Sherlock Holmes initially meant Basil Rathbone to me, and that’s not a bad thing. I saw the movies on TV long before I read the stories, and when I finally did read them, Rathbone fit the role perfectly. Plus, he was a good enough actor to play the part well, and he did it so many times that he’s still the template in the public consciousness.
But the flip side to Rathbone as Holmes is Nigel Bruce as Watson, and there the whole thing falls apart. Because, thanks to this actor and the conception behind his performance, both Holmes and Watson were seriously diminished until very, very recently.
Even now, Watson is still considered a bit of a buffoon to the general public because of Bruce. Physically old and clumsy, mentally credulous and slow to grasp the obvious, he’s the antithesis of the ultra-smart, ultra-insightful Holmes. Yet this not only denigrates Arthur Conan Doyle’s Watson, it makes Holmes look bad. What kind of insecure genius needs to hang out with an idiot just to make himself look smarter? Holmes has a lot of personal issues, but insecurity about his intelligence is not one of them.
It didn’t start out that way. Bruce’s turn as Watson in his first Holmes film, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was good enough. And in its follow-up, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, he maintained a certain degree of integrity. The essential casting error—making Watson an older, portly man when he should’ve been a contemporary of Holmes (and as a tough ex-soldier, certainly not physically soft)—didn’t jar too much. But as the series progressed, Watson became less reliable, less resourceful, until he at last turned into the dim sidekick of popular memory. Even in my favorite Holmes movie, 1979’s Murder by Decree, James Mason can’t entirely shake the Nigel Bruce effect in his take on Watson.
The reclamation began with the BBC Jeremy Brett series. Their first Watson, David Burke, in my opinion nailed it: he was a mature but not elderly man, he was a competent doctor and a decent human being, but most importantly he was not an idiot. He was, as Doyle always intended, the audience’s stand-in, and because he was as smart as us, he made Holmes appear even smarter. That’s always been the core of the concept, and the reason Doyle chose Watson’s voice and not Holmes’s to narrate the stories.
Burke was succeeded in the BBC show by Edward Hardwicke, who was good but lacked Burke’s energy. And since then, creators have caught on that Watson, far from being a comedic foil, was actually the voice of reason in the Holmes canon. So even when the overall project has been rather dire, we’ve gotten solid Watsons from the likes of Jude Law and Ian Hart. And most recently Martin Freeman has updated the character in the BBC’s stellar modern-day version.
Holmes gets all the attention, since he’s always the smartest man in the room. He’s also impatient, arrogant, occasionally bullying and very occasionally wrong. We the reader/viewer/audience see past these qualities to the great man underneath because Watson sees past them. So without Watson, we have no way to truly appreciate the world’s greatest detective. And if you make Watson an idiot... well, what does that make us?
Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, and the forthcoming Dark Jenny), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the first Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver.