‘Sherlock Holmes: Past and Present’ – some reflections

On the 21st & 22nd June, I attended the ‘Sherlock Holmes – Past and Presence’ conference held at Senate House, University of London. Of all the panels I attended my favourite one was easily the discussion on ‘Holmes and the Moving Image’, especially the paper presented by James Brown on ‘Sherlock Holmes: Between Past and Present’ which examined the idea that Sherlock Holmes is literally a timeless figure.

Early Holmes adaptations updated to the stories to present day but kept Holmes firmly in the 1890s creating the everlasting image of the great detective with his deerstalker, Inverness cape and pipe. The first two Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films produced by Fox did attempt to place the stories in their original setting but when Universal took over they updated the stories to ‘present day’ but kept Holmes ‘ageless and locked in a time bubble’. It wasn’t really until the Granada series that they really tried to put Holmes back into the Victorian age, going at great lengths to pinpoint a date and stick as closely as possible to it. (Alastair Duncan pointed out that the Ronald Howard series also attempted to place Holmes in the Victorian age but I’m not very familiar with that adaptation so don’t know how much they stuck to their Victorian setting).

What distinctly struck me about this is that there is really nothing new in the idea of updating Sherlock Holmes, the majority of Sherlock Holmes have updated the stories – Basil Rathbone’s Holmes makes use of modern technology, as does Benedict Cumberbatch but these are not alien to the character of Holmes, the Sherlock Holmes of the original stories was a modern man and used up to date modern technology to aid him in his activities so there is nothing revolutionary about Sherlock Holmes searching the Internet or listening to the wireless because he is very much a man of his time, whatever time that may be.

Another panel I enjoyed was a discussion about Holmes as a social explorer in Luke Seaber’s paper on ‘Sherlock Holmes as a Social Explorer’ which linking in with Benjamin Poore’s paper on ‘Holmes as a Master of Disguise’ suggested that because Holmes is able to adopt different persona’s efficiently he does have a very good understanding of social cues and an understanding about how those social cues differ in the class of society he was moving in. Seaber suggested that Holmes’s understanding of people comes from his ability to categorise people, like Henry Mayhew in his classification of people in ‘London Labourer and the London Poor’ (1851) so essentially, Holmes takes part in ‘incognito social exploration’ through his use of effective disguise.

An idea also suggested during one of the panels was that Sherlock Holmes himself was a character and that he was always acting, so did Watson really know his friend?

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