The televisual Sherlock: The role that made Benedict Cumberbatch a star drove another actor insane
For a mad second, I thought the mob would tear Benedict Cumberbatch to pieces. Bodies surged forward with the tidal force of a marathon start while the actor sat on a low stage with a paralytic look about him. The swarm reached Cumberbatch and . . . right, they were entertainment journalists, not godless cannibals. There is a difference, despite what everyone says. They carried digital recorders, not machetes.
I circled the edge of the chaos. I tend to go as bashful as a seventh-grade boy at his first dance in the presence of truly “mass” media, an unhelpful trait in a reporter. A formal press conference had just ended. Now my colleagues rushed to approach Cumberbatch’s cheekbones of legend, his sculptured hair, his penetrating gaze — the attributes that helped make this thirty-eight-year-old actor, at that moment in early 2014, one of our leading cinematic stars and certainly, it seemed, the busiest. Cumberbatch had recently played major roles as the Star Trek villain Khan, Julian Assange, Tolkien’s dragon Smaug, a slaveowner, and a dysfunctional Oklahoman. Not long before, he’d played both Frankenstein and the Monster on stage, on alternate nights. The press, however, did not much care about any of that just then. They cared about Sherlock Holmes.
I had flown to Los Angeles for the Television Critics of America media conference, a semiannual two-week luxury prison camp for TV stars, producers, and my fellow hacks. The Langham Hotel in Pasadena, a faux-historical cupcake of chandeliers and oil paintings, crawled with television writers and shell-shocked actors. The scene made me glad to be a dilettante. Some poor souls had been interned at the Langham for days and days, but I just skipped out on January in Portland to wander around 80degree LA in shades and shirtsleeves and feel, I must say, pretty damned pleased with myself.
During the TCA gathering, every network frogmarches the creators of its forthcoming season through press conferences and interviews. This day belonged to the Public Broadcasting System — a schedule slot that, all due respect to Big Bird, may have lacked a certain glitz in prior years. Not this time. Outside, dozens of fans huddled in an improvised compound bounded by velvet ropes, holding signs that proclaimed themselves the CUMBER COLLECTIVE. The network’s prime-time flagship,Masterpiece, was unveiling its latest round of imported British dramas, with the third season of Sherlock (a BBC and WGBH-Boston co-production) twinned with Downton Abbey as the double centerpiece. Sherlock was hotly anticipated. Two years had passed since Cumberbatch’s Holmes plummeted from the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to his apparent death before the eyes of Martin Freeman’s devoted Watson.
Spoiler alert (not really): Sherlock Holmes was not dead. But Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat — the Holmes enthusiasts who devised Sherlock’s twenty-first-century update to the Baker Street scene — had gone Sir Arthur one better. “The Reichenbach Fall” gave Watson a brief, chaotic glimpse of (what seemed to be) Sherlock’s corpse, shattered by his plunge from the roof of the same institution where the two characters first met, in both Sherlock’s 2010 premiere and Beeton’s Christmas Annualin 1887. The spectacular death scene and subsequent two-year lag provoked a flood of Internet speculation: How did Sherlock do it? Why did he do it? How could he do that to poor John Watson? The worldwide fan freakout over the cliffhanger chimed eerily with the aftermath of the Strand’s December 1893 issue. Time’s arrow reversed its flight.
This was Sherlock: a stylish flip on Conan Doyle, delivered in addictive three-episode bursts sometimes separated by years, owing much of its popularity to the Internet, densely woven with Sherlockiana. (In this version, when John Watson’s blog malfunctions, the visitor counter sticks at 1895, a tribute to Vincent Starrett’s poem.) Still, Cumberbatch and Freeman — who combines military ferocity with Nigel Bruce–caliber comedic timing — give the enterprise its heart. In January 2014, the same month as the TCA dog and pony show, Sherlock played to a US audience of about four million viewers. In Britain, nearly nine million watched the season’s finale, onethird of the nation’s total television audience. A Sherlock-themed coffee shop opened in Shanghai in 2013.
Cumberbatch and Freeman had become the Rathbone and Bruce of our day — the latest embodiment of Holmes and Watson. In Pasadena, poor Benedict was experiencing one aspect of just what that meant.
