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On Playing Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone, creator of radio’s version of Doyle’s famous sleuth, sees character as part of old England.

The following is an article written by Basil Rathbone. Titled “On Playing Sherlock Holmes,” it was published in the March 1940 issue of Radio Varieties.

Many persons ask me what is the difference in your feeling when you face the NBC microphone as Sherlock Holmes and when you face the camera. I would be only too willing to oblige them through Radio Varieties except that there is really no difference. In either case, I feel Holmes to be as real as my Dr. Watson, Mr. Nigel Bruce.

Like countless millions of Holmes’ admirers throughout the world, I see him as a very part of old England. As I conceive him, and my concept may differ radically with those of Editor Wilton Rosenthal’s readers, Holmes was a man with tremendous powers of concentration. His absorption in his calling was extraordinary. Very properly, he never associated with women; evinced no interest in them. (Imagine what a hell it would have been to be his wife!) He was not a neat man in his personal habits. He was inattentive as to minor details of dress and deportment. As we would say in America, “he just wouldn’t be bothered.”

With all that, I often wonder myself why he became such a great beloved character to the English people who literally rose up in arms when his creator, the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, seeking to turn his talents to more serious writing, killed him off in one of his stories. I think it’s because he was a man of the people. He belonged to the man in the street. There is more than fiction in the statement which Sir Arthur attributed to one of his characters, that everyone in England slept better at night because Sherlock Holmes was around.

There is no other character in English literature quite like Sherlock Holmes. There have been other great detectives in fiction, of course, but somehow they have never been able to get hold of the imagination as has Holmes. There is Philo Vance, for instance, whose exploits have been read by millions in the books of S. S. Van Dine. I played him once on the screen, but somehow, I had the feeling he was a little too smart, that he belonged to Park Avenue and not Main Street. He didn’t have the common touch which Sherlock, in spite of his erratic brilliance, manages to convey.

Portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on the screen, I might say, causes me more worry than my portrayal on the radio. The screen leaves little to the imagination, and anyone in the audience may disagree with my idea of how Sherlock Holmes should look and act. Radio leaves every listener free to draw individual mental pictures of Holmes. Which, in a way, is as it should be, since Holmes lies on the border of fantasy. He has charm and verve, but no one actually knew him. This gives every actor who plays Holmes an unexcelled chance to use his imagination, but also exposes him to criticism from every person with an imagination of his own. But come what may in criticism, on the screen or on NBC, I have seldom relished a role as much as his one. It must be the English in me.

Note: Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes on the radio show The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which began on the NBC-Blue network on October 2, 1939. On May 7, 1943, the weekly series switched to the Mutual network. Rathbone’s final episode playing the famous detective was May 27, 1946.


  1. I agree with Ticobasiljd. This post is a treat! When so much of Rathbone’s disdain for
    the Holmes character abounds, it’s refreshing to hear his initial reaction to playing the role as one of insight into and genuine enthusiasm for the character!
    The article, it seems, was written as he was enjoying the success of the two Fox productions: Hound, and Adventures.

    It seems clear that Rathbone had not yet consented to sign a contract with MGM who would subsequently loan him out to Universal for twelve more Holmes adventures. All for a guaranteed paycheck during the war years. In addition, Rathbone played Holmes on the radio for 220 episodes spanning 9 years, each episode paying him $1500 [Selover]. Show me the money, Gerry.

    I’m not one for “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” BUT, here goes: If BR could have embraced his success as Holmes, he might have enjoyed the adulation and been more at peace with himself about caving in to a contract. He would never be at peace with being a “victim” of type-casting. And yet, he consents to signing on for a dozen Holmes adventures. I say “consent” because he knew exactly what he was doing and why. Only film-acting would pay the bills he and wifey were racking up. ’Til his dying day. ):

    Later, he begins dissing Holmes, and his identification with the role in the eyes of his fans. Especially his anecdote about shunning the boys who insisted on calling him Holmes instead of “Mr. Rathbone.” I can’t help but feel there’s a touch of bitterness and disdain for his audience/fans as well. Something I wouldn’t expect from an actor so many of his colleagues (and the critics, even) genuinely praised as the consummate professional.

    If the article was part of the Fox publicity machinery, no harm done. So, yes, an excellent and uplifting post, Ms. Jessen. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. He needn’t have fretted about criticism on not looking the part of Holmes — he’s as close as anyone could ever get to the Sidney Padget illustrations!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. ticobasiljd says

    Thanks so much for the much-needed BR treat. Wish he’d had more to say about the technicalities, studio setup, off-mike pranks and jokes, etc., but so be it. And so much of this stuff was usually written by someone other than the actor, but this reads like the real thing. It was a pleasure, by the way, to see Mr. Bruce in several movies recently on TCM, several with Lassie (lotsa tears emanating from this animal-lover!) and one Welsh one with Bette Davis.

    Liked by 1 person

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