Was Douglas Wilmer the Definitive Sherlock Holmes?

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Douglas Wilmer – Is he still the Definitive Sherlock Holmes? To people of a certain generation, the answer is an emphatic yes but who is Doug Wilmer and why is he considered the very best screen Holmes?

Douglas Wilmer was already a well established actor when he was selected to portray Holmes in a new series of TV adaptations made by the BBC in 1964. His hawk-like appearance and sturdy build made him a perfect candidate however detractors within the BBC cited Wilmer as an imperfect choice and after much wrangling with the Conan-Doyle estate over usage rights to the original stories the project was almost shelved. Admidst this timult, the American backers pulled out of the project, forcing the BBC to downgrade their new series from one produced entirely on film, to a multi-camera studio bound black and white recording. Already the production was doomed to look dated not long after broadcast, especially as colour TV was fast becoming established in the lucrative US market. These problems aside, filming went ahead with a series of inexperienced directors at the helm. As a result, some of the scripts are alleged to have been in such a shocking state, the actors had to re-write them in rehearsals. Despite his unhappiness at being directed by fledging newcomers instead of the industry leading professionals he’d been promisted, thirteen episodes were produced with Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson. On their original broadcast in 1965, the episodes sank like pebbles in a lake but luckily, an empty slot in the schedules a year later allowed for a repeat run, and this time the series found popularity with UK viewers. Since then the series has never been repeated or seen on network television outside of Europe, yet, for the few million viewers that saw his performance in the 60’s Wilmer is the definitive Sherlock Holmes But is there any substance to this?

In 1965 Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett were yet to star as Holmes, so when considering Wilmer’s ‘definitive’ status, it’s important to put his portrayal in context. There’s so much nuance and thought in his performance, only a true fan of the original stories could ever insert such detail. This faithful approach to the original text is something that sets this portrayal apart from what came before.

As good as they were, and as classy as he was, the films starring Basil Rathbone drive a bulldozer through the Holmes canon. The series of movies made during the height of World War 2 take drastic liberties with Holmes, the supporting characters and the stories themselves. After two movies the decision was made to bring Holmes into the 20th century, but even those films set during the correct period don’t feel authentic. Rathbone’s Holmes is a genial, mild-mannered gentleman with an even temperament. He is not remote or awkward, he is jocular with social graces and superb manners. Holmes is a more conventional hero in these films, and Watson, is turned into a bumbling, grousing half-wit. I’m not here to denegrate Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Holmes’ erstwhile biographer, as others seem to. He deftly plays the part written in the script and does so seemingly effortlessly. The same can be said of Rathbone, but as entertaining as these movies are, for some Holmes fans, their unscrupulous deviance from the source text is a constant source of irritation. Little wonder then, that the arrival of Wilmer’s carefully considered portrayal was considered definitive by UK viewers in 1965. But how does this version of the Great Detective measure up against those that have come since?

It’s common to see the ‘definitive’ tag pinned very firmly to the chest of Jeremy Brett, the star of 41 fine episodes made by Granada for ITV in the 80’s – 90’s, and it is easy to see why. We talk about Doug Wilmer bringing knowing nuance to his performance, but this is nothing compared to the tics, grunts and tender flourishes instilled by Brett. The things he does with the character in the first 20 episodes or so of his run are simply masterful, but it would be to deny the truth of the situation to pretend the excellence of the earlier episodes continues throughout the series. Sadly, Brett’s health declines dramatically and the later episodes suffer from too many avant-garde directorial flourishes to pad out Conan Doyle’s short stories to 50, or sometimes 90 minutes of drama. The authenticity of the early episodes become compromised by the script’s need to accommodate Brett’s failing health and stretch out a story that was originally less that 20 pages in length. The Dying Detective, The Mazarian Stone and The Last Vampyre are by far the worst examples of directorial excess and source text deviation.

I suppose it isn’t just the actor’s portrayal that counts toward a definitive Holmes, the intention to stay true to Conan Doyle’s original stories is also an important ingredient. Jeremy Brett is probably better remembered for his earlier episodes, and if we go by these alone, he may very well be the definitive TV version of Baker Street’s finest.

In between Wilmer and Brett, another actor came very close to making the part his own, and has a fair claim to the title of ‘Definitive’ himself. When the BBC declined to engage Wilmer’s services for another run of Holmes stories in the late 60’s, they called upon Peter Cushing, who had already played the part opposite Christopher Lee in Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Sadly, only five of the Cushing episodes survive to be enjoyed in the 21st century. With Nigel Stock still ensconced as a very different type of Watson from the one viewers had become accustomed to thanks to Nigel Bruce’s performance, the stories continue to be faithful to the original text. Cushing is a little sharper, a little less accessible than Wilmer’s distant, brooding Holmes. He suffers fools even less gladly, and seems to feel the weight of his own celebrity on his shoulders. There are contrasts in the performance and the camaraderie between the Baker Street residents seems a little thinner on the ground. Whilst I make this point, it is worth noting we’re comparing 5 Cushing episodes to the 11 that still exist starring Wilmer, so perhaps to go on this evidence alone is perhaps a little unfair, yet it is easy to see strong contrasts in the evidence available.

Cushing’s run of episodes are in colour, so they were made to a far higher standard both in terms of the physical production and in terms of scripts. The calibre of guest actors remains just as high, and their devotion to Conan Doyle’s stories just as present. Until I saw Douglas Wilmer, I considered Cushing the definitive Holmes and Stock as the ultimate Watson.

Casting our net a little wider, it’s hard to allow any other actor anywhere near the coveted title of Definitive. One-off productions can’t count, can they? Tom Baker (Hound of the Baskervilles, 1983) was nowhere near the original, though entertaining nonetheless, and the same can be said of Rupert Everett (Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, 2004). Everett’s portrayal is rather excellent, though. He’s a much younger Holmes, full of energy and sardonic put-downs. He rushes through the story like a man possessed, but he is effortless to watch and instantly compelling in the part. It’s probably no exaggeration to say his performance in the role may very well have earned him the crown, had he continued on.

Movie portrayals suffer similarly to television one-offs in that there isn’t enough evidence to go on to build a picture of whether or not the actor’s portrayal could be considered definitive. I don’t think anyone considers Christopher Lee (Sherlock Holmes in America, Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady, 1991) or Robert Downey Jnr’s takes on the role as the final word on the part, and the same must be said of various stage productions over the years (save perhaps for the original Gillette stage plays). Arthur Wotner made a contemporary splash but, as with his screen predecessors, is now mainly remembered by Holmes affectionados and unlikely to be remembered by most audiences by the time Douglas Wilmer’s version hit the small screen forty years later.

There have been other notable small screen portrayals over the years. Benedict Cumberbatch, whilst sublime in Sherlock, is too far removed from the original character to be considered here. Geoffrey Whitehead’s Holmes with Donald Pickering as Watson (in Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, 1979) produced for Polish television and Ron Howard’s short-lived series for American audiences in mid 1950’s have both never been shown in any other country eschewing any possible debate concerning the actor’s ‘rightness’ for the part. Certainly Ronald Howard was extremely popular in his day but both series tend to stray from the Conan Doyle narratives, sometimes slightly, sometimes completely. If we’ve already established adherence to the source text is a major contributing factor in any discussion of definitive portrayal, this automatically counts these, Elementary and the Young Sherlock series out on these grounds.

