy Cumberbatch and that overall series.
Bob Alexander
36. rx_alex
For the last 30 years everytime I think of Sherlock Holmes I see Jeremy Brett. For me, that means alot.
Daniel Morrell
37. godan
i kinda liked robert downey jr's sherlock
Lori Provenzano
38. Mountainesque
I also really enjoy Jonny Lee Miller's rendition of Sherlock Holmes whereas Robert Downey Jr.'s version annoyed me beyond words, but then I'm also not a fan of the high-caffeine screenplays on which his performances were based. Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch are all classic Holmes in their own special ways.
Sally Winkleblech
39. sallyw
I would love to read this book and his idea of Holmes.
L
41. LStirling
Very interesting comparison. I don't think I've seen Brett before, but I'm going to seek out his performance now, based on this article. I would love to read Kirby's book with the latest version of Holmes and Watson.
Catherine Myers
42. ktpotat
Give me Sherlock Holmes any way shape or form.
Marian Petrides
43. Woody
Oddly enough, although a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, I've never seen/heard of Brett playing him. Not sure why. But this review has piqued my curiosity, since his photo certainly looks like what I would imagine Holmes looks like. Would love to get a chance to read Vienna. Thanks.
Joyce Mitchell
45. JoyceLm
Jeremy Brett rules. Thanks for the chance to win.
Donald Padget
46. dpadget
The boy Sherlock is a show off totally foreign to the master. I won't even watch him. dpadget
Janice Milliken
47. msjiva
Jeremy and Basil are tops with me, but I have been watching the reruns on Masterpice Theater and Benjamin is captivating also. Guess I just like Sherlock!
Mary Lauff-Thompson
48. mtl166
Like all the Sherlock portrayals. Variety is the spice of life.
Michael Carter
49. rubydog
Cumberbatch really good and great fun, but Brett probably best.
Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Thanks!
Andra Dalton
50. andra77
Love all things Sherlock Holmes related!!! Such a fabulous read & informative article!!! Thanks so much for the opportunity to enter this giveaway & good luck to all who enter!!!:)
Diane Hernandez
51. diane92345
Since this is selecting the best Sherlock, I believe that Basil Rathbone should win regardless of the admittedly poor Watson in his films. Thanks for having the contest and making me think!
52. Doc RedBat
Very nice analysis.
Karen Terry
53. bblol65
I got a chance to watch Sherlock Holmes on PBS and enjoyed it a lot. It is the best.
Diane Hernandez
54. diane92345
Even though my name is in red, I am logged in. I feel like a wrongly accused person in a murder mystery trying, but failing, to acquit myself with only my husband's word as my alibi. Now if only I could get him to dress up like Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution to attest that he saw me log in earlier, perhaps I can be found not guilty of not logging in prior to commenting.
Mary Ann Brady
55. mirahana
Love Sherlock and would love to win. Thx.
vicki wurgler
56. bison61
thanks I'd love to meet the new version of Sherlock
Gary Thaden
57. GaryandSherlock
Spot on! Quality and longevity win with Jeremy Brett.
Jim Belcher
58. librarypops
I enjoy almost all presentations of Sherlock, but still prefer the books.
Jane Schwarz
59. Janeschwarz
Loved Holmes from reading the books and then the Rathbone movies when shown on TV, but I think Brett's TV BBC's series captured the essence of the stories. I do like the updated versions of the Holmes characters also. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of your book "Vienna".
William Hamilton
60. billham68
First I read the Conan Doyle books, then watched the Basil Rathbone portrayal, enjoyed a few of the Jeremy Brett series, and now enjoy Sherlock on both the CBS series and the PBS Materpiece Mystery series. Robert Downey, Jr. is about the only contemporary portrayal that I have found lacking.
Michael S. Williams
62. indymsw@gmail.com
When I was a young lad, I was introduced to the many Sherlock Holmes movies featuring Basil Rathbone. These movies led me to read my first mysteries...the A.C. Doyle novels and short stories featuring Holmes. From this, I have enjoyed a life-long love of reading mysteries. To me, when I think of Sherlock, I always reflect on the mannerisms and solid performance of Basil Rathbone. He was and remains the gold standard for me!
elaine fisher
63. elfette
Sherlock Holmes is one of my first t.v. show i watched ... would love this
M Thompson
64. MST
I agree completely with your pick. Jeremy Brett portrayed Sherlock Holmes exactly as I imagined him when I read the novels.
65. Deb Smith
Excited to read Vienna. The Holmes twist with interesting female protagonists interest me.
Dave Brzeski
68. cathaven
One of the reason the Brett Holmes adaptations look so right, Woody, is that they based so much of the look of the characters (not just Holmes & Watson) on Sid Paget's original illustrations for the Strand Magazine.
LabRat517
69. LabRat517
I think I have to agree with you. Much as I enjoy watching Robert Downey Jr., and liked Basil's take, Jeremy Brett is the best Holmes.
70. Jennifer Todhunter
Jeremy Brett embodied Sherlock Holmes in a way that no actor has been able to since. It was all in the nuances. Terrific article.
71. Ged
They should have stopped making Sherlock Holmes films or TV adaptations once Jeremy Brett died. Can you imagine if a director wanted to remake something like The Godfather? What would be the point?
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