The Best On-Screen Holmes…

Sherlock Holmes is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the most-portrayed movie character” ever, with more than 70 actors having played the part in at least 200 films (and that figure does not include a plethora of television adaptations). Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss will add to that list with their contemporary reinvention, Sherlock, the first episode of which airs on Sunday. To celebrate yet another entry in this massive canon, we take a look at some of the most notable portrayals of Baker Street’s most famous resident..

Basil Rathbone is as synonymous with Sherlock Holmes as the detective’s famous deerstalker cap (a prop adopted by Rathbone). Rathbone, a suave swashbuckling actor in the Errol Flynn mould, starred as Holmes in 14 movies between 1939 and 1946 (and on the radio more than 200 times). He was always dovetailed by Nigel Bruce as Holmes ever-faithful companion, Watson. Rathbone mixed light-heartedness with moodiness, creating a smooth and sophisticated Holmes that set the standard for others to emulate.

Jeremy Brett appeared in four seasons of Granada TV’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, between 1984 and 1994, featuring in 41 episodes. Fearing typecasting, Brett rejected stereotypical props such as a magnifying glass and Holmes’ Inverness cape. Brett not only captured Holmes’ lethargy and intense engagement when solving mysteries, but also his passionate bursts of energy, though he became rather gloomy and depressing as the show continued.



Richard Roxburgh’s performance as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles was intended to dispel a number of myths. Roxburgh replaced the deerstalker hat and pipe made famous by Rathbone with a square bowler hat and cigarettes, while Holmes’ drug addiction (as depicted by Conan Doyle) is brought to the fore. Roxburgh played Holmes’ greatest adversary, Professor James Moriarty, in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

James D’Arcy’s depiction of the master detective in Sherlock: Case of Evil heralds a very noticeable departure from Conan Doyle’s original material, and is clearly designed to sex up the story for twenty-first century audiences. Sherlock is a fame-hungry young adult in his 20s, and is something of a bachelor. Case of Evil is basically a prequel to Conan Doyle’s story, with Holmes and Watson yet to become BFFs.

Robert Downey Jr. is one of the most recent additions to the Holmes’ ‘hall of fame’. He appeared in Guy Ritchie’s stylised, humorous and action packed 2009 remake, earning a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Downey Jr.’s Holmes is part-genius part-bar-brawler, and he just about manages to pull off an authentic English accent. Downey Jr.’s Holmes is proactive, creative (donning inventive disguises) scientific and obsessive, though also flirtatious and charming. A focal point of the film is the often overlooked brotherhood between Holmes and Watson (Jude Law).

Honourable mentions should go to Clive Brook, who coined the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watsonâ€? in 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes. The famous saying never appeared in any of Conan Doyle’s stories. William Gillette was the first person to play Sherlock Holmes on film. Peter Cushing played Holmes many times between 1959 up until he portrayed the detective in old age in 1984’s The Masks of Death. Saruman himself, Christopher Lee, played Sherlock four times between 1962 and 1992, wearing a fake nose in 1962’s Deadly Necklace. Disney’s 1986 animated feature film The Great Mouse Detective followed the adventures of Basil (named after Rathbone), a mouse detective based on Sherlock Holmes. He lives beneath Holmes’ house, and audio recordings of Rathbone provide the voice for the renowned sleuth. Finally, we couldn’t sign off without mentioning the brilliant ‘Wassup Holmes‘:

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