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"Sherlock" - BBC TV's Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century

Updated on November 26, 2015

The Mystery and Romance of Sherlock Holmes

Every generations or so, a writer will concoct a character and a plot, or series of plots that completely captures the public imagination. The reasons for this are many, but usually the character fills some need for a hero - not just any hero, but someone larger than life, who resonates with certain, particular aspects or ills of his or her time - someone we can look up to and admire, who could either solve our problems, were he/she only real, or who offers us a satisfying escape from our problems, while seeming, somehow, to address them. Katniss Everdeen, the charismatic heroine of Suzanne Collins' novel, "The Hunger Games" is one example of such a contemporary hero.

Every decade or so, some clever writer will come up with a new spin on a hero of another era, and will re-make the hero to suit the current, contemporary view. Sherlock Holmes, one of the great fictional detectives of all time, has been resurrected more times than most. Something about this character continues to captivate us, both his returning fans and the many new ones he acquires with each outing.

Bronze plaque at 221B Baker Street, London, UK
Bronze plaque at 221B Baker Street, London, UK | Source

One of my favorite scenes

Enduring characters

Part of the charm of the Holmes and Watson sagas is the enduring and endearing nature of the characters. No matter how ham-fisted we may consider a particular director's or actor's approach to the roles, the characters of Holmes and Watson survive.

With each successful and popular retelling of the tales, even greater luster is added to tales. Each successive actor who adds his own stamp to the role, his own "take" on the character and his relationship to his partner.

One of my favorite teamings of Holmes and Watson occurred in the 1979 film, "Murder By Decree" which starred Christopher Plummer as Holmes, and James Mason as Dr. Watson. Though this plot, tracking down Jack the Ripper, is not one of Conan Doyle's original tales, it does pit Doyle's detective against one of the great villains, and one who was much in the public mind, and a popular film subject, at the time of the film's release.

The Best Doctor Watson

Who is your favorite Dr. Watson?

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It's a small world...

This clip from the Granada TV series, which ran originally from 1984 to 1994, features a very young Jude Law as the jockey, Joe Barnes.

You just never know where a talented actor is going to pop up again, do you? Jude Law's impressive cinematic career now includes two more outings in Holmesian adventures, this time as Dr. Watson.

Just as one cannot imagine a Holmes story without an interesting case, some tricky plot twists, dastardly villains, and the occasional damsel in distress, so too, it is difficult to think of Holmes without his faithful Watson - honest, trustworthy, and staunch friend.

Though many have ably portrayed this character over the years, those actors who succeeded best in the role did not settle for the easy way out - for making Dr. Watson into a buffoon. The versions that have down-played Watson's intelligence have done a disservice to both characters.

The Holmes character's blazing intellect would have made any reasonably intelligent person seem a bit slow, so in my mind, there has never been any need to "dumb down" either character. You either believe in them as they are, or you don't.

Nigel Bruce's endearing portrait of a man clearly in over his head was a brilliant foil for Rathbone's cerebral Holmes, but I can't help wondering how much more fun the pairing could have been with a slightly brighter light in Dr. Watson's belfry.

For my money, those who best served the role played Dr. Watson as an intelligent, real man, who was often exasperated by Holmes' antics, but always his firmest supporter and true friend.

The Best Sherlock Holmes

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Which actor is your favorite Holmes?

Every actor who has played the part of Sherlock Holmes has brought his own interpretation to the role - that goes almost without saying. The very best of them have captured the essence of the man, and the icon - no mean feat, given the vastly talented actors who have taken on the role.

Those who are probably most familiar to us now had already carved out careers in film and television before essaying the part of Sherlock Holmes.

Christopher Plummer was already an established star with an impressive list of credentials for his work in films, on Broadway, at Stratford Shakespeare Festival productions, and on the London stage.

Peter Cushing, who played the detective in many black and white films of the 40s and 50s, had an equally impressive career on stage, and was already the acknowledged master of horror films.

Robert Downey Jr. has followed up his successful outings in Iron Man and Iron Man II with two highly enjoyable and well-received turns as the great detective, while both Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch came to their roles with equally illustrious film pedigrees.

Cumberbatch has accrued a list of lead roles in top-grossing, popular films, including the part of Paul Marshall in Atonement; Peter Guillam, George Smiley's right-hand man, in John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and Major Stewart in Steven Spielberg's War Horse.

The current sleuthing partners

Benedict Cumberbatch (profile) and Martin Freeman during filming of "Sherlock"
Benedict Cumberbatch (profile) and Martin Freeman during filming of "Sherlock" | Source

Interviews with Cast and Writers

Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century

As one would expect, this new incarnation of Holmes embraces technology. He prefers to text, rather then telephone, and is fascinated by all the marvelous toys and gadgets science has to offer a new-age consulting detective.

He still has the utmost respect for the human mind, and uses his keen powers of observation to accurately profile witnesses and suspects alike. Like his Victorian counterpart, he is used to being the sharpest mind at the table, and this new Holmes finds a similar glee in tackling a worthy opponent.

The plots for this new British series are cleverly devised updates of Conan Doyle's stories, but certainly not slavish reproductions. There are many twists and turns that pay homage to the originals, but there are sharp, new tangents that take advantage of technology, and modern ways of delivering thrills and chills.

The relationship between the two men is every bit as satisfying - brilliant but manic sociopath meets upright, ex-military doctor - except this Dr. Watson has some fresh and intriguing wrinkles. His therapist asserts that he misses the war - the adrenalin high, the danger. Their felicitous pairing casts a new light on Watson's partnership with Sherlock Holmes. Watson needs the danger and physical challenge almost as much as Holmes needs the mental stimulation.

Their dialogue crackles with wit. This Watson finally gets to say some of the things you've always had a sneaking feeling some of the other Watson's desperately wanted to say, but were too bound by the conventions of their day to voice. Take this exchange from "The Reichenback Fall" as quoted in the London Telegraph:

Watson: “Don’t try to be clever. Intelligent is fine, but let’s give Smart Alec a wide berth.”

Holmes: “I’ll just be myself.”

Watson: “Are you listening to me?”

The second season of the new series has come to a close, ending with Conan Doyle's penultimate cliff-hanger - the supposed death of his world-famous detective.

For a time, speculation about a third season filled internet chat sites and blogs dedicated to the new show. Finally, the series' creators relented and released the news that a third season was set to be filmed, leading to even greater speculation about how this Sherlock faked his death.

A Few Famous Pairings

Sherlock Holmes
Dr. John Watson
Film/TV Series
Additional Info
Benedict Cumberbatch
Martin Freeman
BBC TV's 2012 Sherlock"
Billed as "smart and sexy" this fast-paced series is all that and more, without losing the essential humanity of the leads
Robert Downey Jr.
Jude Law
Films - "Sherlock Holmes" and "Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows"
This Sherlock is a brawling, Victorian James Bond, but the interaction between the two is spot-on; ripping good yarns
Jeremy Brett
David Burke, 1984 - Edward Hardwicke, 1985 - 1994
BBC TV series
Viewed by some as the quintessential Holmes, this series returned to the original plots, meticulous recreations of the Victorain era for its considerable impact and appeal
Christopher Plummer
James Mason
Film - "Murder by Decree"
Though a non-canonical plot - it doesn't appear in the canon of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's work - this is one of my favorites; Plummer's Holmes is by far the most emotional portrayal to date
Peter Cushing
Nigel Stock
BBC TV series 1968 and Hammer Films
Each 50 minute episode was reasonably true to the original stories, but I find them a bit stiff in that unmistakeable 60s BBC style
Basil Rathbone
Nigel Bruce
Film series (13) 1939-46 mainly for Universal Studios
After the first 2 films, and the US entry into the war, Holmes and Watson were given a serious update to pursue modern terrors and foil Axis (Nazi) plots

Where is 221B Baker Street?

A marker221B Baker Street, London, UK -
221B Baker St, London, Greater London NW1 6XE, UK
get directions

A Sherlock Christmas Special - teaser

Sherlock Christmas Special

The game's afoot...

Whichever Holmes or Watson you prefer, and whichever series or film most perfectly epitomizes your notion of Sherlock Holmes, you can be sure that sooner or later, someone else will come up with yet another version, plot twist, or variation on the theme.

Certainly the leagues of fans have created a fascinating body of homage to the current BBC series.

I know that I am anxiously awaiting the fourth season of this new series. Mark Gattis' long-awaited third season heralded the "return from the dead" of this 21st century Sherlock.

We already know how Conan Doyle brought him back, and we have seen the Granada TV version. It was equally fascinating to see what this series creator's added to the Holmes legend.

And now it appears we are in for even further treats, judging by the provocative trailer from the BBC - is BBC's modern Sherlock about to be launched backwards into the 1800s? After watching these two clips, you'll certainly appreciate why they are called "teasers." That certainly looks like Tom Hiddleston - is he reincarnated here as Moriarty's brother? The game, as they say, is definitely afoot...

One more happy find...

I recently came across this little gem while looking for updates on the BBC Sherlock - Season Four teaser. I have been a fan of The Doctor for many years, having first come across him in the 60s. It's always fascinating to track the various incarnations, (or regenerations, to use the correct term) of The Doctor with regard to his current real-time social and political milieu, and though Matt Smith is not my absolute favorite Doctor, he is one of the top, in my opinion, and make an awesome pairing with Benedict Cumberbatch.

Marvelous Effects Make for a Dream Pairing


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    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 5 years ago from Canada

      Thanks so much, 2patricias! Glad you enjoyed the article. I twas great fun to research. I still pop in to "Dr. Watson's Blog" to see what's up with the new season...

