"Elementary": Sherlock Holmes Is Back in a Big Way





5-14-12

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

English fictional detective Sherlock Holmes solved his first case in 1887. He became a literary sensation in Great Britain and then, accompanied by his inveterate sidekick, Dr. John Watson, a superstar in the United States. Now, 125 years later, the nineteenth-century detective is not only back, he's bigger than ever. He's returned to theater, film and television, the world’s greatest sleuth once again, trudging through the fog filled streets of London, deerstalker cap comfortable on his head, pipe in the corner of his mouth and his trusty violin tucked under his arm.

He's back in different theaters in numerous plays. He's back on the silver screen in two movies starring Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). And he's back on television in another season of the BBC's Sherlock, which just began last weekend in America.

Holmes seems to lurk everywhere. Right now, he's on stage in a new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles at the New Jersey Repertory Theater, in Long Branch, New Jersey. Another version of that play opens next month at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. Hound of the Baskervilles has also been recently staged by Shakespeare and Company in Lennox, Massachusetts; the Depot Theater, in Westport, Connecticut; and the Central Square Theater, in Cambridge. Another play about Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventures of the Suicide Club, was produced last year at the Arizona Theater Company in Phoenix.

Holmes has been in the theater since 1899, when William Gillette wrote Sherlock Holmes, or the Strange Case of Miss Faulkner, the first Holmes drama for the stage. The play is still presented from time to time in the United States. Fritz Weaver starred in Baker Street, a Holmes play, on Broadway in 1965, and another Holmes play was staged on Broadway in the 1970s.

Holmes is chasing down modern criminals in contemporary London in the BBC series Sherlock, airing on PBS here in America. It's been a smash hit in Britain and it's been getting great reviews here in the States. Word is that a third Holmes movie starring Downey is in the works, and soon a new American TV series, Elementary, will debut with -- are you ready, Holmesians? -- a girl playing Dr. Watson. Yes, actress Lucy Liu will be a very female Dr. Watson in the series, set in contemporary New York.

All of this is historical icing on the cake. Holmes has been a media maven since his creation. The detective has been the star of 211 movies, in which he was played by 75 different actors. The first, an in-name-only short called Sherlock Holmes Baffled, was one of film’s originals made way back in 1900. There was a series of 47 Holmes films produced in the silent movie era. The most famous of the sound films were fourteen made in the late 1930s and early 1940s with Basil Rathbone as the detective (these are the ones that run over and over again on TV). The detective was even turned into a British patriot in World War II, working against the Nazis in three movies. In the 1960s, Christopher Lee played Holmes in two films, and also played Henry Baskerville opposite Peter Cushing's Sherlock Holmes in a 1959 adaptation. Nicol Williamson starred as the detective in The Seven Per Cent Solution, a box office success in 1976 and there was Sherlock Holmes in New York that same year.

There was a Sherlock Holmes radio series on the airwaves in both England and the U.S. from 1930 to 1950, with Rathbone portraying the detective in a number of shows during seven of those years. There was a Holmes television series in America that ran for 39 episodes in 1954. Jeremy Brett played the detective for ten years in a lengthy series of Granada TV shows in England. In 1983, England’s BBC aired The Baker Street Boys and in 2007 aired Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, two series about Holmes and the Baker Street boys, who were street urchins that helped Holmes solve some of his cases. Even the crusty Soviets jumped into the Holmes mania. Between 1979 and 1986, Soviet television broadcast a series of five made for TV movies, in eleven parts, The Adventures of Sherlock Homes and Dr. Watson, starring Vasily Livanov. (Some Holmesian afficiandos swear that, the Russian aside, this is the best film or TV version of the character ever.)

And now there is Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes in Sherlock. In the show, Holmes lives in present-day London -- Dr. Watson blogs his exploits. This is not your grandfather’s Holmes. In one episode the detective parades half naked through Buckingham Palace. The series has made Cumberbatch a media darling and teen girl heartthrob. (Justin Bieber, eat your heart out!)

The Baker Street Irregulars, the society of Holmes followers in America, is more popular than ever. The Irregulars host Holmes lectures from time to time, publish a quarterly magazine, the Baker Street Journal and each January hold a raucous Holmes birthday celebration that includes a dinner, "Gaslight Gala" party, luncheons, street walks and visits to mystery book shops (the Canadian Holmes group is called The Bootmakers of Toronto).

Why are readers and views so transfixed by a British detective who "lived" 125 years ago?

The answer: it’s elementary. It’s historical, too.

The foundation of all the Holmes stories is history. The standard private eye was created by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1840s, based on the detectives that started to flourish in that era.

In England and in the U.S., cities had exploded in population throughout the nineteenth century. Crime rates surged, street gangs were born, and disputes were settled with the blade and the gun. On top of this, there was a huge Scotland Yard corruption scandal in the 1870s that made people leery of the police. And of course, Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of Whitechapel, terrifying the entire city of London. He was never caught. The U.S. had its own corruption scandals -- in 1857 the entire New York City police force was fired. Where else to turn but to the private detective to solve crimes and apprehend criminals?

The private eye that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created, Holmes, based on one of his real life college professors, was very different than previous detectives and a unique character. He applied scientific principles to his cases, relying on trace evidence and deduction through careful examination of crime scenes -- he often lamented in Doyle's stories that the police had made a mess of crime scenes. And Holmes wasn't afraid of getting into the action, either -- The Hound of the Baskervilles is as much an adventure as it is a detective story!

He was a special character in many ways. He had a sidekick, Dr. Watson, and both hero and sidekick are beloved in literature, stage and film. He played the violin and snorted cocaine. He dressed in a new and different way, with his deerstalker cap and capes. He smoked a pipe. Best of all, his mesmerizing deductive reasoning carried the reader, or viewer, along with him as he tried to find the killers. The connection between the audience and the detective, later made famous in pulp fiction magazines in America in the 1930s, cemented Holmes’ fame, in conjunction with all the Holmes movies.

But Holmes the character hasn't remained static in time. Holmes plays, films and television series through the ages have changed the character and adapted him for more modern sensibilities. Robert Downey Jr. plays Holmes as a very eccentric man in a steampunk-influenced version. The BBC's Sherlock is very much at home in Twitterverse. And crime, crime hasn't changed. In the 1880s it was street gangs and anarchists -- today it's drug-dealing street gangs and terrorists. In the 1880s, it was secret notes; today it's texts. Killers still lurk in the shadows; the denizens of the night still haunt cities. The police, despite millions of dollars in equipment, are still often baffled. There is still police corruption scandals: ten cops in Baltimore just went to jail for corruption.

But perhaps the biggest reason Holmes is still popular is that he's always been a consummate showman.

I remember sitting in a New York theater thirty years ago watching the Holmes character on stage peering at another character walking towards him. When he stopped, Holmes told the man, “I see you have just returned from Afghanistan.” Holmes then explained, using his deductive reasoning, why he came to that conclusion. When he finished, the entire audience let out a loud “whoooosssshhhh” sound, dazzled.

We're still dazzled.


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