The thing (problem? Curse? Blessing?Challenge?) with writing a character that’s already well known is how much do you base it on other people’s interpretations?
Now ACD (Arthur Conan Doyle) just gave us a little bit of Martha Hudson and Mary Watson, and all future interpretations tended to be just in the background. All the portrayals are quite different, so when I came to write about them, I took ACD’s few words, and made the rest up out of my own head.
But Sherlock Holmes – ah, now he is different. He is a very clear character in the books, and yet every interpretation is subtly different. (the same could be said of Poirot, or Hamlet). So which one do I think of when I write him? William Gillette first, iconic portrayal, who fell in love and got married? Basil Rathbone’s confident, rather sexy Holmes? Peter Cushing’s commanding presence? Douglas Wilsher’s broken hero? Benedict Cumberbatch borderline sociopath? Or Jeremy Brett’s complex, layered, quicksilver portrayal of a man tortured by his own brilliance?
Actors have a gift to read a text, and bring out qualities and influences the reader can’t see. It’s one thing to read the words on the page, another to stand up and say the words, and make them believable, and alive. Therefore, good performances bring a whole new view on the original character – still Holmes, but a different angle. Which one could I use? Which one would I see when I wrote my Holmes?
All have qualities I admire, and like. They were all influences, because I didn’t just want the Holmes from the book. That is Holmes seen through Watson’s forgiving, idolising eyes, as the brilliant hero, with the great heart behind the great mind that we see only once. That is not the Holmes I need. I need Sherlock seen through Mary and Mrs Hudson’s eyes – still brilliant, but flawed, exasperating, and yet, in a way vulnerable, questioning himself in a way Watson would never see.
So I looked at all the portrayals and in the end, settled for Jeremy Brett, with a hint of Benedict Cumberbatch. That gives me my flawed, irritating, and yet loved hero. It gave me a Sherlock Holmes Mary and Martha could care for, whilst being annoyed by him. (And I have to admit I love writing the Mrs Hudson and Sherlock Holmes scenes).
Oh, and as for Doctor Watson? Complete mash-up of Edward Hardwicke and Martin Freeman. Perfect.