Weekly Forum: 29 July 2014

Doctor Who:

This week’s Forum delves into the various screen and television portrayals of Doctor Watson. If we begin with the earliest Watson’s, including Roland Young and others, move through the Nigel Bruce period, then to the David Burke and Edward Hardwicke portrayals with Jeremy Brett, on to Jude Law, Martin Freeman, and Lucy Liu, can we contrast the Watsons and what each of them add to or take away from our own ideal version of John Watson?

Our own Society Members, Kieran McMullen “Raleigh” and Molly Carr “Brenda,” have written excellent books on the Dr Watson subject (The Many Watsons by Kieran McMullen and In Search of Doctor Watson by Molly Carr).  Both are highly recommended to all who are interested in the Watson history. They are available on Amazon.

The key to this discussion is what you think and how you wish your Doctor Watson to be and remain. Please join in the discussion. We are most interested in your thoughts.

Comments

Weekly Forum: 29 July 2014 — 30 Comments

  1. Watson is certainly not the Nigel Bruce portrayal. Though, when considering the great film Watsons, Bruce is immediately the first one that most people think of. And considering the time and the formula movies of the period he is the perfect “B” movie foil. Charlie Chan had Number One Son or Mantan Morland for comic relief. Perry Mason (Warren William) had Spudsy (Alan Jenkins) and even Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre) had Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom or an equivalent in each movie. So I believe we can forgive Bruce for playing the comic relief.
    If I could form the perfect Watson for film he would be a combination of Jude Law, David Burke and Vitali Solomin. Each has brought both action and depth to the character. Each is a classic type A personality who must keep their own thoughts and emotions in check in order to deal with Holmes. Burke, of course, does that best. Law, I think, plays Watson more as I want him to be than as he was in the Doyle stories. Solomin I think ties with Burke in playing Watson true to the original.
    People might like to know (and Buttons feel free to remove this statement) that all profit from the book “The Many Watsons” goes straight to the Undershaw Preservation Trust. Neither I nor MX Publishing make any money from the sales. I want to thank Steve Emecz for making that happen.

  2. I have to agree about Burke’s portrayal of Watson. I was just thinking yesterday of how Burke, Hardewick and Brett were so fortunate to have the supporting casts they had. I was making a lame joke about the unpleasant Ruecastle child stomping roaches, and Joss Aukland’s brilliant portrayal of Jetho Ruecastle was playing in my mind at the time.

  3. Silly machine put me out before I was quite finished. I also agree with your statement about Jude Law’s portrayal being the idealized Watson in my mind. I’ve said often that I can forgive the film maker (Ritchie?) much because they got Watson ‘right’. Of course that swashbuckling is just a bit of Watson. As soon as I say that, I see Hardwicke in my mind raising himself up and saying with quiet dignity: “If I can be of service Holmes.’ And, yep, there is my Watson, too. I am a Martin Freeman fan–big time!–but seems unfair to compare him with the Granda because of the difference in time periods. Freeman has no Victorian constraints to work within.

  4. Excellent and insightful comments thus far…..I look forward to much enjoyment in reading what else is to come.
    My only regret is that James Mason only had one chance to play The Good Doctor…..he really was wonderful and I would have liked to have seen more of him in the role.

    • James Mason was a perfect match for his Holmes, too. You can see why Plummer’s man of energy would need someone a little more grounded as a partner.

    • While James Mason was good (I always enjoy the pea eating skit) do you really think he was on a par with Burke or Hardwick? I admit I have a personal antipathy toward Mason which probably colors my evaluation.

  5. I think Jude Law’s performance is the first film is as close to the “real” man as I’ve seen before. He’s calm but not passive, loyal but not blindly so, and willing to let himself get pulled places by Holmes. I think he’s the fullest example of “Army Dr. Watson” we’ve ever gotten. (I’d like to see his performance in some better material, though.)

    Hardwicke edges out Burke by only the slightest margin, as Burke’s episodes have a little too much of the “You amaze me, Holmes!” that Hardwicke turns into quiet admiration. Hardwicke and Brett are partners and equals in their pairing, Burke is always running a step behind. (Just one step, mind, but never on equal footing.)

