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Top Ten Screen Sherlocks

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Sherlock Holmes. He’s surely the greatest detective in literary history, isn’t he? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s logical genius appears in more than sixty stories of investigative brilliance, most of which have found themselves on screen at some point. We’ve seen more than 75 different actors don the famous deerstalker in over 250 films and TV series over the years. But which of those playing him really cracked the case? We lit our pipe and got to thinking. We eliminated the impossible and came up with these – our Top 10 Screen Sherlocks:


10. John Cleese

A bit of a left-field choice this one, admittedly. The Monty Python starred isn’t exactly renowned for his role as The Great Detective, but his performance in the 1977 spoof film The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It is pretty charming nonetheless. And with Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring (the ever-excellent Arthur Lowe) as Dr. Watson, what’s not to love?!

9. Peter Cook

Legendary comedy double act Peter Cook and Dudley Moore took on The Hound of the Baskervilles a year after Cleese and Lowe played the crime-solving duo for laughs. Peter Cook brought his typically acerbic and dry personality to the role, giving his Sherlock a really unique spin. It works though. The wiry, superior, snooty traits of Cook and Holmes mesh perfectly together.

8. Rupert Everett

There hadn’t been much sexiness in Sherlock adaptations over the years until Mr. Everett showed up in Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Silk Stocking. Undoubtedly the most handsome and tallest Holmes ever seen on screen, our hero had never made so many viewers swoon…

7. Michael Caine

“My name is Sherlock Holmes and not a lot of people know that…” Except it wasn’t. You see, in the 1988 comedy Without a Clue, Caine played Reginald Kincaid, a drunk actor hired by Dr Watson (Sir Ben Kingsley) to pretend to be Sherlock. Confused? Well, it’s quite elementary, dear reader. You see, in this version of the story, Watson is the brains of the outfit and uses a bumbling ‘Sherlock’ as his stooge. It’s a funny and clever spin on the characters and premise we all know so well.

6. Ian Richardson

Best known for his role as the manipulative Tory MP Francis Urquhart in the brilliant ’80s BBC drama House of Cards (now remade with Kevin Spacey in the lead), Richardson was a much-admired Sherlock Holmes. He only appeared in two TV films in the role but left an indelible mark on our hero’s legacy. He went on to play Dr Joseph Bell (the man many believed Conan Doyle based his protagonist on) in the 2000 BBC series, Murder Rooms.

5. Peter Cushing

The 1959 horror version of The Hound of the Baskervilles is generally considered as one of the best Hammer Horror films ever. Behind the magnifying glass was Dr. Frankenstein himself, Peter Cushing. Cushing was so popular and convincing in the role that the BBC hired him to play Holmes again in 1968. Part of his success came from the air of authenticity he lent to the role. As an aficionado of Doyle’s work, he adds little touches and insight that really brought Sherlock to life.

4. Robert Downey Jr.

Younger readers might well picture Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr. as soon as the famous detective’s name is uttered. And that should be somewhat of a sacrilege when you consider all the great thesps to have played Holmes over the years. But the 47 year-old New Yorker is such an absolutely fantastic Sherlock that it isn’t. Aided by his loyal assistant Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), this all-action 21st Century Holmes loses none of his intuition and guile. Even when he’s punching and shooting people!

3. Basil Rathbone

To many, the debonair and suave Rathbone is Sherlock Holmes. And with good reason, as the South African-born actor played the deerstalker-wearing detective a whopping fourteen times between 1939 and 1946. Basil’s Holmes is an altogether friendlier, more approachable character, wise but not patronising. The polar opposite to the more recent – though potentially more exciting – incarnations.

2. Jeremy Brett

While there have been plenty of movies and short/one-off TV series, there have been no long-running serials. With the exception of Granada’s series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which saw the Baker Street-dwelling Holmes on our screens for a decade, from 1984-94. So in screen time alone (The Adventures of… had 42 episodes in total), Brett’s up there. And it just so happens that he was excellent (hence his place at No. 2!)

1. Benedict Cumberbatch

The BBC’s incredibly successful Sherlock series is due to return for a third series very soon. It’s won three BAFTAs and even been nominated for Emmys and Grammys, thanks – in no small part – to the wonderful performances of the man behind The Master of Deduction, the amply-named Benedict Cumberbatch. The London-born actor’s modern take on Holmes is both original and yet true to its source and always truly fascinating. Well done, Benedict – you’re our number one Sherlock!
Have we omitted your favourite big or small screen Sherlock? Let us know in the comments below!

Further reading: Top Ten Big Screen Female Killers and Top Ten Classic Crime Books

1 Comment

    You’ve missed Christopher Plummer and Nicol Williamson. Note should also be taken of Roger Moore, Charlton Heston and John Wood on stage.

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