Sherlock Holmes and James Bond

Like many people, I am a big fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. For pure fun and escapism they remain irresistible and in Holmes Conan-Doyle created perhaps the only fictional hero to match James Bond in fame and enduring appeal. One of the things that interests me is how these British icons have been brought to life over the years. While Bond has been locked into a film series made by one company with a distinct formula, Holmes (clearly a 'loose' property) has been seen in a neverending barrage of films, spoofs, television series, plays and heaven knows what else. That Bond has been 'protected' is a good thing...with one or two reservations.

The first actor to become forever connected to the role of Holmes was Basil Rathbone. Rathbone's Holmes was handsome, urbane and craftier than a cat who has just graduated from cat University with a Degree in cunning. During his series of Holmes adventures the detective, for the purposes of WWII propaganda, was actually placed in the 1940s to battle Nazis. I prefer Holmes in Victorian London personally, but it was an early illustration that the property would be approached from more numerous (and frequently stranger angles) than Bond. Rathbone's era nailed The Hound Of The Baskervilles and Hammer did a fine job with their remake a decade later starring the great Peter Cushing. Hammer's version was a touch more Gothic and melodramatic with an enjoyable and unmistakably 'Hammer-esque' prologue. Two versions and, I would argue, two distinct films both with a great deal going for them. Contrast this with the unofficial remake of Thunderball in 1983 which merely attempted to ape the Eon formula with little of the budget. The winning and seemingly indestructible formula established by the Bond series (or Goldfinger to be precise) was so powerful that even a rival Bond outing hardly dared try anything new at all.

Holmes mutated into a low-budget television series in the sixties but the facility for multiple takes on the character by different artists struck gold a decade on when the legendary director Billy Wilder made the criminally unappreciated The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. Wilder peels back the layers to show the more human qualities of the character. Holmes finds life in general unbearably dull. So dull that he injects cocaine to make it through the darkest days. He is lethargic and disinterested. But a case changes everything. Once those deductive powers are given a puzzle to solve he becomes the Holmes we know and love. Robert Stephens gives a superb performance as Holmes. In amongst the spoofs and oddities fans of the great detective had been given something special to add to the Rathbone and Cushing work.

In the 1980s Granada television embarked on a series of scrupulously faithful Holmes adaptions for British television. The series brought my favourite actor of all in the role, Jeremy Brett. Brett embodies the darker qualities of the Robert Stephens Holmes and reaches back to the literary source to great effect. He is cold, enigmatic, commanding, disdainful of authority and those not of his intellectual powers and yet kind and the one person you would want helping if you were ever in trouble. Brett had some of the finest Sherlockian moments ever placed on film. His first encounter with Moriarty is peerless and straight out of the pages of a Conan-Doyle book. Here is the treatment that some Bond fans have always envied.

Imagine a television series of Bond adventures. Faithful adaptions of the Fleming novels set in the cold war and made with as much love and care as the Granada series. Imagine a young James Bond actor who looks as if he has stepped straight out of an Ian Fleming book. The series would have fantastic potential. The series could run while the movie series continued in the manner of Star Trek. Could it ever happen? I dare say Eon might see a tv venture as a lost of 'prestige'. The dilution of the brand (a clear reason why Star Trek disappeared up its own backside) is a risk but the advantage here would be that no one would have to come up with new plots or stories and it wouldn't run forever. I admit it wouldn't be the cheapest show to produce. Another reason why it will probably never happen.

Like James Bond, Holmes always returns. In recent years the BBC has produced another remake of The Hound Of The Baskervilles and a completely new Holmes mystery. The former was sunk by the miscasting of Richard Roxborough as a diminutive and blonde (!) Holmes. The latter starred Rupert Everett. Everett was a decent shout as Holmes but ended up playing him like a snotty public schoolboy. At one point he actually meets Watson's wife who gives him a mildly feminist lecture of the motivations of serial killers (!) Not something you can imagine Brett's Holmes having much time for. Again the different slants are endlessly fascinating, regardless of the ultimate artistic merit.
It is interesting to speculate on what would happen to Bond if another studio bought the series. Bigger budgets? A television series? American locales? Clearly this could be a bad thing but there would be exciting possibilities. The biggest knock on Eon is that they hire hack directors who they can 'micro manage'. An A List Bond director given complete control over a Bond film would be very interesting. I actually think an intelligent James Bond animated film is long overdue. It would have vast possibilities with the advances in technology.

Overall I think it is a good thing that James Bond has been protected. I'm glad that the brand hasn't been diluted by too many eccentric treatments but there are a few possibilities for the character that have yet to be explored. Don't expect that to change in the near future.

- Michael Cooper


c 2006 Alternative 007