    What I find funny to observe, however, is that when we have an exceptional Watson, we often get a controversial Holmes, and vice versa. I’d love to play cross-century armchair casting associate and pair these doctors with different detectives.

  6. Since Raleigh starts with an analysis of what Watson “is not”, I shall endeavor to conduct a short analysis of what Watson IS. We know that he is “a man of action”, a military man, a medical man, a former athlete, a lady’s man, and a man with a short temper (as evidenced by the Victorian era army expression of “to keep a bull pup” as a euphemism for quick temper.) We further know that he is intelligent (“a conductor of light”), loyal, brave, discrete, compassionate, is a crack shot, and possesses a strong sense of honor.
    I admit that I haven’t seen every screen adaptation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but I have seen a fair number of on-screen interpretations of the good doctor to render an educated opinion as to who, in my humble opinion, comes closest to the Dr. Watson we encounter in the canon… at least as far as I am concerned. For the purpose of this analysis, I will consider the following actors and their portrayal of Holmes’ stalwart companion and closest friend based upon the traits listed above:
    Nigel Bruce (Basil Rathbone’s trusted sidekick)
    Nigel Stock (Watson to both Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing) Colin Blakely (opposite Robert Stephens in “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”)
    Robert Duvall (Watson to Nicole Williamson’s Holmes in “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution”)
    James Mason (Christopher Plummer’s loyal companion in “Murder By Decree”)
    Ian Hart (twice Watson–first opposite Richard Rexburg in “Hound of the Baskerville”, and then alongside Rupert Everett in “The Silk Stocking”)
    David Burke (Jeremy Brett’s first Watson)
    Edward Hardwick (Brett’s second Watson)
    Jude Law (the long-suffering Watson to Robert Downey, Jr’s insufferable Holmes)
    Martin Freeman (John to Benedict Cumberbatch’s, Sherlock in the hit BBC series)

    Since I personally don’t much care for CBS’s “Elementary”, mostly because I do not recognize Johnny Lee Miller’s interpretation of Holmes as the great detective, I have decided not to include Lucy Liu’s Watson. My reasons for disliking this series could be its own blog post.

    By my reckoning, I have placed the name of the actors under the traits and qualities of the canonical Watson if these traits were demonstrated in their performance or their characterization of Dr. Watson seems to include said trait. Here are my thoroughly un-scientific results:

    MAN OF ACTION
    ~Stock
    ~Blakely
    ~Duvall
    ~Hart
    ~Burke
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Law
    ~Freeman

    MILITARY MAN
    ~Stock
    ~Blakely
    ~Duvall
    ~Burke
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Hart
    ~Law
    ~Freeman

    MEDICAL MAN
    ~Bruce
    ~Duvall
    ~Mason
    ~Hart
    ~Burke
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Law
    ~Freeman

    ATHLETE
    ~Blakely
    ~Hart
    ~Burke
    ~Law
    ~Freeman

    LADY’S MAN
    ~Stock
    ~Blakely
    ~Hart
    ~Burke
    ~Law
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Freeman

    SHORT TEMPER
    ~Bruce
    ~Blakely
    ~Duvall
    ~Hart
    ~Burke
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Law
    ~Freeman

    INTELLIGENT
    ~ Stock
    ~Duvall
    ~Mason
    ~Hart
    ~Burke
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Law
    ~Freeman

    LOYAL
    ~Bruce
    ~Stock
    ~Duvall
    ~Mason
    ~Hart
    ~Burke
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Law
    ~Freeman

    BRAVE
    ~Bruce
    ~Stock
    ~Duvall
    ~Mason
    ~Hart
    ~Burke
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Law
    ~Freeman

    DISCRETE
    ~Bruce
    ~Stock
    ~Hart
    ~Duvall
    ~Burke
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Freeman

    COMPASSIONATE
    ~Bruce
    ~Stock
    ~Duvall
    ~Mason
    ~Burke
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Freeman
    ~Blakely
    ~Hart

    CRACK SHOT
    ~Duvall
    ~Burke
    ~Hart
    ~Hardwicke
    ~Law
    ~Freeman

    HONORABLE
    All of the actors listed above have made ‘honor’ a hallmark of their portrayal of Dr. Watson.

