The Good Doctor: Big and Small Screen Incarnations of Sherlock Holmes’s Better Half, Part 1

Watson poster of Jude Law for Sherlock Holmes the movie
It takes multiple incarnations to achieve this level of suave.
He emerges from a hellscape, bullet-pierced and feverish. Still game for trouble and drawn to the dangers that lurk in the dark. He survived a war-torn desert by the very skin of his teeth, and all the while he was engaged at healing. The perennial paradox of the Army doctor, giving life and taking it, all in the name of honor. When he arrived in London “worn with pain, and weak from the prolonged hardships” he had undergone, with “neither kith nor kin in England, and…therefore free as air,” he found himself bored. Shaken. In financial trouble and spiritual turmoil.

Then Dr. John H. Watson, MD, meets Mr. Sherlock Holmes. So it all works out for the best. Particularly for us: admirers of the fabled pair, and readers grateful for Watson’s efforts with a pen and a service revolver. 

Here’s to the lovers of brave soldiers, able medics, and steadfast friends. This one’s for you.  And here’s to John Watson, who flew that flag before it was cool. This one’s for the other half of the partnership: the narrator, the everyman turned superhero, the teller of tales, the conductor of light. Sláinte.

NIGEL BRUCE; Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Nigel Bruce
Nigel Bruce
The films are in every sense past quarrelling over. They crowned Sherlock Holmes a cinema king. And a certain visceral pleasure can be taken from Basil Rathbone’s iconic gumshoe pulling the wool over Nazi eyes while escaping with a Swiss scientist named Dr. Tobel, a secret weapon nestled in hollowed-out Shakespeare volumes, and the Gestapo’s own car. “One must adapt oneself to the tools at hand,” he trills, and it was Rathbone’s suavity in the face of a real and harrowingly uncertain world war that catapulted the film series to lasting fame.

As for Rathbone’s perennial and stalwart—if stupid—John Watson (Nigel Bruce, in a role for which he has been long remembered fondly and otherwise), we first encounter him threatening us with the business end of a revolver back at Baker Street, keeping a disguised Holmes and unfamiliar Tobel at bay. “Holmes,” he says, eyes wide and mouth gaping when his friend’s voice rings out loud and clear. “Good to see you again,” Holmes says affably, unfazed by the doctor’s bamboozlement or at least well used to it by this time.  And by god, it sounds true.

Never mind that two seconds later Watson, who apparently has the memory of a paint-huffing goldfish, has forgotten he’s on the phone with Scotland Yard. “You needn’t get angry,” he tells the police testily. “We all make mistakes at times. If we didn’t, you’d be out of a job.”  He chuckles at himself, Holmes quirks a smile, and perhaps this Watson is just slightly thicker than Rick Perry. As a matter of fact, for our next gag, the war hero will forget he has a gun in his hand.  But he owns a heart of gold, and so god bless the fellow.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
The brilliant and the buffoon.
It’s telling that Rathbone titles his doctor “…my friend and associate…and my watchdog.” In the realm of intellect, one thing can be said of Bruce’s Watson: he is paying attention. He is paying relentless, devoted, admittedly rather German shepherd-like attention to every word Holmes says and every hint of danger he can manage to detect. Granted, he falls asleep by the fire with a loaded weapon, and booms out such promising phrases as “If Holmes’s suspicions are right…” only to be hastily shushed in a room full of diplomats. But the man’s single-mindedness is admirable. “You can rely on Holmes implicitly,” he announces when Holmes appears to have blundered, and he would believe every word of that sentiment even if he’d just watched the Great Detective shoot himself in the nostril with a nail gun.

Bruce’s Watson blithely calls out potential clues with no capacity whatsoever for potential embarrassment, and something about that is marvelous. His belief is that of a religious zealot. Only mention enough things to Holmes—a hint of perfume in the air, some wrapping paper on a table, the fact that his arse and his elbow differ and the sky today appears to be blue—and Holmes will set all right again.

“I don’t understand,” Watson announces to Lestrade when Holmes is being hauled off in a trunk to be murdered. “That thing must weigh a ton. Look at those men staggering.” It’s true—he doesn’t understand. But where Sherlock Holmes is concerned, he pays attention. And thereby saves the detective from a watery end. It’s also worth noting that Lestrade runs hell for leather for the criminals—Watson sees only the box, and what he now imagines it to contain. He receives no thanks. But he asks for none. How the same man manages to become a cryptographer well versed in substitution cipher five minutes later is beyond me. But Holmes seems equally unsurprised that Watson can crack codes as he is over Watson failing to comprehend the laws of gravity.

