Following yesterday’s look at my choice of Watsons, today I turn to the Great Detective himself, Sherlock Holmes.
It’s a much harder choice to restrict my list of Holmes interpreters to just ten, as probably thirty actors are worth careful consideration. However, having reflected on my choices, and leaving out a few honorable mentions who might have made a longlist on the topic (Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Stephens, Geoffrey Whitehead, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Barrymore), here’s the final ten.
10. Jonathan Pryce. Television: Sherlock Holmes & The Baker Street Irregulars (2007). His Watson was Bill Paterson. Although only a one-shot appearance, Pryce was a very memorable detective.
9. Ronald Howard. Television: Sherlock Holmes (1954-55). His Watson was Howard Marion-Crawford. Across the 39 episodes of this low budget series, and helped by an extremely good doctor, Howard was an energetic, keen and young Holmes.
8. Nicol Williamson. Film: The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976). His Watson was Robert Duvall. Nervy, eccentric, and tormented, this one-shot appearance was a keeper, although Duvall’s accent stopped his Watson from being top notch.
7. John Neville. Film: A Study in Terror (1965). His Watson was Donald Houston. Elegant, sardonic, and very tough, Neville’s stage presence comes through in this single appearance of the great Detective.
6. Eille Norwood. A series of silent films for Stoll (1921-1923). His Watson was Hubert Willis (and Arthur Cullin in The Sign of Four). He’s pictured here with Conan Doyle himself. Norwood was an excellent choice to portray this most complex of characters.
5. Basil Rathbone. A Baker’s dozen of films (1939-1946). His Watson was Nigel Bruce. Although the films might sometimes fail to work, and Bruce’s Watson may be a little on the dozy and comical side, Rathbone was a superb, calm, and sometimes calculating Holmes.
4. Peter Cushing. Film: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Television: Sherlock Holmes (1968). TV movie: The Masks of Death (1984). His Watsons were André Morell, Nigel Stock, and John Mills. Three attempts at the character over a twenty-five year period cannot be ignored.
3. Arthur Wontner. Five films between 1931 and 1937. His Watson was Ian Fleming (and Ian Hunter in The Sign of Four). Although often overlooked, and a little bit old for the part, Wontner was nevertheless excellent, especially in Murder at the Baskervilles aka Silver Blaze.
2. Douglas Wilmer. Television: Sherlock Holmes (1965). His Watson was Nigel Stock. Only in one series of this BBC classic, Wilmer (who is still living and very astute on the subject of his portrayal of Holmes) was very watchable, if a dour and sarcastic portrayer of the genius sleuth.
1. Jeremy Brett. Four series on television and some TV movies (1984-1994). His Watsons were David Burke and Edward Hardwick. It is no exaggeration to say that Brett’s wildly variable performances as Holmes are as definitive as any actor can be. Simply, he was Sherlock Holmes for a decade, and his films stand up to many rewatches.