Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in Mr Holmes

On the first day of the new exhibition at the Museum of LondonSHERLOCK HOLMES - The Man who never Lived and will never Die, I was introduced as the latest actor to play Sherlock Holmes and I replied:

“Now you know why I was asked to open this wondrous exhibition which tells us so much about the fictional detective's life in literature and drama and about the London of the Holmes era. I'm not a Londoner any more than Arthur Conan Doyle was, although I do now live here, close by the original Chinatown where Holmes took opium in the course of his investigations.

“Sir Arthur was educated in my home county of Lancashire up north, attending Stonyhurst College, on which he based his Baskerville Hall where the Hound terrified the locals. Interesting to me that J.R.R. Tolkien later stayed at the same College when his son was teaching there and seems to have based elements of The Shire on the environs.

“I'm often greeted by film-fans with ‘You are exactly as I'd always imagined Gandalf to be.’ Well hardly ‘exactly’ : Tolkien described Gandalf's eyebrows stretching beyond the wide brim of his pointy hat, which mine didn't in the movies. Nor did I wear the black boots of Tolkien's description. What I did look like, was the image of Gandalf that Alan Lee and John Howe had imagined in their illustrations to the books.

“It's the same with Mr Holmes. Just as he never said ‘Elementary my dear Watson,’ (that was first spoken, in a film, by the actor Clive Brook) he did not definitely wear a deerstalker (and certainly NEVER in London). What he wore, at least according to his biographer Dr Watson, was an ‘ear-flapped travelling cap.’ The deerstalker was invented by the first illustrator Sidney Paget and then adopted by the American star William Gillette in his 1,300 stage performances as the detective. It was Gillette, the first actor to play him, who introduced the curving calabash pipe into the Holmesian mythology, probably because a briar would have obscured his face from the orchestra stalls. Holmes (unlike Gandalf) did not smoke exclusively a pipe — he also enjoyed cigars and cigarettes.

“Playing these iconic fictional icons isn't as alarming as you might think. How to follow memories of Basil Rathbone on film, Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing on television or John Gielgud on radio? Just as when you play Richard 111, King Lear or Hamlet, it's best not to worry about the actors who preceded you. Be your own Hamlet and take courage in that you rarely see a bad one. Nor a bad Sherlock Holmes come to that.

“Now I am the latest to play the part. There have been many wondrous manifestations of Mr Holmes. My job was eased because I am the oldest by far of my predecessors, 93, balding, with a big nose (as Conan Doyle wrote); with a stick and a stoop and certainly no deerstalker.

“Our film Mr Holmes reveals Sherlock in retirement, tackling one last unsolved case. We filmed much of it on location in London, where it is still possible to evoke times gone by: the London represented in part of this exhibition. Here you can examine the Baker Street where Holmes and Watson never lived, any more than Peter Pan ever flew from Kensington Gardens, or Sir John Falstaff drank in Eastcheap, or Sweeney Todd slit throats in Fleet Street.

“Those are for exhibitions of the future. For now I'm delighted to declare this one OPEN!”


16 October 2014

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