    So, when you tally up the scores of which portrayal captured all 13 traits and qualities of the canonical Watson, only three actors get a perfect score: David Burke, Ian Hart, and Martin Freeman.

    When looked at together, these three interpretations of Watson seem rather similar. All three are intelligent and active men with a strong sense of honor and personal loyalty. They are truly gentlemen and represent conventional values contemporary to the age in which their character portrayal was set–Victorian or modern day. Through these actors, Watson emerges from page to screen, not as comic relief or as a caricature designed to make the genius Holmes they play opposite seem even more brilliant. No. They represent the very sort of man Holmes would want to have by his side as they adventure together. These three portrayals of Watson reflect the reliable, confident, and in many ways, equal companion that Holmes clearly relies upon.

    In the end, the canonical Watson is not a sidekick or a secondary character. He is the Ying to Holmes’ Yang. He is not merely chronicler either. He is a partner and a trusted ally, but above all, Holmes and Watson is ‘a study in friendship.’

    • Excellent job of laying it out, but I do have a question about one of your categories – what is the canonical reference to Watson being a crack shot?

      • Good question! Off-hand I remember Watson (along with Holmes) shooting Tonga in SIGN and the hound of the Baskervilles (although it was Holmes who finished it off with five more shots) and he also shoots the savage dog in Copper Beeches. And of course, Holmes was forever asking him to bring his revolver along. Any other examples?

    • Fantastic work! I love how you’ve organized his best traits.

      If I may humbly add my favorite portrayal of Watson, I believe Michael Williams (from the BBC Radio 4 complete series) would be a 13 out of 13. He is fantastic!

      And considering Lucy Liu, I believe she is a rather good Watson caught in somewhat lackluster crimes (Elementary has its good moments, but often the crime stories do not leave a deep impression on me). I think she would meet 10 out of the 13 criteria. I’ve never seen her display skills as a crack shot, she does not have a military history (which I think is a strange omission for the adaption, but perhaps there are rules pertaining to women in the front-lines in Afghanistan that I’m not aware of), and she actually has a pretty long temper.

      Also, one particular element that I find that I like about Liu’s adaption of Watson (as with Kingsley, Williams, and a number of others) is that she portrays the good Doctor as a very observant and capable detective in his/her own right. Usually step behind Holmes, true, but still quick and efficient, and sometimes (in Kingsley’s case, almost always) a step ahead, usually due to employing Holmes’ methods.

      I think I almost gave up on watching Elementary until 4 or 5 episodes in, when I realized that Holmes was actively training her to be a great detective. That kept me watching and growth of Watson in the first season was well worth my attention.

      To each their own Watson, of course.

      • Agreed on both Michael Williams and Lucy Liu. Heartily on Williams, who is now the voice of Watson in my head when I read the stories.

        I think Liu’s Watson achieves something that many other Watson portrayals do not – she has a life of her own outside of Sherlock Holmes. And she takes significant steps to keep their lives separate, both when acting as his sober companion and then later as his partner. She is a Watson (like Law) who you can picture moving out of Baker Street, setting up a practice, and dropping by now and then to go on an isolated adventure. Especially with the storyline Elementary played at the end of season 2, Liu’s Watson actually “feels” very much like the original one to me, even though some of the details about her have been changed.

  7. This is an amazing roll-up. Hats off to you. But I have two questions: 1. Is it fair to include Martin Freeman (or for that matter any “modern day” Watson? I would contend that modern day adaptations take great license with the characters of Holmes and Watson. Can they even be Holmes and Watson if they are not a product of a Victorian environment and up-bringing? 2. Surely Stock appears frequently enough in your summation to get at least honorable mention. He was indeed superb. Once again, very nice job of laying it all out. Thanks.

