The enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes
The Great Detective has graced the big screen more than once and still enjoys great popularity today – this week a historian even found a long-lost Sherlock Holmes story in his attic. Now he is the subject of a new exhibition and a series of film screenings. Thomas Buxton finds out why Holmes never gets old
“He is a little queer in his ideas – an enthusiast in some branches of science. As far as I know he is a decent fellow enough.”
Ask anyone unfamiliar with the works of Arthur Conan Doyle which literary character the 26 words above are intended to describe and chances are that Sherlock Holmes will not be their first guess. Considering that the Great Detective is known for his grand entrances, his creator could not have used a more subtle combination of words to introduce Holmes to the Victorian world at large in the 1887 short story “A Study in Scarlet”.
Fast forward to 2015 and whilst World Wars, governments and monarchies have come and gone, Holmes is showing no signs of going anywhere. As testament to this sustained cultural interest in 221B Baker Street’s most famous occupant, we have seen 56 short stories, 4 novels and countless adaptations to date – not least Robert Downey Jr.’s and Benedict Cumberbatch’s incarnations. And now London, the city in which the majority of his escapades take place, is playing host to two events themed around the character.
One is a temporary exhibition at the Museum of London entitled Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die, which launched last October and will close its doors this April. The other takes the form of a trio of silent film screenings starring Ellie Norwood, including The Sign of Four, at the Barbican Theatre, each of which are taking place in February and March and will be accompanied by live music.
Museum of London media officer Andrew Scott, 26, confirmed that the response to their Holmes-themed exhibit, which features an all-manner of rare memorabilia such as Conan Doyle’s “Scarlet” notebook and Cumberbatch’s Belstaff jacket, has been “really positive” to date.
“That this is the first London-based Sherlock Holmes exhibition in 60 years and that it brings together lots of objects and artefacts that aren’t typically under one roof makes it a one-off chance, and therefore people are quite excited by it,” Scott says.
But if the words used to introduce Holmes did not cause this “excitement”, then three questions arise: why is he still part of what Scott calls “the cultural zeitgeist”, why is the nation’s capital an opportune location for these events and why host such events now in particular?
As to the timing of Holmes’ fully-fledged comeback to the Museum of London and the Barbican, Scott puts it down to a cultural “surge of interest”. This surge, he says, has been sparked by recent adaptations of the fictional icon.
Ask Nicholas Utechin, 63, about the reason for Holmes’ long-running cultural legacy, though, and he seems to prioritise the “well-plotted” source material over recent screen portrayals.
He is a dedicated member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London – a group which formed in 1951 and still publishes a bi-annual journal – and now serves as its historian. “They were good, well-plotted stories which benefitted from strong characterisation, the creation of a nemesis in Moriarty, the companionship for Holmes and Watson in Mrs. Hudson and the sense that you were going to be brought into something believable and well-written,” he says.
Conan Doyle’s works may still hold a certain appeal for society in 2015, then.
“I think Holmes’ quirky qualities such as his addiction to cocaine and particularly his cleverness still appeal to us today,” says Stephen Horne, 51, a specialist silent film musician who is working on the Barbican screenings. “Geniuses in fiction tend to stick around.”
Indeed, Utechin seems to agree in this respect, stating that while “London may have changed” since the character’s debut in 1887, the aspects which make him appealing enough to justify exhibitions have not.
“We like the concept of a brilliant man or woman who sees things we cannot ordinarily see,” he says. “Also, Conan Doyle kept on updating himself, so in the short stories there is a fluidity, a resonance that keeps Holmes modern in his own way.”
But has Holmes impacted upon the city of London itself and its culture? Or can the location of these events be considered a coincidence? Unlikely – Utechin agrees that “he’s a reason that tourists come to Baker Street”, calling him a “huge, iconic symbol” for his country’s capital city, while Scott goes one step further.
“Sherlock Holmes has always been indelibly linked with London,” he says. “If anything, London feels like a character in the original stories, so given the role of the Museum of London as a storyteller of this great world city, it was fitting that we hosted the exhibition.”
Despite his humble beginnings as a mere “enthusiast” and “decent fellow”, it seems that thanks to his “quirky qualities”, “well-plotted” tales and “indelible links” with his city, the Great Detective has truly left his mark on British culture. Indeed, Holmes’ newfound title of The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die seems completely appropriate for a character who lives on in exhibitions such as the Museum of London’s and screenings such as the Barbican’s more than a century after his debut.
For more information on the Museum of London’s Sherlock Holmes exhibition, visit www.museumoflondon.org.uk, or to book tickets for the Barbican Theatre’s silent film screenings, go to www.barbicantheatre.co.uk.