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A contemporary Holmes

I’ve always been a big Sherlock Holmes fan. First the stories, then the absolutely amazing Jeremy Brett series. On radio, BBC’s series featuring Clive Merrison as Holmes is unbeatable.

The existence of the Jeremy Brett and Clive Merrison series have one benefit to the Holmes fan: there’s no need to debate what is the most “authentic” Sherlock Holmes adaptation. The question has been answered. It’s the Jeremy Brett series in live action and the Clive Merrison series in radio.

For me, that means I feel more free to watch the various Holmes adaptations with a more playful spirit. Who has the most interesting ideas? And most of those involve taking Holmes and placing the character into a more contemporary context.

Elementary, for one, has interesting ideas but mostly middling, by-the-numbers procedural stories. It’s elevated by Lucy Liu as Watson and Natalie Dormer as Moriarty – easily among the best interpretations of each character – and let down a bit by Johnny Lee Miller’s tendency to portray the character as quirky and tic-ridden. His portrayal is occasionally effective but never really reaches the dynamic heights of a more traditional Holmes.

Still, good fun and quite often a by-the-numbers procedural is exactly what you need in your entertainment.

The other “contemporary” Holmes was much more controversial, containing both a portrayal of Dr. Watson that many considered to be almost an insult to the character and a lead actor for Holmes who felt that his series began well, but went off the rails soon thereafter.

No, not the incoherent and largely nonsensical Sherlock series by Moffat. I’m talking about the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce World War Two era Sherlock Holmes B-movies.

The first two movies in the series were traditional, period-accurate adaptations that are well-regarded to this day. The only notable issue was with Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson, who is much more of a gentle teddy bear type of character than the Watson of the stories. But since prior to these movies the Watson character had mostly been a non-entity, having Bruce play a comic foil to Rathbone’s more serious Holmes established just how important the character is to making the stories work.

Then things became quite interesting. After Universal got the rights to make movies with the character they decided to set the new movies in the modern era: the first “contemporary” Holmes was born.

This was done for the usual reasons: money and popularity. Given that a World War was raging the studio felt that a period Holmes might not feel relevant to a modern audience.

Not having to spend money on period-accurate sets and costumes was an added bonus.

These were B-movies through and through. A little bit formulaic but – refreshingly – they don’t have as much of the racism, misogyny, and classism many other B-movies of the time. The 1943 Sherlock Holmes Faces Death even has a short speech at the end clearly advocating for taxing the rich.

There’s a new spirit abroad in the land. The old days of grab and greed are on their way out. We’re beginning to think of what we owe the other fellow, not just what we’re compelled to give him. The time’s coming, Watson, when we shan’t be able to fill our bellies in comfort while other folk go hungry, or sleep in warm beds while others shiver in the cold; when we shan’t be able to kneel and thank God for blessings before our shining altars while men anywhere are kneeling in either physical or spiritual subjection…. And God willing, we’ll live to see that day, Watson.

They are not high-budget affairs, and some of them are clearly done in a hurry, but there is quite a bit of charm in watching Dr. Watson volunteer to manage a hospital for shell-shocked servicemen and Sherlock Holmes foil the dastardly plans of Nazis and their collaborators.

Rathbone himself portrays Sherlock Holmes with a little bit more kindness, humour, and charm than you see in many other versions, but does so without compromising the character’s dynamism or sharper edges.

It’s a lot of fun.

And, for some reason, watching a selfless Sherlock Holmes fight Nazis and their partners-in-crime is very cathartic.

You might even say that it has some contemporary relevance.

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