    • Thank you, Raleigh. I think one can consider modern day adaptations when comparing Holmes and Watson. You will have to make sociological adjustments, but insofar as Watson was a man of his time, good character traits remain largely unchanged since the 19th century. Morality standards have changed, but the essential elements of gentlemanly traits remain constant.
      The bigger issue is does the interpretation capture the essence and spirit of Watson? I think Freeman’s version captures the essence of Watson very well. He clearly is a man of the 21st century with a strong sense of honor to correspond with 21st century mores.
      The BBC’s “Sherlock” also gives modern viewers a chance to experience Holmes and Watson as the original audience did… as contemporaries. Text messaging instead of telegrams. Blog posts vice publishing in the Strand. That said, I still like the time-travel back to gas lit streets of Victorian London. But this quaint by-gone experience was never how Holmes was intended to be encountered.
      I think my three finalists, David Burke, Ian Hart, and Martin Freeman, demonstrate how modern actors can truly relate to and emulate the essential character traits evident in the canon.

      • The full tally of scores are:

        Burke (13)
        Hart (13)
        Freeman (13)

        Hardwicke (12)
        Law (11)
        Duvall (11)
        Stock (9)
        Bruce (7)
        Blakely (7)
        Mason (6)

  8. My first meeting with Watson was as portrayed by Nigel Bruce (as I wonder if that was how I ended up being “Nigel”) so I owe him a great debt and forgiveness because the way he portrayed Watson was not entirely (if at all) his own fault but he way the directors and writers wrote the script.

    Then next Watson I noticed was David Burke and he confirmed what in the meantime I had read in the books. His pained expression and exasperation at Holmes worst habits are a delight as is his continual frustration at missing or rushing meals when Holmes requires it!

    Hardwicke did a good job but Burke was, to me, more accurate.

    The Jude Law portrayal is very similar to Burke’s, and therefore almost as good.

    Most of the other screen portrayals didn’t appear often enough to allow us to see how good they might have been.

    But let’s not forget the other “Nigel” – Nigel Stock – with Peter Cushing’s Holmes. Now, Cushing was a little mannered (some might say wooden) as Holmes but Stock was an early example what we saw in Burke’s portrayal.

    But I must give credit to Martin Freeman’s portrayal as he has a difficult job to do in staying faithful to the Canon (as Moffatt and Gatiss aim to do even if they stretch it a bit sometimes) but being in the modern age. I can see elements of Watson’s character poking through from the books into a modern interpretation – was Watson’s wandering wound due to PTSD (shell shock in his day?).

    That all said, if I can’t have the real Watson, then it’s Burke for me.

  9. Let’s also not forget another of my favorites, H. Marion Crawford from the Ronald Howard TV series. I think of him as the start of the move away from Bruce and toward Burke; Crawford’s Watson has his silly comedic moments that don’t exactly fit the representation from the stories, but he’s also the stalwart companion to Holmes who helps on adventures instead of simply being along for the ride.

  10. Readers may wish to focus on the # of the comments as they add up, particularly so as some members respond to a comment made earlier and the post is farther up the chain. In example, please see the very important comments made today by Airy Maher “Carla” six posts up.

  11. I met Watson in the guise of Edward Hardwicke in the Granada adaptations. Having “seen” Watson before I read “Watson”, his personification has always anchored my view of the man. When I was told by my father that if I wanted, I could read the stories, not just watch them I was in my glory. A feeling familiar to all of us, no doubt. When I started reading the stories, and found they were largely Watson speaking to us as narrator, it was Edward Hardwicke’s voice I heard. As I came to know The Canon – I found I could relate to Watson – an educated man in awe of this singular individual that is Sherlock Holmes and that feeling is one that stays with me to this day.

    Because of that introduction to Watson via Edward Hardwicke, the portrayals by other actors often felt “off” to me. Nigel Bruce’s Watson-as-comic-relief never felt right. Colin Blakely in “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” was solid as Watson. Thorley Walters in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” never stuck me as off, but by the time I saw the film I was well aware of the farce/satirical nature of the film, so his portrayal fit my expectations.

