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Standing Up for Nigel...

Philip Reeve salutes the definitive Dr Watson.



Everybody seems to like the BBC's new, modernised Sherlock Holmes, although I have to admit I haven't yet watched it.  I don't have any problem with up-dating the stories to a modern setting - Holmes is a character strong enough to hold his own in any era, and I'm rather fond of the other current up-dating of him, House.  Much as I like the foggy late-Victorian settings of the original stories there would be little point in another period-detail-heavy dramatisation of them (there is none at all in the steampunk funfair-ride of the recent Hollywood version.)

No, what stopped me watching the new Holmes was those three dread letters BB and C.  I've sat down so often in the past to watch their much-hyped and/or much-praised new shows, and ended up enduring whole episodes of Spooks, Survivors, Merlin, Torchwood, Robin Hood, sundry ham-stuffed re-imaginings of Dickens and Austen, and that poisonously stupid thing about the Pre-Raphaelites that was on last summer.  It's reached a point where the BBC logo that appears on screen at the start of their dramas seems to serve the same purpose as the warning symbol on a container of toxic waste.

Still, as I say, everybody seems to like Sherlock, and I've not seen it yet, so I must give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that the Beeb has done something decent for once.  The only reason I mention it at all is because, in the pre-publicity interviews and write-ups that have been circulating this past week, the writer and producer of the new show have been keen to explain that they are setting out to portray Dr Watson as the brave, resourceful, intelligent chap he was in Conan Doyle's stories and not the bumbling old duffer played by Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Holmes movies of the 1930s and '40s (which were also mostly up-dated, of course).

This is a complaint that you hear repeatedly from serious Sherlock Holmes afficionados (I expect they're  called Holmesians, or Holmies, or Holmesosexuals or something).  Somehow, the image of Nigel Bruce's Watson clowning around and blustering "Good Lord Holmes!" in a bunch of slightly ropey black and white films has seeped into the public consciousness and eclipsed the Dr Watson of the stories so completely that even people who have never seen the films themselves assume that Watson was, well, a bit of a twit.

"Great Scott, Holmes, you don't mean...!"
Which is indeed sad in some ways, and fair play to the makers of the Sherlock for wanting to rectify it.  But I would like to stand up for Nigel Bruce and his blundering Watson.  It was a very good comic performance by a very loveable actor, and the whole idea of pairing the super-intelligent Holmes with an amiable numbskull is a very funny one.  As well as permanently skewing our perception of poor John Watson MD, I suspect it has fed into that comedy tradition, which stretches through Morecambe and Wise and The Goon Show to Blackadder and The Mighty Boosh, in which a would-be clever-dick is undercut at every turn by his dim-witted sidekick.


"Ooo-err, Holmes..."
Indeed, the fact that it has had such a strong effect on subsequent generations' image of Dr Watson suggests that it's actually a much more powerful creation than the original.  Writer Mark Gatiss, interviewed abut his new version recently, said that Holmes wouldn't be friends with someone stupid because 'that's what weak people do', and I suppose in the terms of modern, psychological drama that may be a workable argument (although I'm not sure Bruce's Watson is stupid, just bumbling and very, very English).  But Sherlock Holmes doesn't have to play by the rules of modern psychological drama.  Almost as soon as Conan Doyle first unleashed him on the pages of the Strand magazine he became a folklore character; the modern equivalent of King Arthur or Robin Hood, the hero of an ever-expanding series of unlikely and often non-canonical adventures.  But where Arthur has Merlin and Lancelot and Robin Hood has Will Scarlet and Little John, Holmes had only Dr Watson; a doughty enough Victorian gent, handy with his service revolver but (whisper it) kind of dull.  What dear old Nigel Bruce did, whether by accident or design, was to find an idea of Watson that was powerful enough to stand beside Holmes; opposite and complementary to the great detective; perhaps not fit for purpose in a serious, modern re-imagining of the stories, but still the Watson who walks with Holmes through our imaginations, often tripping over and constantly saying, "But I say Holmes, how do you do it?"


The Bee says: Well played, sir!


Next time:  Why Roger Moore was the best James Bond.


4 comments:

CaroleMcDonnell said...

You wrote: "Writer Mark Gatiss, interviewed abut his new version recently, said that Holmes wouldn't be friends with someone stupid because 'that's what weak people do', and I suppose in the terms of modern, psychological drama that may be a workable argument (although I'm not sure Bruce's Watson is stupid, just bumbling and very, very English). But Sherlock Holmes doesn't have to play by the rules of modern psychological drama."

Wow! That quote from Gatiss bothered me. Friendship is so much more than matching intelligences. And it's not so much that Watson is dull.... he just kinda "is" and then is nothing more than "is." -C

Philip Reeve said...

Right! In the stories he's really a sort of frame through which we see Holmes. And the quote from Mark Gatiss bothers me too, though I didn't particularly want to take issue with it...

Supertramp said...

Of course Bruce didn’t exactly stretch himself. Roles in Treasure Island, The Scarlet Pimpernel, even two Hitchcock films all saw him reprising (honing?) the role of bumbling spluttering incredulous toff. Still, wonderful actor.

I wonder what Hugh Grant would make of Dr. Watson?

Philip Reeve said...

That's true, of course. But a lot of movie actors really only do the one character, and he did do it very well. I always thought Ian Carmichael would have made a good Watson, too.

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