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From silent movies to ‘The Irregulars:’ A brief history of Sherlock Holmes on screen

Henry Lloyd-Hughes in The Irregulars
(Image credit: Netflix)

In 2012, the Guinness World Records announced that Sherlock Holmes was “the most portrayed literary human character in film & TV.” At that time, he had been depicted 254 times on-screen by more than 75 actors and this number continues to rise with the likes of Jonny Lee Miller, Henry Cavill, and now Henry Lloyd-Hughes in the forthcoming Netflix series The Irregulars joining the illustrious list. From Victorian settings to mirror the era this character was conceived to contemporary adaptations, the private detective’s appeal can be sought in any period. Why is Holmes so enticing to audiences and writers alike? 

The consulting detective first appears in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet before gaining popularity in a series of short stories in The Strand Magazine. True crime and fiction detailing unsolved and mysterious cases have long captured the imagination, which remains true in the present day. Appearing in 60 stories total (56 short and four novels), Conan Doyle’s prickly expert was so beloved that after he was killed off in 1893, the outcry was so loud that the author resurrected him (or rather he escaped death in a Holmesian manner). This might be the first occurrence of a successful campaign by fans and is another legacy that can be attributed to this particular character.

The movie business was in its infancy when Sherlock Holmes fell to his death (and was then brought back to life), but it is hardly surprising that his first appearance aligns with the early days of silent cinema. The first known adaptation is Arthur Marvin’s 30-second (shorter than a Quibi!) Sherlock Holmes Baffled in 1900 starring an unknown actor as the titular character. Many more silent entries followed proving that multiple renditions of Conan Doyle’s work — as well as brand new stories — are not unique to the 21st century. Britain, Germany, Denmark, France, and the United States all jumped on the Holmes moving picture bandwagon early. Even before cinema took hold, this character had walked the stage with several playwrights lifting Holmes off the page in a different creative medium.  

More than a century later, television and movies are still finding ways to introduce the literary icon to fans new and old. The world Conan Doyle crafted is so rich that a whole cast of characters have been depicted in numerous adaptations, whether love interest Irene Adler or the conventional Inspector Lestrade (Holmes has a very low opinion of Scotland Yard and its police officers). One recurring group is the Baker Street Irregulars who Holmes employees to trail suspects and find intel for him without arousing suspicion. This group is typically street boys, although in the contemporary set CBS series Elementary this a network of expert adults Sherlock (Miller) refers to as Irregulars (he also utilizes a hacker group called “Everyone” to gather clues). The new Netflix series is not the first time this group has headlined their own TV series; that honor goes to the 1983 BBC series The Baker Street Boys. The 2007 BBC film Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars also places this group front and center with Jonathan Pryce playing the world-famous detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as one of the Irregulars. A twist on this dynamic came courtesy of Millie Bobby Brown as the eponymous Enola Holmes who ended up hidden in plain sight in London dressed like one of her brother’s informants. Enola Holmes proved that conventional adaptations are not the only way forward and Netflix has expanded its extended Holmes universe with the arrival of the Irregulars TV series — the two projects are not linked.  

Much like Enola Holmes, The Irregulars is taking a step back in time to the Victorian era in which Conan Doyle crafted them. This is not an unusual approach to this character, but it differs from the contemporary offerings that dominated television in the last decade. The Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Sherlock was a massive success, producing 13 feature-length episodes over a seven-year period. Utilizing characters and storylines from the original source material (as well as new cases), the Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss-created series leaned into the almost supernatural observation skills that have made this character a paragon of forensic science long before techniques become the norm in crime labs. His ability to discern details about a person and laser in on a motive suggests Holmes was way ahead of his time in the art of behavioral science.

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in Elementary

(Image credit: CBS)

Perhaps even more successful at a contemporary adaptation is the CBS procedural Elementary, which explores Holmes’ substance level abuse beyond a surface-level quirk. In this iteration, Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is introduced to the consulting detective as his sober companion before Sherlock imparts his specific skill set on his new roommate. Heroin addiction is a thread running throughout, which includes this observation by Sherlock in the Season 3 episode “The Eternity Injection:” 

“It's the process of maintaining my sobriety. It's repetitive. And it's relentless. And above all, it's tedious. When I left rehab, I... I accepted your influence, I committed to my recovery. And now, two years in, I find myself asking, 'is this it?' My sobriety is simply a grind. It's just this leaky faucet that requires constant maintenance, and in return offers only not to drip.”

As with most long-running procedurals turning out 20-plus episodes a year, there are ebbs and flows but at its core, the platonic relationship is a reminder that this dynamic can work in different time periods, settings, and even with a female Watson. 

Long before Cumberbatch or Miller took on this iconic character, other renowned figures had embraced the detective mantel including Christopher Lee, Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, Charlton Heston, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, and Michael Caine. Perhaps the first person to leave a long-lasting stamp on this character is Shakespearean stage actor Basil Rathbone who first played the Baker Street resident in a 1939 double-bill — The Hound of the Baskervilles followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He starred in 15 movies in total over a seven-year period, which switched the Victorian setting of the first two movies for a contemporary one. Yes, Sherlock Holmes aided the allies in three WWII storylines (including protecting a scientist from Moriarty/the Nazis). He wasn’t the first actor to play Holmes, but he left a mark so indelible that a recording of his voice was used in the 1986 Disney animation The Great Mouse Detective

The world Arthur Conan Doyle created is so rich that it is also ripe for children’s adaptations (see also Sherlock Bones) and the Disney venture holds a special place for me as it was the first film I saw in a movie theater. My relationship with these characters continued with The Hound of the Baskervilles novel, which I read at the age of 9 (scary stories were and still are a favorite). On television, Jeremy Brett’s decade-long run as Holmes is vital in expanding my appreciation of this world and it was a role he made his own. “More than any other actor since Basil Rathbone, Mr. Brett was regarded as the quintessential Holmes: breathtakingly analytical, given to outrageous disguises and the blackest moods and relentless in his enthusiasm for solving the most intricate crimes,” wrote Mel Gussow in the New York Times when Brett died in 1995. If you want to delve back into the archives, Mystery! (or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as it is called in the UK) is available to watch on the streaming platform BritBox.  

Holmes has never been out of print since A Study in Scarlet was first published and you would be hard-pressed to find a year without an adaptation on the stage, screen, or airwaves. The long-awaited follow-up to Robert Downey Jr’s 2011 Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows has hit some production delays (due to the global pandemic), but is still on the cards. The game, when it comes to movie and TV adaptations of the great detective, is always afoot.    

The Irregulars will be available from Friday, March 26 on Netflix.