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Doctor Watson I Presume?

Updated on December 7, 2015
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A handful of Doctor Watsons
A handful of Doctor Watsons

Who's Going to Play Dr Watson?

From the earliest film versions of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, the role of Dr Watson had been a varied one. Each new depiction of the character brings something new to the role and there's as much debate about who's given us the "perfect" Watson as there is about the portrayal of Holmes himself.

The portrayal of Sherlock Homes on TV and film has always placed the detective well and truly in the spotlight, but his faithful companion has often been portrayed in a less than favourable light. The bumbling Nigel Bruce in the 1930s and 1940s film series, and the unlikely Gareth David-Lloyd in the rather silly Sherlock vs Monsters, are classic examples of how not to depict the role. Along with the ill-matched pairing of Christopher Lee's Holmes to Patrick MacNee's ham-fisted Watson, casting directors sometimes appear to be completely unaware that the intelligent portrayal of the good doctor is vital to how the detective duo come across on screen.

Many others of course, have added considerable panache and style to the role: Ian Hart proved to be a worthy companion to Richard Roxburgh's Holmes in the 2002 production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, while the inspired casting of Martin Freeman in the BBC's Sherlock managed to stick with Conan Doyle's description of the sometimes ungrateful Holmes, while allowing his Watson greater participation in the investigations.

Interpreting the Good Doctor

The difficulty in portraying Dr Watson is not simply in how each actor interprets the role, but also in how accurate that role is. In a short film made in 1922, Conan Doyle talks about the popularity of Holmes and "his rather stupid friend", which (unfortunately) does kind of justify the Nigel Bruce version of the character. There are plenty of examples in the original stories of Holmes poking fun at his companion for his lack of observational skills, such as in The Solitary Cyclist, when Holmes chastises Watson for not using his initiative in discovering who lives in a particular house.

However, the doctor is always recognized as having considerable medical knowledge and contributing much to his companion's efforts in the solving of their many cases. Perhaps it's only fair that Watson is given the opportunity to shine on screen rather more than he does in the books. Along with the need to create dramatic tension and a strong storyline, writers and producers have gamely interpreted the stories to keep audiences captivated. Clearly this can mean that plots need to be adjusted and changed to accommodate the necessary drama we yearn for in our modern age, but what would Conan Doyle have thought of it?

Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson
Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson

Nigel Bruce

Alongside the angular Basil Rathbone, Bruce played Dr Watson in all 14 of the Sherlock Holmes film series, which for many years were the popular face of the original stories. He was also, it has to be said, not the cleverest of Watson's and his bumbling depiction did not help the image. Having said that, if Conan Doyle himself didn't rate his own creation very highly, it would be hard to argue that Nigel didn't have a handle on the character - on the contrary, maybe his was actually the most accurate portrayal of them all.

Jeremy Brett (as Holmes) and David Burke as Watson
Jeremy Brett (as Holmes) and David Burke as Watson
Edward Hardwicke as Watson
Edward Hardwicke as Watson

David Burke and Edward Hardwicke

David Burke starred with Jeremy Brett in the first two series of ITV's classic series: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. However, he bowed out after that as he preferred not to be typecast.

Theatre actor Edward Hardwicke took over for the remainder of the series, playing Watson in 11 episodes of ITV's The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Also with Brett, he followed up with a further 9 episodes in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Homes (5 episodes), as well as the TV movie of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1988) and The Sign of Four (1987). Hardwicke and Brett also toured the UK in Jeremy Paul's stage play, "The Secret of Sherlock Holmes".

As you've probably guessed, I'm a big fan of the ITV series and enjoyed both Watsons, though their interpretations were quite different - Hardwicke's performance showed Watson in a more favourable light, and not quite as 'stupid' as Conan Doyle would have us believe.


Not to be outdone by the Brits, American TV audiences got their own version of the detecting duo when British actor Howard Marion Crawford appeared as Watson in 39 episodes of the 1955 series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with Ronald Howard. More recently, the US series Elementary did the unthinkable and cast a woman (Lucy Liu) to partner Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes. The series received varied reviews, and from where I'm sitting, the jury's still out.

Hollywood too, got their fingers into the Sherlock pie with blockbuster movies starring Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law as Homes and Watson respectively. I wasn't convinced about the casting after the first movie, but Game of Shadows persuaded me that the pairing works quite well. And even if the plots are a little far-fetched at times, with Sherlock Holmes 3 in the offing, the franchise shows no signs of slowing down.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson | Source

Watson at the BBC

The most recent TV series involving the intrepid investigators, has been the BBC's Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson. Produced by Dr Who's Mark Gatiss and written by Stephen Moffat, this series blasted Holmes into the 21st Century and shows him to be in touch with modern technology and using it to complement his already unique skills. The modern setting for these stories gives the series a real boost and allows Holmes to show off his deductive skills in clever and interesting ways. The graphics too are well done and add a sense of technical brilliance to each episode.

The BBC also have loads of extra tit-bits for fans of the series, including John Watson's Blog, which links to what's happening in each episode. There are interviews with the cast, and most notably, a blog by Mark Gatiss, explaining his passion for the books and all things Holmesian.

With another series on the way, the thrills aren't likely to let up any time soon. watch out Moriarty.

Oh, he's dead, isn't he?

Which Watson?

From the Dr Waton group at the top of the page, which one would you choose?

See results

Arthur Conan Doyle talking about Sherlock Holmes


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    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Hi Will, Yeah, that's a good one - and maybe with Cary Grant as Holmes!

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I agree that Dr. Watson should be played as a highly intelligent man, not a bumbling fool of a sidekick.

      I would have liked to have seen the late David Niven in the role.