Mystery (Various National Productions)

Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is, perhaps, the most popular literary character adapted to the performing arts. The adventures of Sherlock Holmes have been transformed for the dramatic stage (Sherlock Holmes, 1899, and The Crucifer of Blood, 1978), the musical stage (Baker Street, 1965), ballet (The Great Detective, 1953), film, radio and television. On television, the character has appeared in specials, series, parodies, animation, made-for-television films, and even in a recurring role-playing game by the android Data (Brent Spiner) on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The actors who have undertaken the role for television include Ronald Howard (son of film actor Leslie Howard), Alan Napier, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Tom Baker (later the Doctor in Dr. Who), Edward Woodward, Charlton Heston, Roger Moore, Leonard Nimoy, Peter O'Toole (as the voice of the detective in the Australian animated Sherlock Holmes and the Baskerville Case), and Jeremy Brett. Even Basil Rathbone, who portrayed the character in 14 feature films and eight years on the radio, played Holmes on the small screen. Comic actors such as Milton Berle, Monty Python's John Cleese, Larry Hagman, and Peter Cook have all played the master sleuth in television parodies.

Sherlock Holmes was the first fictional character adapted for television. The Three Garridebs, a trial telecast, was broadcast on 27 November 1937 from the stage of New York City's Radio City Music Hall by the American Radio Relay League. The live presentation was augmented with filmed footage to link scenes together. Louis Hector played the detective, and William Podmore played his associate, Dr. Watson.

Until 1951, Holmes' appearances on television were limited to a variety of special broadcasts, including the hour-long parody, Sherlock Holmes in the Mystery of the Sen Sen Murder, on the 5 April 1949 episode of NBC's Texaco Star Theatre. The satire featured Milton Berle and Victor Moore as Holmes and Watson, and a guest appearance by Basil Rathbone as Rathbone of Scotland Yard.

The first television series of Sherlock Holmes adventures was produced in the United Kingdom. Vandyke Pictures intended for its half-hour adaptation of The Man with the Twisted Lip, starring John Longden as Holmes and Campbell Singer as Watson, to be the first of a six-episode series. However, the pilot did not impress executives, and only the one episode was broadcast (in March 1951). Three months later, the BBC aired its own pilot, an adaptation of The Mazarin Stone, with Andrew Osborn as Holmes and Philip King as Watson. In late 1951, the BBC produced the first television series of Sherlock Holmes adventures, but with a new producer and new actors (Alan Wheatley as Holmes and Raymond Francis as Watson). Six of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories were adapted to the 35-minute format by C.A. Lejeune, a film critic for The Observer.

Basil Rathbone who, for many years gave what was considered the definitive portrayal of Holmes, reprised his role as the detective in a half-hour live presentation for the 26 May 1953 episode of CBS' Suspense. The episode, The Adventures of the Black Baronet, was adapted by Michael Dyne from an original story by crime novelist John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle, son of the character's creator. The episode was intended as a pilot for an American series, but it was not selected for programming by any network.

The first and only American television series of Sherlock Holmes adventures finally aired in syndication in the fall of 1954. The 39 half-hour original stories were produced by Sheldon Reynolds and filmed in France by Guild Films. Ronald Howard starred as Holmes and Howard Marion Crawford starred as Watson. The series' associate producer, Nicole Milinaire, is considered to be the first woman to attain a senior production role in a television series.

Since 1954, American adaptations of the Holmes stories have been limited to various made-for-television films (e.g., The Return of the World's Greatest Detective with Larry Hagman as Holmes, Sherlock Holmes in New York with Roger Moore as Holmes, and The Hound of The Baskervilles) or televised stage plays (Frank Langella's Sherlock Holmes and The Crucifer of Blood with Charleton Heston).

In addition to producing made-for-television Holmes films in Britain, the BBC continued to produce other series of Holmes adventures. A 1965 series of 12 adaptations was produced by David Goddard and featured Douglas Wilmer who, The Times noted, bore an "uncanny resemblance" to the sleuth in the original book illustrations by Sydney Paget. A 1968 series starring Peter Cushing dispensed with many of the conventions invented by other actors for the character, such as the meerschaum pipe, the deer-stalker cap, and the phrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson." The series aspired to be true to the character as written in the novels. In an attempt to capitalize on Cushing's popular work in 1950s and 1960s horror films, the BBC series accentuated the elements of horror and violence in the original stories.

In 1984, Britain's Granada Television mounted the most popular series to date. Shown under various titles (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes) in Britain, the series was broadcast in the U.S. as part of PBS' Mystery! series. Critics have praised the high quality of the series' productions, including an authentic-looking Baker Street, and Jeremy Brett's performance as Holmes has been ranked as among the finest portrayals of the detective.

The appeal of the character has not been limited to English-speaking countries. An original teleplay, The Longing of Sherlock Holmes (Touha Sherlocka Holmes), in which Holmes is tempted to commit the perfect crime, was produced for Czechoslovakian television in 1972. In 1983, Russian television produced a series of five 80-minute adaptations of Conan Doyle's stories featuring leading Soviet actors Vassily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin as Holmes and Watson.

-Susan Gibberman


The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries


Bunson, Matthew E. Encyclopedia Sherlockiana: An A-to-Z Guide To The World Of The Great Detective. New York: Macmillan, 1994.

Collins, Max Allan, and John Javna. The Best Crime & Detective TV: Perry Mason to Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files to Murder, She Wrote. New York: Harmony, 1988.

deWall, Ronald Burt. The World Bibliography of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: A Classified and Annotated List of Materials Relating to Their Lives and Adventures. New York: Bramhall House, 1974.

Eyles, Allen. Sherlock Holmes: A Centenary Celebration. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Haining, Peter. The Television Sherlock Holmes. London: Virgin, 1994.

"Shadowing a Sleuth: Holmes Stalks the City by Television-- Football Pictures are Clear." New York Times, 28 November 1937.


See also British Programming; Detective Programs