Holmes and Watson have taken a long, strange hansom cab ride through modern times. Every decade reinvents them, and the variations can become a bit . . . elaborate. In 1959, thirteen years after Rathbone walked out on Baker Street, the legendary British horror studio Hammer Films made the first color Sherlockian film, a fullthrottle Gothic Hound of the Baskervilles (“Terror Stalks the Moors! Horror Fills the Night!”) with Peter Cushing as a wigged-out Holmes. The creators managed to work in ritual sacrifice, a tarantula, and a collapsing mine shaft. That strangeness is as nothing, however, to Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, a 1999 Scottish animated series in which Holmes — his corpse helpfully preserved in a honey-filled coffin in Scotland Yard’s vaults — is reanimated in a “New London” featuring flying cars, gigantic Blade Runner video screens, and a crack detective named Beth Lestrade, with whom he battles a Moriarty (also alive, again) with an excellent werewolf pompadour.
Someone always wants another shot at Holmes. Thus we have the black-and-white comic book Sherlock Ninja (Sherlock is — wait for it — a ninja; Watson, a young woman named Watsu). And we have 221B, a rather cute Canadian-made series of short films, accessible on the video-sharing website Vimeo, in which Sherlock is a pixie-coiffed twenty-something woman with a bemused, middle-aged male roommate. And we have uncountable thousands of stories published in recesses of the Internet which depict the Cumberbatchian Holmes and Freemanite Watson deeply and lustfully in love.
Meanwhile, global audiences are gobbling up a blockbuster feature-film series, with Robert Downey Jr.’s ultra-bohemian Holmes and Jude Law as studly Watson incarnate; the literally phenomenal Sherlock; and Elementary, American TV’s twist on modern Holmes, with Jonny Lee Miller as a tattooed detective and Lucy Liu as a notably un–Nigel Bruce– like Watson. These successes have spurred yet more speculative forays down Baker Street, some of which will happen, others of which will ever remain show business rumor.
It’s tempting to dwell on this boom time as the end point of Sherlock’s saga. Someday, however, today’s efforts will fade away — only to be replaced, if history is any guide, by new versions of Sherlock Holmes. (In the late 1980s, Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes as a period-costumed neurotic with an advanced coke problem was judged as definitive as Cumberbatch’s steely, tech-savvy clotheshorse savant is now.) Our current Sherlockian gold rush illuminates something more: how we seize on characters and ideas and transform them from private creations into massmade mythologies that can suit any cultural moment. This happens to almost every big character now. How many times has Spider-Man been rebooted, or James Bond, or Captain Kirk? It has been happening to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson for almost 130 years. Their many incarnations reveal the craft and commercial impetus of massmedia creativity: the whole art of adaptation.
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The televisual Sherlock, not surprisingly, goes way back. Conan Doyle’s stories themselves suggest TV episodes, with their recurring setting, guest-starring characters like Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, and tightly packaged plots. The elevator pitch writes itself.
Even so, consistency has proven elusive. In 1937, Louis Hector, a veteran radio Holmes, starred in “The Three Garridebs,” broadcast from Radio City Music Hall as an experimental test of the new medium. In ’49, Alan Napier — Alfred the Butler in the 1960s Batman series — loomed large in a mostly faithful one-off “Speckled Band,” brought to you by Lucky Strike and a professorial narrator chain-smoking in a booklined study. (Napier makes a solid Holmes, while the production — readily available on the Internet — is notable for a pipe of truly staggering size, a Watson whom Nigel Bruce could sue for plagiarism, and a half-decent mechanical snake.) John Longden’s portrayal of the detective in a 1951 adaptation of “The Man with the Twisted Lip” features well-wrought intrigue down by the murky Thames, but the stately star is far too elderly and creaky; the pilot never became a series. (The BBC made its first foray with a six-episode series that same year, none of which survives.) Basil Rathbone himself gave it a shot, in a single 1953 production of an Adrian Conan Doyle story. Everyone seems quite relieved that it is lost to history.
The sterling early success came in 1954, when for one season producer Sheldon Reynolds created a jaunty Baker Street, shot in Paris. This series’ thirty-nine gems of vintage American television stand as an underappreciated mid-century Sherlockian triumph, with an authentically unkempt 221B, a score of bloodcurdling violins, and plots — while mostly extra-canonical — tailored to the Conan Doyle model. Reynolds reacted against the modernized Rathbone-Bruce series, using Paris to create a credible Victorian setting, and broke the oddly persistent tradition of casting wizened codgers as principals, instead opting for two younger actors. Ronald Howard plays Holmes with a laconic but amiable twinkle — a bright-eyed, ambitious man who happens to keep his tea next to his snake poison. H. Marion Crawford gives us a bumptious Watson for the ages, all thick-muscled physicality and popeyed outrage at Sherlock’s eccentricity. In many episodes, Archie Duncan imposes his joyously boneheaded Inspector Lestrade as scene-stealing third wheel. These half-hour shows, made quickly over a single year, evoke Conan Doyle at his bubbliest: romantic, funny, thrilling, delivered with proper dash. As history proves, the formula remains elusive. The Reynolds productions, which must have glistened indeed in the feral wastes of early-’50s television, would be the only extended American Sherlock Holmes TV series for almost sixty years. Go ye forth and discover them.
In the late ’60s, the BBC produced a haphazard run, for which it eventually dragooned Peter Cushing back into the role he first assayed in the 1959 HammerHound. Even at the time, this series, popular though it was, was notorious for sloppy production, which maddened the actors involved but lends its episodes a certain whacky retrospective charm. It’s like watching an exceptionally talented high school drama corps give it their all in faux-Victorian costumes and undead “living color,” with Cushing the single long-suffering adult. (I do commend the full-scale adaptation of A Study in Scarlet, relatively neglected as that novel is. Plus, there’s an amazing, long scene in which Cushing and his Watson, Nigel Stock, struggle desperately and visibly to remember their lines.) Then there was the time, in 1976, when a shaggy Roger Moore tried his luck in the made-for-TV Sherlock Holmes in New York, an affair cheerfully summarized in a recent British newspaper account as “a total disaster” and “the worst Sherlock Holmes movie of all time.” In very recent memory, Rupert Everett investigated something called Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, looking wan, heavily made-up, and distinctly like he’d rather be somewhere — anywhere — else.
Many dare. Few succeed. In fact, in the Great Detective’s Americo-British television odyssey between Sheldon Reynolds and Sherlock, one name, and one name alone, stands out among the half-baked, half-cocked, and half-amusing: Brett.
My brother and I would ensconce ourselves on the sofa once a week, awaiting the theatrical harpsichord and charming creep of animated Edward Gorey figures, depicted at one of the artist’s lethal Edwardian garden parties. (As a well-shod assembly sipped tea, some poor guy slipped head-first into a nearby pond.) The title sequence for public television’s Mystery! evoked morbid Anglophile gentility for an American viewership. I was on board.
In 1982, the Manchester-based television network Granada concocted ambitious plans for Holmes, with John Hawkesworth, writer of Upstairs, Downstairs, leading the effort. The network aimed to make the most rigorously Victorian Holmes ever. No pseudo–Conan Doyle plots; no Rathbonian modernization; no screwball Peter Cushing costumes. Scripts would come straight out of the Canon. Sets would capture Victorian London in its squalor, smoke, and elegance, with Sherlockian streets thickly populated by period-costumed extras. At its production facility in Salford, Granada constructed a lavish miniature Marylebone, lit by gas lamps made by the Birmingham firm that still supplied Buckingham Palace, and in a cavernous warehouse, craftsmen regenerated the 221B living quarters down to the mantelpiece jackknife.
Into this palatial confection dropped Jeremy Brett. Then entering his early fifties, the English actor had been one of British theater’s beautiful young things, a protégé of Laurence Olivier and a well-traveled Shakespearean. His screen résumé included a turn opposite Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, but Brett had never broken through as a leading man. He invariably found himself in throwback costume, in supporting roles. (He’d played Watson on stage, opposite, of all people, Charlton Heston.) He did worry that Sherlock Holmes would typecast him forever, but the gig represented his last, best chance for top billing.
Brett tore into the role, filling a notebook with Sherlockian aphorisms, mannerisms, trivia, plot points. The Granada scripts hewed with unusual fidelity to Conan Doyle; the first season even began with “A Scandal in Bohemia,” just as God and the Strand decreed. In a near-verbatim rendition of that story’s opening scene, Brett’s Holmes gleefully tortures a mustachioed King of Bohemia for nearly twenty minutes, with few corners cut for the sake of an impatient ’80s audience. Even so, Brett became notorious on set for battles over dialogue and plot. His commitment to canonical accuracy soon forced Granada to build an extra week into each episode’s shooting schedule.
To watch Brett in his early pomp, though, is to concede that he earned a few prima donna moments. Hawkish and lean in funereal black suits, the actor blazes with mercurial expressions and bristling diction. He’s the rare screen Sherlock to heed Conan Doyle’s frequent descriptions of Holmes’s laziness: he subjects his Watsons to diva-ish bohemian lassitude as well as ampedup intensity. When, in “The Speckled Band,” he tells the afflicted Helen Stoner, “Pray — be precise as to details,” he folds cold command into sympathetic charm, then kicks back as if for a catnap. At key investigative moments, Brett’s eyes sizzle with Holmesian fervor: seeing, observing, dissecting. The actor stokes the secret fire of Sherlock’s emotions, which on occasion ignite into wiry action. As Moriarty’s henchmen pursue him in “The Final Problem,” Brett uses a drainpipe for leverage to propel a kick into a baddie’s face.
I discovered this phenom a couple of years after his debut in the role, and thought he was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. In retrospect, though, the Granada production can now seem a bit overegged. (Mid-Thatcherite versions of Victorian facial hair can be particularly unfortunate.) But Brett lent the character a nervy charisma that, for all the period trappings, echoed the ’80s perfectly. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the series spent a lot of time on the cocaine needle.) Three decades later, Brett remains the definitive screen Holmes for a clique of “Brettheads.” His performance — florid, glittering, at its best a masterpiece of control and bravado — deserves that following, all these years later.
I did not realize, as I sat enraptured in Montana, that Sherlock Holmes was driving Jeremy Brett insane. From the beginning, he called the role his most demanding, Hamlet included. Granada’s workdays began at 3 a.m. and ran late; Brett lost about fifteen pounds during the first season’s production. And after that run ended with “The Final Problem,” the British and American publics demanded more. (More Holmes! Always. Conan Doyle and Basil Rathbone could have warned him.) Over a decade, Brett played the role in forty-one distinct productions — possibly more than any other screen actor except Eille Norwood in the 1920s. He became more exhausted and fragile and obsessive. By some accounts, he began referring to Holmes as “You Know Who” and “Him.” To a friend, he compared playing Holmes to inhabiting the dark side of the moon.
Brett suffered from bipolar disorder — champagne for everyone when he was up, goodbye universe when down — and the lithium prescribed as treatment bloated his body. As the Granada productions wore on, he suffered harrowing breakdowns and institutionalizations. He arrived on set for the final production cycle in a wheelchair, sucking at an oxygen mask. In 1994’s “The Cardboard Box,” the last episode broadcast, Brett’s performance devolves into a self-parodying haze, his physical bulk now a dead weight at the center of the production. He died of heart failure, age sixtyone, the following year, defined by Holmes, and maybe, in part, killed by Holmes.
Still, not even Brett could quite bear to leave Baker Street. At a memorial luncheon, a tape recording made not long before his death played. “If you see him, whisking around the corner . . . then wait, because that’s all you’ll see of him. Bless his darling heart, isn’t he wonderful? Streets ahead of us, still.”
Up against the assembled Television Critics of America, I asked a single question of Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch. My fellow journalists had already quizzed him on the Internet popularity of a clip in which he and Andrew Scott, Sherlock’s high-camp Moriarty, lean into each other as if for a kiss. (A: “We never actually made contact, you know.”) And they’d asked him about the series’ fanatical fandom. (A: “They’re by and large lovely, and some of them normal. Seriously, I love that people sit around and watch this en famille, and debate it, perhaps across generations. ‘Mmm, I preferred Brett.’ ‘No, he’s cool — he’s Khan.’”)
I found Cumberbatch charmingly nervous (couldn’t blame him) and self-deprecating (I’d struggle, with those cheekbones) in this insane setting. I wondered how it all might wear. Just a few years before, he’d been an almost normal person himself. Now he was a major-magazine cover boy. He received weird letters from Julian Assange. Many, many fan-built websites made him their subject, or perhaps object; one notable example, Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch, renders celebrity obsession as Zen koans. (“Imagine Benedict Cumberbatch trying to dye his hair, but something goes terribly wrong and he gets really self-conscious about his discolored hair.”) When his Sherlock goes into deductive hyperdrive, the viewer fears that Cumberbatch, reeling off hundreds of words at a frenzied clip, might combust from sheer synaptic heat. (In one scene, as Sherlock delivers a rapid-fire biography of a “sentimental widow and her son, the unemployed fisherman,” to whom he ascribes a terrier named Whisky and a financially fraught relationship, a sheen of sweat gathers along his windpipe.) And Sherlock is not merely verbal in its demands. Cumberbatch finished the previous season, after all, plummeting from a sizable building.
So when the chance presented itself, I asked him whether he feared the fates of Rathbone and Brett. In different ways, both took it too far. Could he avoid the curse of Sherlock Holmes?
Cumberbatch paused. “Well,” he began, “I’m younger than either of them were when they started in the role. And both of them had a much bigger volume of the thing to deal with than I do. I simply have a better schedule with it — we make three of these films every once in a while, when we can all manage it. Jeremy had his own demons, of course, which became mentally linked to the role itself somehow. It makes his work almost painful to watch at times.” He ruminated a moment more. “You could do a chart, I suppose. Where does the dementia set in? I guess I do that already. I mean, I love it. I find it invigorating. But I do remember a conversation with my mother”— Wanda Ventham, a longtime professional actress —“when she looked at me quietly and said, ‘Be careful, darling. Be careful.’” Someone else wanted to know, did Sherlock always stay with him? A: “One way to stay sane in this job is to know when and where to shed the role and start being yourself. But I do miss him at the end of each run. I get oddly sentimental about him.”
I wondered if Cumberbatch had, indeed, stumbled into the role at the most fortuitous possible moment. He’s not under some feudal bond to a studio like MGM, which lent Rathbone to Universal as if he were an interesting paperback. Typecasting is now a far less stultifying force, in part, I think, because today’s audiences are in on the game to a degree those of the past were not. In the 2010s, we know that cleverly stage-managed reinvention of classic characters is pop culture’s lifeblood. We take pleasure in watching talented people manipulate well-worn plot points and hoary characters. Robert Downey Jr. can be Sherlock Holmes, and he can be Iron Man. Audiences enjoy seeing Star Trek pull a continuity sleight of hand to give Kirk and Spock an alternate timeline. They like seeing the new Batman, whoever it may be. Imagine — we’re not DC Comics’ trademark attorneys, so we can — if there could be two Batmen at once, or even three.
So it is that huge audiences can embrace Robert Downey and Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, all at the same time, as radically different Great Detectives. The Sherlock Holmeses of the moment reveal what the culture is after: just as Rathbone’s suave Nazi hunter spoke to the 1940s, each present adaptation trades on the current entertainment-industrial complex. Guy Ritchie, Downey, and Jude Law give us Holmes and Watson as action heroes in bombastic, billion-dollar productions full of fireballs, fight scenes, and cocky one-liners. Cumberbatch channels our obsession with communications technology and the cult of the hyperverbal innovative thinker — his Sherlock could throw down an incendiary TED Talk. Elementary, a suspiciously coincidental modernization conceived shortly after Sherlock came along, churns out formula police procedurals set in New York, highlighting that 90 percent of American TV programming seems to consist of formula police procedurals set in New York.
(I resisted Elementary, with its Lucy Liu stunt-casting and its amendment of Holmes’s character to include a rather alarming heteronormative sex drive. I was not alone. The hardcore Sherlockian world greeted the series with a sneer; one American Sherlockian, Brad Keefauver, continues, as of this writing, to keep a weekly aesthetic deathwatch over Elementary on his blog: “Sad and lazy. It must be Thursday,” and so forth. And it’s certainly no Moffat-Gatiss-style labor of love. The script’s Conan Doyle references are occasional and often pro forma. But, you know, I’ve come to like the thing, chiefly for Jonny Lee Miller’s supple interpretation of Sherlock Holmes as a top-button-buttoned emotional disaster embroiled in twelve-step recovery. Miller and Liu inhabit an enviably shabby-chic New York brownstone in place of 221B, and the creators get up to some entertaining mischief: Mrs. Hudson as a towering transsexual, Sebastian Moran as a shaven-skulled Arsenal hooligan, et cetera. To discuss what they do with Moriarty and Irene Adler would constitute the greatest spoiler of all time. It’s not genius, but it’s fun.)
Sherlock, in particular, belongs to an ascendant class of upscale television, driven less by the traditional networks and more by an engaged, social-media-wired audience.Masterpiece, the show’s American presenter, happily takes three episodes every two years to reap a bumper crop of tweets and a demographic fillip. In an interview along the TCA sidelines, Rebecca Eaton, the Masterpiece franchise’s veteran executive producer, told me that Sherlock helped the venerable costume-drama showcase reinvent itself after several shaky years. “The first season, in 2010, was the first sign that Masterpiece was coming back,” she said. “It was the November before Downton Abbey premiered, and for the first time in a long time we had a breakout hit. The reviews were, without exception, positive.” Eaton’s main concern, in fact, is that so many Sherlock fans watch the show on the digital black market. But she also noted that Masterpiece’s underwriting slots — public TV’s genteel substitute for commercials — were sold out for the foreseeable future, to luxury brands like Ralph Lauren and Viking River Cruises. Eat your heart out, Bromo Quinine.
“It feeds our brand and our audience — and the best thing is that it’s a complete fluke,” Eaton told me. “When they first pitched it to me, I didn’t get it. And nowSherlock is a shooting star. It comes along every once in a while, but it helps define what Masterpiece has become for a new era. We can be historical, but we can be completely hip. Sherlock gives us that.”