    I am ambivalent toward two of the three modern Watsons – Jude Law and Lucy Liu, but Martin Freeman’s Watson was a revelation. I could see a younger (Freeman) Watson growing into the older (Hardwicke) Watson that is my first, best impression of the character.

    David Burke, the other Granada Watson, is the unintended butt of a family joke. No offense to his considerable skill as an actor in other roles but I always felt he played Watson as too clever by half. The joke being that I describe the two Granada Watsons as “The Good Watson” and The Bad Watson”, Hardwicke and Burke, respectively. When the episodes aired in rerun, my family would ask “Which Watson?”. A question I field regularly to this day….

    Also no offense to Robert Duvall’s considerable talents, but in “The Seven Percent Solution” I saw Tom Hagen playing Watson. Clearly fan fiction that has yet to be written.

    To me Watson isn’t just narrator, he is my projection of self into the stories, which is why I respond best to adapted Watsons that best personified the above average man coming face-to-face with the extraordinary.

    • Dear “Flash”

      Thank you and “Welcome” to The Weekly Forum. We all are and will be richer for your insights now and continuing.

      I am struck by your words: “To me Watson isn’t just narrator, he is my projection of self into the stories . . .”

      That is such a crystalline statement of why Doctor Watson holds such fascination and appeal for all Watsonians. I realize, after reading your prescient words, that I–as a child of eight–was seeing and being myself as Watson not Holmes. That is a mind-exploding realization and I thank you for your insights. I now have–once again–an entirely new raison d’etre and frame of reference for my visceral responses to the Canon: I have always wanted to be Watson!

      • What a wonderful ongoing thread, that just keeps getting better. The recent comments from “Flash” and “Buttons” were of a level of insight that can only be described as “searing”. As a physician, with a damaged clavicle like Watson, I perhaps have some insights into the man that reflect my own life experience. Remember, it is Watson whom we first meet in those incredibly exciting first few pages of A Study in Scarlet. We are hooked even before we meet Holmes. Why is that the case? After years of living with the Canon, the answer, as seen above, slowly becomes apparent: We can all be in awe of Holmes but never be Holmes….Watson is the man we can all hope to become….

  12. This is a great thread. Together with “Raleigh”, I will be working on a longer, more detailed Canonical analysis of on-screen portrayals of Dr. John H. Watson. Because my analysis will be more considered, I may not come to the same conclusions I did above.

    I have identified a list of 15 actors who have played the good doctor on either the big or small screen. While there are many more, I think these 15 actors represent a good sample of Watsons. here is my list:
    1) Nigel Bruce
    2) Howard Marion-Crawford
    3) Donald Houston
    4) Nigel Stock
    5) Colin Blakely
    6) Patrick MacNee
    7) Robert Duvall
    8) Vitaly Solomin
    9) James Mason
    10) David Burke
    11) Edward Hardwicke
    12) Ian Hart
    13) Jude Law
    14) Martin Freeman
    15) Lucy Liu

    These names were either proposed by me in my initial response to this thread, or suggested by others. Please let me know if you think I missed an essential Watson for consideration. Thank you.

    • Great list! ^_^ I assume we are considering only adaptions for film and television, correct?

      A Watson who was one of my earliest introductions to the good Doctor was Val Bettin, who played Doctor David Q. Dawson in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective.

      True, Dawson could be considered a mouse imitation of Nigel Bruce’s portrayal, but was this an essential Watson? That depends! To the newest wave of Sherlockians, I think many would say yes.

      • Thanks, “Raleigh”. I can’t wait to check it out. I spent the weekend watching old movies (even a few silent films) as “research!”

    • In my opinion you missed the most essential Dr. Watson, Andrei Panin, and another essential Dr. Watson, Vitaly Solomin. I know a great many people didn’t see the stage play “Crucifer of Blood”, but I’d have to imagine one of it’s Watsons, a fellow named Jeremy Brett was probably quite a good Watson too. (and I’m American – not a Russian, but know a great Watson when I see one).

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