Until the 1980’s Carleton Hobbs was considered the best Sherlock Holmes of the airwaves, but that radio series ran for just twelve episodes, and whilst they are concise and true to the original stories, they were superseded, in my opinion by the arrival of Clive Merrison and writer Bert Coules, who between them provide perhaps not just the definitive Holmes, but also the definitive Holmes series. Every original is accounted for, and throughout the complete run of 60 stories there is an adherence to the source material that will not be shaken off. All of the original characterisation is present, and the relationship between Holmes and Watson, and the various life events (such as Watson’s marriage and widowhood) are all present and correct, complementing the story of the week with a melancholy that isn’t just true to the canon, but true to life as well. Clive Merrison’s Holmes leaps from the printed page into your ears and loses absolutely nothing in translation. He is delivered exactly as Conan Doyle put the words on the page, one hundred and fifty years ago. At turns irascible, loud, solemn, stubborn and romantic his is the embodiment of the character originally created. He is accompanied by a Watson who is not a cipher, or overtly empathic but a realistic man with his own morals and codes, on the edge of a breakdown when we first meet him. If we’re having discussions about who is and isn’t the most definitive, the most true, and frankly the best Holmes ever, Merrison’s name cannot be omitted.

But what of Holmes on screen? Is Douglas Wilmer the definitive Sherlock? There’s certainly enough evidence. Thirteen episodes featuring among them the only screen adaptation of The Retired Colourman, the only surviving adaptation of the Beryl Coronet, and a more faithful version of the Dissapearance of Lady Francis Carfax than Granada’s. We’re eternally blessed by the selection of stories for the series because they cover every facet of Holme’s character, from the brooding, internal retreat of the Devil’s Foot, to his indecent haste to scupper the plans of Augustus Milverton in the episode of the same name. There’s even a rare comedic take on the Six Napoleons.

There is one thing about the Wilmer series that irks me and I have to say it. The deerstalker hat is worn by Holmes practically everywhere, even indoors in some scenes. As most people with a passing acquaintance of Victorian sartorial fashion will know, the deerstalker is a hat normally worn in the countryside. It’s a little unusual for someone with Holme’s superlative sense of dress to have such a strange attraction to the hat, but it’s not entirely out of step with the character. If Sherlock likes the hat, then fashion be damned, and you can almost hear him say, “my dear Watson, the hat is quite immaterial. It is the function of the organ that lies beneath it that one should observe.” The error is not in putting Holmes in that hat, regardless of the setting. The error is in failing to acknowledge it.

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Sartorial choices

The interaction between Doctor Watson and the consulting detective is just as you’d expect. Admiration and grudging respect on both sides, mixed with humour, candour and occasional awkwardness. There’s a very sound reason why the services of Nigel Stock were retained for the Peter Cushing episodes. He is, up to this point at least, the personification of the perfect Watson

But who is the definitive Holmes? Is it Wilmer? It’s difficult because I can’t tell you who the definitive Holmes is. Only you can decide. When you read or listen to say, The Naval Treaty or Silver Blaze, does Holmes have a face? If so, whose face is it? Peter Cushing’s? Jeremy Brett’s? Perhaps Basil Rathbone or Clive Merrison? Maybe it’s Christopher Lee or Geoffrey Whitehead? The face will tell you who your definitive Holmes is. Unless, you’re like me and no longer see a face. Holmes for me is a faceless figure, larger than life and better at it than most. He’s tall and strong, agile and dexterous. Whether he’s lounging beside the fire puffing on his pipe, or at the window gazing out while playing mournfully on the violin, he has no face. But when he puts down the violin and turns to me, I see a fire behind his eyes, a blazing inferno fuelled by the pure and perfect ecstasy of a mystery to solve, and in that moment Sherlock Holmes, the great consulting detective wears the face of… You don’t want to know. Do you?

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DVD available on Amazon

PHOTOS:  First Set: (from left to right) Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett. Second Set: Robert Downey Jr, Jonny Lee Miller, Rupert Everett. Third Set: Jeffrey Whitehead, Christopher Lee, Ronald Howard. Fourth Set: Carleton Hobbs, Clive Merrison, Benedict Cumberbatch

Please note I have not included every television, radio, movie and stage version of Holmes  ever as there’s more than enough actors to have played the part to fill a very large book. My intention has been to discuss only those that have played the role in an ongoing or recurring capacity and name check those that are most famous in the role (apart from Everett whose inclusion in the photo sets is purely for the sake of symmetry!).

READ MORE:  ARCHIVE

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Copyright Martin Gregory. 2019

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