The Original Sherlock Holmes

I have a longstanding adoration for Basil Rathbone, not just because he is – very probably – the sexiest man who’s ever lived, but also because I love his performance as Sherlock Holmes:

Basil Rathbone

I have a box set of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films Rathbone made with Nigel Bruce between 1939-1946, and it is the most oft-watched box set I own. House of Fear and Terror by Night are my all time favourites, and I have watched both those films over and over again.

For many people, Jeremy Brett is the definitive Sherlock Holmes and it is, indeed, the case that the Brett version is far more true to the books than the Rathbone one. Rathbone’s Holmes is warmer – there is no evidence of a cocaine addiction, or much in the way of Holmes’s depressive nature. Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes lacks the cold asceticism Jeremy Brett brings to the part. These films are done with a much lighter touch, and there is much more of a sense of very close friendship between Holmes and Watson:

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the Jeremy Brett version – I do, very much, and have the box sets for that one as well, but I would not be able to watch them over and over again the way I do with the Basil Rathbone ones. This is partly because the Rathbone films have a much greater air of nostalgia. Most of them are set in “modern day” – meaning the 1940’s, which, I think, gives them a sort of sophisticated elegance that the Victorian setting lacks. Plus the fact that they’re filmed in black and white, which makes them even more effective, especially in the spookier films, such as The Scarlet Claw.

Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes may not be as cold and clinical as Arthur Conan Doyle’s original, but he is still a master of deduction, and ferociously intelligent (you can tell just by looking at him!):

Inspector Lestrade and Dr Watson are both portrayed as bumbling – if good natured – fools in these films which, of course, is not accurate to the books, but allows for plenty of fine, surprisingly understated, comic moments. There is also the odd bit of accidental comedy when the story runs into the most delicious melodrama that seems quite over the top by today’s standards but – I won’t lie – I love a bit of thunder and lightning, and villainous laughs, and da da da theme music from time to time.

In short, the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films may not be the most accurate portrayal, but I think they bring something very special to the stories in terms of style, warmth, cosiness and nostalgia.

Anyway – what sparked this blog post was that it was my birthday yesterday and my lovely Mum bought me a Basil Rathbone bracelet and matching necklace from the utterly fabulous Alternative Boo Teek (for whom I have already expressed my love here):


How unbelievably cool? The photos really don’t do these pieces justice – they’re both literally stuffed with all manner of ghoulish charms – but they are totally gorgeous and combine two of my favourite things – Basil Rathbone and the macabre. Jewellery doesn’t get any better than this.  

And – because it’s beyond awesome – here’s a snap of my birthday cake, lovingly baked for me by my Mum. As anyone who knows their nursery rhymes will recognise, it is the notorious pie from sing a song of sixpence:

Yes, indeed, one of the only things that can come close to Basil Rathbone + macabre, is cake + macabre. Where possible, I always prefer my birthday cake to be just a little bit macabre, ghoulish, sinister or otherwise disturbing.

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6 Responses to “The Original Sherlock Holmes”

  1. Neil Ford Says:

    Bugger! Missed wishing you Happy Birthday, so will have to do it now. Must try harder in future 🙂

    Love the cake! You mum is awesome. Hope it tasted as good as it looked.

    Hope you had a great birthday. Owe you birthday drinkies the next time we meet up.

    – Neil. xx

  2. Charlie Says:

    Happy birthday! I love the cake, that’s some awesome inspiration.

    The only Sherlock Holmes film I’ve seen is the new one and I thought it was brilliant. I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing others, and enjoyed reading your thoughts on the differences in portrayals.

  3. Suzanne McLeod Says:

    Yay! Great pressie! And Wow! What a cake! V. impressive + macabre = FTW 🙂

  4. Alex Bell Says:

    Neil – Yes, the cake did taste as good as it looked. There was marzipan!

    Charlie – haven’t seen the new one yet but I suspect it’s much more action-packed and fast-paced than the Basil Rathbone ones!

    Suzanne – I loves the macabre 😉

  5. Kathryn Cronin Says:

    completely and utterly agree on the Basil front – and I am creating a Sherlock inspired afternoon tea, so was looking for inspiration. I am also really interested in whether you lawyer and write – or now just write?

  6. Alex Bell Says:

    A Sherlock inspired cream tea?! Aarghh, it’s just too perfect! What an amazing idea. An Arsenic and Old Lace cream tea would also be amazing.

    And, no, I don’t lawyer and write. I didn’t actually qualify as a solicitor. I completed my law degree and started the LPC before dropping out because it was sucking out my soul.

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