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By George Hopkin on 31.1.2024

Sherlock’s Case of Lasting Fame

There are not many fictional characters that have endured for as long as Sherlock Holmes has. With the second series of BBC’s hit drama ‘Sherlock’ having just finished, and with it ending on a cliff-hanger, fuelling fan speculation, the character and his stories have recently gained a whole new wave of popular attention.
Of course, with modern television and cinema, the stories have been adapted to the visual screen countless times over the years. The latest big screen adaptation, Guy Ritchie’s action-thriller version, is still grossing millions of pounds at the box-office. A now, more than ever, it seems that Sherlock Holmes, the private detective, and Doctor John Watson, his ex-army medical accomplice, are huge sensations as part of the popular mainstream.
But what is it about Sherlock Holmes and his long-suffering assistant Dr. John Watson that has helped them to entertain and enthrall through three successive centuries? The first story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, as the Holmes aficionados out there will tell you, was published in a magazine named ‘Beeton’s Christmas Annual’ in the year 1887. That was a huge one hundred and twenty five years ago.
And now the characters, conceived by Arthur Conan Doyle on the south coast of England back when Queen Victoria was reigning as monarch over an empire that spanned from Ireland to India, are still living in 221b Baker Street in Central London in the most recent television series. Now, however, they have iPhones instead of notebooks and letters, and ride in expensive BMWs instead of old-fashioned stagecoaches.
Society, and culture –and it could be said, the world – has changed since the unlikely duo solved their first 1887 mystery revolving around a killer cabby (remember that story from the first series?) and a group of Mormons that are – well – verging on delusion.
But Holmes and Watson have been launched into our contemporary world by Doctor Who supremo Stephen Moffat, and they are thriving in it.
Sherlock and Watson are now very much in vogue. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman – the latter is soon to play Bilbo Baggins in a highly anticipated film adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’ – are fast gaining widespread fame because of their performances as Holmes and Watson respectively.
What Cumberbatch brings to Sherlock is a sense of genius, an insensitive, over-rational attitude towards life, and also an insecurity that was seen most evidently in the episode ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ with mysterious adventuress Irene Adler (played in all her seductiveness by Lara Pulver), and throughout the series with arch-nemesis James Moriarty (realised as a psychopath by Andrew Scott). To Watson, BAFTA-winning actor Freeman brings an air of reliability and honesty, and a lot of awkward discomfort with Sherlock’s – at times – tiresome uniqueness.
The most important aspect of their acting, though, is that they bring chemistry to the on-screen relationship – the actors make Holmes and Watson seem like a true partnership. They appear so real that the audience members have no problem with suspending their belief.
But this is no credit to the man who actually crafted the original stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a medicine graduate from the University of Edinburgh, and a professional doctor-turned-novelist, is the real mastermind. Coming out of a love of detective fiction by writers such as Wilkie Collins, the stories of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (narrated by the latter) have been a mainstay in the archives of masterful crime writing and are national treasures.
When Holmes and Watson set off to solve a case, the reader – or the audience member – wants to be a part of the immediate excitement that is sure to ensue. John Watson, swept along by the spontaneous whims of the original private detective, is caught up in the story in a similar way to how the audience member is dragged along: neither know exactly what is going through the detective’s mind, but both are eager to join in because they are guaranteed an extraordinary time.
In a Sherlock Holmes story, the suspense of the case is always felt, and no party – not Watson or the reader, and certainly not the insatiable Holmes – is happy until the plot has reached a conclusion and is laid aside. We are not satisfied until we know about Hound at Baskerville, and what the chemical plant is hiding inside its facilities, or what the password is to Adler’s iPhone and the compromising material on it; we want answers concerning Sherlock’s pseudo-escape from death, and will say that we cannot wait until we get the answers.
Perhaps it is a mixture of expectancy and excitement, fascination and awe, and brilliant acting and story-telling, that makes Sherlock Holmes and his cases so lasting – and what has kept both Victorian readers and twenty-first century visual audiences perched on the edge of their seats through it all.

See the trailer for the BBC adaptation series here:


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