Never mind that Rathbone wears side bangs sweeping from his temple and that Moriarty thinks slow blood loss a dramatic end. Bruce is here, gracious and steady, and all will be right in the end. He believes it—so we believe it too.

CONCLUSION: It’s fitting for a film in which a character called Peg-Leg, who has a peg-leg, makes the same sound when his wooden limb strikes the set floor as he does when knocking on a door seconds later, that the counterpart to Holmes be a buffoon. But Bruce’s Watson is full of kindness and love of the cause, and so must modern viewers be when we think of him.

JAMES MASON; Murder by Decree (1979)

James Mason
Murder by the Pea
Mention must be made of Mason’s charming, slightly fussy doctor for a single shining reason: The Pea Scene. The Pea Scene is priceless domesticity, almost worth the rest of the spotty film.

“I am trying to corner the last pea on my plate,” Watson explains to Holmes. Holmes smashes it with a fork.

“You squashed my pea,” Watson laments.& “Squashing a fellow’s pea…”

That really isn’t on. Ever.

“I’m sorry,” Holmes replies. “I wasn’t thinking.”

CONCLUSION: Mason’s John Watson is a man with a singular and passionate devotion to fresh English peas, and interlopers of the pea-squashing persuasion will be dealt with summarily.

DAVID BURKE; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Granada, 1984-1985)

David Burke
The face of Watson
Ah, Granada. Those of an age with me, who grew up watching them, still regard the series as their introduction to Sherlockiana. The production values, the nods to Paget illustrations, the meticulous care taken, Jeremy Brett’s antic but brilliant Holmes…and David Burke as Dr. John Watson, in my opinion one the leaders of the pack.

When Holmes stands on the terrace with Watson in “His Last Bow,” at the dawn of World War One, he remarks that his friend seems “the same blithe boy as ever.” Ninety percent of Watsons are not blithe boys at any age or by any standards, and David Burke to my mind is the sole actor to have ever fully inhabited Watson’s sense of childlike wonder. He furrows his brow in thought over his fellow lodger’s deductions, broods with worry over his drug habit, cackles with delight at his jokes, and practically dances midair at his coup de graces. If Burke’s Watson had been equipped with a sheet of gold stars, he would have slapped upwards of eighty of them all over Holmes’s head and neck per episode. Miminum.

All this is delightfully fitting. “The features are given to man as the means by which he shall express his emotions, and yours are faithful servants,” Holmes remarks after reading Watson’s mind in “The Cardboard Box.” Burke’s are so faithful that one cannot imagine him dissimulating at all, which is a remarkable feather in his cap when one recalls that he is actually acting all this while. His eyebrows shoot to the ceiling in weightless delight, his hands gesture emphatically, and his excitement at the prospect of adventure infuses the entire set with an aura of glad warmth, as if he were some sort of embodied Thanksgiving turkey.

Jeremy Brett and David Burke

That he is less deft than Holmes, less intelligent, is clear—but this Watson, unlike Bruce, owns an able wit. “Did I really do remarkably badly?” he asks in a pained fashion of Holmes in “The Solitary Cyclist” after a reconnaissance mission goes awry. He did, but he was not expected to; he was expected to perform admirably, and therein lies the source of Brett’s exasperated glare. This Watson, for perhaps the first time, is neither an elderly flatmate nor a tagalong. He is a brother in arms, and he has the moustache to prove it.

CONCLUSION: Nothing about Burke’s Watson can ever be called out of character, and his joy tastes like midsummer rainbows. He’s exceptional, befitting a series that cared far more about the original tales than any previous adaptations.

Part 2 has even more of our favorite Watsons!

Lyndsay Faye is the author of Dust and Shadow and The Gods of Gotham, coming March 15th, 2012 from Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. She tweets @LyndsayFaye.


  1. Paul D Brazill

    And Lucy Liu is the new one!

  2. Riju Ganguly

    Apart from Edward Hardwicke (whom Ms. Faye would definitely cover in the 2nd episode), David Burke should occupy the podium. His humour & energy had made the first Granada epidodes very-very special.

  3. Clare 2e

    I’m sure she will! She actually wrote a lovely tribute to Hardwicke’s performance and personage earlier this year as well:

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