    • 2patricias profile image

      2patricias 5 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      What a fantastic hub! I would have voted it up TWICE if that was possible. I have so enjoyed the recent films with Robert D. Jr/ Jude Law, and also the TVseries - it was hard to choose which was better. I love your chart layout of all the Sherlock films/TV series - great research.

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 5 years ago from Canada

      Alastar, glad you enjoyed the article. I enjoyed the pairing of Downey and Law, though I must admit, I found the plots really wild and crazy - but great fun!

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Hey, thats right, Christopher plummer did play Holmes. Very good scene your fave RedElf. Peter Cushing was great but not sure he was a first rank Sherlock, say, like Basil Rathbone, my fave. What think you of the Downey pair? Enjoyed this write RedElf!

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 5 years ago from Canada

      Thanks so much, docmo. I am a long-time fan, and every pair has added something of value to the Holmes/Watson lexicon. Thanks so much for stopping by and for teh vote-up!

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 5 years ago from UK

      As a complete and utter fan of Holmes and Watson, I am delighted by this wonderful hub on the legendary pairings, Elle. I love the research, the detail and your observations on Holmes. You are right about how great heroes arise at times of need and how some will get successfully reinvented and rediscovered for every new generation. Brilliant. Voted up and across!

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 5 years ago from Canada

      Too funny!

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Elle,

      Aha a clue! 221B Baker street is a fictional address? Elementary my dear Elle. That was one of the tricks Conan Doyle played on his readers. Hudson can't rent the dump lol

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 5 years ago from Canada

      I am just catching up with the series, as I have it on DVD now - I had been unable to catch all the episodes on TV. In the third outing, they show 221c - now there's a choice dump! No wonder poor Mrs. Hudson can't rent it out.

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Elle,

      The game is certainly afoot. I like how you have found 221b Baker Street and put it on the map. Very curious indeed Dr.Watson :)

      I am a great fan of Sir Arthur's greatest detective, our Sherlock.

      I actually think the BBC have done a pretty good job, mixing the old with the new. I didn't think it would work but it does.

      Now about this 221b? Hmmm! lol

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 5 years ago from Canada

      CASE1WORKER, one of my sisters prefers the older versions, too. I like them all.

      James, I hope you enjoy the new series. Rathbone and Bruce are great fun, though I do find them a bit dated. I, too, enjoy Robert Downey Jr. Glad you enjoyed the article!

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

      I have not seen the new one with Mr. Cumberbatch. I am going to seek it out and check it out. I suppose I like Rathbone & Bruce the best. I still catch one of those once and a while. Robert Downey Jr. is good in any film, including playing Holmes.

      Thank you for an excellent report. I enjoyed it.

    • CASE1WORKER profile image

      CASE1WORKER 5 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      I liked the article but must admit that I am not a big fan of the new series- we can watch repears of older series and films all the time but the new one is too much of a brain aignment for our family!

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 5 years ago from Canada

      mustbethemikey, I am a Sherlock Holmes fan from way back, and when I first saw one of the "Sherlock" episodes, I was mesmerized.

      GL, I have gone back and rectified that oversight :D

      Genna East, so glad you enjoyed the article. I would hate to have to pick only one because I love them all for different reasons. Can't wait to see how they bring him back!

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 5 years ago from Massachusetts, USA


      Very interesting article, Red.

      I loved the dynamic and symbiotic relationship between Watson and Holmes, which you have captured so well here. I must admit it was hard to vote which actor was (is) my favorite since Rathbone was so incredibly his own character. But Cumberbatch runs a very close second. But then again, I love Jeremy Brett. I also liked Cumberbatch’s work in TTSS. Decisions, decisions. :-)

      Voted up and interesting.

    • Green Lotus profile image

      Hillary 5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Very cool. I have been out of touch with most of the newer Sherlock actors (save for Robert Downey Jr.) so I needed a bit of catching up! Big question though is why you did not include Basil Rathbone who was the first film actor to portray Holmes in '39. Nigel Bruce was his (bumbling) Watson. Thanks for a great read!

    • mustbethemikey profile image

      mustbethemikey 5 years ago from Austin

      I was a big fan of Martin Freeman from The Office, which is why I think I gave watching the new adaptation a chance. I was really impressed with both him and Cumberbatch, and I'm patiently awaiting the new series.

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 5 years ago from Canada

      bewhuebner, I completely agree. I thought they broke the mold with Jeremy Brett, and the Granada TV series is still my favorite Victorian recreation of the books, but the new series has totally blown me away. Can't wait for season three. Thanks for your comments about the pairings - after all, what's a great Holmes without and equally great Watson?!

    • bewhuebner profile image

      bewhuebner 5 years ago from Virginia, USA

      I have to say, the BBC adaption with Cumberbatch and Freeman absolutely amazed me! It was very true to the spirit of Holmes, while at the same time painting a convincing picture of what he would be like today. I have loved the series so far, and hope they continue it in the future. Great hub, btw, to examine the various pairings of Holmes and Watson through the years. Enjoyed it greatly....